In summer of LeBron, what’s No. 1 goal in free agency for the Nuggets? Don’t get worse.
While LeBron James decides if he would rather own the Liberty Bell or be Magic Johnson’s boss at the conclusion of free agency, the best the Nuggets can hope for during the NBA’s silly season is that somebody will answer their “Manimal, free to a good home” advertisement.
The Nuggets failed to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season, face luxury-tax woes and have been unable to bribe any team in the league to take Kenneth Faried and his $13.7 million contract off their hands.
In any other NBA city, the masterminds (president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and general manager Arturas Karnisovas) behind this mess would be sharing a very hot seat.
In Denver, it’s called progress.
OK, some folks might find that comment a little snarky.
Of course, they might be the same folks who believe if Earl Boykins were in charge of the front office and George Karl had been retained as coach, James would already be hunting for a house in Cherry Hills Village and the Nuggets, not the Warriors, would be the reigning league champions.
Truth be told, if Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris played for the Lakers rather than the Nuggets, there would be zero suspense as to what uniform James would be wearing next season. He would text Paul George or one of his other NBA buddies with the order to hop the next flight to LAX and form a super team that could take down Golden State.
But basketball isn’t any fairer than the rest of life. And the reality in Denver is this: It was bad enough Connelly bid against himself to give Paul Millsap a $31 million salary to be the 13th-best power forward in the league last season, based on Real-Plus Minus analytics. It’s worse that Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur and Faried are three players who combine to make $34 million in salaries, when their cumulative trade value is dangerously close to a net zero.
The next chapter in this rather unsettling narrative is Will Barton. At age 27, he is valuable to this team in many ways, from providing a spark off the bench to scoring 15 points per night to running the offense on a Denver roster decidedly lacking in natural point guards. I like Barton best because he brings a fiery competitive edge to a team that sometimes also lacks — how does one delicately put it? — guts. In a player projection model calculated by the number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight, Barton has greater market value going forward than does Millsap.
Which is all cool, except for the fact Barton is an unrestricted free agent who appears to be an attractive and reasonable acquisition for any number of NBA teams, provided you can look past the relentless 24/7 coverage of King James Decision 3.0.
Connelly is on record that the next step for the Nuggets is making the playoffs. If Denver seriously wants to take its best shot at being among the top eight teams in the Western Conference, then finding a way to keep Barton is critical.
A year from now, when the current luxury-tax crunch for Denver can be greatly alleviated, the Nuggets could be in position to sign a marquee free agent rather than dream about how nice it would be.
Wait until next year?
We’re all tired of hearing the Nuggets preach patience. No matter who’s on the roster, Denver needs to win 50 games and qualify for the playoffs in the upcoming season. Anything less, and coach Michael Malone won’t be the only guy at the Pepsi Center feeling the heat.