Fresh off a disappointing second-round exit, Nuggets fans should be optimistic about the team’s future. The 2018-19 season was the best Denver’s seen in a decade. A roster whose average age is under 25 gained valuable playoff experience in two seven-game series, Michael Malone established himself as a top-tier coach in the NBA, and aside from Paul Millsap the core of the team is locked into contracts for next year.
Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton make up the biggest chunk of the Nuggets cap number. Assuming Millsap’s $30 million option doesn’t get picked up, Denver will have right around $20 million to lure free agents this July.
That’s enough to add one big piece to this already talented bunch, but who will it be?
For the sake of this exercise, we’ll assume the big names (Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving) aren’t in play. History tells us that players of their caliber either stay with their current team for the most money or move to a top-five market.
We’ll also assume point guard and center are both out of the equation because of the talent already in Denver at those spots. That means no Kemba Walker, D’Angelo Russell, Nik Vucevic or Demarcus Cousins.
I’m throwing Jimmy Butler out of the mix, too; his reported locker room issues in multiple prior stops scare me away. The last thing this team needs is a bad attitude to break up the chemistry and run Malone out of town.
So who does that leave us with?
Option 1: Tobias Harris
Harris heads into free agency in the prime of his career; he’ll be 27 at the end of July. The 6-foot-8 power forward has spent his last three years bouncing between three teams (the Pistons, Clippers and 76ers), growing from a reliable rotational piece to a versatile offensive weapon in that time. He put up career numbers this season (20.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists) and proved he can be a No. 1 scoring option for the Clippers. After a trade to Philadelphia, he fit in seamlessly alongside three premier offensive options with no noticeable drop in production. He’d be the perfect fit in a Nuggets starting five which already includes two scorers in Murray and Jokic. Harris is an efficient shooter; posting a field goal percentage around 48% across the last three seasons and making 40% of his threes. His length and athleticism fit the modern NBA power forward position, making him an ideal replacement for Millsap on both ends of the floor. Most importantly, he would take the pressure off Jamal and Joker, providing a level of consistency this team desperately needed in the postseason.
Option 2: Khris Middleton
Middleton has spent the last few seasons playing Robin to Giannis’ Batman in Milwaukee. Does he want a bigger role elsewhere? He wouldn’t be “the guy” here in Denver, but he’d at least be able to escape the massive shadow of “The Greek Freak” in front of a much larger audience. On the court, Middleton is a matchup nightmare for teams with his combination of athleticism and shooting ability. His talents go far beyond the typical small forward and defensive guy. And at just 27 years old, he still has an opportunity to improve on his first career All-Star campaign (18.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists). Middleton would step into Will Barton’s starting spot and improve the first five on both offense and defense, while possessing the potential to blossom into an even bigger star with more freedom to score and better passers around him.
Option 3: Julius Randle
Randle is the biggest boom-or-bust player in this trio of potential options. He’ll be the cheapest option; that could mean bringing in another name to fit another need. On Monday’s edition of “Safety Blitz with Nick Ferguson,” Nick mentioned the name Austin Rivers. He’d be a good option to pair with a guy like Randle. For the casual fan not familiar with the former Lakers’ and Pelicans’ power forward, think a younger and more dynamic Paul Millsap. As a part-time starter, Randle posted career numbers this season (21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists) and if you look at his per-36 minute stats, he was even more impressive (25.2, 10.2, 3.7). Randle’s not a great defender, but he’s certainly not a bad one. His effort and energy on the court jump off the screen on review. His abilities will more than make up for what the Nuggets would lose in letting Millsap walk at less cost and younger age. The big concern with Randle is what an increased role will do to his output and efficiency. The majority of his career numbers have come against opposing teams’ second units. Will he be able to transition that success into a true starter’s role? If so, Randle could be the steal of this free agency period and just what the Nuggets need to round out their starting five.
Add any of these three names to the roster and the Nuggets move from Finals hopeful to legitimate contender next season.
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