The Nuggets entered the offseason looking to clarify a few things with their roster and maintain a fiscally-responsible stance in doing so. Remarkably, they accomplished everything they needed to by mid-July and, in the process, have put together their most talented roster, top-to-bottom, since the 2008-09 team that advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
For a team looking to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2013, that is significant. During the press conference announcing the Nikola Jokic and Will Barton contracts, Nuggets president Josh Kroenke spoke to the mindset of this group of players headed into next season.
“I think these guys have a belief in themselves,” Kroenke said. “And they are starting to believe even more.”
And this accumulation of talent does nothing but buoy that confidence.
So, what have the Nuggets done?
Solidified reserve PG: The acquisition of point guard Isaiah Thomas – a player that Nuggets coach Michael Malone had while he was in Sacramento – is, in effect a two-part addition. At his best, he’s a devastating offensive player that can score from anywhere, get his own shot, and run pick-and-roll. And Thomas has a wealth of big-time playoff experience, having led the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago. He has to stay healthy. If he can, Thomas can handle the ball on the second unit and scoring to the bench missing with Will Barton’s promotion to the starting lineup.
Made a move consistent with being a team looking squarely at playoffs: Adding another veteran to the team underscored the team’s stated goal for next season: playoffs. Their young core of players has already grown to pushing the team to the brink of the playoffs, missing by a game in each of the last two seasons. Now, with a productive, veteran guard like Thomas, the Nuggets are thinking big and putting the final touches on a roster they hope can get them back into the postseason.
Shown real fiscal responsibility: A concern among Nuggets observers going into the offseason was how the team would financially withstand big contracts to Nikola Jokic and Will Barton without getting deep into luxury tax. But trades of Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur not only pulled them out of a major tax bill, it pulled them out of luxury tax territory altogether. Remember, luxury tax is calculated on the roster as it stands in the final game of the regular season. The Nuggets will be fine when the salary cap numbers are final.
Moved Trey Lyles into a position of power: Part of bolstering the bench was carving out a consistent role for Trey Lyles, who proved on many occasions last season that he could score in almost any way possible, and was an underrated defender. That’s happened now. He’s probably most effective as a ‘stretch 4,’ but he can play some small forward as well. And outside of Isaiah Thomas, Lyles will be counted on to help provide scoring and court spacing for Thomas, who thrives in middle pick-and-roll action.
Allowed Monte Morris to learn without pressure: Most teams need a third point guard, and Morris will fill that role next season. The biggest advantage? Being able to be with the team at all times. He’ll soak in a wealth of knowledge from Jamal Murray and Isaiah Thomas, and will see enough action to continue to improve. Morris was the brightest standout for the Nuggets during summer league, doing everything asked of him in order to earn a chance at being the backup point guard. He’s developed nicely in the last calendar year.
Added to shot creation: This is also in reference to Isaiah Thomas, who will help the Nuggets be more dangerous when things break down. He’s another player, who at the end of a shot clock, can go out and create his own shot. When the Nuggets’ initial actions are defended well, or when switching presents a mismatch the Nuggets can take advantage of, Thomas is another player that can make the defense pay by beating his man in isolation.
Put more big game experience in the locker room: Last season, the addition of Paul Millsap added to the number of Nuggets players with big-game experience. Now, Thomas does more of the same. He’s got 25 playoff games under his belt and has averaged 22.6 points in the playoffs in his career. Coupled with postseason experience is the know-how in getting there. He’ll help push the Nuggets over the top in the biggest games and moments that determine whether the team gets into the playoffs.
“I think it’s really important, because too many people forget how young we are,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told Altitude Sports. “We’re doing it with a core of young players. … If you can add a veteran whose been around, whose been an All-Star and played in those big moments; the guy scored 53 points in a playoff game, for the Boston Celtics. Here is a guy that’s not afraid of the moment.”
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org and @chrisadempsey on Twitter