Balance is key from the front office down to the coaching staff. At times, contrasting viewpoints on roster construction and player personnel evaluation must be necessary in order to create a complimentary, total overall balance. The consistent success of the San Antonio Spurs and recent success of the Golden State Warriors have shown that teams need to take a balanced approach to building successful rosters. The Warriors front office changed in 2012 and the new staff embarked on reconstructing the team from a group of talented individual players to a cohesive unit where stars and complimentary players found the perfect balance.
So in as much as a team is similar to a machine, in that it requires many unique moving parts it is also very much a living ecosystem in which different personalities, habits and functions need to find a common synergy with one another. To take this thought even further, I will use a quote from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich:
“A synergy has to form between the owner, whoever his president is, whoever the GM is, whoever the coach is. There’s got to be a synergy where there’s a trust. There (are) no walls. There is no territory. Everything is discussed. Everything is fair game. Criticism is welcome, and when you have that, then you have a hell of an organization. That free flow through all those people is what really makes it work. And that includes everything from draft to Os and Xs. Nothing should be left to one area – only to the president, only to the GM, only to the coach – or the culture just doesn’t form.”
These teams have found that the successful common denominators in players are high basketball IQ, offensive skills, positional versatility, ball-handling and emotional intelligence. They have created environments which place an emphasis on chemistry and highlight the strengths of their players. The reality of today’s NBA is that it is difficult to consistently contend for a championship. However, if you set out to build a team with an identity and implement a system it will allow you to remain consistently competitive.
You then continue to develop and in the process an inherent chemistry is built with one another. Within this an identity forms which allows you to add and subtract talent as you move forward. The key is patience. If you use every resource at your disposal – the draft, free agency, trades, the Developmental League and overseas you WILL give yourself the best opportunity to “re-invest” every few years.
Nuggets Overview –
First year Coach Mike Malone brought a steady presence to the organization and should get excellent reviews for overseeing the development of a youthful roster. The Nuggets have built a solid foundation in that they have a young coach who can grow with a young team. The importance of having a coach who can accelerate the development of his players and in the process grow along side them can’t be overstated. This is where the NBA of today is headed – O.G.T. (Organically Grown Teams).
The Nuggets have a roster with a nice blend of youth, size and athleticism. There are only three players 28 years or older. Coach Malone has emphasized defense as his guiding principle and although the team finished 22nd overall in the league in opponents point per game, the addition of young big man Nikola Jokic and the play of Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic helped them limit teams to only 43 points per game in the post. This was good for 15th best in the league. They also did a very good job on the boards as they ranked 10th overall in opponent total rebounds per game and 6th overall in offensive rebounds per game. They also finished 16th overall in the league in blocks per game. In today’s NBA, it is crucial that a team have an inside presence on the defensive end to provide rim protection as well as to force the offense to be perimeter oriented. You then compliment this by having strong perimeter defense which takes away driving lanes and shrinks the court for the offense.
Perimeter defense is where the Nuggets must continue to improve. On the season opponents shot 37.1 percent from three-point range which was good for only 27th overall. Overall, Denver gave up the 6th most three-pointers in the league while giving up more than 9 per game. Their opponents had an effective field goal percentage (EFG%) of 51.5, which was good for 23rd overall. This tells us that the Nuggets’ perimeter defenders as a whole were perhaps more responsible for the team’s sub-par defensive rating.
There are valid explanations for this, however. Three of the four Nuggets players who played the most minutes on the season were all under the age of 25. Two of those players were a rookie and second-year player (E. Mudiay and G. Harris). In addition, it was their first year playing under Coach Malone. Finally, the team was without one of its strongest perimeter defenders for the year in Wilson Chandler. With a healthy Chandler and another year acclimating to Coach Malone’s defensive system, the Nuggets will continue to see their overall defensive performance improve.
Conversely, on the offensive end is where the Nuggets need to improve the most. On the year, the Nuggets were only 20th overall in points per game and 23rd and 27th overall in EFG% and 3PT%, respectively. According to SportVu, the Nuggets did not have one player who took more than 545 shots on the year (Will Barton 45th overall). While this is not necessarily a negative thing if a team shoots a high percentage, the Nugget’s sub-part shooting percentage indicates that perhaps the current roster is lacking a proven scorer who can manufacture offense on their own at times.
In addition, they were in the bottom half of the league in Offensive Efficiency (OE) at .54 percent. OE is used to measure efficient individual offensive production but can also be used at the team level. In the case of the Nuggets, their impressive overall ranking in offensive rebounds per game (6th overall) as well as the fact they made a concerted effort to feed the post (2nd most post touches per game with 20.0) helped improve their OE.
The Nuggets must improve their overall three-point shooting. They only ranked 18th overall in three-point attempts per game (23.7) and 20th overall in three-pointers made per game (8.0). They simply need to take more and make more.
Despite this, the team may have found two potential building-blocks moving forward in first year players Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic. Jokic in particular, has the potential to be an All-Star in the near future if he continues to build on his excellent rookie season. Only 21 years of age, the Serbian big man averaged 10 PPG, 7 RPG and posted a PER of 21.58 while playing 22 minutes a game. He also averaged almost a block per game and also showed the potential to consistently knock down the three pointer.
Mudiay started 66 games for the Nuggets at the point guard position and displayed good play-making abilities with ball as well as excellent defensive potential. Like any young point guard he needs to focus on limiting turnovers and also needs to improve his three point shooting and overall offensive efficiency.
You will see that the three most efficient players relative to minutes played this past season were Faried, Jokic and Harris. OE will always be higher for players who play closer to the basket and thus do not handle the basketball as much. We can then extract valuable information by observing that both Jokic and Harris were the two most productive and offensively efficient players for the Nuggets this past year. Faried is an efficient player, however his OE is inflated due to the fact that he is not a primary offensive threat. Both Jokic and Harris contributed in multiple ways on the offensive end of the floor. In order to increase their OE, they also both must focus on limiting turnovers.
Free Agency –
Free agency should be looked at as an opportunity to add an impact player to your roster if it is the right fit for both parties. We continue to see that teams which look to add players through free agency that make them only marginally better is often a waste of allocated capital. As an example, last year the Milwaukee Bucks signed PF/C Greg Monroe to a three-year maximum contract worth around $50 million. Monroe is only 25 years old and again had a very good season statistically. Yet during the season there were numerous, substantiated rumors that the Bucks were looking to trade Monroe. Whatever the reason for this (most likely that the Bucks did not have the outside shooters to compliment the inside game of Monroe), it appeared he was never a good fit for the personnel already in place in Milwaukee.
As such, the Bucks actually had a worse record this year by seven games with him on the roster. These are the types of signings that teams should be wary of as they do not help a team significantly improve in the win column and subsequently hinder their financial options moving forward.
The above example is an instance of a team spending money simply because they have it to spend and not taking into account how the player will enhance the play of the personnel already in place. There is nothing wrong with refraining from chewing up valuable cap space on players that will make your team only marginally better if there is not the personnel already in place to compliment that player.
The reality is that teams nowadays rarely let their max-level players leave. Of the top 20 ranked free agents heading into last offseason, only 3 chose to sign with new teams. Thus, it is proving difficult for teams to sign a free agent that can be a real difference maker.
The salary cap is expected to increase to around $90 million this coming offseason. This will be an excellent opportunity for the Nuggets to add talent to their roster through free agency or trade. Despite this, it still should be the goal to pursue talent that will be the right fit on your roster both next season and into the coming years. This means taking into account not only positional need and statistical production, but also how those players will enhance and add to the chemistry of your team moving forward.
Of those players still on the 15 man roster, the contracts of D.J. Augustin and Mike Miller will be coming off the books this year. In addition, the Nuggets have a team option on Darrell Arthur for next year. If the team chooses not to pick up the contract of Arthur, that will be an additional $7.43 which will be freed up. In total, the team should have over $25 million in estimated cap space and almost $49 million in luxury tax space.
Augustin had a good year, however he is almost 30 years old and may want to see if he can catch on with a team that is closer to contending than the Nuggets currently are. Conversely, Denver already has Jameer Nelson on the roster and could look for a younger, cheaper option to fill the third point guard slot.
Arthur also had a solid year and continued to showcase surprising range from beyond the arc. A third of his field goal attempts came from long range as he shot 38 percent on the year. Most likely, the price will have to be right for Arthur to be back.
Free Agent Targets –
Harrison Barnes SF (Restricted Free Agent) –
Despite having Danilo Gallinari, Will Barton and Wilson Chandler (assuming he is healthy) on the wings, Denver could look to get even more athletic at that position. Barnes would fit perfectly as he is a very capable spot up shooter who would benefit from playing with Emmanuel Mudiay at the point and an athletic, post up presence such as Nikola Jokic. Plus, he is only 23 years old, can defend multiple positions well and has an exceptional physical profile. Barnes can fit in perfectly right away with the talent already on the roster, but yet displays the potential to be someone whom you can build your team around moving forward due to his exceptional physical gifts and high character.
On the year, Barnes posted an OE of .56 and shot 38% from beyond the arc. He is a career 37% three-point shooter. The Nuggets could have many lineup options with Barnes as he is versatile enough to guard three positions and will help with floor spacing on the offensive end due to his outside shooting. Barnes will likely command much attention on the open market and will likely be looking for close to a max-level deal.
The questions for Denver should be – is now the time to offer a max contract and is Barnes a player that will significantly improve your team? The team has a similar player on the roster in Wilson Chandler. If Chandler is healthy entering next season, he would provide the outside shooting and athleticism on the wing that Denver was at times missing this past year. When comparing the two however, Barnes would have the edge as he is younger, more efficient on offense and displays more defensive versatility. Thus Chandler would likely be expendable.
Denver will have great flexibility this offseason on the trade front if they choose as they currently own three first round draft picks. These assets could be packaged together with a player or multiple players to try and acquire a max-level player or in a smaller trade to acquire a complimentary piece.
I proposed in February that the Nuggets would be an ideal place for Cavaliers PF Kevin Love.
The multiple time All-Star would be an excellent fit with the Nuggets as he could be the centerpiece of their offense and someone whom they could immediately build their team around. I suspect that if the Cavaliers fail again to win an NBA championship this year, they will be open to entertaining trade offers on Love.
Another potential fit could be found in Sacramento and DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins is no doubt bordering on the cusp of superstardom and has everything teams look for in a modern big man. He is quoted as saying that he respected and enjoyed playing under Mike Malone which could make this a good fit. The Nuggets would likely have to part with Nikola Jokic in a trade however, as Kings GM Vlade Divac assuredly would want his fellow Serbian countryman included in any deal. The issue with Cousins is always going to be his emotional intelligence and if he can put the well-being of a team before himself.
If Love or Cousins are not made available, then I believe the Nuggets could look to upgrade their wing position. In particular, they should look to get bigger and find a long-term solution at SF. One player who fit this mold and that could be available in a trade is Robert Covington. Covington had an Offensive Efficiency rating of .41, however he was the Sixers’ primary offensive option and had one of the least talented rosters in the league to play with. In addition, he was in the top third of all players at this position in ESPN’s real plus/minus wins and he ranked fourth overall in the real defensive plus/minus ranking.
The Sixers were much better when Covington was on the floor. If we combine his top down statistics with his bottom up, individual stats we see that he provides good offensive and defensive balance to a team. In addition, at 6’9 220 he has the ability to guard three positions on the floor. Covington would be a nice addition to the Nuggets current roster as he could be part of their core pieces moving forward. He is only 25 and on one of the most team friendly contracts in the league as he only is making a little over $1 million per year and is signed through 2017-18. Due to this, the Sixers would most likely want a decent return of draft picks and/or at least one player. The Nuggets have the draft picks to possibly pry Covington away from the Sixers. The question is – is it worth possibly parting with a top 20 pick in this year’s draft or next for Covington? If there is a year when the Nuggets should consider it, this is it.
Robert Covington –
OE = .41
3PA = 482
3P% = .35
EFG% = .50
Win Shares = 2.0
Real Plus/Minus = 1.74
The Draft –
There is a prevailing thought around many NBA front offices that over the last decade the NBA Draft has become more of a crapshoot than a rational and educated evaluation of potential talent. This is due to a multitude of factors such as the fact that young players are, on average, less prepared from a fundamentals standpoint; at times lack the emotional maturity to quickly understand how they fit into a team and the challenge of dealing with distractions off the court.
Despite this, it is vital to view the draft as an essential opportunity to invest in a team’s future. Since we commonly define both unrealized and realized draft picks (i.e. players) as “assets”, why do we consistently ignore the fundamental rules of investing when we have these assets? That is to say, it is not simply about gathering assets, but about investing in the right ones.
Every draft is clearly different. Some drafts are full of top-flight talent and other times they have a shallow pool of talent. Despite this uncertainty, it is still possible to find talented players that can improve your team in every draft. It requires a disciplined and unemotional process where the strengths and weaknesses of the existing team are identified, creating outlines of the player types needed and finally targeting those respective players that best fit into the culture of your team.
Consistently effective and successful drafting is possible. It requires hard work, shrewd analysis, a disciplined process and evaluating player attributes from a more holistic perspective at times. It requires asking yourself multiple questions as to how to get the greatest overall return out of the investment, which is what the draft is all about. Players must be viewed as investments, not as speculative commodities. As such, each potential investment must be carefully researched and analyzed. Every investment transaction must be made with a purpose. Just like in other aspects of life, everyone values assets differently, but the goal should be to maximize the return of that asset, and recognize if it is a short-term or long-term investment. The key is having the intelligence, patience and emotional discipline to see the realization of those investments. Bottom line – it is all about making the “right” investment.
Draft Targets –
Denver has an excellent opportunity to use their multiple first round draft picks to re-invest in their roster moving forward. As I have already covered, they can use their picks to package in a trade for an established player. Or they can choose to keep all of their picks and use them on some combination of an immediate impact player, a raw prospect with long-term potential and a “stash pick”. Or they can choose to trade one of the picks for future picks.
It should also be mentioned that using three first round picks could possibly constrain the Nuggets financially moving forward. Assuming they hit on each pick (which is the goal), they would have to begin to get creative entering 2018-19 when team options on each of those players would have to be picked up.
If the Nuggets choose not to trade any of their picks for an established player, than it would be ideal for the Nuggets to come out of this draft with at least one player with starter potential and one player who is a longer-term investment. The latter could be in the form of a development prospect or a player who is currently in Europe and would be considered a stash pick. In addition, it would be wise to leverage at least one pick into one that has a high chance of becoming future lottery pick.
As always, I believe offensive skill and efficiency is the greatest determination of a draft prospect’s potential to significantly contribute to an organization moving forward. As such, CPR (College Prospects Ratings) is a good baseline formula predictor of performance to use on draft prospects. CPR uses each player’s performance on the court (as measured by box-score stats) to approximate his pro potential. It should be noted, that CPR does not adjust for quality of opposition. It also does not include the physical measurements of a player.
Despite this, CPR has correctly identified numerous 2nd round picks that eventually went on to have pro careers that far exceeded the expected value of a 2nd-rounder. CPR can be used as a complimentary resource to evaluate a prospect.
I believe the following prospects all will likely be drafted lower than their talent and production should indicate. Each would be good fits for the Nuggets based both on their current needs as well as the long-term potential of the player.
Denzel Valentine SG/SF– Despite possessing less than ideal athleticism and jumping ability for a wing player, can score from anywhere on the floor and has been one of the most efficient players the past two years. Players like Valentine will always be undervalued, however I believe Denzel can instantly step into a NBA rotation and contribute. He would be an excellent complement to both Mudiay and Harris in the backcourt as he is used to being the primary ball-handler, but yet is excellent at playing off the ball as a spot up shooter. Goes 6’6 220 and is long. Despite not being the quickest nor most athletic player, is an underrated defender who has the length to disrupt perimeter players. Also has underrated play speed with the ball in hands. Is tied for the 12th best overall CPR in this year’s class at 5.6. High IQ player.
Marquese Chris PF/C – Gifted athlete with a nice offensive skill set. Explosive jumper who loves to get out and finish in transition and is always a threat to crash the offensive boards. 6’10 and extremely long. Has the potential to guard out to the perimeter and displays the ability to hedge and switch in pick and roll situations due to very good lateral quickness. Will immediately offer rim protection as he averaged 2.3 blocks per 40 mins. Has 17th best overall CPR at 4.7. Would offer insurance in the event the team decides to explore trading Kenneth Faried but also would benefit from focusing on developing his defense and body next year. Plays with passion and competitiveness. May have to focus on improving his EI (emotional intelligence).
Ben Bentil PF – Very good offensive player. Displays a nice stroke from beyond the arc and an excellent face up game. Good ball handler. Averaged seven rebounds a game this past year. Big, soft hands. Shows good offensive awareness and intelligence on the offensive end and will be effective in the pick and roll game in the NBA. Played center in college but is 6’8 so will have to learn to play some form of a hybrid PF/SF which the NBA has been transitioning to with the advent of small ball. Effective offensive player who projects well to an up-tempo offense. Has the bulk to guard power forwards in the NBA but will always be considered a tweener on the defensive end. Will have to prove that he has the competitive will on the defensive end to earn minutes. Has 8th best overall CPR at 6.7.
Peter Cornelie PF -French seven footer that is only 19. May benefit from another year in Europe but has nice upside and should be considered a long-term investment. Fits the prototype of the modern NBA stretch 4. Developing offensive game but already shows the ability to consistently hit the three-pointer. Size, length, agility and leaping ability give him the potential to defend on the perimeter. Shows very good defensive effort and hustle and excellent at running the floor. Good ball handler for his size. The antithesis of Joffrey Lauvergne in that he is light on his feet, comfortable handling the ball and shows NBA level rebounding and defensive upside.
The strategy of the Nuggets heading into the draft will obviously be affected by how the ping pong balls bounce, however with a total of five picks and three first-rounders this will be an excellent opportunity to re-invest.
Looking Ahead –
The core players of the Nuggets moving forward are all under 25 years of age. Although it will be tempting to take full advantage of their cap space this offseason, it should be remembered that the cap is set to rise each of the next two off-seasons, providing teams with increased flexibility moving forward. This puts the Nuggets in an excellent position this offseason as they should not feel pressured to hand out max-level contracts that can hinder them financially while not providing a high return on investment.
Subsequently, the contracts given to free-agents in the coming years will also rise. It also must be remembered that there may be free agents this summer who choose to re-sign for short-term deals and then become a free agent again when the salary cap increases. Therefore, if the Nuggets believe they have a chance to sign a player this offseason that can significantly improve their team then the time value of money tells us they should do it.
On the trade front, they will have enough assets that should prove to be attractive to other teams. The Nuggets must decide if now is the time when they want to add a piece that will help them sneak into the playoffs or if they want to go after a larger piece which will make them immediate contenders in the West. The former option seems to be a bit more realistic. If the team can add another young, established player that can help them get into the playoffs next year while still being a part of their growing core moving forward then it will put them into an excellent position for the next few years. It should be remembered that five out of the eight playoff teams in the Western Conference have rosters that may undergo significant changes in the next two years due to age and free-agency (Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Thunder). This provides the Nuggets with a great chance to quickly ascend in the conference if they can keep their core pieces together as well as add another immediate impact player through free agency or trade.
Arlington, VA USA