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Denver Nuggets offseason to-do list: Part 3

Kalen Deremo Avatar
May 1, 2015

 

In the final episode of BSN’s series analyzing the Denver Nuggets’ most urgent offseason decisions we dive deep into three main subjects: one involving a player already on the Nuggets roster, one regarding a player not on the Nuggets roster and one about, as you may have guessed, a number of coaches who may very well be relocating to Denver in the coming months. And while the first two articles in this series were earnest, neither compares to the level of conviction surrounding the final three (or rather, two, after recent news has come to light regarding Ty Lawson) items on BSN’s “to-do” list, presented below from least to most imperative…

3. Don’t trade Ty Lawson

(Note: I wrote the following prior to the recent revelation that Ty Lawson would rather be a Dallas Maverick than a Denver Nugget. Needless to say, my overall defense for Lawson has changed. I can tolerate getting in trouble with the law and missing press conferences (have you heard the types of questions the media asks these days?), but saying you’d rather play for another team is just flat out inexcusable, especially one from Texas. So please take the next six paragraphs with a grain of salt. While I’d still rather the Nuggets try and make amends with Lawson I would fully embrace a trade, just as long as the Nuggets were able to get full value for him in return.)

The growing movement amongst fans and members of the media to advocate for Lawson to be traded is one I will never understand. Not in a million years. Not in this world, nor any other. It just doesn’t make sense.

I guess the argument anti-Lawson activists have is that he’s inconsistent, more a follower than a leader and that he gets in trouble from time to time. All I have to say is: Welcome to the NBA!!!

In case you’ve failed to notice, steady, consistent leaders are few and far between in the NBA. Most guys love to get paid, play the game and hopefully win a few in the process. Occasionally guys will scream and yell, but the Chauncey Billups types? Good luck finding those. Hell, the Nuggets surrendered Allen Iverson for a chance at an actual natural-born leader. So suggesting Lawson simply rewire his brain and morph into a court general is somewhat absurd.

As for his off-court antics, I’d agree they’re less than desirable. But if I remember correctly Carmelo Anthony committed injustices far worse than Lawson time after time and the same fans who are likely calling for Lawson’s head were probably defending Melo the first chance they got. Why? Because he was better. Which of course is a bunch of crap.

What people seem to constantly be overlooking with Lawson is that he’s improved either his points or assists per game averages every year since coming into the league in 2009. That’s a lot of upward, positive improvement, especially for a player who hasn’t even entered his prime yet. Lawson’s also finished third in assists per game over the last two seasons behind only Chris Paul, the consensus best point guard in the NBA, and John Wall, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2010. And in his first year under Brian Shaw, a coach who couldn’t even last two full seasons with the Nuggets, Lawson was one of only five players to finish top 10 in both assists and points per game amongst fellow point guards.

So I guess my question is, why trade Ty Lawson? What’s the benefit? What do the Nuggets gain? How is trading one of the best point guards in the league — during the golden age of point guards in the NBA, nonetheless — in any way beneficial to the Nuggets? If you can give me a worthwhile answer, I’ll listen. But right now, the way I see it, the Nuggets gain absolutely nothing by trading the best player on their team and one of the best point guards in the entire league for the last two seasons just because he’s not who everyone wants him to be.

2. Go after a big-name free agent

The Denver Nuggets are unequivocally one of the worst teams in NBA history to sign marquee players in free agency. Just think of the last big-name free agent signing the Nuggets had. Three years ago? Five years ago? Ten? Eleven years ago the Nuggets swung for the fences (although which fences they were swinging for is totally debatable) and signed Kenyon Martin to a seven-year, $92 million deal that included the surrounding of three first-round draft picks to the Nets. So I guess if you want to start there you can. The Nuggets also managed to sign David Thompson back in 1975 when the NBA was still competing with the ABA, so I guess that counts as something as well. But in general, over the course of their history the Nuggets have fallen flat on their faces when its come to recruiting star players. At some point that trend has to end, and what better time than right now.

While fans are likely to remain cynical about the Nuggets’ chances of making a splash in free agency — and justifiably so given their history — it’s important to keep in mind that the past doesn’t dictate the future. For the first time in a really long time the Nuggets actually have money to spend. Because between the Karl-epoch salaries of Anthony, Iverson, Martin and Camby and the multitude of contracts left on the books from the Melo trade in 2010, the Nuggets have been virtually strapped with some combination of exorbitant contracts for the last decade. Now, with only three players on the books for the 2016-17 season, the Nuggets have no choice but to be aggressive in free agency, for the state of the franchise depends on it.

If the Nuggets flop yet again on the open market here is what will happen: Gallinari will leave next year, Lawson the year after that (if he hasn’t been traded already), Chandler will leave sometime either this year or next, no free agent in their right mind will want to sign with the Nuggets after that, and within two years the Nuggets will be nothing but a seemingly perpetual lottery team for the next five years. And even if the Nuggets do manage to land a few top three picks there’s no telling how talented those draft classes will be, whether the Nuggets will actually hit on their picks and whether those players will remain healthy far into their careers (see: Rose, Derrick; George, Paul). So if the Nuggets want to retain their more popular players it’s incredibly important they conquer the open market, spend some money, sign a few vets and nab another star player — in the process displaying to Gallinari and Lawson that they’re still committed to winning.

So what classifies a star player?

I don’t think it has to be much. The Nuggets aren’t gonna sign Dwyane Wade or LeBron James. They probably don’t even stand a chance with names like Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love — yet they should still be out there trying their hardest. What the Nuggets really need is to sign someone like Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Brook Lopez or DeAndre Jordan. Sure, these guys are gonna cost a lot, probably close to the max or right at it. But again, the Nuggets have money to spend. And it’s not about the money, it’s about making a statement: The Denver Nuggets are committed to winning. We’re committed to winning now and we’re committed to winning in the future. If they make this statement, incumbent players will become revived with optimism and hope, and in turn a winning culture is fostered. People want to be here, not only players you draft, but players who hit the market in free agency. But it has to start somewhere. Even if it’s a less-excitable, civilian name like Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe, Tyson Chandler or Wesley Matthews, the Nuggets have to conclude the summer having done something worthwhile in free agency. The draft alone will not satisfy the current players, fans, nor anybody else associated with this team. The Nuggets must take the daunting step of cajoling outsiders to the city of Denver. Otherwise, things could go downhill fast and stay there for a long, long time.

1. Hire a great coach

This is perhaps the least complicated of any one item on this 4,000-word list. The Nuggets just have to hit the mark in their current head coaching search. They have to. Have to, have to, have to. They cannot afford another Brian Shaw. They cannot afford to lose at such a high rate with such a talented basketball squad. If the Nuggets accomplish most of the bullet points on this checklist they may very well enter the 2015-16 season with Lawson, Nelson or Foye as a backup, someone like Matthews or Bulter at shooting guard, an improving Gary Harris, Gallinari, Chandler, Faried, Lauvergne, Nurkic, Robin Lopez at backup center as well as another top-billed rookie and perhaps Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ second-round draft selection last year who just won MVP of the Adriatic League this past season. That is a really, really solid basketball team, one capable of winning lots of basketball games next season. But of course none of this matters if they botch their coaching search, if they hire a guy who players don’t want to play for and eventually give up on halfway through the season.

While the absolute severity of the Nuggets’ current franchise state and coaching search may lead you to believe a veteran NBA coach is the answer, I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, the Nuggets need a successful NBA coach, but that doesn’t mean settling for someone like Mike D’Antoni or Alvin Gentry, who aside from a few successful seasons in Phoenix have resigned or been fired numerous times from gigs all around the NBA. What the Nuggets need is the next big thing. They need to be ahead of the curve, not cruising idly beside it.

Just look at the list of first-time NBA head coaches over the last handful of years who’ve turned out to be diamonds in the rough, guys like Mike Budenholzer, Brad Stevens, Tom Thibodeau, Steve Kerr, Frank Vogel, Dave Joerger, Jason Kidd, Jeff Hornacek and Quin Snyder. These are the the types of guys the Nuggets should be looking at — coaches who are hungry, who want to prove themselves, who can grow, who understand the value of defense and how to move the ball on offense. Really, this is just like any other hire in the workforce. Do you want a young up-and-comer with potential, who wants to show the world what they’re made of, who will put in the extra work and do what it takes to succeed, or do you want a middle-aged guy who’s floated around from job to job, who’s been fired a few times and who’s really just looking for a paycheck? It’s not rocket science.

Of the coaches the Nuggets have been tied to only three pique my interest: Billy Donovan, Melvin Hunt and Fred Hoiberg. And of those three I’m almost positive Donovan would scoff at the opportunity to leave a championship-laden program in Florida for what could be a rebuilding franchise in Denver; same goes for Hoiberg. That’s why Hunt continues to be atop my list of potential coaching candidates for the Nuggets, however there are a few more I’ve grown fond of…

My two favorite potential coaching candidates out there, aside from Hunt, are Ettore Messina and Nate Bjorkgren. And if you’re anything but a diehard NBA fan, you’ve probably heard of neither.

Messina comes from overseas where he’s had one of the most successful coaching careers in Euroleague history. In fact, in a NBA GMs survey from a few years ago he was voted the most likely foreign coach to snag an NBA head coaching gig before David Blatt was hired by the Cavs last summer. In Europe, Messina won everywhere he went. He won four Euroleague championships with Virtus Bologna and CSKA Moscow and has been named Euroleague Coach of the Year twice. He’s spent the last year under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich with the Spurs and was with the Lakers as a consultant and assistant coach before that. Furthermore, Messina is known as a defensive-minded head coach who’s paid his dues, spent ample time in the NBA and is currently being interviewed by the Thunder for their head coaching vacancy.

While Bjorkgren is much younger and much less traveled, he’s no less intriguing a name. He was one of six finalists on ESPN’s annual “top head-coaching prospects” article published this past March and has had wild success in his brief career as a D-League head coach. The last great D-League prodigy to make the jump to the NBA was none other than Dave Joerger, who I’d been championing as my top George Karl replacement for years.

My other two favorite candidates for the current Nuggets head coaching vacancy include Ed Pinckney, who’s been considered one of the top assistant coaches in the league for years and has been credited for much of the Bulls’ defensive schemes under Tom Thibodeau recently, as well as the University of Virginia’s Tony Bennett.

By the time the NBA Draft rolls around — the target date the Nuggets have set to have a new coach — all fans can hope for is that the Nuggets have done their homework. If Tim Connelly and co. interview a hoard of candidates extensively, testing them in every way imaginable, the chances they hire the right guy rise exponentially. And if they complete this process properly, thoroughly, then I have no doubt they’ll become enlightened and stray from the bland, conventional, everyday hire. No matter the case, come this time next year we will all know which direction the Nuggets are heading in for years to come. Let’s hope this hire is only the first of many steps in the right direction.

This concludes our series on the Denver Nuggets’ most pressing offseason priorities for the summer of 2015. Have suggestions of your own? Perhaps criticisms of the items listed in our series? Please leave any and all thoughts in the comments section below. 

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