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It’s official. The NBA’s draft lottery system hates the Denver Nuggets.
In the 30 years since the Lottery’s inception, the Nuggets have never — not even once — moved up beyond their expected draft position. In fact, more often than not they have moved back as other teams leapfrogged them in the draft order. This year proved to be no different as the Nuggets landed the seventh overall pick — the exact position in which they were expected to pick.
There will certainly be a lot of options available to the Nuggets with the seventh pick — much more than in most years — but there is also a growing sentiment among experts and fans that the Nuggets may not be content with one pick as their only option. They appear to be primed for a draft-night trade to move up, or even to secure an additional lottery pick.
With that as the backdrop, I’d like to walk you through three options that will likely be available for the Nuggets on or before draft night. Each has clear benefits but each also carries with it a healthy level of risk — risk the Nuggets must take to improve.
To quote the great American journalist Robert Quillen, “Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”
Option one: Staying put
The seventh pick has a checkered history in the NBA Draft. On one hand it includes franchise-changing players like Stephen Curry (2009) and Chris Mullen (1985), but on the other it includes some questionable selections like Eddie Griffin (2001) and Bismack Biyombo (2011).
The vast majority of those picked in the seventh spot since 1985, when the Draft Lottery was instituted, have been solid yet unspectacular players. Tim Thomas (1997), Chris Mihm (2000), Charlie Villanueva (2005) and Corey Brewer (2007) were all selected seventh overall, and all went on to carve out longtime roles in the NBA.
If there’s one thing the Nuggets don’t need anymore of, it’s solid yet unspectacular players. That said, this year’s draft looks to have some high-end talent still available at that position…
Justise Winslow has been sliding down some people’s draft boards to the seventh spot due to the increased intrigue around European prospects Mario Hezonja and Kristaps Porzingis.
Stanley Johnson is an interesting option at seven. Some would say this would be a slight reach, but I love Johnson’s athleticism and NBA-ready frame. The relentlessness in which he attacks the rim would create a lot of open jump shots for the Nuggets assuming they can find some players who can actually knock those down.
Mario Hezonja has been slotted into the seventh spot in many mock drafts, and although I’m intrigued by his upside I’m also a bit fatigued by the unknowns that accompany all European players.
All of these players have the potential to be elite, but none are as surefire as the top four players in the draft: Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Option 2: Moving up
While I love the idea of the Nuggets moving up, realistically there is only one trade partner that makes any sense at this point: the New York Knicks.
The Nuggets have a history of doing business with the Knicks and both have proven to be comfortable working with each other. Most famously, the two franchises were involved in the deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York, but they have also been involved in swapping draft picks and players before.
In 2002, the Knicks sent the rights to the seventh pick — which turned out to be Nene — plus Marcus Camby and Mark Jackson to the Nuggets in return for Antonio McDyess and the 25th pick. The current version of the Knicks have numerous needs, but one of the most prominent is at the point guard position. Ty Lawson could be a great fit in the triangle offense, and he also has a history of playing alongside Carmelo that could produce some synergy.
A deal sending Lawson and J.J. Hickson to the Knicks in return for Andrea Bargnani’s expiring contract and someone like Alexey Shved could make sense for both sides, and works financially. The Knicks get the point guard they desperately need, and the Nuggets get rid of Hickson, gain some salary cap relief and get a solid reserve point guard in Shved.
With the No. 4 pick, the Nuggets could immediately replace Lawson with either Mudiay or Russell as their point guard of the future.
Option 3: Trading for another lottery pick
The first team that comes to mind in this scenario is the Utah Jazz.
Over the last half of the season the Jazz were the best defensive team in the league and one of the better teams overall. Had they not dug themselves into such a deep hole to start the year they could have very well been in fringe contention for a playoff spot.
One area they will undoubtedly be looking to shore up this offseason is at the point guard position — and the Nuggets just so happen to have a top-15 point guard on their roster. It’s a match made in heaven.
The Nuggets could package Lawson in return for Trey Burke, Trevor Booker and the 12th pick in this year’s draft. The Jazz get a really good starting point guard — someone Dante Exum can learn the ropes from — while the Nuggets get additional draft capital.
For the Jazz, a starting lineup of Lawson, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert would be amongst the league’s best young cores.
For the Nuggets, they could use the 12th pick to target a replacement for Lawson. I think Cameron Payne is an excellent option, and could end up being one of the steals in this year’s draft. He is an incredibly smart point guard with good size (6-3) for the position and is an adept scorer with great range. He finds open teammates with ease and makes everyone around him better.
Inserting him into a lineup that would include Danilo Gallinari, Jusuf Nurkic, Kenneth Faried and Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson or Mario Hezonja could mark the start of a great foundation. Adding Burke and Booker to their bench would also give them incredible depth.
Again, everybody wins.
One thing is clear: This is a pivotal offseason for the future of the Nuggets, and it all starts with the NBA Draft. There will be plenty of options available for them to explore, but it will take a set of shrewd moves to expedite their rebuilding process, a process they seem to be adamant about avoiding.
But the time has come to stop avoiding it and face it head-on — and this year’s draft may be the perfect first step.