Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate Denver nuggets Community!

Win at all costs: As free agency opens, Nuggets make expensive statement to loaded Western Conference

Harrison Wind Avatar
July 1, 2018

The term “unfinished business” is a convenient phrase that’s thrown around this time of year when prized free agents announce that they’re returning to the same teams they came up just short with a season ago. Both Paul George and Chris Paul typed out those two words verbatim on their social media accounts late Saturday night after re-upping with the Thunder and Rockets respectively for another go around next season.

“Unfinished business” is also the theme of the Nuggets’ offseason so far.

After missing out on the playoffs by one game, Denver is running it back. The Nuggets will ink Will Barton to a four-year $53 million contract and Nikola Jokic to a five-year max when free agents are allowed to sign new deals once the NBA’s league-wide moratorium ends on July 6. The parameters of both deals were confirmed to BSN Denver.

Are they done? Probably not. The Nuggets are currently looking at a steep luxury tax bill. They’re not afraid to pay the tax, as president Josh Kroenke stated last month, but look for Denver to try and cut some salary prior to next season. Players under short-term deals like Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur and Mason Plumlee are names to keep an eye on.

But odds are most of the key pieces from the Nuggets’ 46-win team from a year ago are returning. Denver had no other choice. The Western Conference isn’t slowing down. The Nuggets’ 46 wins last year would have cemented them as the sixth seed in the East. But it might take more than that to clinch the franchise’s first postseason berth in five years out West.

The Warriors retained Kevin Durant and will be able to fill out the end of their bench with quality veterans. The Rockets lost Trevor Ariza but Paul is back on a max contract of his own. Free agents Clint Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute are also both expected to return to Houston.

The Thunder, who were two games better than the Nuggets last season, came out of the opening night of free agency as the biggest winners. Oklahoma City bet on its organic culture and Russell Westbrook and won. The Thunder locked in George to a long-term deal after gambling on the All-Star when they acquired him prior to last season. The West’s other playoff teams from last year — the Trail Blazers, Jazz, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Spurs — all stayed quiet Saturday night but will likely be factors in the playoff race again next season no matter what jersey Kawhi Leonard is wearing.

A few of the conference’s non-playoff teams have already improved this summer too. The Suns, Kings and Grizzlies strengthened their young cores through the draft. Phoenix also got some help on the wing when they reportedly agreed to terms Ariza. The Mavs are looking to get back into the playoff hunt by signing DeAndre Jordan to pair with their young backcourt of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. The Lakers, who executives around the league still expect to land LeBron James, will be jockeying for playoff position all season long.

In a turbulent Western Conference, the Nuggets had no choice but to keep their rotation intact. Maxing out Jokic was the easy part. He’s an All-NBA talent that deserves to be paid like one of the top players in the league. He’ll be in a Nuggets’ jersey for the next five seasons and potentially for the rest of his career.

Barton, on the other hand, was tougher. He was being pursued hard by the Pacers but when push came to shove, the Nuggets placed a priority on keeping Barton because there wasn’t a logical replacement in sight. The Nuggets are so far over the salary cap that shedding enough money to go out and seriously gauge the free agent market for Barton’s replacement wasn’t a possibility. Internally, Malik Beasley flashed two-way potential last season but even if he took a considerable step forward next year it would still be tough for him to fill Barton’s shoes.

Barton, who bounced between from his natural spot on the wing and point guard while backup Emmanuel Mudiay struggled and trade deadline acquisition Devin Harris got up to speed with the Nuggets’ read-and-react offense, enjoyed a breakout year in Denver last season. He averaged a career-high 15.7 points and 4.1 assists per game. Barton’s a strong locker room presence and meticulous worker too. He’s a valued figure in the organization and community.

Maybe Barton will get his wish and step into the starting lineup next season at small forward. Barton, Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap only logged 65 minutes together last year but outscored the opposition 179-126 when on the floor.

As the rest of the Western Conference loaded up for what’s set to be a sprint to the playoffs from game one through 82 next season on Saturday night, the Nuggets kept pace. With Jokic, Barton, Murray, Harris and Millsap under contract for next season, Denver will return its five best players.

There’s a sense within the Nuggets’ organization that Denver was better than the team that came within a game of the playoffs last season. Perhaps with Millsap healthy for most of the year, the Nuggets would have had home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. With their key contributors returning, the Nuggets will get another crack.

Denver still has work to do this offseason but the Nuggets made it clear Saturday night, by handing out two high-priced contracts, that they’ve bought into the belief that their core group can carry them up a rung in the Western Conference.

They’re willing to pay for it too.


Share your thoughts

Join the conversation

The Comment section is only for diehard members

Open comments +

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?