Nuggets’ offseason moves part 1: Internal free agents

Bailey Bassett

The Denver Nuggets just finished up a historic playoff run in the National Basketball League’s playoff bubble. The 2019-20 season for the young and exciting Denver Nuggets will go down as perhaps the most memorable season the franchise has ever had.

This was first time since the 2009 playoffs that the Nuggets have made the Western Conference finals.

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The Nuggets finished a shortened but thrilling regular season with a 46-27 record filled with highlights. The regular season saw fan favorite memories like the victory over the Utah Jazz, where the Nuggets only had seven active players. In the postseason, the Nuggets became the first NBA team ever to erase two 3-1 series deficits. The young team beat both the Jazz and Clippers in the seven-game series with their backs against the wall.

The season unfortunately came to an end when the Nuggets lost in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers, the same opponent that beat them back in the 2009 Western Conference Finals. There were moments of hope for the Nuggets: they took an exciting game from the Lakers in game three. The team could have even possibly won game two in the series if it wasn’t for Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beater

“You tip your hat, give (the Lakers) credit and use this as motivation for next year and not be satisfied with making the WCF,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said, according to Clutch Points. “The goal is still to still win a championship.” The Nuggets have cemented themselves as a legit contender within the eye of the national media. Now they strive to finally achieve their goal and win their first championship. 

“It’s possible that one — maybe even two — of these (free agents) play next season for a new team.”

Although the core is already set for the Nuggets, this offseason will be very telling for the likelihood of them winning a championship next season. The young core is all in place, and internal development is expected, but there are still many moves the Nuggets can make to improve as a squad. There will be four facets to the Nuggets’ offseason:

1) Retaining their own free agents.

2) Trading for players, most likely of the star caliber.

3) Signing players who can contribute to the rotation with a niche role.

4) Adding players through the draft.

The Nuggets obviously won’t be able to do all these moves, but they must do some to improve on this season.

As a part of this three-part series, we will look at Denver’s own free agents and who is likely to be back or who will walk and at what cost. 

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In-house free agents:

The Nuggets have four key players who are set to hit the free-agent market this offseason. Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap are unrestricted free agents, and Torrey Craig is restricted. The Nuggets are unlikely to keep all of them. That is a tough pill to swallow, as all three have provided so much to the development of the team over the last couple of years. It’s possible that one — maybe even two — of these players play next season for a new team. 

The guy that is most likely to be back from that group is Plumlee. Plumlee has struggled in the playoffs for back-to-back seasons now and is the only active player on the team without three-point range. The offense even looks stagnant at times with Plumlee on the floor. Yet he is still one of the best backup fives in the league as well as a versatile defender and is still a top-notch passing center, which allows the Nuggets to try some of the same things that they like to do when Jokić goes to the bench. 

There are plenty of reasons to let Plumlee walk, but Malone really likes him and has had a habit of making young guys earn their minutes. There isn’t an internal replacement for Plumlee besides Bol Bol, who is going to have to earn his minutes. Plus, Bol is better suited as a stretch four than as a center because of his skinny frame and three-point ability. It’s possible the Nuggets look outside the team to find the next backup to Jokić, but the return of Plumlee seems inevitable. 

For years, Craig has seemed like he would be on the outside looking in on the rotation and then, because of injuries or a need for defense, he found himself being a key contributor. Craig is also likely to be back next season. Craig hustles, gets offensive rebounds and will put his body on the line for his team. However, he is a very below-average offensive player. Craig was hitting more open threes this season but still struggles on drives and will go cold from deep on occasion. 

However, the emergence of Lu Dort in the playoffs for the Thunder has put a spotlight on the importance of stoppers who won’t contribute much offensively but can match up against a superstar and limit their production. If Craig is to leave Denver, it will likely be because some team pays him as a guy who can do this. Another reason Craig could be on his way out is because of P.J. Dozier. Dozier stepped up big during the regular season when the Nuggets were struggling with injuries. And during the playoffs, he even saw some time during minutes where Craig was expected to be playing. Dozier provides similar defensive versatility, adding stopping power to the Nuggets defense.

Millsap signed the biggest per-year external free-agent contract in Nuggets history. He came in and provided leadership, great defense and a silky smooth touch around the rim. However, Millsap’s days in Denver are numbered. Millsap has looked older and older with each passing season and will turn 36 in February. Millsap has thrived in his career with defense and a bully-ball brand of offense — both things that require athleticism — and that part of Millsap’s game is clearly fading. Jerami Grant stepped up as the best option at the power forward position, and he will need more minutes next season. 

Millsap’s run with the Nuggets was crucial to get them to where they are now, but there is only so much money and so many minutes to go around. If there is reason to think a possible reunion between Millsap and Denver can occur, it’s because of Millsap’s three-point stroke this season. He shot a career best 43.5% from three, and with Millsap regressing at other areas of the game, maintaining that skill will be crucial for the twilight of his career. 

Grant is also expected to be a free agent because he’s projected to decline his player option. Grant just had a great postseason and showed how much he means to this Nuggets team. He is set for a big pay raise, but the hope of a return to Denver seems mutual between Grant and the Nuggets. Grant is the team’s best defender against big wings. Guys like Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James are dominating the league, and Grant did a great job of guarding them. Denver’s other perimeter defenders aren’t big enough to guard those types of players, so retaining Grant will be key.

Grant can truly guard all five positions and is a vital player offensively. He is the best lob threat on the team and made his open 3s this season, all while not demanding the ball, which allowed Murray and Jokić to thrive and do their things. Bringing Grant back, whether it’s on a long-term deal or a one-year prove-it deal in which Grant could make more money next season, is the most important move the Nuggets need to make this offseason.

Bailey Bassett can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter at baileybassett_.