Nuggets president Tim Connelly swore to sign for talent on Wednesday night, no need.
Fortunately for the Nuggets, those two roads converged with the No. 22 pick.
Connelly and his staff, including coach Michael Malone, waited patiently in their war room before it became apparent that at least one of their targets was about to slip. After that it was just a matter of choosing the right one.
But with a frontcourt facing numerous question marks as free agency opens Friday, that decision was almost made for them. At number 22, Denver took on Zeke Nnaji, a 6-foot-11, high-octane post player from Arizona. The choice provided immediate insurance with Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, all on the doorstep of free agency.
“It certainly helps that Zeke can play both frontcourt positions,” Connelly said on Thursday morning. “It was both talent, and it doesn’t hurt that we’re pretty thin in the frontcourt when we come into free agency.”
If Nnaji closed one hole, potentially making Millsap or Plumlee more expendable, their quick, decisive hit two picks later offered yet another intriguing element.
The Denver design board wasn’t necessarily in line with how the design played out. While former blue-chip prospect RJ Hampton fell further than anyone predicted, the Nuggets, as they usually do when they see opportunities, stood out. By trading a future lottery-protected first round against New Orleans, the Nuggets were able to play yet another value game. It turned into a breakneck 6-foot-5 combo guard who spent last season in New Zealand.
Nnaji was the necessity; Hampton was the ace in the hole. His injection of athleticism and speed will be a welcome addition to a backcourt that playmakers badly needs. It was also the third consecutive year that Connelly gambled on premium talent following Michael Porter Jr.’s night robberies. (2018) and Bol Bol (2019).
By now you would think that the rest of the competition would start to catch on.
And as if Connelly hadn’t already printed his trademark on Denver’s concept class, he underlined his strategy when the second round ended. The Nuggets were planning to sign Marquette’s Markus Howard on a two-way deal, a league source told The Denver Post, closing a night where Connelly amassed as much talent as possible. Howard, despite his 1.50-meter frame, led the NCAA last season with more than 27 points per game.
After the fireworks, and with at least two more roster spots available, a pressing question remains: How much will Wednesday’s trek affect Denver’s plans to move on?
If you take Connelly’s word for it, not at all.
“If you are a team with the success we had, it is dangerous to expect too much from freshmen,” said Connelly. “We saw opportunities to add talent last night and we went for it. We certainly think of those guys as long-term plays. I don’t think it will have much of an impact on what we do in free service. “
If so, more help can come into the frontcourt. Nnaji profiles himself as an ideal backup four or five, but it may take him a while to hit the track. His addition could spell the end of Plumlee or Millsap in Denver, depending on their preferred salaries.
Most of Denver’s off-season flexibility depends on Grant’s free agency. The 26-year-old renounced his player option last week in search of more money and security. Grant has prioritized the versatile forward and is expected to stay in Denver. A $ 64 million 4-year deal could be a realistic reach, putting the Nuggets well above the salary limit ($ 109 million) but safely below the luxury tax limit ($ 132 million).
“We have several of our own free agents that we want and need to arrange, and then definitely see what else is out there,” Connelly said.
Once above the salary cap, Denver’s best outside aid mechanism is their mid-level exception of over $ 9 million per year or their six-month exception of $ 3.6 million. Unless a Grant deal falls apart or the Nuggets move on from Gary Harris ($ 19 million in 2020-21) or Will Barton ($ 13.7 million), it’s those exceptions that can get them some help.
The safe assumption is that their backcourt is set. The more urgent need seems to be at the edge, where the Nuggets must establish a pecking order between Michael Porter Jr., Will Barton and the restricted free agent Torrey Craig. That depth can thin out pretty quickly, depending on the offering Craig pulls in and the status of Barton’s knee. In case Denver is looking for a different wing, Jae Crowder or Maurice Harkless might make sense.
Finally, the Nuggets have to make a decision about Millsap, who from his age (35) occasionally looked into the ‘Bubble’. A league source said Millsap is waiting to see what market develops for its services at the dawn of free agency. If he stays in Denver, an annual salary of $ 6 million to $ 7 million would be reasonable. If not, there are plenty of replacements available, starting with veterans like Taj Gibson and JaMychal Green.
Connelly won’t say who or what the Nuggets are targeting in Free Agency. We will probably find out in a few days.