One of these years, when the Nuggets decide it is finally time to get serious about winning the NBA Championship, they will succeed Gary Harris as a starter in their backcourt.
With conscription for 19-year-old combo guard RJ Hampton, Denver may have taken a small step toward a future outside of Harris. And that would be very good.
No one writes better than the president of basketball operations Tim Connelly. Kudos to him for landing both Hampton and Arizona, big man Zeke Nnaji late in the first round.
But is it okay to also confess that I’m still ticked Connelly didn’t find a way to pry Jrue Holiday out of New Orleans, either during the February trade deadline, or when the Pelicans restarted bidding in recent days?
Did Milwaukee, which shipped a ton of future concept picks to New Orleans, overpay for Holiday? Yes.
But here’s the deal: For flyover NBA cities like Milwaukee or Denver, the price of a legitimate championship ring shot will never come cheap. Why? Nikola Jokic is unable to answer the phone and make a deal for Anthony Davis or James Harden. Joker is great, but he doesn’t have Bron or KD juice.
Hampton isn’t bringing Denver noticeably closer to the NBA Finals, at least not in the short term. At six feet, Hampton is a drive-and-kick guard who has to work on his jumper and his defense. In five years, he might have a game similar to Holiday. But not now. He is a project.
However, the Hampton acquisition makes perfect sense if Connelly is ready to take a big step for a veteran who can bolster the first five of the Nuggets in a significant way.
There’s nothing wrong with Harris, other than the fact that Denver loves him way more than anyone else in the league. While coach Michael Malone defends Harris as a member of the family, he has never been good enough as a trading bait, as the Nuggets chased Jimmy Butler of Holiday in blockbuster deals they have been unable to close in recent years.
The Lakers, unhappy with their first championship since 2010, have added Dennis Schroder, who just made life easier for LeBron James. It’s good to be the king.
The Bucks, determined to show Giannis Antetokounmpo that he can win a ring without leaving Milwaukee, paid a ransom for Holiday. They’re going for it now.
The Nuggets? They hope, pray and bide their time.
Connelly hopes Michael Porter Jr. gain the full trust of Malone. Hey, I believe in MPJ. But does the coach do that? With free service lurking, Denver is praying for Jerami Grant to redraw instead of looking for greener pastures elsewhere in the competition.
Yes, the Nuggets have legitimate reasons for optimism. Their journey to the conference final was no fluke. But as their razor-thin victory over Utah in Game 7 of the opening round reminds us, success is not guaranteed for anyone this side of Los Angeles in the Wild West.
Denver does not skip steps. Connelly does his homework diligently as a talent scout and is a true A student. But he doesn’t feel comfortable with the dice in his hands. Gambling is not in Connelly’s nature.
Two years ago, the Nuggets didn’t want to get well until the Golden State Dynasty fell apart. Now they wait for LeBron to grow old. Wait long enough and Nuggets can watch Luka Doncic win big with the support of Mark Cuban’s money, or complain when Kevin Durant recruits another superstar friend to build a super team in Brooklyn.
If Hampton’s presence allows the Nuggets to use Harris or Monte Morris in an exchange that brings them closer to on par with the Lakers, this design will be an unconditional success.
At some point, Connelly has to put his chips on the table.
Maybe the price of poker was too high for Holiday. I get it.
However, the Nuggets have been playing for next year since they joined the NBA in 1976.
I bet if Connelly goes and gets real help for Jamal Murray and Joker, they can win anything.