The Western Conference has become a lot stronger with Chris Paul joining the Houston Rockets, Paul George swapping Indiana for Oklahoma and Jimmy Butler teaming up with the Minnesota Timberwolves. That leaves numerous teams like the Denver Nuggets, playing catch up.
Denver are a fringe side that is in danger of missing the boat. The Nuggets haven’t made the play-offs since George Karl was fired after the 2012/13 season and have been somewhat irrelevant since then. But the franchise has had an interesting summer so far, and looks to be headed in the right direction. Here’s why the Nuggets could become a potential contender in the West.
The Paul Millsap swoop
The first move Denver general manager Artūras Karnišovas made was dealing Danilo Gallinari to the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-team trade which saw Paul Millsap join the Nuggets on a three-year, $90 million contract. The Atlanta Hawks received Jamal Crawford, whose contract was bought out, and Diamond Stone, who played Summer League but would be eventually waived.
It was a sensational trade by the Nuggets to bring in the four-time All-Star to give Denver arguably one of the more interesting front courts in the NBA. The 47th overall pick in 2006 has show continuous improvement throughout his career and enjoyed a career year last season in terms of points per game where he averaged 18.1 in helping the Hawks to the playoffs.
In Millsap, the Nuggets add another reliable rebounder – an area in which the Nuggets are already extremely strong. Last season, Denver ranked second in the NBA in rebounds per game with only the Oklahoma City Thunder averaging more.
Millsap is arguably one of the more underrated power forwards in the game and, combined with his ability to shoot from beyond the arc, there is no doubting he is a considerable improvement over current power forward Kenneth Faried. With his return to the Western Conference, it will be interesting to see if Millsap can continue boosting his own numbers while helping lift center Nikola Jokic’s game.
More smart trades
On draft night, the Nuggets traded the 13th pick (Donavon Mitchell) for Utah power forward Trey Lyles and the rights to pick 24 (Tyler Lydon). The trade, coupled with the Millsap deal, does see a massive log jam at the power forward position with Lyles, Faried and Lydon all competing for minutes behind Millsap.
Lyles has had an average career to date after being drafted by the Utah Jazz from John Calipari’s house of young talent in Kentucky. The Canadian spent two years in Utah, averaging 6.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.3 blocks per game. Lyles isn’t a particularly a great rim protector nor capable shooter. Coming out of college, he was horrendous from deep, shooting 13.8%, but in the NBA he scraps just above 34%.
Lydon, on the other hand, is a solid jump shooter. The native of Hudson, New York made a college career as a good spot shooter. In two seasons under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Lydon was a 40% shooter from down town, averaging 11.6 points per contest. He was made to do a lot of the grunt work for what was a very average Syracuse side but certainly showed enough for the Nuggets to ship the rights to Donavon Mitchell for his services.
It's time to pursue Kyrie Irving
The Nuggets are essentially a piece away from being a real player in the west. A front court of Jokic and Millsap already looks great on paper but one more star would certainly fill the Pepsi Center; enter Kyrie Irving. Obviously, the Mile High City wasn’t on Kyrie’s list but the Nuggets have plenty of pieces that they could move to potentially entice Cleveland to make a deal to them for their first overall pick form 2011.
Word around the association suggests that the Cavs are searching for a veteran starter, a blue-chip player on a cheap contract and a first round pick or two. On the Nuggets roster, there are four players that Denver could move to make this trade happen – Kenneth Faried, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.
Making the Irving trade happen
Faried has been in trade rumors for what has seemed like an eternity and could easily be a piece the Nuggets should look to move. The “Manimal” is also coming off a career low in points and rebounds – it might be time to use him as trade bait. The other piece would be either Gary Harris or Jamal Murray. Choosing who to trade will pose a difficult choice, however.
Harris has shown steady improvement throughout his three-year NBA career and last season was his best to date. The shooting guard out of Michigan State had career highs in field goal percentage (.502), three-point percentage (1.9), points (14.9), rebounds (2.3) and assists (2.9), and looks set for more improvement. Murray, meanwhile, went through some growing pains during his rookie season. Despite this, he was twice named Western Conference Rookie of the Month and was also listed as a Second Team All-Rookie.
Murray would be certainly the type of player the Cavs would be looking for, especially as the young Canadian is still on his rookie contract. If the Nuggets could package Faried, Murray and a future first-rounder, perhaps that would be enough to send Kyrie to Colorado.
A piece away from contending
The Nuggets are very much on the cusp of being a playoff team and one additional piece could seem them rise up the rankings and become a serious threat. They have some very nice pieces, yet to be a real player in the West must make a big play. Irving fits the bill. If they fail to get him, Denver may stay outside the playoff picture in light of the progress some of their Western Conference rivals have made.
Can the Nuggets contend in the West? Comment below!