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Stiffs Mailbag: Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, the NBA Draft, and more

SB Nation logo SB Nation 6/14/2019 Ryan Blackburn
a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a crowd © Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The turnaround after Game 6 of the NBA Finals will be quick

Congratulations to the Toronto Raptors, the 2018-19 NBA champions. A team from Canada really did it. What a time to be alive.

The Finals were highly exciting, but now, it’s time to dive deep into the offseason. With rumors already flying that Anthony Davis could be on the move, and with the recent major injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, the league is about to shift in one direction or another. It’s a wild time to be an NBA fan right now, so thank you for sending in your questions for this mailbag. Let’s dive right in.

This will be the ultimate question of the Denver Nuggets offseason.

The Golden State Warriors are done next season. There’s no way they get back to the Finals. Kevin Durant just had surgery on a ruptured achilles, and Klay Thompson just tore his ACL in the final game of the year. It’s an awful, awful situation, and even if both re-sign in Golden State, I just don’t see how they contribute to a winning cause next year.

That opens the door for the Western Conference with the Nuggets near the top of the list of teams to replace Golden State from the West side of the bracket. It will be difficult though. Without a draft pick and without an easy way to legit cap space unless Denver is saying goodbye to Paul Millsap, the only avenue the Nuggets have to get legitimately better is on the trade market. They could trade for a draft pick and that player surprises everyone. They could trade for cap space and then sign a legitimate free agent.

Or they could put their chips on the table and acquire Anthony Davis.

Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors are an excellent example for this scenario. Toronto wasn’t ever really close to a championship with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry as the top two pieces on the team. In order to win a ring, they had to get lucky, and fortunately for them, they found a superstar on a one year deal who would fit well with the team during that season. The San Antonio Spurs didn’t want to do business with the Los Angeles Lakers and their middling young core, so the Raptors exchanged one foundational piece and some extra assets for another that could boost them over the top.

It isn’t difficult to see the analogies with Davis and the Nuggets. Davis would fit extremely well with Nikola Jokic and mask some of his weaknesses, and he would elevate the overall skill level of the team. It would certainly cost a foundational piece to the roster (Jamal Murray or Gary Harris) along with extra assets to help make the deal more appealing for the New Orleans Pelicans (Malik Beasley, Michael Porter Jr., Mason Plumlee’s expiring contract, and potentially first round picks) but the potential reward for Denver would be the first Finals appearance and NBA championship in franchise history.

Now, it’s not all sunshine and roses. The Nuggets would have a lot of work to do on roster construction, especially if they deplete the depth chart sending players to New Orleans. But Denver has avenues to clear an additional max cap slot or close to it even after a Davis deal. They could go to the free agent market and recruit a guard or wing player to play with Jokic, Davis, and one of Murray or Harris on a stacked roster. From Kemba Walker to Khris Middleton, free agents would be interested in forming a winner in Denver.

The question of course, is whether the Nuggets want to commit to that vision knowing that Davis could leave the next year. It worked for the Raptors, but if Kawhi leaves this offseason, they could be stuck in a tough position with a number of veteran free agents, limited cap space, and no new avenue to contention. Could Denver deal with that? Maybe.

If Davis is still on the Pelicans roster after the NBA Draft, then I’d expect the Nuggets to give them a call and gauge the price point on Davis. The Kawhi deal wasn’t struck until July of 2018, and the Nuggets could swoop in and surprise everyone. This Golden State news has changed everything around the league, and if the Nuggets are confident in the pieces they have, then adding Davis at the right price is a no brainer.

Hard sell. Kawhi Leonard may be the best player in the NBA, but he also could be heading to the Los Angeles Clippers in about two weeks. Nikola Jokic is locked into a contract with Denver in a city he enjoys performing at the top 10 level. In no way, shape, or form should the Nuggets have traded Jokic. They don’t have the pieces around Kawhi to win a championship like the Raptors do.

Add on to the fact that the Raptors bench, led by Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka, was better throughout the season as well, and it’s easy to see why Denver trading Jokic would have been a miscalculation.

Absolutely. With the roster constructed the way it is, there are a variety of holes that could potentially be filled by a draft pick either next year or after developing over some time. The Nuggets have explored avenues of getting back into this draft, and it would probably take a significant trade to do so.

Jontay Porter would be an interesting addition for Denver. He was one of the options I pointed out toward in my article on Wednesday:

“The younger brother of current Nuggets player Michael Porter Jr. may be just as talented. With Michael attending to Missouri, Jontay decided to reclassify to the 2018 class in order to play with his brother. That didn’t happen, but Jontay displayed many of the skills of a playmaking big man in the mold of Nikola Jokic. Unfortunately, Porter tore his ACL and re-aggravated the injury while rehabbing, so the NBA world never got to see him in his sophomore season. He will drop in this draft though. He’s currently pegged at 42nd overall in the ESPN mock.”

The Nuggets would have to feel he could play a significant role in the future if they traded into the draft to acquire him. With Nikola Jokic on the roster, it probably wouldn’t be as a starter; however, grooming Jontay to reprise Mason Plumlee’s role in future seasons would make a degree of sense. He would spend most of his time at center but occasionally play next to Nikola Jokic in a twin tower setup. With Jontay’s older brother Michael already on the roster, forming a brotherly duo would be a great story, and the talent level would be even more great.

Nothing new to report. The Nuggets are in desperate need of a G-League team and are one of the last franchises in the NBA to operate without their own affiliate. Last season, Jarred Vanderbilt, Thomas Welsh, and Brandon Goodwin spent time with various G-League teams that were controlled by other organizations. The benefit of having a personal affiliate is the ability to control the environment for players the Nuggets are interested in or already on the Nuggets roster. Denver could have experimented with Jarred Vanderbilt running point forward, or Thomas Welsh operating as a Nikola Jokic type. When Michael Porter Jr. gets healthy, they could use the G-League to help get him physically and mentally ready for the NBA grind.

Going forward, the Nuggets will need to find cheap ways to add young talent and what will soon grow to be an expensive roster. Controlling the development of their own players can only help the process.

Independent of a surprise Anthony Davis trade, the Nuggets have some options when trying to figure out who to best elevate the team over the next several years. The 2019 free agent class is far better than 2020, so I’d be surprised if the Nuggets save their cap space for the following year. Either they commit to a 2019 free agent, or they lock into their current team (save for some minor trades here or there) and hope for the best.

The top free agents out there are Kawhi and Durant. Throw in Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler to that relatively top tier as well. I wouldn’t expect Denver to try and add any of those guys in free agency anymore except possibly Butler.

I think Denver’s top target in free agency should be Khris Middleton.

There are very few 6’8 players out there with the skill set to be a perimeter shooter, a playmaker for himself and others, and a quality wing defender. Middleton checks all of those boxes to some degree. He’s not a primary creator, but Denver already has a main guy in Jokic and a developing creator in Murray. He’s not an elite outside shooter, but he’s close to it as a career 38.8% three-point shooter on high volume. Middleton has made 756 threes in his career. J.R. Smith is Denver’s franchise leader with 768 threes made. Put Middleton on one side of the floor and Gary Harris or Malik Beasley on the other, and the Murray-Jokic pick and roll would rarely be cramped for spacing.

But the biggest factor though is Middleton’s defensive abilities. He was the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference Finals over Giannis Antetokounmpo and Malcolm Brogdon. He has the size, the veteran savvy, and the work ethic to take those matchups seriously. Denver has a number of opponents where Middleton would be the ideal primary defender against a star — LeBron James and the Lakers, James Harden and the Rockets, Paul George and the Thunder — and he can contribute offensively at the same time.

I’ve answered variations of this question before, but I want to finish on this note given the way the NBA seems to be turning to a new era of basketball right now.

Jamal Murray is really freaking good.

The list of players to average over 21 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds per game in the playoffs in the Age-21 season or younger is very short:

Sorting that list by True Shooting %, Murray had the third best shooting efficiency of the above group behind only Jordan and LeBron. Not bad company to keep, especially when operating next to another star that takes a lot of shots in Jokic. Murray’s scoring talent is clearly very high, and after watching him for the first three seasons of his career, I will never question that.

But of the above players, only Jordan, LeBron, and Kobe won a championship as the primary or secondary scoring option. Beal and Mitchell have time to change the record on that, but I don’t expect either to do so. Murray is in great position to change that though. As he continues to grow and improve, the efficiency has to change as well. Murray’s efficiency took a dive this year under the new pressure to create shots by himself, so either he will have to improve his efficiency taking those shots or reconfigure his game to more of a Stephen Curry profile, attempting shots in more efficient ways on parts of the floor that yield higher efficiency.

Murray’s ceiling is as a top 10 to 15 player in this league. If he can figure out how to boost that efficiency and just bomb away threes at a higher rate, then he has a high chance of achieving the Curry profile that very few players can achieve. He’s one of the only young players in the NBA capable of that. Right now though, I consider his player profile to be a combination of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. He acts like Lillard and holds the ball like him, wanting to be the end-of-game killer and making some decent passes at various points, but his scoring and passing profile blends what McCollum does best as a crafty midrange scorer. None of the three are great defenders either, so Murray has that covered.

Can that version of Murray in his prime help win an NBA championship with Nikola Jokic? Maybe. It’s hard to tell. Denver will likely need a legitimate third scoring option and multiple guys that defend well. But they are close enough that it’s worth seeing the process through.

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