With the dust now settled on the Denver Nuggets season and the NBA marching towards a Finals between the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks, it’s time to turn the focus to what the Nuggets can and can’t do this Summer to try and get back to the promised land. There will be key decisions to make at each level of the roster and during each phase of the offseason with Denver in a precarious position financially. As an over the salary cap team Denver pays a luxury tax and has multiple consequences of doing so. With a core locked into large contracts, Denver also is precariously close to passing the second luxury tax apron which introduces a whole new host of rules that impact their ability to modify their roster. They are also a team that is one bad second half away from going back to the Conference Finals. The narrative feels different now that the Mavericks have thoroughly handled the Minnesota Timberwolves aka the team that eliminated Denver, but the fact remains that the Nuggets were very close to having homecourt advantage in the WCF against a team that only beat them once this season (and that was on a crazy Kyrie Irving buzzer beater). There’s plenty of argument on the side of Denver should do nothing and simply run it back next season with the hope that development and a little better luck will carry them through. How Denver approaches next year comes down to three choices, each with their own pros and cons: run it back, make small tweaks, or trade one of their top four players.

Denver’s own roster

The Nuggets by and large are locked into the roster they have unless they make a trade. Their top four players (Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr.) are all under contract for next season. Murray and Gordon have one remaining season on their deals (Gordon has a player option for 25/26) so the Nuggets will have to make decisions this Summer on extensions for both of those players unless they are prepared to let them hit the open market in 2025. By and large the assumption is that Denver will offer both players extensions and continue to ride this core. There are however four players who saw rotation minutes at some point last season that potentially could be free agents this summer. They are a starter (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), a regular bench player (Reggie Jackson) and two rotational bench players (DeAndre Jordan and Justin Holiday). Additionally, Vlatko Cancar, who missed all of last season recovering from a torn ACL, could be a free agent as well. Jackson and Pope have player options meaning they can choose to opt out of their contracts and become free agents. Cancar has a team option so the decision to opt out or not lies with the Nuggets. Jordan & Holiday are outright free agents.

Jackson may be the biggest mystery of the three options out there. He will make just over $5 million next season if he accepts his option and it’s hard to discern whether he can make much more than that on the open market. Additionally, he is playing just an hour up the road from where he lived from sixth grade until leaving for Boston College. He’s also in a great situation as a sixth man for a championship contender. There’s plenty of reasons for him to simply accept his player option and return to the Nuggets for one more season before becoming a free agent in 2025. On the other hand though he is 34 years old. If there’s any chance at getting a multi-year deal it’s likely the last chance of his career to do so. It’s a similar situation for Caldwell-Pope. He’s in an ideal situation but also in need of locking in a multi-year agreement. At thirty-one years old it may not be his last chance at getting an NBA deal, but it may be his last chance at locking in multi year deal worth over $20 million annually. KCP is due to make just over $15 million a season next year. Considering Bruce Brown left Denver for a $23 million annually deal last season, it should be expected that Pope is in line for a raise as well. A deal in the range of three years for a total of $60 million seems very realistic. He will in all likelihood decline his player option to become a free agent. Since Denver acquired him via trade, they have more flexibility to retain Pope once he opts out in comparison to what they could do to try to keep Brown, a player they acquired the Summer prior via free agency, last offseason. The Nuggets will be able to offer KCP around $24 million a season, however it will mean crossing into the second apron on the luxury tax.

The second apron has major implications. It’s not just a Stan Kroenke the billionaire has to pay loads of money thing. While it’s true Stan will have to pay out, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fan who plays a violin larger than three inches for that issue. The major issue is the latest collective bargaining agreement severely restricts a team’s ability to make roster additions once they hit the second apron. If the Nuggets retain KCP and cross into the second apron they will not be able to add any free agents to the roster save for players who sign for the veteran minimum, they will not be able to combine players into a trade package, they will not be able to trade their 2031 first round pick which is currently the only first round pick they have to offer outside of the one they have in this Summer’s draft, and they will start the clock on a rule that states if a team is above the second apron in three out of five seasons they will automatically have their first round pick moved to the end of the round. Hitting the second apron is a heavy price to pay but also one any team would be willing to do if it meant a championship which makes the KCP decision fascinating. Denver has three young wings in Christian Braun, Payton Watson and Julian Strawther to fill in the gaps of a Caldwell-Pope departure, but none of them have shown the consistent combination of defense and shooting prowess that Pope brings, nor do any of them have the veteran leadership and decade of experience.

The free agent market

Let’s say for argument’s sake that KCP ends up leaving. This mean’s Denver stays under the second apron and opens up a couple of moves in the margins they can make during free agency. Primarily, the Nuggets gain the option to sign a free agent (or combination of free agents) with what is called the mid-level exception (MLE), specifically the tax payer MLE, which will be just over $5 million a season. This is the same vehicle they used to re-sign Jackson last season. As mentioned, Denver has plenty of youth on their wings, they also have Jalen Pickett as a young option at point guard. Denver’s biggest hole this season appeared to be in the bigs department. Zeke Nnaji in theory was supposed to fill the hole left by Jeff Green’s departure last season but despite getting a contract extension Nnaji was unable to secure regular playing time in the rotation. With Cancar absent due to his injury that left Michael Malone with only DeAndre Jordan to turn to (Jay Huff was on the roster as well but on a two-way contract, not a fully guaranteed one) which was less than ideal. DJ was on the roster to fill more of a veteran locker room presence role rather than an active on the court one. With Jordan a free agent and at thirty-six years of age the Nuggets best use of the MLE, if they have it, may be to bolster their frontcourt depth.

There will be some intriguing big man options in the market this Summer. Some guys like Isaiah Hartenstein or Nic Claxton have played themselves out of Denver’s price range but players like Jalen Smith, Andre Drummond or Goga Bitadze could fall into the $5 million or less price range. If we are continuing with the KCP is not back scenario, I’d think the Nuggets will have three fully guaranteed roster spots available (KCP, DJ and Holiday all out). If you assume one gets filled by their first round pick (we’ll get to that) that leaves them an MLE player and a vet min or second round draft pick to fill out the roster. So in theory the Nuggets could go elsewhere with their MLE and still fill the big man role with a vet min just like they did last season with Jordan. They could in fact just re-sign Jordan to a vet min and run it back 100%. They could also look at a guy like Boban Marjanovic or perhaps our old friend Mason Plumlee with a vet minimum. Either way, Denver has to make moves within the margins with the limited free agency moves available to them. Frontcourt depth is the biggest hole in the Nuggets roster and they’ll need to address it with one of these free agency moves, particularly if they look elsewhere in the draft.

The NBA Draft

Thanks to a coin flip, the Nuggets own the twenty-eighth overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Just like free agency, Denver can’t anticipate making a big move in the draft. Most players taken in the late first round do not make an immediate impact. Last season the Nuggets traded up to get Strawther at pick twenty-nine and while he had some early flashes an injury took him out of the rotation and he never got back in. As we saw last season, a championship contending team like Denver just doesn’t have the time to work through young players making mistakes in live NBA games. Of the ten players to make an All Rookie team for 23/24 only one was drafted past nineteenth overall and that was G.G. Jackson who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies who had a lost season with no better options than playing all their young players (and credit to them and Jackson who looks like a gem). Denver should take the best player available, regardless of need, given that said player will in all likelihood not contribute in the near future.

However, the Nuggets have also signed five rookies (or one third of the roster) to guaranteed contracts over the past two seasons and the tallest of the five is Peyton Watson. Adding another wing or even a point guard may just further crowd the depth chart out on the perimeter. Adding depth to their bigs through the draft is certainly not the worst option for the Nuggets. At twenty-eight they won’t get an immediate difference maker but they could find a player to develop into a solid backup big who solves that issue for them for the remainder of Jokic’s time in Denver. If a guy like Zach Edey, Tyler Smith or Daron Holmes slips a little and is there at the end of the first round Denver could add an intriguing piece to #ProjectDynasty. They could also elect to save the roster spot for an additional vet minimum and go full out development route with a potential draft and stash player like Pacome Dadiet or Ulrich Chomche. The Nuggets will also have options if they do want to go with another perimeter prospect. They could again look to upperclassmen like they did last draft and target guys like Jaylon Tyson or Tyler Kolek, or opt for development projects like Carlton Carrington or Kyshawn George. Lastly, they could choose to pick no one at all and deal the draft pick either for another selection down the road or as part of a package with a player to try and make a more immediate improvement to the roster.

The trade options

The Nuggets can always of course trade players, and as long as they continue to be below the second tax apron they can combine multiple players into a trade package. They are however still a team over the salary cap so they cannot take back more salary in return than they send out in a trade. Because of the way Denver’s roster is structured for the eleven players with guaranteed contracts for next season (six players on contracts for $3 million or less, four players on contracts making $23 million or more…and Nnaji at $8 million annually for the next four seasons) they don’t have a ton of salary matching options to make trades for players in that fourth to sixth man in the rotation range. That means in order to make a significant impact on the roster via trade the Nuggets will have to trade someone, well, significant. Obviously the Nuggets aren’t trading Jokic and Gordon’s contract is great value as the cheapest of Denver’s big four contracts. If the Nuggets were to make a significant trade it would in all likelihood involve Murray or Porter Jr (or both if Luka Doncic for some reason decided winning in Dallas wasn’t for him). It would be a very drastic move for a team a year removed from winning a championship with this core, in particular trading Murray who was magnificent during the Nuggets championship run.

However, if the Nuggets lose KCP then perhaps they could see a scenario where trading a player like Porter in order to get multiple players to help shore up depth might make some sense. It would take the right team though and a big part of what makes a team the right team is they have to believe that Porter can blossom fully into a star player. A team trying to recreate what the Houston Rockets did when they took James Harden from an elite role player in Oklahoma City to an MVP candidate in Houston is the type of scenario the Nuggets would need. That team also needs to have two players in that $5-$25 million range to be able to give Denver a couple of pieces back. Perhaps if Denver went this route they could look at a package from the Nets centered around Mikal Bridges who underwhelmed in his first season as go to scorer and might be better off returning to his spot as an elite role player like he was with the Phoenix Suns. Bottom line, unless the Nuggets are attaching multiple picks and/or young players to get something of value in return for Nnaji’s contract, Denver will have to make a drastic move to their roster if they are looking to make changes via trade and finding the right partner for a deal like that will be difficult.

Whether it’s free agency, the draft or trades the Nuggets are going to be very limited with what they can do in terms of roster construction. By far the biggest piece to the puzzle will be Caldwell-Pope and whether Denver can/decides to retain him. If they do it almost certainly means the Nuggets will be above the second apron and resigned to more or less bringing back the exact same roster that came up short in the playoffs a week ago. If Pope walks then it will open up a few other minor options for roster construction but also will leave the hole created by his departure. The Nuggets may have some ready made replacements in Braun or Strawther but those players have yet to prove themselves to be capable of the same consistent caliber of play that Pope brings. Outside of the KCP issue, the Nuggets will need to address their depth problems with their front court and if Jackson also goes elsewhere this Summer then Denver will be left very thin at the point guard position as well. Despite having very few options, GM Calvin Booth has plenty of crucial decisions in front of him.