When the Denver Nuggets watched Jeff Green take an $8 million per year contract from the Houston Rockets they knew they were losing a solid piece of their rotation. Uncle Jeff provided veteran leadership, yes, but he also provided a solid twenty minutes a night as a versatile big off the bench. No doubt the Nuggets had it in their mind that fifth year forward Vlatko Cancar would be able to compete for that role in the upcoming season. Unfortunately for Vlatko and Denver, the injury bug had other plans. Cancar went down with a torn ACL during the qualifying round of the basketball World Cup over the Summer and was lost for the season before it ever began forcing Denver to alter their plans.

2023/2024 Season Stats


Season Story

Vlatko’s injury had quite the ripple effect. Nothing was guaranteed to him in terms of playing time when last season ended but the departure of Green and the players’ similar sizes and skillsets made it feel as though Vlatko was the most likely replacement. Additionally, Cancar has developed a solid game as a playmaker which meant if he were to fill in as a backup big Denver could potentially open up some actions for their bench unit that are similar to what the starters can do with Nikola Jokic. Vlatko would still be undersized as a center though so it’s by no means a lock that he would have received playing time over DeAndre Jordan or Zeke Nnaji. Denver’s reserve group struggled, essentially from the beginning of the season, with defensive rebounding which ultimately led to more playing time for Jordan, the biggest player on a guaranteed contract, and that may have very well ended up as true even if Vlatko was healthy. Still, Vlatko’s continued improvement over his career, his work ethic on and off the court, and his good decision making with the ball in his hands made it feel like 2023/2024 was the year he would finally be trusted with regular rotation minutes. His injury and year long recovery threw that all to the wayside and Denver struggled to find an answer with their bench frontcourt all season. Now, coming off a major injury but with no immediate answers in the rotation for Denver, Vlatko’s future is very much up in the air.

’24/’25 outlook with the Nuggets

Vlatko is one of the biggest mysteries in terms of players who may or may not return to the Nuggets next season. Denver currently holds a team option for next season that would pay Vlatko $2.3 million. They have until June 23rd to make a decision on that. Now, if Vlatko had been able to play last season and was in any way effective this would be a no brainer. At $2.3 million he is for all intents and purposes playing for the veteran minimum and if he was able to contribute on the court in any fashion last season his contract would be looked at as an absolute value. Coming off a major injury though it’s a bit trickier, primarily due to Denver’s roster squeeze and the uncertainty of what Cancar will be able to do if he is back.

The Nuggets aren’t likely to have many available roster spots this Summer so while Cancar is cost effective, if Denver doesn’t believe he can contribute in a meaningful role then they may look elsewhere. For example, say the Nuggets take a combo big in the draft. They still have Zeke Nnaji available to them and it may be a scenario where having a guy like a DeAndre Jordan or other true five may be something very desirable to them. If they’re simultaneously looking to shore up their point guard depth and perhaps looking for a wing to replace Justin Holiday then Vlatko’s roster spot may end up being the odd man out. The fact of the matter is right now Denver has five roster spots available. One seems likely to already be spoken for with Reggie Jackson and his ability to simply accept his player option to return next season. Another roster spot should be assumed to go to Denver’s first round pick (at least until we here otherwise). A third spot is hanging in the balance of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s decision this offseason. Before free agency even opens Denver may be down to two roster spots available and still be looking for point guard depth, a true five and a replacement wing and they won’t get the luxury of knowing how all that is going to fall in place before they have to make a decision on Cancar’s contract..

That roster squeeze may make Vlatko expendable but I expect the Nuggets will only use that as a last resort. Depth and fit can be navigated somewhat by Calvin Booth’s decisions and vision. The ability to navigate the committed salary Denver has on the books and their precarious position in terms of the second tax apron is far more limited. Unless the Nuggets make a big trade, or let KCP walk and dedicate their taxpayer MLE money entirely to a backup big, it’s hard to envision a scenario where they would prefer someone on the outside rather than just picking up Cancar’s option. He has a number of things going for him given Denver’s situation. First and foremost he is cheap, as cheap as any player they can get in free agency. Secondly, he already knows Denver’s system, is comfortable with the organization and vice versa. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, he has a very good relationship with Jokic as a fellow Balkan and both have spoke openly about their friendship. Even if Vlatko doesn’t contribute on the court, he brings something to Denver’s locker room that no other player on their current roster can: a taste of home for Denver’s star player.

My prediction is Vlatko will be back next season. Obviously how he responds to his injury recovery has an effect on the decision and it would be foolhardy to think Vlatko will jump right back in next season and not have a time period of reacclimating himself to live NBA action on a reconstructed knee. However, the cost to retain him and what he can bring to the team outside of regular playing time make it a no brainer in my mind. The roster squeeze part is a bit precarious. We’ve seen this Nuggets team ultimately lose a player to free agency because of roster squeeze (Torrey Craig) but the Nuggets are so limited in terms of what moves they can make that electing to take someone from outside of the organization over Vlatko, who has been here five years and is very cost effective, would be a major surprise.