The NBA — largely since Adam Silver became commissioner — has moved (not so) quietly toward a sort of quasi-NFL style model of ‘parity’.

I’m not breaking news here. We’ve all seen it and the NBA hasn’t exactly been subtle about it.

The consequence of these moves towards parity has been an onerous second apron which both financially and more importantly functionally hamstring’s a team in said apron from flexibility. Essentially locking their roster in place until salary dump moves are made or a team loses players to free agency. What the league is saying: Don’t go into the second apron … this is a de-facto hard salary cap.

Hard caps create player churn. Hard caps limit team ceilings. Hard caps limit dynasties. This is what Adam Silver has wanted since February, 2014.

Even first apron teams have increased restrictions, as the Nuggets found out this last season. However it’s nothing compared to the second apron. What the NBA found out since the lockout of 2011 is financial penalties are not a deterrent to wealthy teams such as, oh I don’t know, the Golden State Warriors. A growing number of grousing NBA owners complained that Warriors owner Joe Lacob seemed unconcerned about the financial penalties incurred from living in the tax for many years. Because of the team’s economic might Lacob was racking up enormous tax bills in order to keep his dynastic Warriors team together. As usual grousing from the NBA owners suite’s usually means dramatic change.

In comes the second apron penalties. What hurts in this new CBA reality is not the financial penalties but how it bars you from making any appreciable move thereafter. In reality once you go into the second apron you better be happy with your team going in because the chances of making a trade deadline deal are slim due to matching salary restrictions and the inability to use exceptions. Thus the incentive to not even approach the second apron is as High as the Moon … as The Black Crowes of 1992 would say.

There is also a move toward limiting the amount of max deals on your roster. Max contracts are tied to a percentage of the salary cap (30% and 25%) and with a de-facto hard cap it becomes almost impossible to have more than two on your roster because your flexibility is even more limited once players hit that designation. If you have more than two such a large percentage of your roster

Which brings us to the 2024-25 Denver Nuggets with their interesting and difficult dilemma.

As Josh Kroenke said in the end of season press conference, the Nuggets ‘aren’t afraid’ of going into the second apron and very specifically this could be about the prospects of retaining Kentavious Caldwell Pope. The prospects of retaining KCP are outlined in this article by Mile High Sports Ryan Blackburn.

Sort of buried in the rather demure Nuggets presser was a quote from Kroenke about the Nuggets max contracts and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement:

“The core of this team was assembled under a different CBA. We drafted, we developed, and we built this team under a different set of rules. Those rules have kind of changed on the fly. Last summer, it wasn’t quite as pertinent as it is going to be this summer, coming off of a championship and some of our contractual situations last summer. But we’re going to put our heads together and figure out how we can keep improving. We have the best player in the world. We think we still have the best starting five in basketball.”

Setting aside the rather ridiculous implication from Kroenke that this CBA somehow ‘happened’ to the Nuggets rather than something he was intimately involved in as an owner … he laid out the problem that the Nuggets have right now. The new CBA isn’t friendly at all for teams that draft and develop talent and it certainly isn’t friendly to teams that have three max contracts such as the Denver Nuggets.

Because the second apron in the new CBA is designed to penalize you once you enter it you better be damn sure that the roster you have is going to be at or near the Finals. This is no longer about being ‘cheap’ folks. This is about the restrictions the apron puts on you and how it will freeze your ability to ‘get better’. So the Nuggets are at an interesting pivot point in the Nikola Jokic era.

To give you a brief example. Once you’re in the second apron any trade you conduct has to be at 100% matching salaries. You can’t combine players. So for all the Michael Porter Jr trade fantasists out there … who is doing a 100% matching salary trade on say MPJ without sweeteners or the ability to combine salaries? The Nuggets don’t have any picks to trade for quite some time. Trading Mike becomes THAT much more difficult once the second apron hits.

The major decisions before the Nuggets are simply about what and who they will be in the very near term and the long term. If the Nuggets do whatever they can to sign KCP (likely unrestricted free agent) it will send them into the second apron and severely limit their flexibility for trades and exceptions. In essence it will lock in the Calvin Booth approach of drafting low ceiling late first round and second round picks with high floors because it will be at this point the Nuggets would have no other choice.

This isn’t even considering the looming Jamal Murray extension talks that will be another major decision (Murray will be an unrestricted free agent in the 2025 offseason). This season the Nuggets will also need to decide if Murray will be given a max contract in this second apron environment. It will be from that decision where you will see a cascade of subsequent moves … will the Nuggets retain three max deals on their books?

There has been much whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the Nuggets current pivot point. In order to do what it takes to sign KCP you must be convinced that this next year will be one where you will be back in the Finals. On top of that do you devote max money to Murray and retain three max contracts on your roster? Even with the cap smoothed windfall from the imminent media deal a rise in the cap won’t be ease the realities of the incoming roster crunch. The Nuggets cap issues at the moment are directly tied to the three deals at the top of their roster. Only one players should be guaranteed a roster spot and their name is Nikola Jokic.

The days of three maximum contracts on your roster are evaporating in the blink of an eye. The new CBA is doing what its intent is: making sure that there is roster churn. The NBA wanted as close as they could get to an NFL style model as possible with the second apron as a pseudo hard cap. The Nuggets need to ask themselves if they can afford to ride with Murray, Jokic and Michael Porter Jr all making max contracts or if they get ahead of things and make any painful (but likely necessary) trades.

To end this missive on a note of future intrigue for the league. It is inevitable that the NBA will expand two more teams in the next few years. This has — quite frankly — been needed for at least half a decade and maybe more. A two team expansion draft will greatly relieve the pressure on teams and disperse talent with teams leaving players exposed to the draft. However, since we don’t know exactly when this will happen the Nuggets can’t count on that being their roster savior right now. It is, however, something to keep an eye on for the immediate future.