The Nuggets, one of the youngest teams in the NBA, have three first-round draft picks to play with. The front office wants to compete for the playoffs now. Will that mean draft-day trades, draft-and-stash, or high-upside picks? We explore the many options.
Man, the Knicks and Nets have to be envious of the Nuggets' stockpile of picks entering the 2016 NBA Draft. The funny thing, though, is Denver likely doesn't want them all. With an extremely young core and 12-13 players under contract for 2016-17, the Nuggets are in the curious position of having three first round picks (#7,15,19) and not really needing any more young guys. This presents the Nuggets with a bevy of options as they look ahead to a season in which they hope to compete for an 8-seed. Complicating the situation is the fluidity of picks 3-10. After Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram go #1 and #2, it's a crapshoot. In many drafts there's a clear pecking order at least through the top five, making it a bit more easy to predict and attempt to move up or down accordingly. Nuggets GM Tim Connelly has done a great job in his short time with the team picking players, making draft day trades and stashing European talent like Nikola Jokic. Expect all three of those options to be explored in 2016.
Let's take a look at the routes Denver could take, as well as the needs they can address at this year's draft:
Keep the picks and draft for immediate impact
It's highly unlikely they stand pat and draft three guys that can join the team right away. But for argument's sake, let's explore potential draft targets. The Nuggets' most pressing need is shooting - they ranked 21st in field goal percentage and 26th in 3-point percentage last season. While Emmanuel Mudiay is still working to correct his shot, Denver needs to surround him with shooting whenever possible. Will Barton can get hot and Harris is only getting better, but they lack a true knockdown shooter. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari will be back from injury, yes, but they are always risks to go down again. The Nuggets also need a proficient stretch four. Coach Mike Malone may experiment more with the Twin Towers lineup with Jokic and Nurkic, a combination that will be more potent if the Nuggets can also throw out a small lineup as a contrast in styles. Jokic can shoot but is not fleet of foot enough to guard smaller fours. Gallinari can spend time at the four, but he's better as a small forward and can't be counted on to play 82 games.
With those needs in mind, the following players should be on Denver's radar during the draft:
Buddy Hield, SG, Oklahoma - If he falls to #7, the Nuggets almost have to take him. Probably the best shooter in the draft, he'd instantly contribute as a 3-point threat off the bench. He also brings a star potential that is always difficult to bring to Denver.
Timothe Luwawu, SG/SF, Mega Leks - At 6'7" with quickness, length and shooting prowess, he can be the stretchy player Denver is looking for. There's a chance he's still on the board at #15, which could turn out to be a steal for the Nuggets.
Skal Labissiere, PF/C, Kentucky - A raw 7-footer who can become a rim-protector with some coaching and possesses a nice mid-range game on offense. He is the kind of guy that could've been the top pick next year if he stayed in school. He will be a project for a year or two, and there is already somewhat of a logjam at the 4/5 spots in Denver. But his talent may be too tough to pass up if he somehow slides to #15. Might be a reach at #7.
Jamal Murray, SG, Kentucky - It would be a dream for Murray to slide to #7. If he does, Connelly has to snap him up. Murray scored 20 points a game as a freshman at Kentucky, shooting 41 percent from three. Still just 19 years old, Murray can enter Nuggets University and become an All-Star.
Marqueese Chris, PF, Washington - Chris is shooting up draft boards this week, landing at #3 in Draft Express' latest mock. His athleticism at 6'10" is surely what is making prognosticators drool. Like many of these guys, his game is very raw, especially on defense. His shot is intriguing though and would fit the stretch four need nicely for Denver. He needs to land on a team with a strong development staff, and the Nuggets at #7 would fit that bill.
Dragan Bender, PF, Maccabi Tel Aviv - The Bosnian big man is currently expected to go third or fourth, so the Nuggets would likely need to make a deal to move up for him. A legit 7-footer, Bender is a risk due to his lack of playing time in Europe. His upside is intoxicating however.
Tyler Ulis, PG, Kentucky - Denver also may need a backup point guard behind Mudiay. It remains to be seen if DJ Augustine or Jameer Nelson will be back with the team. While intriguing, this would make the Nuggets uncomfortably young at maybe the most important position.
If they use all three picks on ready-now domestic players, Connelly will need to make some roster cuts to make room on the team. Likely cut candidates would be Axel Toupane, JaKarr Sampson and Joffrey Lauvergne. I don't see this happening, as the Nuggets like these young guys enough to see what they can become.
Deal the picks
In 2014 Connelly selected Doug McDermott and immediately traded him for Chicago's first round picks - Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic. It was a brilliant move that delivered the Nuggets their 2-guard of the future and depth at center. No doubt Connelly will be working the phones this year, either trying to move up if there's a player he likes or trade for a veteran star. If no trade occurs by the time their pick comes at #7, Connelly will listen to offers from any team that wants to move up to get an available guy.
It's difficult to know who Connelly may be targeting in the top-6, if anyone. A team like Phoenix (#4) or New Orleans (#6) might be enticed into moving down for multiple picks as they have many holes to fill. Boston (#3) has been known to wheel and deal, so they may be willing to listen to offers for their pick. The Nuggets may have to move up if they want Bender, Murray, Chris or even Hield. There's a chance all four are taken after Simmons and Ingram.
Probably the ideal solution for this young and ready-to-compete team would be to add a proven star. That's much easier said than done, however. If the Cavs get beaten in four or five games in the Finals, they might be ready to deal Kevin Love. Love is the kind of star Denver yearns for and he would help their spacing immensely. Malone wants his team to be tough defensively, though, and Love would hurt in that regard. Malone would likely have to play Nurkic at the five behind Love, which would minimize the promising Jokic.
Jimmy Butler is another name bandied about by Nuggets fans lately. I have a hard time believing the Bulls would trade him this summer and the cost may be too high, i.e. three first-rounders, Gallo and/or Nurk. The Bulls front office tends to overvalue its players, one of the reasons they aren't very active in the trade market.
Even more improbable but worth a discussion, Blake Griffin could possibly be pried away. The Clippers aren't getting any younger, so three first-round picks could raise their eyebrows. But Doc Rivers seems content to run it back with the same core.
If a trade happens, it's far more likely to be a move up or down in the draft. It's not easy to trade for stars.
If they decide to draft three players in the first round, it's extremely likely at least one will be a draft-and-stash international player. Even if they deal one or two picks, they could use the third on an international project that can be groomed for a couple years. Connelly did a textbook job of this by stashing Jokic in Serbia for a year before bringing him to Denver, where he unexpectedly played well enough to finish third in Rookie of the Year voting. Some potential draft-and-stash guys include:
Furkan Korkmaz, SG, Anadolu Efes - The 6'6" Turkish sharpshooter will be 18 on draft night, so the Nuggets could stash him for a couple years and still bring him into the fold very young. He lit up Europe as a 17-year old, with a sweet stroke and good passing instincts. He needs to fill out his frame a lot before being ready for the NBA. Seems like a classic Connelly pick, can be had at #15 or #19 potentially.
Juan Hernangomez, SF/PF, Estudiantes - A 6'9" forward that had a great season in Spain last year at 20 years old. He scores efficiently and can attack in a variety of ways. He should be available at #19.
Ante Zizic, C, Cibona Zagreb
Ivica Zubau, C, Mega Leks
Most likely we will see a combination of the three strategies outlined above. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Nuggets take a guy at #7 that can improve their shooting right away, while taking someone like Korkmaz at #15 to stash overseas and dealing away the third pick. What may prevent Connelly from trading the 7th pick is the uncertainty of who may fall to them at that spot. We also can't rule out the possibility of a big splash trade for an established player, but it's increasingly unlikely.
After some depressing seasons, it's an exciting time to be a Nuggets fan. The 2016 draft figures to be crucial to their continued improvement, however it plays out. New York is jealous, which is its own sort of satisfaction.