The NBA lockout was like a pregnancy. There was a lot of irrational screaming and finger-pointing, and of course, labor pains. And the entire time, all anyone wanted to see was the baby. In this case, the baby is a season, which was born very early Saturday morning and appears to be alive and healthy. Now it's time to get everything the baby needs: namely, players. The Nuggets have possibly the most unsettled roster in the league and a shorter-than-normal period to fill it out.
The players and owners came to a tentative agreement on a new collective-bargaining agreement, and while many of the details still need to be ironed out, the league will reportedly start a 66-game schedule on Christmas Day. Teams will likely be able to begin negotiating with free agents between December 1 and 4, and start signing them December 9.
If the salary cap is set at $58 million as expected, the Nuggets would have about $30 million to spend on free agents. Thanks to free agency and China, Denver has only seven players under contract right now -- Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Al Harrington, Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufas.
While that spending cash is exciting, the rather lackluster group of free agents available is anything but. Denver's own Nenê is widely considered the best player on the market. When he opted out of his deal's last year, he became an unrestricted free agent. He may command a max-level deal, meaning he could earn up to 30 percent of a team's total salary.
The Nuggets' first priority should be signing Nenê, but as an unrestricted free agent, the only advantage Denver has is the ability to offer him a five-year deal with 7.5 percent yearly raises, as opposed to the four-year contract with 4.5 percent annual raises to which other teams will be limited. Working strongly against the Nuggets are reports that Nenê wants out of Denver.
Ken Berger, of CBS Sports, is reporting that Nenê would like to land in Dallas or Miami. But as both of these teams are over the salary cap, he would have to go there as part of a sign-and-trade, just like Carmelo Anthony did last year when he left for the New York Knicks. The difference under the new CBA is that Nenê can't sign the five-year max in a sign-and-trade. He could land the same contract simply signing with another team as a free agent, so he would have to specifically push for Miami or Dallas.
Page down for more options. Given the Nuggets' lack of dependable big men -- if the season started today their starting center would be Mozgov -- they should obviously sign him. The new CBA reportedly has a spending floor that requires teams to spend 85 percent of the salary cap, or about $49 million. Given these numbers, Nenê could command a contract starting at nearly $15 million a year.
If his desire to leave Denver is legitimate, the Nuggets' best course of action would be to facilitate a sign-and-trade in order to get some players back rather than seeing Nenê walk away with nothing coming in return (see Anthony, Carmelo). Berger reports that Golden State, Indiana, New Jersey and Houston are other teams interested in signing him.
Nenê to Miami in exchange for Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem has been rumored, but would require him to take a significant pay cut. Beyond a loss of their best player, Nenê's departure would also force the Nuggets into spending money rather recklessly due to the aforementioned spending floor. They will have to get to $49 million somehow, and beyond him, the free agent class is fairly grim.
One in-house answer is to sign shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who is a restricted free agent -- meaning Denver can match any offer made to Afflalo by another team. Given that the Nuggets don't have a single shooting guard under contract right now, signing Afflalo should be priority 1a, right behind Nenê. Unlike with Nenê, the sentiment seems to be that Afflalo will return to the Nuggets.
Jamal Crawford is the top scoring shooting guard available, but he will likely want too much money for what he provides, which is very J.R. Smith-esque play without the dunking ability. Two of the better remaining shooting guards on the market are Jason Richardson of the Orlando Magic and Marcus Thornton of the Sacramento Kings.
Although neither would likely be thrilled backing up Afflalo, Thornton would be more likely to fill that role. Richardson is more experienced, athletic and a better shooter from outside, but Thornton is a great scorer and could be a great source of instant offense off the bench. The Nuggets will also sign rookie Jordan Hamilton, who could see some time at the two.
More on Ty Lawson and other key Nuggets below. Lawson is locked into the starting point guard role. On draft night, the Nuggets traded Raymond Felton, a chubby point guard who prefers to start, for another chubby point guard who prefers to start, Andre Miller. So the Nuggets are set there.
With Wilson Chandler set to see just how serious his Chinese team is about not letting him out of his contract until the season is over, the Nuggets need another body or two behind Galinari at small forward. The earliest Chandler could return to Denver would be March.
Andrei Kirilinko, who you may know as the annoying Russian with the goofy haircut who played for the Utah Jazz, is available, and if he's willing to take a back-up role, he would be a great two-way player to come off the bench. Caron Butler of the Dallas Mavericks and Shane Battier of the Memphis Grizzlies are also strong possibilities, although both are late in their career and might be looking to latch on to a more title-ready team. Gary Forbes is another in-house restricted free agent who can play shooting guard and small forward, and he could re-sign for under $1 million a year.
Filling out the roster with big bodies could go several ways depending on where Nenê goes. If he leaves, the Nuggets would be smart to make a run at Tyson Chandler of the Dallas Mavericks or Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies. Both are defense- and rebounding-first players who will receive a bigger-than-they-deserve contract because the free agent market is poor.
Gasol is a restricted free agent, so Memphis can match any deal Denver offers and Chandler is expected to re-sign in Dallas, where he just won a title. Deandre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers heads the next tier of big men and is capable of dunking, blocking shots, rebounding and little else.
Rookie Keneth Faried will also be on the roster, but if Nenê bolts, the Nuggets will need a player that can create offense in the post. David West, of the Hornets, is the best offensive big man available, but he tore his ACL in March. The Kings' Carl Landry is another quality player from the "low on skills, high on hussle" mold.
Essentially, if Nenê really wants out of Denver, putting together the Nuggets' roster, both from a basketball and financial perspective, becomes much more difficult. If the rumors are true, Denver will be in the unenviable position of having to sign players they may not completely love to contracts they certainly don't love.
However the roster shakes out, the Nuggets will probably look very similar to last year's team, in that they will be fun to watch, and just good enough to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
More from our Sports archive: "Kenneth Faried pick, Raymond Felton for Andre Miller trade: How do they help the Nuggets?"
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