Nenê is among the most controversial Nuggets of the decade -- an undeniably talented player who never quite lived up to the hype but remains a valuable commodity. Now, however, he's opted out of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent.
Does that mean the Nuggets will get nothing if he splits? Not necessarily.
The knock against Nenê has always been a lack of aggressiveness on the offensive and defensive ends -- i.e., he's soft. I've been among those expressing this opinion, as in the May 2010 post "Nuggets: Time to Give Up on Nenê." But after the departure of Carmelo Anthony, Nenê stepped up in ways that he'd previously resisted, and his playoff war with the Oklahoma Thunders' Kendrick Perkins demonstrated the sort of basketball bloodlust Denver fans have long hoped he'd exhibit. In other words, the potential that's always been there appeared to finally, finally be rising to the surface.
Hence, the timing of his opt-out decision is lousy: The Nuggets' nourishing of Nenê could well result in him blossoming on another team. And Denver doesn't have a ton of great options in the middle, especially when it comes to offensive production, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller notes:
The only big men under contract for Denver next season are Chris Andersen, rookie Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov. Faried, Koufos and Mozgov are completely unproven, and Andersen has been primarily a defensive roleplayer focused on trying to block every shot attempted by the opponent. While Gallinari and Ty Lawson make up an effective offensive attack on their own, the frontcourt issues loom larger. As with Nenê, Kenyon Martin is an unrestricted free agent.
Other options? Denver Stiffs' Nate Timmons thinks some are available to the Nuggets, since many of the teams likely to want Mr. Hilario in their uniform "have some issues with being able to sign Nenê outright." For that reason, he sees a sign-and-trade deal as a potential solution for all concerned. But what might the Nugs get for Nenê, and from whom?
Timmons sees the Lakers as one possible landing spot, perhaps with Pau Gasol offered up as bait. He also believes the Orlando Magic would love to team Nenê with Dwight Howard -- and he'd offer insurance should Howard decide to do a Melo and bolt for a contender before the season's out. Likewise, he suggests that both the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics would covet Nenê to fix their baseline deficiencies -- but like the Magic, neither squad has much to offer in trade bait.
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Also logical prospects, in Timmons' view, are the San Antonio Spurs, who have an aging Tim Duncan and vets like Tony Parker and Richard Jefferson who could be moved to open cap space, plus the Phoenix Suns, an outfit with commodities like Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat, and a Chicago Bulls franchise that may look at Carlos Boozer with a case of buyer's remorse.
Of these contenders, Phoenix strikes me as the most likely, with Orlando following. (I don't see the Lakers swapping Gasol for Nenê, despite the former's disappointing no-show in the playoffs.) But with a lockout looming, plenty of strange things could, and probably will, happen.
Fortunately, the Nuggets' de facto GM, Masai Ujiri, has worked wonders thus far, be it getting more from the Melo trade than anyone expected or coming in with one of the NBA's best drafts despite coming into the evening picking at No. 22. If anyone can minimize the damage from a Nenê departure, it's him. But he's sure as hell got his work cut out for him.
More from our Denver Blogs archive: "Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton, Andre Miller acquisitions earn Denver Nuggets good grades."