Cap Cleaning: Denver Nuggets
A look inside the Denver Nuggets’ salary sheet before the trade deadline.
Welcome to the first installment of “Cap Cleaning,” a pre-trade deadline series in which I will comb through only the most disgusting salary cap sheets in the NBA.
The Denver Nuggets get the honor of being the inaugural feature of “Cap Cleaning,” which actually isn’t an honor.
In this series, I will sort out a team’s roster into tiers: “Essentials,” “Keepers,” “Bloaters” and “Non-essentials.”
This section is dedicated to Denver’s core. It is dirt-cheap right now, but that won’t be the case for long.
Nikola Jokic — Denver will be faced with a big-time decision before the offseason: whether to accept Jokic’s 2018–19 team option or not. It seems simple, right? Pick up his option and have Jokic for another year at just $1.6 million.
The caveat? If Denver picks up the option, Jokic will become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019. Decline his option this summer and Jokic will enter restricted free agency, allowing the Nuggets to match any offer sheets Jokic signs — should he sign any at all.
It will be a tough decision for Tim Connelly and friends. They can either be hopeful that Jokic re-signs next summer and save a year’s worth of luxury tax payments or lock him in now despite the financial burden.
If Denver decided to decline the option and offer Jokic the full five-year max, it would start at $25.25 million (assuming the projected $101 million cap comes to fruition) and end up at about $146.5 million with 8 percent raises.
Placing that $25.25 million into Denver’s salary sheet for next season would have them at about $135 million in committed salary, well above whatever the luxury tax line is set at. Yuck.
There is a chance that Wilson Chandler declines his $12.8 million player option, or that Darrell Arthur declines his $7.5 million player option. Relying on that is child’s play, however, so expect some active phone lines in the Denver front office in the coming weeks to move off of some of these deals.
Gary Harris — Harris was headed for restricted free agency this summer, but chose to sign a four-year extension with the Nuggets back in October. The deal includes $74 million in guaranteed money and $10 million in incentives.
Assuming Harris earns the full $84 million, that would average out to $21 million annually.
Harris has blossomed into one of the better two-guards in the league, specifically because of his prowess as a two-way player. Surrounded by Jokic and young guard Jamal Murray, who both struggle on the defensive end, a good defender like Harris is necessary for this team to keep up with the league’s elite.
In each of his four seasons, Harris has improved his points per game and assist averages. This season, he has bumped up his scoring average by 2.2 points in three more minutes a game, and only dipped slightly in field goal and three-point percentage despite an uptick in shots.
If Harris can continue to improve as a scorer — a job that will be made a lot easier with Jokic running the show — he will certainly be worth the $21 million salary.
Jamal Murray — Murray, in just his second year, won’t make more than $4.5 million on his rookie scale contract, which runs through the 2019–20 season. He, like Harris, is a great shooter who, in time, will become lethal next to Jokic.
Current total salary: $7,376,757
Players the team would probably like to keep, though it doesn’t make them exempt in trades.
Mason Plumlee — Out of a very crowded frontcourt, Plumlee sticks out. It feels like he has been underrated for his entire career, perhaps because he is a Plumlee.
But Mason is a good player, and while it hurts to have him on the books for an average of $13 million from 2018–2020, he is completely deserving of that contract. Denver has been a -5.5 with Plumlee on the floor this season, but that’s mostly because of him being thrusted into a starting role with Paul Millsap sidelined. Denver’s current starting unit includes Jokic and Murray, two below average defenders. That lineup is just a +2.6 in 327 minutes this season, thanks to the 107.8 points they allow per 100 possessions (per Cleaning The Glass).
If the Nuggets can help it, there are other players much more deserving of being moved.
Will Barton — Barton is a really solid bench wing, and he’ll get paid like one this offseason. If they can help it, Denver should try to re-sign Barton and free up money elsewhere.
Trey Lyles — Lyles, the former lottery pick, was starting to look like an afterthought after being traded from Utah to Denver on draft night. But Lyles, in his third season, is putting up career-highs across the board and is shooting 42 percent from deep.
Lyles will be up for a new deal in the summer of 2019, but for now Denver should hold onto him and see if he can continue to ascend as a player.
Current total salary: $20,015,829
This section does not necessarily mean the player is bad. It just seems they are probably making too much and their salary really makes things tight for the Nuggets.
Paul Millsap — This type of signing really has to kill GMs. Denver, not a particularly sexy market, is not going to attract top tier free agents. In most summers, Paul Millsap would be considered a Tier Two free agent at the very least.
Thanks to Millsap’s time in the league, most of which he has been underpaid, he was eligible to be paid lots of money and was looking to bank upon that.
He did so, inking a three-year deal that averages out to be worth just over $30 million per year. Denver was lucky enough to include a third-year team option in the deal.
Millsap is a great fit with the other four starters, supplying the shooting and passing to keep things moving while also balancing things out on the defensive end.
It just really sucks when that guy costs so much, when core players had big paydays ahead. And, on top of that, he’s been hurt for two months.
Denver better pray it works out, because it’s going to be hard to move the $29.7 million he’s still guaranteed after this season. And if the Nuggets hope to make any sort of postseason noise, they may have to hold onto him anyway.
Kenneth Faried — This may finally be the time the Nuggets can find a suitor for Faried, whose deal ends after the 2018–19 season. It will be easier in the offseason, when moving $13.7 million isn’t as tough, but that time may finally be nearing.
Faried is averaging a career-low 14.9 minutes per game, so perhaps a team sees an opportunity to steal Faried — and a Malik Beasley/Juancho Hernangomez-type asset — before the February 8 trade deadline.
Current total salary: $44,190,579
This section does not necessarily mean the players should just be cut, but it means losing them wouldn’t cause irreparable damage.
Wilson Chandler — Denver is thin at small forward, so moving Chandler midseason probably wouldn’t be the best idea unless they could receive a competent wing in return. But if Chandler picks up his $12.8 million player option this summer, it would be wise to shop him around.
Darrell Arthur — Arthur is just another big man stuck in the logjam. He has a $7.5 million player option this summer and he will surely pick it up. A good defender with some range, he could have some suitors at the deadline and in the summer.
Emmanuel Mudiay — The former seventh overall pick just hasn’t panned out. He’s got one year left on his rookie deal…it wouldn’t surprise me if someone took a shot on him.
Tyler Lydon — Oh, look, another power forward. He’s a rookie, showed some athleticism in college and can shoot it a bit. Maybe Denver tries to see this through — they did give up the pick that became Donovan Mitchell for him and Trey Lyles after all.
Juancho Hernangomez — ANOTHER power forward. Hernangomez flashed some potential as a floor-spacer last season, but hasn’t had much run this year. He could be used as sweetener to help dump one of the bigger deals in a trade.
Malik Beasley — A first round pick in 2016, many people thought Beasley could have an impact playing the 3-and-D role. He hasn’t had much opportunity in Denver behind more experienced and talented guards, but there are surely teams out there willing to take a flier on Beasley. He could be attached to a bigger deal in a trade as well.
Richard Jefferson — Jefferson is probably a great veteran to have in a young locker room like the one in Denver. It really wouldn’t surprise anyone if he retired after the season, however, so there’s no use in worrying about him in the big picture.
Current total salary: $25,897,442
Team total salary: $105,994,137 (includes guaranteed money from Jameer Nelson)
Denver has until next season’s trade deadline to move off of as many salaries as possible before the luxury tax bill comes in at season’s end. Seeing as though this is not a title team, ownership will likely not be willing to pay the hefty tax this team could garner should no major changes be made to the roster.
They will surely be a team to keep an eye on as the January 8 trade deadline approaches. Denver only has a half-game hold on the eighth seed out West (as of Jan. 23), and perhaps that comes into play. Whether it be sooner or later, how this team manages its cap could send ripples — even if only minor — throughout the league.