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Nuggets sidestep backtrack with two big re-signings, two savvy additions

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Nuggets could pick two of three this offseason:

1. Secure their franchise player, Nikola Jokic, long-term

2. Maintain their complementary depth and assets

3. Dodge the luxury tax

Denver chose Nos. 1 and 3, which is both unsurprising and somewhat disappointing. Locking up Jokic is nice, but the Nuggets are on the edge of breaking a five-year postseason drought, and they have potential to make noise if they get in. A young team, Denver could build on this season for years to come. It would have been a good time to pay a small amount of luxury tax to preserve the full array of players and picks.

Instead, the Nuggets traded draft picks to dump at least potentially helpful players. It’s a knowing step back to save money.

Yet, in that context, Denver got everything it wanted and made a couple nice moves that mitigate the damage.

Start with the big moves that went by design: The Nuggets re-signed Jokic and Will Barton to big contracts.

Denver declined Jokic’s cheap team option to make him a restricted free agent, ensuring no risk of losing him and getting concessions in exchange for paying him sooner. Jokic’s five-year contract contains no player option, and his base salary is juuust sub-max (though incentives could push it higher). Some teams would have lavished their top player with max money and every contract term in his favor. The Nuggets did well to get – albeit, small – team-friendly aspects into Jokic’s deal.

On the other hand, Denver didn’t get a break with Barton, an unrestricted free agent. He’s a good player, and the Nuggets should be happy to keep the 27-year-old. But $53 million over four years certainly isn’t cheap.

That’s why the Nuggets traded a first-rounder, two second-rounders and second-round swap rights to dump Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur (on the Nets) and Wilson Chandler (on the 76ers).

Chandler was Denver’s starting small forward last year, though he appears to be slipping and Barton is capable of replacing him in the starting lineup. Faried and Arthur were mostly out of the rotation, but there would have been a chance Faried could still help.

The surrendered first-rounder is particularly painful, as it’s only top-12 protected. That means the Nuggets could narrowly miss the playoffs – as they did last season – and still convey the pick. That’d be a worst-case scenario, but it’s also near the middle of potential outcomes.

That was about it for Denver’s major charted moves. Uncharted moves are where the Nuggets really shined.

Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14 pick) and Isaiah Thomas (minimum contract) were great gambles considering their low costs. The injury and chemistry concerns are real, but so is the upside. Porter might have been the No. 1 pick if not for his back issues, and Thomas is just a year removed from finishing fifth in MVP voting. Neither looks like a great fit with a Jokic-Gary HarrisJamal Murray core, but who cares? Porter and Thomas were too valuable to pass up.

With Barton starting and Thomas’ health unproven, Denver needed another reserve point guard. So, the Nuggets signed two-way player Monte Morris to a three-year minimum contract with two years guaranteed. They also gave their other two-way player from last year, Torrey Craig, $4 million guaranteed over two years. Given the vast amount of power teams hold over their two-way players, those contracts are mighty generous.

Though those are small, indulgences like that – looking at Mason Plumlee – got Denver into this trouble where dumping draft picks and decent players became necessary. Barton’s contract could create complications down the road.

It’s a never-ending race between keeping costs manageable while maximizing talent. In a year it seemed they’d bear the cost of previous spending, they stayed ahead of the curve.

 

Offseason grade: B-

 

Neil Olshey’s big plan in Portland is to wait. Do they have enough time?

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Neil Olshey has begun to lose some of the polish he once held in the eyes of Portland Trail Blazers fans. The team’s general manager failed to re-sign Ed Davis for a pithy sum of $4 million this offseason. Publicly, that move was justified as an allowance for getting second-year big man Zach Collins some more minutes this upcoming season. As we have written about before here on Pro Basketball Talk, it was also to dodge a significant luxury tax bill.

Now, by early August, Olshey has completed the major moves of his offseason. As was expected, Portland re-signed big man Jusuf Nurkic to a reasonable $12 million-a-year salary. Unfortunately, Olshey failed to use the trade exception the Blazers gained from the Allen Crabbe swap, and did not bring in a veteran wing like they wanted.

Olshey is now out in the Portland sun, hiking the public relations trail while trying to craft a narrative around his quiet offseason. The Blazers GM recently sat down with TV reporter Brooke Olzendam to explain his position on Portland’s moves.

During a 30-minute video released by the team this week, Olshey mentioned two things of note. The first was that he was surprised that there was not a larger market for his trade exception. Olshey said that he figured that he would be able to absorb some contracts from the 2016 season with that $13 million chip, but was unable to find a suitor.

Honestly we were caught off guard. We thought for sure the Allen Crabbe trade exception would have huge value in the league. And like I said, teams are just not in the business of giving up quality players the way they were because I think everybody understand they’re going to have to pay the freight this summer for what everybody did back in 2016. There just wasn’t as many pieces in the marketplace to do the absorption deals we’ve seen in the past.

Olshey also eventually worked his way around to saying that he does not believe that moving either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum is the right choice going forward. The murmur out of the City of Roses is that McCollum, the team’s most readily movable trade chip, has not been and will continue to stay off the trade block.

We’re keeping the core together, knowing Dame and CJ have at least three years left on their contracts, and we give that group the best chance to win without impeding our ability long-term in terms of being into a number that’s completely non-liquid.

Portland’s trade exception expired on July 25th, and after a week-and-a-half spent contemplating, it now seems clear what Olshey is plan is for the short-term future. That is, to duck as much luxury tax as possible, build around Lillard and McCollum, and wait out the rest of the Western Conference. The justification for this plan — which mostly involves doing nothing — is twofold.

First, Golden State’s dominance in the West is unchallenged, even if Olshey was unwilling to admit that to Olzendam during the above interview. Internally, the Blazers know Golden State won’t run into real salary problems until the 2019-20 season, and it appears they would rather sit tight as that issue resolves itself.

Second, Olshey has decided to try to reduce the salary cap figure simply as a mechanism of being a good financial planner. And, if we believe the wait-and-see strategy to be true, then tighter budgeting must follow in kind. There is no sense for the Blazers to spend over the cap more than they need to if they agree to concede the next couple of years in the West.

Publicly they’ll never admit that, but it’s exactly what they’re doing.

Whether this is the right move or not isn’t clear. No doubt fans in Portland will do what they do every year. They’ll continue to be excited about and support the development of young guys on the roster including Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons. Meanwhile, they will restlessly stir about whether or not the team should make big moves, including trading McCollum or as has been the case the past couple of years, firing Terry Stotts.

 

What is more apparent now more than ever is how little control Olshey has over the team’s destiny. His big free agent move in 2016 was to nab Evan Turner, and re-sign Crabbe to use as a trade chip. Neither of those decisions turned out well for Portland, either on the floor or in terms of their salary cap impact. With no flexibility from his own accord, and no reason to combat the dynasty of a generation in the conference, Olshey has to sit tight.

He can spin his transactions to the public however he likes, and no doubt he deserves credit for some of his craftier moves. But those small deals seem to be Olshey’s limit at this point, whether it be finding added value in the draft or picking up replacement players for the back half of the bench for 60% of their year-over-year cost.

Perhaps most interestingly, now that he’s in Chief Financial Officer mode, it’s unclear whether Olshey will ever see his vision for this team to fruition.

Turner has just two more seasons left on his albatross of a contract, but after that comes Lillard and McCollum, due for extensions the season after. Olshey is taking a serious gamble using the patience of his two stars as betting chips by managing the luxury tax and trying to develop small-time talent as he clock-watches the Warriors.

Blazers general managers have always been measured by two things: the ability to create a roster that can win, and the elusive Big Trade or Big Free Agent Signing. Bob Whitsitt famously went down swinging in the early 2000s, trading anyone and everyone. Olshey might get the boot in a couple of years, with hardly a murmur, unless he finds a way to stave off elimination.

 

No doubt if you asked him, Olshey would point out his victories — the smart trade for Robin Lopez, the under-market signing of Al-Farouq Aminu, the Nurkic-for-Mason Plumlee swap, the Shabazz Napier trade, and the refusal of Chandler Parson’s contract demands. But those moves have largely been balanced by a dogged dedication to the Lillard-McCollum pairing, the Turner signing, the Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless contracts, the Arron Afflalo trade, the Nicolas Batum trade, the Festus Ezeli deal, and the Allen Crabbe trade.

Any way you slice it, Olshey’s performance as head of the Blazers has been evened out, leveled with the reality of a star in Lillard itching to know just when they’re going to climb the next peak. The team has made the playoffs the past five seasons in a row largely due to Lillard, whose draft selection in 2012 was the brainchild of the man directly before Olshey in Chad Buchanan.

What Portland is playing for now is not about next season, or free agents, or the luxury tax, or player development. Because of their position of extreme negative equity, the Blazers long-term plans are now about holding on to Lillard past 2020-21.

Whether Olshey will be there to negotiate that extension is up for debate.

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Report: Nuggets re-signing Nikola Jokic to five-year max after declining team option

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The Nuggets are building around Nikola Jokic.

But a second-round pick turning into a franchise player so quickly creates complications. Denver is resolving one by declining Jokic’s team option, which will send him into restricted free agency (as opposed to unrestricted free agency next year) and paying him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This ought to please Jokic. He would have earned just $1,600,520 next season if Denver exercised his team option.

Jokic is one of the best-passing full-time centers ever. He also shoots and rebounds well, though he must improve his defense to become worthy of this contract. At just 23, he’s worth betting on.

That said, I’m surprised the Nuggets didn’t get him on a slight discount. Though they clearly didn’t want to risk him testing unrestricted free agency next year, they gave him a MASSIVE raise (about $24 million) next season when they didn’t have to.

Jokic’s exact max salary won’t be determined until the salary cap and luxury-tax line are set this month. But this clearly puts Denver in cost-cutting mode now.

As constructed, the Nuggets are in line for about $24 million in luxury-tax payments. That’s without considering Will Barton, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Expect Denver to look to unload Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler and/or Mason Plumlee.

Jokic was always going to be in Denver next season. The Nuggets have now secured him far longer. It will cost them next year – an important season to them – but they also clearly value a future with Jokic.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.

 

Where do Blazers, Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts go from here?

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was a similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.