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At 14-23 the Denver Nuggets are roughly halfway through the 2016-17 NBA campaign and needless to say it hasn’t exactly turned out the way most fans originally predicted.

Though capricious lineups, injuries and inexperience have been labeled the primary source of Denver’s struggles, a recent five-game losing streak in which the Nuggets surrendered at least 120 points in each contest has highlighted an entirely new set of worries that appear more systematic than structural.

In addition, recent dissent from third-year center Jusuf Nurkic suggests organizational malfunction may finally be bubbling to the surface in the form of trade demands and ultimatums just as it appeared things couldn’t get much worse.

With the trade deadline and season midway point steadily approaching Tim Connelly and Josh Kroenke are now poised to answer some of the most difficult questions of their respective careers, as outlined below, which will reverberate for years to come…

Who are the franchise cornerstones?

The only verifiable answer to this question at the moment is Nikola Jokic. Though some may argue Jamal Murray deserves to be in the conversation as well, his age (19) and body of work (37 games) make it difficult to assess just how valuable he’ll be moving forward. If he were the deal breaker in a trade to bring Jimmy Butler or John Wall to Denver, for example, I imagine the Nuggets might roll the dice on letting him go, which I’m not sure you could say about Jokic.

Point being, the Nuggets have a tremendous amount of flexibility heading into the trade deadline and it would behoove them to sit down and delineate who they want to move, who they want to keep for now and who they want to build their franchise around for years to come.

Considering age, potential, current production and contractual status, I’d argue Jokic, Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Will Barton and Wilson Chandler give the Nuggets the most talented core at the most affordable price moving forward. This means more than half the roster (at least!) should be placed on the trading block and that outside of a few select players the Nuggets should be more than willing to entertain any trade offer that comes their way.

To tank or not to tank? 

Prior to any trades, the Nuggets must decide what type of team they wish to be for the latter half of the season and beyond. With six players age 22 or younger the Nuggets are still largely in the experimental stage of their development, yet thanks to an increasingly depleted Western Conference they remain only 1.5 games out of the playoffs at the time of this writing.

Whether they choose to upgrade their roster with another veteran or ship some of their more disgruntled talent in exchange for draft picks, what’s absolutely clear at this point is that a path must be chosen. The Nuggets cannot continue their pattern of accumulating assets, sitting on those assets and watching as those same assets, once highly prized, diminish in value due to lack of on-court exposure.

The Nuggets very well may have overvalued their assets for quite some time. Need proof? Look no further than Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried (who should have been traded years ago) and their current overall record. Though trading for a veteran may get the Nuggets into the playoffs (and ultimately destroyed by the Warriors) this year, no available veteran on the Nuggets’ radar will transform a 14-23 team into a perennial playoff threat capable of making deep runs in the postseason.

If by some crazy chance a player like Klay Thompson were to become available, then by all means, the Nuggets should pursue him to world’s end, but barring this unlikely scenario the Nuggets are much better off attempting to move a vast chunk of their roster for first-round draft picks or additional youth to pair with their own.

Is Emmanuel Mudiay a starting NBA point guard?

There is perhaps no riskier quality an NBA decision maker can possess than alarmism. On one hand, being able to read the tea leaves can result in opaque leverage and preventative long-term tumult; on the other hand, it can result in ill-advised emotional gambling that can burn you to the tune of a potential firing.

Time and time again General Managers give up on young players only to see them thrive in different circumstances, which of course begs the question: At what point is it OK to cut ties with a high draft pick — or any draft pick for that matter — if they don’t produce?

Though only 20-years-old and with almost exactly 100 games under his belt, it’s become quite clear Mudiay might not be the player Connelly and fans originally thought several summers back when first drafted. For the second season in a row, he’s shooting under 37 percent from the floor and barely over 30 percent from downtown. In addition, despite being Denver’s starting point guard for most of the season and averaging 28 minutes per game, he’s dishing less than four assists per game and averaging only one more assist than turnover per contest.

He also ranks 96th in assist percentage, 329th in player impact estimate (PIE), 363rd in true shooting percentage, 407th in defensive rating, 403rd in defensive win shares, 442nd in offensive win shares, 419th in opponent’s field goal percentage and 334th in player efficiency rating (PER) in the entire league according to NBA and Basketball-Reference.com.

To put it bluntly, Mudiay has been one of the worst players in the NBA this season with regard to minutes played. Though he still averages starter minutes and brings the ball up the floor after each possession, Mudiay is one of the least efficient, least productive, least defensively motivated players in the entire league.

Whether this is a result of coaching or talent only Connelly and Kroenke will decide, but no matter the case it’s imperative Nuggets brass does a thorough appraisal of Mudiay sooner rather than later to avoid a similar fate as the one bestowed upon them by previous point guard Ty Lawson. Mudiay has to start showing some progress.

Is Michael Malone the right coach for this team

Though mired in dysfunction and disconnect (most will remember his brief foray into rapping the scouting report) it might surprise fans to know Shaw actually had a slightly better winning percentage (40 percent) in his 141 games with the Nuggets than Malone currently has (39 percent) in his 119 games.

That record was achieved with a substantially less talented roster teeming with players who’ve since bounced from team to team (Arron Afflalo, JaVale McGee, Ty Lawson, Timofey Mozgov, Alonzo Gee, Randy Foye) or are currently out of the NBA altogether (J.J. Hickson, Nate Robinson, Quincy Miller, Erick Green). Looking back now it seems a miracle Shaw won as many games as he did, much less try to communicate through rap every night given that cast of talent.

Through 37 games this season the Nuggets are on pace to win less than they did last year — this despite a better and more mature roster. Granted the year is still young, but the Nuggets have not looked the part of a winning basketball squad through much of the 2016-17 campaign and appear to be playing perhaps their worst defense in Malone’s entire tenure.

Add the team’s numerous inexplicable late-game collapses, stunted growth (if there was ever any growth at all) from the team’s youth, a mass exodus of assistants just prior to the season getting underway and of course the ongoing Wheel-of-Fortune lineup changes and there’s suddenly pressure mounting on Malone and the Nuggets to start piling up wins.

Is Danilo Gallinari likely to re-sign?

It’s well documented Nuggets fans love Danilo Gallinari. Aside from being a solid all-around ball player, he’s also outwardly proclaimed his satisfaction with the city of Denver many times over, been willing to stick with the Nuggets through their rebuilding efforts and of course he’s an incredibly tall version of a young Val Kilmer which never hurts either. And though Gallinari has been a main fixture on the Nuggets for the majority of his eight-year career he’s also approaching 30-years-old and will likely be looking to win wherever it is he signs his next contract.

If Connelly and Kroenke get word from Gallinari that he’s either going to re-sign or is heavily leaning towards re-signing then it makes sense to ride the season out and engage in contractual negotiations this summer. Unfortunately, this scenario seems highly unlikely given Denver’s current record and struggles over the last 3.5 years. In short, barring unwavering loyalty it would appear Gallinari has every logical reason to forgo re-signing with the Nuggets and move on to greener pastures come July 2017.

The good news for the Nuggets is Wilson Chandler is playing the best basketball of his career and is locked down through 2018 with a player option that following season, so small forward should be the least of their worries. Knowing this, the Nuggets would be more than wise to strongly consider moving Gallinari prior to the deadline to ensure they at least get something for his services rather than seeing him walk for nothing in the offseason.

Teams like the Celtics, Raptors and Clippers, each of which have championship aspirations and a void at small forward, would make near perfect sense as viable trade partners heading into the February trade deadline.

There’s still over half a season remaining this year, but things have to change in Denver, and they have to change quickly, or else the decisions the Nuggets’ front office will have to make over the course of this season and this summer get harder by the day.

Kalen Deremo

Kalen was born in Durango, CO, in 1988 and graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2013 with a degree in journalism. Prior to joining BSN Denver he was editor and owner of RoundballMiningCompany.com, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate blog of the Denver Nuggets. Kalen is a fifth generation Coloradoan and vehement advocate of the American Southwest. When not writing he prefers hiking, watching movies and reading over doing nothing.

  • Malone Rules

    Deremo…good to see you back…your astute questions hopefully indicate to the Nuggets that all of us who are dedicated fans are paying attention. I agree with your core of current Nuggets who they should move forward with–with Mudiay being a continued investment unless a definite star can be traded for. I think Connelly would agree with your core group as well. The waiting period to commit to the new Nugget team will be at the trade deadline and at this year’s draft. Denver could trade a mildly competitive starting 5 + draft picks to Chicago for Butler, but the Bulls already have a .500 record? Millsap through his actions has made it clear he does not want to go to Denver. Probably, of the players Denver is willing to trade, Gallinari and Nurkic could demand decent role players in return, such as the long coveted Rim Protector that you have been asking for. I thought that the 25 games that Nurkic started was worth it since much of his second season was lost–Jokic is just clearly better at center and it is worth moving forward to build the team around him. Where I think the success of the team this year has been sacrificed unwisely is with the under-utilization of Jamal Murray as a combo guard. Nelson has been getting all the backup PG minutes which could be OK, but not when Denver is struggling to win. Overall, I think the window for the veteran Nuggets on the team, with the exception of Chandler, is closed. Continue to acquire young talent, hopefully more defensive talent; and give Malone a real opportunity to bring the D back to Denver.

  • gimpcom187

    Interesting article Kalen.

    Some points I was interested in. The discussion of the roster Shaw vs. Malone was a little off. Lawson was a better player than anyone on this roster currently has been. One can make a contention that Shaw played a role in breaking Lawson but that’s hard to determine. Lawson played like a borderline all-star during Karl era and all of 1st year of shaw and was really at that level up until the last month of shaw reign) Given the youth of the roster and especially at the most important position (PG) it’s actually very tough to say this roster has had more current talent than shaw. As you suggest Mudiay has been amongst the worst players in the league (which is below what is expected, but not surprising that he struggled). Afflalo was a competent borderline starting SG which is more than the nuggets currently have on the roster. Gallo is about the same. Chandler has missed 2/3 of the time for current coach (I think he missed about 1/3 of shaw’s tenure). Corey brewer was better than barton. Mozgov was definitely better than current Nurkic who again has missed probably 1/2 of Malone games. Jokic vs whoever you want to compare him to is the upgrade. The Shaw team was a bunch of veterans. This team is much more focused on under 22 development. Not sure how to look it up but I would assume the roster minutes age (average age per minute played) is significantly higher for Shaw indicating veterans got much more time despite guys like gallo and faried adding years and not being any different on the veterans/experience spectrum.

    The question of tanking we have a clear illustration of the issue for this team. They have now had 3 lottery picks outside the top 5 and really had very little shot at a top 3 pick at any of the lottery sessions. They currently have a talented PG piece who should be playing over 15 minutes for a tanking team only as he has so many flaws in his game. His optimistic view is a similar trajectory to Eric Bledsoe, but A) he’s got a long way to go and B) Eric Bledsoe isn’t a top 10 PG so he’s not that valuable anyway. They drafted a SG who looks to have some skills, but is far from a clear above average starting SG and likely won’t be a star. They got Nurk as well who looks like more of a borderline starter unless he starts. There is a chance Gary Harris ends up the best of these 4 and he looks to be an average starting SG as long as his defense ends up above average that would be a sorry return but not unpredictable given the randomness of talent after top 5 picks.

    This is the problem with drafting outside of the top 5 pick. Your chances of getting an all star becomes markedly lower when not drafting 1 and outside of top 5 it gets pretty unlikely. People contend that you CAN get guys outside of that, but the CHANCES dwindled from something around 30% for picks 2-5 to 15% for picks 6-12 and like 8% after that. Its unfortunate the ownership didn’t commit to a true rebuild after ousting a coach who had made the playoffs 9? straight seasons. It wasn’t a horrible decision to move on from Karl. But to pretend he wasn’t doing as good a job with the talent as reasonably expected (remember the same roster minus iguodala lost an extra 20 games) and try this half rebuild thing was absurd (as I saw noted by some at the time). So they have one guy on the roster likely to be significantly above average after 3 years with no shot at making the playoffs after February 1st. that one guy Jokic was procured in the middle of the 2nd round and could have been gotten from a true tanking decision. It will be interesting to see what the Lakers and Sixers rosters look like in 3 years as they committed to tanks and have a few pieces that look stronger than what the nuggets drafted in the lottery. Theyve had very little success outside of the top 5 picks too. They may all suck in 2020, but at least the lakers and sixers gave themselves a shot.

  • gimpcom187

    seems like a good time to bring in byron scott for a 2-3 year tank job to me. 1 very good starting center and 2 SG who MAY be above average starters in 2-3 years is not much to start with. Tank baby Tank. I remember writing that on a blogsite 3 years ago.