If you flashback to the days leading up to the 2018 trade deadline, you watched a Nuggets team that was straddling the line of playoff contention, bouncing back and forth between the eighth and ninth seeds with a backup point guard dilemma which needed to be addressed.
Denver had been hemorrhaging points while Nikola Jokic sat and Emmanuel Mudiay captained the Nuggets’ second unit. Will Barton was doing a bang up job masquerading as a quasi-backup point guard, but Denver needed his scoring and playmaking on the wing. Jokic, the Nuggets’ default lead ball handler, couldn’t play 40 minutes either. Denver needed a quick fix to try and reach its first playoff appearance of the Michael Malone era.
The Nuggets found a solution in Devin Harris, who Denver acquired from Dallas in a three-player deal that sent Mudiay to New York and Doug McDermott to the Mavericks days before last season’s deadline. The swap didn’t lead the Nuggets to a postseason appearance, but it made Denver a better team and allowed Barton to move back to his more natural position on the wing and Harris to captain Denver’s second unit.
This season’s trade deadline (Feb. 7, 1 p.m. MT) comes with the Nuggets in uncharted territory. Denver enters the most hectic 24 hours in the league year at the top of the West, two or three-deep at every position and with an embarrassment of riches. One thing the Nuggets don’t have this time around is a backup point guard headache.
Sow how does Denver operate over the final 24 hours in the lead-up to Thursday’s tidal wave of chaos which swallows the league every year?
Does Denver get in the mix for Anthony Davis?
Nuggets brass must have been a bit amused with the Lakers’ prolonged pursuit of Davis, which came to a head over the last few days with New Orleans asking for multiple first-round picks and looking to rid Los Angeles of its entire young core. Denver knows it can assemble a more attractive offer than the Lakers or maybe even the Celtics, the team that’s been long-rumored to be able to assemble the best possible package for Davis, if the Nuggets were to include a name like Jamal Murray or Gary Harris.
Both Murray and Harris are better right now and much more valuable assets than anything the Lakers have to offer. You could even make the case that Murray would be a more attractive trade chip than Boston’s crown jewel Jayson Tatum. Murray is just a year older than the Celtics’ small forward.
But don’t expect the Nuggets to seriously flirt with the notion of acquiring Davis before the deadline, especially in the midsts of a dream season where Denver has risen to the top of the West by relying on players like Murray and other pieces that would undoubtedly have to be included in a Davis trade. With Davis set to hit free agency in 2020, the risk of losing him for nothing seems too high. Sure Davis and Nikola Jokic would be a championship-level foundation, but you don’t get the sense that the Nuggets would be interested in the year-long media circus that would ensue if Davis made a pit-stop in Denver on his way to Los Angeles in two seasons.
Davis is a generational talent. Typically, teams in Denver’s position would do whatever it takes (give up its young core, future draft compensation, etc.) to acquire a player like the soon to be six-time All-Star. But can Denver get its opening night starting lineup, which hasn’t played together since the second game of the season, back on the floor together before making such a drastic and potentially franchise-altering move? The Nuggets prefer to stay patient and at least see what their current group can do in the postseason.
Who’s the Nuggets’ most likely player to be traded?
Don’t be surprised if Denver tries to find a new home for former first-round pick Tyler Lydon before Thursday’s deadline. The Nuggets declined Lydon’s third-year team option earlier this season, opting for more financial flexibility going forward and signaling that the 6-foot-10 wing isn’t a part of Denver’s future plans. Lydon has generated interest from multiple teams over the last few weeks, according to league sources.
Even if Denver can’t fetch a draft pick in exchange for Lydon, the Nuggets could use his $1.9 million salary to help facilitate a trade. If such a deal was to present itself, Denver hopes to send the 22-year-old someplace that’s advantageous for his basketball future. Lydon hasn’t been able to find consistent playing time for the Nuggets, who have fielded a playoff-caliber roster over the last two seasons, but dealing the forward to a team who can give him consistent minutes would be appealing for both parties.
I don’t buy the rumor that Gary Harris “can be had.” Maybe Denver gauges his value this summer depending on how the rest of the season goes, but it’s hard to imagine the Nuggets moving him before Thursday. In fact, I’d be stunned if Denver moves any of its top-eight rotation players — Jokic, Murray, Harris, Barton, Paul Millsap, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Mason Plumlee. Even a trade involving Torrey Craig or Juancho Hernangomez would catch me off guard. Don’t expect Denver to dangle prized draft picks Michael Porter Jr. or Jarred Vanderbilt either.
What about the second unit?
Rival general managers are surely licking their lips over the prospects of Beasley in their uniform. The 22-year-old has been a revelation for Denver this season, shooting an elite 43 percent from three-point range on nearly five attempts per game. Beasley is in the 95th percentile among wings in three-point shooting, per Cleaning The Glass, and the 45 percent rate which he’s hitting mid-range shots at puts the 6-foot-5 wing in the 86th percentile among his position too.
Teams have called Denver regarding Beasley’s availability, but don’t expect the Nuggets to move on from the two-guard considering how valuable he’s been this season, especially while filling in for Harris, who’s only played in 32 games. Beasley has elite, elite athleticism and is durable, logging minutes in all 53 games this year. He’s played himself into being a key rotational piece for the Nuggets moving forward, even though he’s still firmly behind Harris in the Nuggets’ shooting guard pecking order. You can see why teams around the league would be intrigued.
If Beasley has been the shining star from Denver’s second unit, Trey Lyles has been the Nuggets’ biggest disappointment. Lyles hasn’t been able to rediscover his high-30’s three-point rate from last year and is hitting just 26 percent of his triples. His playing time has waxed and waned this season, but he’s coming off 19 and 20-point outings in the Nuggets’ last two games.
Lyles is set to hit restricted free agency next summer, and even though that market hasn’t been exactly kind to players over the last few years, Denver likely won’t want to commit significant money going forward to the backup power forward, especially with more tantalizing prospects like Vanderbilt and Porter who both project to be able to play some power forward, firmly in the Nuggets’ pipeline. If a team floated a first-round pick for Lyles, Denver could jump at the offer and take its chances on filling his vacancy at power forward in the buyout market or with one of their three trade exceptions valued at $13.7 million, $12.8 million and $5.9 million. Nikola Mirotic would be an enticing option.
With Paul Millsap banged up, and the 33-year-old’s inconsistent play on the offensive end of the floor this season, the Nuggets need someone to take those backup power forward minutes. Hernangomez hasn’t given Denver much over the last few months, and Lyles is currently the Nuggets’ best option to soak up that available playing time. In that sense, he’s still somewhat valuable to Denver.
The Isaiah Thomas question
All signs point to Thomas nearing a return to the court although he’s still officially without a firm timetable, according to the team. But Thomas’ projected role, if he’s on the Nuggets’ roster post-trade deadline which at this point seems to be the more likely outcome once Thursday afternoon comes and goes, is a mystery. With Murray and Harris dealing with ailments of their own, the Nuggets could have used Thomas’ contributions over the last few weeks. But once Denver gets its starting backcourt to full strength, where will Thomas’ minutes come from?
When healthy, both Murray and Harris are 30-plus minute per game players. Beasley’s breakout season has cemented him as the Nuggets’ third guard, and it’s hard to envision him playing less than 20 minutes per game going forward. Monte Morris — the steward of Denver’s second unit — has been nails all season and has to be on the floor for the Nuggets down the stretch.
So where does that leave the former MVP candidate? That’s a good question. With Morris playing at the level he is, Denver could look at the veteran as a trade chip that it could deal to a fringe Eastern Conference playoff team. But Thomas has had an overwhelmingly positive impact within the team’s locker room this season, and Denver doesn’t want to alter the rock-solid chemistry that’s helped guide the Nuggets to the top of the conference at the deadline.
Perhaps Denver looks at Thomas and a healthy starting lineup and rotation which hasn’t played together since October as its top trade deadline acquisition. But where his playing time comes from and what type of player he’ll be when he does return to the court isn’t exactly clear cut.