The Nikola Jokic-led Denver Nuggets have just claimed their first NBA championship and seem destined to win more. With the right personnel moves, Denver could turn this destiny into a reality.
Many title-winning teams in recent NBA history have had a deep and talented roster that has been underpinned by a second unit spearheaded by a versatile player. Andre Iguodala and Manu Ginobili flash through my mind as I picture a 35-minute-per-game player that can fill any role on the floor, start on the bench and finish on the court, and opposing fans hate to see no matter how long is left in the game.
Bruce Brown is quickly becoming the next in line. Since breaking out as a makeshift 6’4” centre for the Brooklyn Nets, Brown has consistently expanded his game, amalgamating in this excellent postseason run for the Denver Nuggets.
Brown’s shooting splits, although not elite, are above league average. He has caught defenders off guard with his random, explosive dribbling and his passing touch is neat and tidy. He’s filling the connecting role in Denver’s offence when players close out to his three-point shot off the catch.
At the start of the season, Michael Malone wasn’t sure who his backup point guard was and after a short trial with Bones Hyland in that role (yikes), Brown found a home as the bench facilitator.
This leads to the issue that I believe may keep Denver Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth up at night: Can the Nuggets afford to keep Brown around?
After an excellent season as a glue guy and one of the five best players on a championship team, there’s reason to believe Bruce has priced himself out of the Mile High City. Speaking with Mike Singer, The Denver Post, Brown said that money isn’t everything: “I want to stay. Look at us. Celebrating the Finals, winning the Finals. This is what you come to the NBA for, to win at the highest level.”
Denver signed Brown to the taxpayer mid-level exception this past offseason and with most of their key players under contract, the Nuggets don’t have the cap space to pay him what his market may demand.
As much as I like to believe that money isn’t everything, an extra five to eight million dollars per year is comfortably enough to convince a lot of people to leave.
The easiest way to clear room for Brown’s ensuing contract and possibly sure up other roster spots would be to cut ties with the Nuggets’ max-contracted third “star”, Michael Porter Jr.
Porter Jr. seems to have an uncanny ability to switch between performing at his unbelievable ceiling and shocking floor, making him either a fan favourite or a trade chip from night to night. At age 24, Porter Jr. is only two years younger than the timeless Brown, but a poor injury history and an interesting start to his career makes Porter Jr. feel so much younger.
With the age difference being negligible, it is key to sift through the on and off-court differences that Calvin Booth must weigh up in this hypothetical decision.
Modern-day players exist in a vacuum of hyper-efficient offences and defences that are struggling to stay afloat. Defensive stalwarts are difficult to find, often don’t have the offensive bag that Brown boasts and generally are few and far between throughout the league. Denver has an opportunity here to lock down a true two-way player that can provide the further 12 minutes of consistency (when Jokic and Jamal Murray are on the bench).
There are numerous highlight packages of Porter Jr. lagging on the defensive end. Missed assignments, lapses in processing the play in front of him and general disinterest on that end led to his Nugget teammates having to cover a lot of ground for the 6’10” sharpshooter. Brown on the other hand is proactive, often jumping passing lanes or breaking up possessions with his quickness and always being in the right place at the right time.
It should be noted that Porter Jr. provided the Nuggets with a much-needed rim presence that Brown will never be able to offer due to their six-inch height difference. The immediate counter to that argument would be the trade-off of a few deterring plays at the rim per game compared to the open threes he allows his direct (or indirect) opponent to have.
I know what I would prefer.
There is a large conversation throughout the NBA cognoscenti at the moment about how the Nuggets were fortunate enough not to face their potential kryptonite, a five-out offence. The theories often state that because Jokic is tall and lumbering, any high-powered five-out offence will shoot the Nuggets out of the building.
Do you know what I think these offences truly take advantage of though? Poor decision-makers, regardless of size.
Nikola Jokic and almost all of his teammates are some of the smartest and most well-drilled decision-makers in the league as it currently stands.
I think you can guess who the “almost” is alluding to.
A switchy guard-sized human with a strong basketball IQ next to probably the smartest player in the league and other defensive X-factors like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon makes Brown the perfect five-out gamebreaker.
Offensively, it’s likely true Brown doesn’t have the personality or ability to explode for 40 points like Porter Jr. does on any random night. Porter can carry the Nuggets through many meaningless games that occur throughout the slog that is the NBA regular season.
Need an injection of energy on a lowly Wednesday night in Orlando? Mike, you’re up mate! I just can’t help but feel that this injection is redundant though.
As we look at the league from a wider scope – and apply a lot of recency bias mixed with a little foresight – we see that there are likely to be five truly competitive teams per season, made up of elite duos with excellent supporting casts that are willing to punt the regular season to be well rested for the postseason.
The third banana that is MPJ is a long shot from the likes of a Jrue Holiday, Klay Thompson or even a Fred VanVleet.
Malone has already proven that he’s not a slave to the max contract, like many other NBA coaches are, deciding to bench Porter for the well-performing Brown in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Why don’t we just continue to make that decision for him and wipe the cash off the books?
The Nuggets can go about this situation in a variety of ways. An option I would be sure to avoid is trading for a player of relatively equal value, likely pushing the monetary cost down the road and creating a similar issue in future.
Instead, I would seek out more of a salary dump-style trade. Booth should seek out one or two smaller contracts, some draft compensation and importantly, get his team under the luxury tax bracket that forbids them from signing a contract at the full mid-level exception (MLE).
Booth and Malone have proven to find excellent value in the draft and through trades, so at this point, I trust them to make a great decision no matter where they trade. They know this as well, sneaking into the late first round in the 2023 NBA Draft.
The MLE next year will be over $10.5 million, but I estimate Brown’s value will be closer to $15 million per year, hence the necessity to free up cash. If Brown really wants to stay with Denver, by ducking below the tax, the Nuggets can pay him closer to what a rival team could. We’ll have to wait and see what he prioritises in his first unrestricted free agency since breaking out.
Taking everything into account, the Nuggets should go over and above for the consistency and culture of excellence that Brown embodies, or risk losing him and having to lean on the fluctuating nature of Porter Jr.