NUGGETS

7 targets for the Denver Nuggets ahead of the NBA trade deadline

Jan 11, 2023, 4:08 PM
Mason Plumlee and Jakob Poeltl...
Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets have been terrific this season, leading the NBA’s west and getting a lot of attention along the way.

While the Nuggets have stepped up their game around two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, it’s not just health that has the team here. Shrewd moves this offseason have really added to the core of Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon. Adding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and Christian Braun has really shored up Denver’s defense and wings, proving to be great moves by first-year general manager Calvin Booth.

Yet the Nuggets are still just 22nd-best in a league of 30 teams on defense. And this is a key indicator in winning a title. Every championship team of the last decade has either had a top-three defensive rating in the league or a top-ten offensive and defensive rating. The Nuggets have the league’s best offensive rating, so even shooting for 10th-best defense would truly give them a chance to win.

So adding defense at the deadline seems like the move, right?

Over the last 11 games, Denver’s defensive rating is third-best in the NBA.

Granted eight of those games have been played at home and Denver has dodged Lebron James, Donovan Mitchell and other good players taking a night off during that stretch. But 11 isn’t some random number. It’s when head coach Michael Malone made the switch to Zeke Nnaji as the Nuggets primary backup center.

Now Nnaji is good but he’s not the lone reason the Nuggets have been so much better defensively. Denver has had the ability to flip the switch in crunch time, but now they’re going all out earlier and for longer stretches. Part of this is better communication of the new pieces and an extended run of home games.

All of this is to say; what does Denver actually need headed into the playoffs? They’ll have until Feb. 9 to make any trades before the deadline hits.

First, it’s important to note that the Nuggets have a full roster and do not have many things to trade. They can offer a single first-round pick in 2029, a handful of second-round picks, and a few trade exceptions. They also have Nnaji, a promising younger big, but one the team is now relying on. Davon Reed has fallen out of the rotation but is likely not what another team is looking for. Jeff Green is currently on the shelf but his contract makes him a tad bit easier to deal than his teammates.

TARGETS

C, Mason Plumlee, 32, 6-11, 254

Proposal: Plumlee for Denver’s $9.7 million trade exception from the Monte Morris/Will Barton trade and two second-round picks

The last time Denver made a deep playoff run Plumdog Millionaire was the Nuggets backup center. His miscommunicated switch that led to Anthony Davis buzzer beater in Game 2 of the 2020 Western Conference Finals essentially ended the team’s season. But it was also Plumlee who helped the team make NBA history in batting back from down 3-1 twice to get that far in the first place. And the Nuggets, thanks to injuries suffered by Murray and MPJ, haven’t gone that far since. Plumlee’s four seasons with the Nuggets is the best anyone has done in backing up Jokic. In the playoffs, he added about 11 minutes a game with 3.5 boards and 2.5 points. Since signing with Detroit and being traded to Charlotte he’s turned into a starter. Now in the final year of a contract that pays him $9 million, his 11.2 points and 9.5 rebounds a night could be very useful for the Nuggets. Not only would his size be a benefit but Plumlee’s near four assists as a center means Denver wouldn’t have to change the Jokic-led offense too much when he does go to the bench.

C, Jakob Poeltl, 27, 7-1, 245

Proposal: Poeltl for Denver’s $9.7 million trade exception from the Monte Morris/Will Barton trade, a top-10 protected 2029 first-round pick and two second-round picks

Likely the most proven player on this list and still pretty young, the Austrian Ute has been the Spurs starting center for three seasons. The rebuilding squad, who may go full-on tank could move on from their pending free agent. Poeltl has played some big playoff minutes for both the Raptors and Spurs, being part of the Kawhi Leonard trade. This season the center is going for 12 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. He fills a similar role as Plumlee, not able to play with Jokic and being a true backup for Jokic. Poeltl is also likely going to be more expensive and cost the first-rounder despite being not all that much better than the level Plumlee is playing at right now. For a rental Plumlee seems like the play, long-term Poeltl could be a great option for many teams but it seems unlikely the Nuggets will splurge on a backup big when they’re already into the luxury tax.

C/PF, Mike Muscala, 31, 6-10, 240

Proposal: Muscala for Davon Reed, DeAndre Jordan, two second-round picks

Oddly Muscala’s $3.5 million deal for the next two seasons is a bit of a challenging trade for the Nuggets to match the salary on. Still, he would make for a great fit in a class of player who could both play center or play the four next to Jokic. The Nuggets have been looking for the perfect player for this role for years and they may never actually find him. Muscala could be a fit. Shooting 37% from three this year and in his career, he’s a solid shooter with size but isn’t a great rim protector or rebounder. He’s been in the playoffs before and has been a role player for much of his career. Muscala the player is likely a better fit than Muscala the trade piece. Now a bit older, he hasn’t really played power forward in five seasons and the Nuggets could fill this role with a better option. Still Muscala is a possibility and could usurp Vlatko Cancar and Jeff Green off the bench.

PF/C, P.J. Washington, 24, 6-7, 230

Proposal: Washington for $5.8 million of Denver’s $9.7 million trade exception from the Monte Morris/Will Barton trade and a lottery protected 2029 first-round pick

A power forward who has played some undersized center in the past, Washington is scoring 15 points per game in 41 starts for the Hornets this season. Alongside Plumlee, he’s added 4.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and a block a night while hitting 35% from deep. He fills up the stat sheet and he’s expected to become a restricted free agent this offseason. There’s still a lot of potential left in the 24-year-old as well and the Nuggets could make a crack at not only a trade but a short-term extension to make him Jokic and Gordon’s backup frontcourt mate for the next few years. The Hornets are between a tank and a play-in and have existed there for much of franchise history. With a great draft class at the top, may they sell whatever parts they can to get worse in hopes of finding LaMelo Ball a co-star? It’s worth the Nuggets keeping on their radar. Between Plumlee and Washington, either could add to the Nuggets with only a minuscule immediate impact of cutting Davon Reed.

PF, Jarred Vanderbilt, 23, 6-9, 214

Proposal: Vanderbilt for Jeff Green and a top-10 protected 2029 first-round pick

Another former Nuggets and one that has thrived since leaving Denver. He was drafted by the Nuggets with the hopes of becoming a prolific rebounder who could play next to Jokic. He only got 110 of game action in Denver and was moved in 2020. This offseason Vanderbilt was shipped from Minny to Utah in the Rudy Gobert trade and the power forward is once again playing great. Starting most of the season, he’s adding 8.5 points a game with 8.1 rebounds. The bugaboo is he’s a bit too small to play center but not necessarily a good enough shooter to slide to the four, sniping just 18 of a career 66 three-point attempts. He’s still got some great upside and now that he’s proven to be a capable NBA player, could he fit the Nuggets rotation better than Vlatko Cancar or Jeff Green? It’s a huge risk to take with the only tradeable first-rounder the Nuggets have.

SF/PF, Kenrich Williams, 28, 6-6, 210

Proposal: Williams for Davon Reed and two second-round picks

Another former Nugget, well kind of. He played in the Summer League for the Nuggets before getting picked up by the Pelicans. Now with the Thunder, he certainly doesn’t fit OKC’s rebuild timeline, though they could decide to try for the postseason this year. He’s a proven rotation player and is shooting 43% from deep on the season, scoring eight points and snagging five rebounds a night. He’d fill the Nuggets supposed shopping list item of help on the wing without costing too much. He may not even crack the rotation but he’s a better player than Reed and gives Malone the option to beef up with a more veteran player off the bench at wing instead of the scrappy rookie Christian Braun.

SF/PF, Jae’Sean Tate, 27, 6-4, 230

Proposal: Tate for $7 million of Denver’s $9.7 million trade exception from the Monte Morris/Will Barton trade a top-five protected 2029 first-round pick, a second-round pick and a Rockets second-round pick swap

Likely out of Denver’s price range in both salary and trade assets, Tate is a player the Nuggets are known to have liked for a while—in fact, he too played for the team in summer league. Though he has a different skillset than the rest of the players on this list it could be valuable. Tate is more of a perimeter player, who can slash, shoot and score the rock. He scored 11 points per game last season and he’s just getting back from an injury in January for the Rockets. Health, a slightly older age especially considering the Rockets rebuild and a recently signed possibly overpriced extension means his value might be possible for the Nuggets to swing for. His smaller height doesn’t solve Denver’s small bench issue that the team believes they have but his bigger frame and weight might. He hasn’t played for a good team yet in the NBA, and maybe a change to playing alongside the MVP will revamp his game in a similar way we’ve seen to Bruce Brown and Aaron Gordon. Tate is a scrappy player and a good one, just maybe an odd fit considering he’s closer to the size of Jamal Murray than Nikola Jokic. But he would be a longer-term add who would already answer the question of what if Brown leaves this summer?

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