NUGGETS

Kroenke says Nuggets have responsibility to Jokic to chase titles

May 23, 2024, 2:18 PM

DENVER—The Denver Nuggets will face pretty punitive penalties for how expensive their roster is getting but team governor Josh Kroenke says he’ll open up the wallet for Nikola Jokic and to chase a second title.

Maybe the biggest change for the Nuggets from their title-winning season in 2023 to their failed repeat bid in 2024 was the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that went into place last summer. Those updated rules spell out a second apron many are calling the super tax for the league’s most expensive teams which punishes those high spenders with a tax, limits on free agent signings and possible draft pick forfeiture if certain benchmarks are met. With three max contract players in Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. on the roster plus two other highly paid veterans in Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Nuggets could soon be looking at some of these penalties.

“I think one important footnote about this group that we have is that the core of this team was assembled under a different CBA,” Kroenke said at a season-ending press conference on Thursday. “We drafted, we developed and we built this team under a different set of rules. Those rules have changed on the fly. Last summer it wasn’t quite as pertinent as it is going to be this summer. We’re going to put our heads together and figure out how to keep improving. We have the best player in the world. We think we still have the best starting five in basketball even though we fell just short this year… So we don’t think we’re far off. But there is going to be some constraints coming in within the new collective bargaining agreement and new rules that we’re gonna have to be very aware of and plan accordingly. They do make it difficult to retool a championship roster on the fly.”

But Kroenke, who has been the leader of the Nuggets for more than a decade, isn’t backing down from spending more money. That’s what he says and the proof will play out with Caldwell-Pope, who has a player option for next season. He’s likely to decline it and seek both more term and cash as he’s one of the better two-way guards in the league. Even a raise from the $15 million player option to a $21 million a year deal, could see the Nuggets payroll increase exponentially due to the heavy tax Denver will face. Next season the Nuggets could face a tax hike of  $1.75 per dollar to $3.25 per dollar over the cap. And if the Nuggets are over the tax in either of the following two seasons that could hike to just a starting point of $4.25 per dollar. That plays out with KSE spending eight figures more in dollars on tax with KCP against without him and that’s not even counting the actual contract.

With Murray, Porter and Gordon already extension-eligible at points this summer the Nuggets are going to get really expensive. Kroenke’s company which owns the team KSE has only spent into the tax on rare occasions but they say that’s because they had no real reason to do that. Now that Jokic is around, the tune regarding taxes has changed.

“I said it two years ago, in this press conference when I was doing it by myself and I don’t know how many people took me seriously at the time because we hadn’t actually won it. But when Nikola Jokic is on your roster, you’re going for it. You have the best player in the world, and you have a responsibility to him to be in the group to try to go for it,” Kroenke said. “So for Nikola, for Jamal, for Michael, for everybody that we’ve kind of grown and developed over the course of time, I think it’s our responsibility. There are obviously different conversations that come along with that going forward when you start talking about separate penalties that we’re talking about, but we’re going to be aggressive. We still think we have to still have one of the best teams in the league with a really good chance of winning next year.”

The money is one thing but the other rules are tough too. The supertax the Nuggets will likely jump into this coming season will prevent them from signing anything but minimum free agents plus the team won’t be able to trade its first-round pick that is seven years out. And if the Nuggets stay in the supertax long enough, that draft pick will be pushed to the end of the first round no matter what.

“It’s very onerous and we start talking about possibly forgoing future draft picks if you get caught in a certain place,” Kroenke said. “Some organizations will be happy paying and paying whatever they can for the potential to win a championship but when you start talking about draft picks. That’s when you get people’s attention pretty quickly.”

The Nuggets offseason will seemingly hinge on what Caldwell-Pope decides and then how the Nuggets respond. Having a strong defender who can shoot to that level is huge for the Nuggets. Caldwell-Pope played 76 games, averaging 10.1 points, 2.4 assists, 2.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.6 blocks on 41% shooting from deep this past season. Denver’s defensive rating of 111.0 when KCP was on the floor was 36th-best among players who played at least 65 games and 20 minutes a night. Christian Braun was actually the best defensive on Denver according to that metric at 109.3 points for the other team scored per 100 possessions. Similarly, KCP’s 0.114 defensive win shares were 26th-best in the NBA among players who hit those qualifiers. The 1.3 steals a game, were tied for 14th-most in the NBA this season.

But the Nuggets will have to decide if KCP’s production is worth the squeeze the team is soon to face.

“KCP has been a great addition the last couple of years,” Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth said. “Obviously. I would love to have them back. But we’re going to take a hard look at what that looks like.”

All of this of course comes as the biggest question is, what’s the best way to build around the three-time MVP in hopes of a second title? With the new CBA rules, there is no real roadmap for the Nuggets, just a couple of guesses as to what might be the best path forward.

“You can go to one of two avenues, you go get minimum guys and try to get what you can out of them but if you have tax issues, those guys that have good seasons are not going to be on your team the next season,” Booth said. “Or you can try to draft and develop guys that you can have in your system for several years, personally I believe a lot in continuity.”

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