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Prediction: The Nuggets Will Rebuild Come February 2011

With no possibility of improving in free agency or the draft, little potential for improving via trade, and the harsh reality that Denver is no better than the 3rd best team in the Western conference, all signs point to a franchise that needs to rebuild. Barring the sudden availability of an impact player via trade, I expect Melo, Nene, and Chauncey will all be traded by next February. Here’s why:

1. The Nuggets are capped out. Let’s assume for a moment that Denver tries and improve in free agency next summer. If they get Carmelo to extend and let Kenyon’s deal expire, their 2011-2012 salary commitments are:

  • Melo for $18.5 million
  • Chauncey for $14.2 if they keep him, $3.7 if they let him go
  • Nene for $11.6 (assuming he doesn’t opt out)
  • Birdman, Lawson, Balkman, and Afflalo for $9.5 million (at least – Afflalo might be worth more than the qualifying offer)
  • J.R. Smith for $?? – if they want to keep him, they’ll need to pay him something in the $5-$10 million range depending on how he plays this season, what happens to the league, how many teams have cap space, etc.

Do the math, and Denver is on the hook for as little as $32 million if Nene opts out and they dump Chauncey. Keep those guys and the salary goes up to $54 million (or more) BEFORE they sign J.R. Smith. Denver will be capped-out next summer unless they dump some good players to make room.

2. Few big names available in free agency next year anways. Even IF Denver could find some cap space by dumping Nene, Billups, and Smith, the best they could do is to take a run at restricted free agents like Marc Gasol, Jeff Green, Al Horford, or Joakhim Noah (and Memphis, OKC, Atlanta, or Chicago would match). Unrestricted free agents like Zach Randolph or Kendrick Perkins would definitely help, but is losing Nene or Chauncey going to be worth signing Z-Bo, Perkins, or someone similar? You can see the list of 2011 free agents here, but it’s not too exciting.

3. Since they probably can’t improve in free agency, the Nuggets have to look to trades or the draft. Let’s go ahead and toss improving via the draft out the window right now. Denver’s not going to get a lottery pick unless they fail miserably next season, and you can bet Melo will ask for a trade if that happens.

As far as trades, Nene, K-Mart, and Billups can all be moved for either longer deals, draft picks, or younger players…but I don’t see any impact players being available via trade at this stage.

4. Denver is not significantly better than 8 other Western Conference teams. Here’s a list of teams that are nearly as good as or better than Denver:

  • Lakers – Better, especially now that they have Steve Blake to cover up the biggest hole in their line-up.
  • Thunder – They just might be the 2nd best team in the West.
  • Portland – This team made it to the playoffs despite losing almost every player to injury for some portion of the season.
  • Dallas – They’ll at least be as good as they were last year.
  • Utah – They’ve taken a step backward, but I think Milsap and AK-47 will fill in for Boozer pretty well.
  • Phoenix – The world will be shocked to learn Hakim Warrick is 90% as productive as Amar’e at 30% of the cost.
  • Rockets – Houston is going to have Yao back next season, plus a full training camp with Kevin Martin. Look out.
  • Spurs – They’re not as dominant as they used to be, but they’re always a contender with Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker.

We’ve also got the Clippers, the Warriors, and Memphis knocking on the door. I’m not saying these teams are better, but one of them will probably surprise us next season.

At best, Denver is the 3rd best team in the West. At worst? They lose K-Mart and Birdman for a big chunk of the season and finish as a lottery team.

5. Melo won’t hang out while the team re-loads. If Denver dumps everyone but Melo, Lawson, and Afflalo, they’ll have cap space and some draft picks they can use to get better over the next 3 to 5 years. However, why would Melo hang out for a rebuilding project? If LeBron can abandon Cleveland to try and win a title, you can bet Melo isn’t going to feel compelled to wait it out in Denver.

Denver’s Trade Hopes Slim

While every player on Denver’s roster has some sort of trade value, the contract that is most likely to return an impact player is Kenyon Martin’s $17 million expiring deal. However, consider the marketplace: K-Mart, Michael Redd, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, Troy Murphy, Zach Randolph, Peja Stojakovic, Dalembert, Jason Richardson, and others are ALL big, expiring deals. K-Mart’s contract is one of at least 10 big expiring deals.

Denver can use K-Mart to get better, but only if they put together an offer that’s better than offers from 9 other teams.

Nene can be traded to almost any team in the league, but he’ll be very hard for the Nuggets to replace, and it’s not as if Denver has big men to spare. Chauncey could do wonders for a team like Atlanta or Charlotte, and his partially guaranteed contract could be value to a rebuilding team…but Denver needs Chauncey badly if they want to try and win now.

Most importantly, NBA trades that result in major upgrades for either party are fairly rare. Trying to significantly improve via trade is a long-shot.

Doing The Math Equals “Time To Rebuild”

Denver’s reality:

  • No cap space next summer unless they dump good players
  • No impact free agents available next summer anyways
  • No draft picks unless the Nuggets tank (and Melo will probably ask for a trade if that happens)
  • Small hopes of trading for an impact player
  • Denver still isn’t good enough to beat L.A., and if their front court isn’t healthy they might not be good enough to make the playoffs this year

While it’s possible the trade situation could open up this season – or that Denver could be strong out of the gate this year – the most likely conclusion is that it’s time for the Nuggets to blow it up. Unless Denver can do something right now to get better – like signing an surprise impact veteran or pulling off some miraculous trade – it says here that Denver will unravel during the first half of the 2010-2011 season. By February, the NBA will be buzzing about the pending trades of Carmelo, Nene, and Chauncey.

Ballhype: hype it up!

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