Draft Night Redux: Nuggets, Sixers Set Their Plans in Motion

The madness of free agency is nearly upon us, and the NBA world is rightfully focused on the possibility that superstar free agents might jump to rival teams poised to chase the 2015 championship.

But not every team can get into those lofty conversations. The draft itself didn’t bring as many surprises as the trade addicts had hoped, but there was some fun maneuvering, particularly from two teams in cool cities that always seem to peak at “pretty good”: Denver and Philadelphia, the two most interesting draft-night teams of 2014.

Denver’s deal for Arron Afflalo, puzzling at first blush, set the day and night in motion. Denver needs shooting, especially from the 2-guard spot, where injuries and personnel limitations forced Brian Shaw to badly overextend Randy Foye last season. Foye is a nice backup combo guard, but he’s neither a starting wing on a good team nor a lead ball handler, and the poor Nuggets had to use him as both at times.

Foye is also just 6-foot-4, small for a 2-guard, and Denver’s other wing players are on the bigger side; Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler honeymoon more as small-ball power forwards than as 2-guards in ultra-big lineups. Quincy Miller’s rotation spot is uncertain.

So Afflalo fits here. He also basically works as Denver’s use of the midlevel exception, only the Nuggets didn’t have to actually use the midlevel exception to acquire a solid veteran. They get the benefits of the midlevel without the inconvenient roster-building penalties. The Afflalo deal and the Nugs’ subsequent moves leave Denver with about $73 million in committed salaries for next season, comfortably below the projected tax line of $77 million. Afflalo is essentially on an expiring contract, so it’s as if Denver signed a midlevel free agent to a one-year deal — a contract with no long-term consequences.

For draft purposes, the deal freed Denver to do whatever the hell it wanted at no. 11. It traded down, flipping the pick to Chicago for two picks (no. 16 and no. 19) that turned into players most of the draftniks seem to like — Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris. Bonus points for picking Nurkic, a giant Bosnian with a mean spirit and an even more giant father who is probably even meaner. Seriously, look at this photo of Nurkic’s dad that a league source sent me a few weeks ago:

Nurkic sr

The Nuggets are on the verge of becoming the official team of the Lowe household with all of these Bosnian and Serbian dudes.

Regardless: Denver turned one asset into two, which is a smart thing when you’re a solid team that would like to keep itself in the running for a franchise-shaking trade. Sure, you can wonder if the Nuggets would have made the Afflalo deal had they known Harris would have been available at no. 19, but they couldn’t have known, and Harris is going to be a rookie.

It’s absolutely fair to wonder if Orlando might have gotten a first-round pick for Afflalo had it searched out other deals or waited for Afflalo to become a hotter commodity among teams that strike out on free agency’s biggest fish. But by all accounts from sources around the league, the Magic did scour the market properly and even found offers that would have returned a future first-rounder for Afflalo. They may have simply liked Evan Fournier that much, valuing his immediate production above what they might have nabbed from a younger guy a draft or two down the line.

The Magic have enough rookies. Fournier has an interesting skill set, he can shoot 3s, and he’ll get the consistent rotation spot in Orlando he could never nail down on Denver’s deeper roster. The Nuggets also had a trade exception to absorb Afflalo’s salary, meaning they didn’t have to send any matching money back to Orlando — a key consideration for a Magic team hoarding cap space like a squirrel in winter. The Magic already had avenues to max-level cap room, but more is always better. You never know what opportunities might come up, and they may want to guarantee the full amount of Jameer Nelson’s contract to retain his locker-room leadership.

Understand: The only teams dying to get Afflalo are contenders and those determined to make the postseason. Most of those teams are capped out, meaning they’d have to send some unpleasant salary back Orlando’s way. Denver was the exception.

And veterans on expiring contracts just haven’t carried much market value in terms of luring first-round picks in return. Afflalo is a nice player, but he’s a bit overrated, especially as a defender, and he can walk after next season. Look back at all the deals since the lockout in which teams have surrendered a future first-rounder, and you’ll find very few in which a team sent out a player on an expiring deal and received a first-round pick in return.

The two deals that match that model involve big men (Omer Asik to New Orleans, Marcin Gortat to Washington) who were flipped to playoffs-or-bust teams in desperate need of a center. Big men are always going to be more valuable than wings on the league’s talent totem pole. Teams have had better luck acquiring first-rounders by swallowing unwanted salary — Charlotte in the Ben Gordon deal, Utah last summer, Cleveland for taking on Marreese Speights, Phoenix for doing the Wolves a solid with Wesley Johnson, etc.

The Magic went through this two seasons ago, when they couldn’t find a first-rounder for J.J. Redick’s expiring contract. A first-rounder for Afflalo would have been a clear win.

That said, they could have gotten that win, and opted against it. This is a bet on Fournier. Let’s see how it works.

Back to Denver: The Nuggets have one of the league’s more unusual cap sheets. Ty Lawson is the team’s highest-paid player, but he’s making “just” $11.6 million next season — low for an alpha dog. Several teams have relatively low alpha-dog salaries, but most of them are rebuilding teams under the cap. Denver is far over the cap, and probably will be again next season, with three players earning at least $10 million, and three more checking in between $5 million and $7 million.

Everyone but JaVale McGee is tradable and the asset cupboard is full, with one goodie (a 2016 pick swap) still coming from the Carmelo Anthony trade.

Since dealing Anthony, Denver has tried to do two things at once: remain competitive by piling up “pretty good” veterans on sub-max salaries, while still carrying enough intriguing cheap assets to butt into any trade discussion for a superstar. Masai Ujiri told me two years ago, when he was still Denver’s GM, that he wanted a superstar — that he was not trying to buck years of NBA history by proving a team could win a ring without one.

But he was also open to the idea that it was possible to sign the right good players, mix them together, get a couple of breaks, and find yourself in the conference finals. The breaks could take many forms — an injury for a key opponent, a friendly matchup in the first or second round, or, most important from Ujiri’s perspective then, a young “good” player making a bigger leap than expected. This was part of the calculus behind Denver trading Nene for McGee and investing so heavily in Lawson. This is the 5 percent theory at work.

Tim Connelly, the team’s new GM, has kept that vision alive. “Watching the playoffs, I do think there is an increasing sense of parity,” he told me this morning. “We lack that superstar, but we also think a couple of our younger players could really step their game up. I like our roster as I wake up today. It’s a roster that should restore a playoff spot. But we also want to maintain flexibility so that we can make moves. All of our assets are movable.”

He also says the Spurs proved depth can beat star power, and that the Nuggets have already had internal conversations with their own players about reducing everyone’s minutes next season. “We have talked to our guys about sacrificing minutes for victories,” Connelly said. “They have been very receptive to that.”

This is also something of a two-year team. Only Lawson and the team’s two draft picks from last night are on the books beyond 2015-16, though the Nuggets hope to ink Kenneth Faried to an extension this summer. They are meeting with Faried’s agents next week, Connelly said. “We’re gonna try and get something done,” he said. “Kenneth’s toughness and passion are at the heart and soul of our team. No one in the NBA plays harder.”

Look, the odds are still against Denver winning two rounds in the West next season. It’s probably more likely the Nuggets miss the playoffs again than pull that kind of noise. The opposition is so good, and the team still misses Andre Iguodala’s all-around skills. We have no clue how Gallinari and McGee will rebound from lost seasons. Denver has been involved with the Kevin Love trade talks, so Connelly, like his predecessor, isn’t trying to prove some ideological point by winning without a top-15 guy. He’d love to get one.

This is a team to watch.

A team you’d be advised to avoid watching next season: the Philadelphia 76ers, who turned two first-round picks into an injured big man and a delightfully feisty Croatian who won’t be in the NBA for at least two years.

We have never seen an experiment quite like this. This is an unprecedented convergence of a GM with big dreams and a new ownership group happy to empower him to pursue those dreams. The Sixers and Sam Hinkie don’t really care about being good, or filling the arena, or pleasing season-ticket holders. I mean, they care about all of those things, to a degree; Brett Brown is already legendary inside the team’s offices for his cold calls to season-ticket holders and his rollicking in-person speeches before groups of them — speeches that convince people to re-up and watch a miserable team lose by 20.

But those cares don’t drive their vision. The Sixers want to win big. They have no interest in being the late-2000s Hawks. They know the easiest avenue to win big is to find a superstar. Jrue Holiday is a nice two-way player, but he’s not going to be superstar. Maybe Nerlens Noel will be. Everyone seems to agree that Joel Embiid represents this draft’s best chance at a superstar, and so the Sixers, happy to embrace the risk of foot injuries and disastrously bad big men playing disastrously bad basketball for them next season, plucked Embiid right up.

They also get that the NBA’s draft lottery is at once an uncertain bet that might slay your dreams, and a smart wager at superstardom. Tankers fail, as Bill Simmons pointed out this week. Tank for Anthony Davis and you might get Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But that doesn’t mean playing the lottery is dumb, especially if your only goal is to maximize your odds at nabbing a star. If your owners are cool with playing the lottery two or even three times, and really playing it, you only maximize those odds.

The Afflalo deal indirectly allowed Philly to edge those odds up even more. It introduced some uncertainty into the no. 11 slot, with Orlando waiting one pick behind at no. 12, needing a point guard and harboring an affection for Elfrid Payton (and Elfrid Payton’s hair). The Sixers were sitting in a plum spot at no. 10, and they wanted Saric. But they nabbed Payton instead, leading to Jeff Goodman’s delightfully awkward interview with Michael Carter-Williams.

They then called the Magic and squeezed a bit. Out plopped a 2015 second-rounder and the 2017 first-round pick that Philly had originally sent out in the Dwight Howard–Andrew Bynum–Iguodala festival of sadness. Those are more intriguing assets to use in a trade, should the right one become available at some point. Those are more picks with which to shoot the moon, hoping some jerk doesn’t collect the Queen of Spades on the last trick. If they could have added to the pile by trading Carter-Williams, they probably would have.

(Note: If and when the Sixers trade poor Thad Young, we should all agree to avoid use of the word “trade.” Perhaps “liberate,” or “mercy-deal,” or some other term would work better. I’m open to suggestions. Weep for Thaddeus Young).

No one knows how this will end. Owners and fans tend to get antsy during Year 3 of a rebuilding project; folks associated with the Magic talked about that last season, and Orlando is entering Year 3 post-Dwight having just traded its most reliable veteran player. Hinkie is among a wave of super-smart new-age GMs, and simple math says some of them will fail and lose their jobs. The NBA is a zero-sum game. Not everyone can succeed.

Watching Philly next season is going to be awful. It is only for the NBA’s jittery League Pass fiends watching four games at once, tweeting, and chugging Red Bull. But watching Philly over the next half-decade is going to be amazing.

Filed Under: NBA, 2014 NBA Draft, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA