For the Denver Nuggets, the new dawn of the Nikola Jokic era – and the success and excitement it has brought the team – has meant that things are mostly looking up in ways they haven’t seen in years.
But not everybody is happy.
From pointed statements to despondent body language to lackadaisical play on the court, Jusuf Nurkic has made it abundantly clear that he will not be satisfied continuing to come off the bench in limited minutes as backup center to Jokic.
And although this dissatisfaction has not escalated to the point where it is disrupting locker room harmony, it does put a measure of pressure on Denver to look for trade options by the February 23 trade deadline. And indeed, although it’s unclear whether his “sources” come from within the Pepsi Center or from outside the Nuggets organization, ESPN’s Marc Stein reports:
Sources told ESPN that the Nuggets — having acknowledged that it’s difficult to accommodate both Nurkic and Nikola Jokic in the same frontcourt — have made Nurkic available and are searching out deals that would give him the Bosnian big man an opportunity to go elsewhere and start anew.
However, as a skilled young big man on a rookie contract, Nurkic remains one of Denver’s more valuable assets, and Tim Connelly’s front office is unlikely to let him go without asking for significant value back in return.
Enter the Orlando Magic, who are coming up on a big man dilemma of their own. According to Sean Deveney of Sporting News:
League sources told Sporting News that the Magic have picked up their attempts to move Ibaka ahead of next month’s trade deadline, eager to ensure that they come away with some return for a player who does not figure to be in Orlando long… And while the Magic want to save face on a deal for Ibaka, sources said the team has been aggressive in testing the trade market… Center Nikola Vucevic is also a potential trade target.
Yet Orlando appears to be struggling to find teams willing to pay the steep return they are asking for:
“They’re asking too much,” one front office executive said. “(The Magic) would probably like to make a few moves there, but Ibaka is the one they’re really pushing because he is going to leave. But they have had too high a price. They want a young player and a pick, two young players — you know, a package that can get them back some assets. They’re not going to get that. Not for three, maybe four months of Serge Ibaka.”
So with the possibility of the Magic moving Vucevic also on the table, would they consider Nurkic a sufficiently appealing asset in exchange for Ibaka? And just as importantly, would the Nuggets consider “three, maybe four months” of Ibaka – with the hope of re-signing him as a free agent this summer, but the risk of losing him for nothing – a gamble worth taking?
At the very least, it seems like a prospect worthy of exploration for both teams. Realistically, Orlando seems unlikely to land a trade package worth much more than Nurkic’s value would represent.
And for the Nuggets, the possibility of adding Ibaka as a player who can both back up and play alongside Jokic could be a high risk, high reward venture that might pay off big dividends if they were able to retain Ibaka on a longer-term contract.
But how much would Denver have to dole out for such a contract?
According to Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders, “The projected maximum salaries for 2017-18, based on a $102 million cap, would near $24 million for players with less than seven years of experience, $28.8 million with seven to nine and $33.5 million for those with 10 years or more.”
On Ibaka’s current four-year contract, he is making on average about 20 percent of the salary cap, which next year would be about $21.5 million. And as Ibaka will be entering his ninth season, a maximum contract for him would be nearly $29 million. So while he will certainly be looking for that maximum (and in the environment of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, he just might get it), it appears likely that his next contract will end up in the $22-29 million range.
Would the Nuggets, with extensions for Jokic, Jamal Murray, and other young rookie and sophomore prospects on the horizon, want to dish out that kind of dough for a player who will have just turned 28 before the start of next season?
At the very least, they’ll be much more likely to have the option of doing so if he has already played with the team and been a part of the organization for several months than if they just went after him cold in free agency.
As for this season, Ibaka’s current $12.25 million salary would also bring the Nuggets’ payroll up above the salary floor.
Another consideration is that Danilo Gallinari will most likely opt out this summer, and there is no guarantee he will re-sign with the Nuggets either. By landing Ibaka, it could increase their odds of at least retaining one or the other.
Importantly, it could also be a worthwhile experiment purely in basketball terms. Ibaka does seem ideally suited to play alongside Jokic, with his ability to hit 3-pointers (at a .383 clip this season) and space the floor on offense, and protect the rim (2.4 blocks per game this season) on defense (via Basketball-Reference.com). Even if Ibaka didn’t stick around, if the chemistry experiment was a success it could be a valuable learning exercise in how to effectively build a team around Nikola Jokic.
And while this might further complicate the frontcourt logjam, it could also provide additional options for solving it this summer.
Beyond that, the Nuggets are clearly gunning for the playoffs at this point. Adding a player of Ibaka’s caliber and, presumably, fit with the team would only help to boost their chances of securing a postseason berth. With that, and the media attention and hype that would come with Ibaka’s arrival the excitement generated among the fan base would help refill the Pepsi Center, and Denver’s visible commitment to being competitive would hopefully make them a more attractive destination for free agents.
A Nurkic for Ibaka trade would not be a guaranteed ace in the hole for the Nuggets, but the potential upside carries enough appeal that this could be the right time for Denver to take a swing at the fences.