The Nuggets should explore trading Nurkic for Ibaka

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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.

The Jamal Murray minutes dilemma

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In recent weeks, Nikola Jokic has rightfully been all the rage, as he seems to raise his ceiling – and along with it, Nuggets fans’ hopes for the future – higher and higher every single time he sets foot on the court.

But it wasn’t too long ago that a different player had claimed the mantle as Denver’s most exciting player. After early season injuries temporarily sidelined both Gary Harris and Will Barton, Jamal Murray was thrust sooner than expected into a larger role, and erupted for a series of electrifying performances, in the process earning the NBA’s Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors for November, and quickly building a convincing case for legitimate star potential.

But the return of Harris and Barton spelled relegation to a deeper bench role for Murray, who despite being the only one of Denver’s three rookies to consistently crack the regular rotation, has seen his minutes drop from 24.1 per game in November to 18.9 in December, and 15.5 in January.

The question of how much playing time Murray should be getting is in many ways a microcosm of the broader debate over whether it would be best this season for the Nuggets to shoot for making the playoffs – where the realistic best case scenario is a likely four-and-out loss to the Warriors – or to remain in quasi-rebuilding mode for one more season, and prioritize youth development and obtaining a higher draft pick by trading or benching veterans over striving to be competitive in the short term.

I believe there are a lot of extremely valid arguments to be made on both sides of this dispute, and at any rate it is not my intention to relitigate it here. But suffice it to say that from Kroenke to Connelly to Malone and most of the players, the messaging out of the Pepsi Center has been consistent and clear: Whether or not it’s their ideal course of action, the Nuggets want to win games, and they want to meet their goal, oft-repeated since well before the start of the season, of making the playoffs.

In that context, Malone’s decision to scale back Murray’s minutes – which I’ve seen described on Twitter as insane, inexplicable, idiotic, and a host of other not-too-flattering adjective – can at the very least be said to have an objective logical justification:

Purely in terms of winning or losing games, the Nuggets have had more success when Murray has played fewer minutes.

In the 21 games in which Jamal Murray has played 18 or more minutes, the Nuggets have gone 7-14 (.333), compared to 10-9 (.526) when he played less than 18 minutes.

Now before you break out the tar and feathers, let me make it explicitly clear that I do not think Murry is the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) cause for this phenomenon, and I highly doubt Malone does, either. It has a lot, first and foremost, to do with Murray playing bigger minutes during the failed “Jurkic” Bosnian buddy ball experiment on the negative side, and on the positive how much Mudiay has benefited from his chemistry alongside Harris and Jokic in the starting lineup. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but the point is that much of it Murray should receive neither the blame or credit for.

What it really comes down to is the fact that over the last month, as Malone has finally unlocked the Nuggets offense by running it through Jokic as the sole center and primary facilitator, Murray has simply not been an integral part of the equation.

Should he be? Hell yes.

In time.

But as important as Murray’s development is, and as frustrating as it’s been for fans (and I count myself among them) who understandably want to see Murray be given more of a chance to shine, it is difficult, at least short term, to fault Malone for rolling with the approach that basically saved the entire season from skidding off the cliff.

Which is definitely not to say that Malone is beyond criticism, or that he hasn’t made mistakes, including some major ones. But I can empathize with the fact that he wants to win games, and he’s going with what has been working best so far.

But “so far” is only up to this point, and there is a lot of season left.

And going forward, while it may be understandable that developing Murray had to take a back seat to salvaging the season, one of Malone’s top priorities needs to be finding effective ways to create a larger role for Murray within the context of this newfound offense, and incorporate him more deeply into the fold.

One of the most compelling reasons for increasing Murray’s playing time is that, in contrast to the overall team performance which has been worse when Murray has played more, Jamal himself has played considerably better when given more burn:

murrays-minutes

As you can see, his scoring efficiency, outright scoring production, and on-court plus-minus all decline dramatically when he has played fewer minutes. Again, just as above it was important to caution that he not be blamed for the Nuggets losing more when he plays more minutes, the correlation between minutes and performance in the chart above does not necessarily point to a causal relationship. Murray could have just hit his freshman wall. Or he could thrive better in a more iso-oriented offensive mode which is inconsistent with the ball-sharing, ball-movement direction things have gone in with Jokic at the helm.

In other words, Murray may well have a hard time returning to his November magic even if the same kind of playing time comes his way.

But there are at least two reasons to be hopeful about all of this.

One is that Jamal Murray is a smart, adaptable player, and a student of the game. If Malone starts boosting his playing time and integrating him more thoroughly, I am confident he will be able to find ways be more effective and develop better chemistry in that context.

And the other is that Malone does appear to be genuinely concerned and excited about developing his young players, as evidenced by working to get Jokic on track, a process which included a very public admission of making a mistake in underestimating how adversely “Jurkic” would affect Jokic, and taking responsibility for it.

And so I think – and hope – what we will see as the season progresses, is now that the new offense is established, Malone will be looking for ways to increase opportunities for Murray, and to make his development a higher priority again even while keeping the focus on staying competitive.