The Denver Nuggets have a strong core, one glaring weakness and a complete lack of cap flexibility if they retain Paul Millsap. Here’s why Trevor Ariza should be one of their top targets in free agency.
The Denver Nuggets‘ 54-28 season felt too good to be true … until the conference semis, anyway, where their flimsy wing defender slot was mercilessly obliterated by mediocre Portland Trail Blazers forward Rodney Hood.
Some call this bad luck or simply a poor matchup. Others claim it was an overdue reality check for a fraudulent 2-seed. The best name for it, though, was a fantastic gauge of offseason needs for a team that’s one tough Golden State Warriors offseason away from legitimate contention.
After such a magical season, Denver won’t blow up its core. Any Nikola Jokic trade rumors can immediately be dismissed as false. Franchises don’t sprint away from superstars responsible for newfound success.
Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are also expected to stay put, despite a tough, injury-riddled 2018-19 season for Harris. Will Barton‘s similar experience and high-dollar contract also renders him a poor option for movement.
The Nuggets own a $30 million team option for Paul Millsap, but many expect the two parties to agree on a cheaper, multi-year deal. Millsap served as quarterback on the stopping end, posting a 104.8 defensive rating while constantly scrambling to cover for teammates. Bringing Millsap back is worthwhile, but eats much of the remaining cap space, even if he accepts a lesser salary.
This leaves Denver with a glaring small forward need, and a $9.3 million mid-level exception to fill it. It’s actually a simple equation, even if not ideal.
The Nuggets’ first free agency call must be to Trevor Ariza. The savvy, two-way wing split his season last year between the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards, experiencing an overwhelming dose of losing’s bitter taste.
Before playing on these messy, defensively fragmented squads, Ariza posted a strong 105.1 defensive rating with the Houston Rockets in 2017-18. At 6’8″, he has the height to check the long wing scorers who give Denver fits. He’s averaged 1.5 steals per game over his career, utilizing a long reach to keep ball-handlers off balance.
Joining a team that’s committed to defense could be a welcomed change for Ariza after last year’s frustrations. The Nuggets, meanwhile, would suddenly have a dynamic trio on the stopping end in Ariza, Millsap and Harris.
Offensively, Ariza is a reliable catch-and shoot wing. He’s made a living off the corner 3, hitting a career mark of 35.1 percent from deep. Playing with Jokic, who is one of the games’ best facilitators, would immediately provide Ariza more open looks than he’s had at any point in his 15-year career.
Ariza is used to playing off the ball, and his ability to stretch the floor would create more space for Jokic and Murray to operate. This change would also benefit Barton, allowing him to return to his natural spot as a sixth man scorer.
Contract-wise, Denver’s mid-level exception would be a slight decline from Ariza’s expiring $15 million deal. However, like Millsap, the aging Ariza may appreciate the security of a long-term contract, especially after his effort level waned on an inflated one-year contract.
A two- or three-year offer, combined with Denver’s promising roster, may sway him to take a lesser annual amount and move to the Mile High. The fit is viable, now it’s up to the Nuggets to make this happen.