Coming off of a triumphant championship that was an emblematic display of perseverance and homegrown team building, the Denver Nuggets had no option but to “run it back” with their winning team. Their starting lineup has all been together for at least 3 seasons, with the 2022 off-season acquisition Kentavious Caldwell-Pope being the exception, but what put this team over the top was their bench.
Denver largely played only eight players in their playoff run, with veterans Bruce Brown and Jeff Green leading along rookie Christian Braun in a thin playoff bench that found enough to supplement the starters to a dominant 16-4 run through the playoffs.
Did the defending champion Nuggets take too risky an approach this offseason?
Denver’s lack of options was rooted in NBA contract rules that limited their ability to pay 2022 free agent signing and playoff hero Bruce Brown. He was the most impactful signing of the 2022 offseason despite earning less than the full mid-level exception, just $7.8 million, an astonishing bargain for the 6th man and 5th leading scorer on their finals run. With them being limited in how much they could offer the 26-year-old guard, they were easily outbid by Indiana, which rewarded him with a 2-year, $45 million contract.
Denver was forced to rebuild their bench the same way they built their championship team, drafting and developing quality role players around their MVP, Nikola Jokic. As they did with last year’s 21st pick in the draft (the aforementioned Christian Braun), Denver traded into more picks in a deep 2023 draft class in order to search for more bench players who can contribute. Multiple pre-draft trades netted them the 29th, 32nd, and 37th picks, an unusual team-building strategy for a contender, much less a defending champion.
Denver first looked to replace the guard play of Bruce Brown with sharpshooter Julian Strawther at the end of the first round and old-school point guard Jalen Pickett. Pickett in particular, who could provide a unique option alongside another unorthodox player in Jokic, intrigues as a point guard who has drawn comparisons to old-school players like Mark Jackson.
Strawther takes on the mantle of a sharpshooting guard with deep range and a quick trigger after an awkward situation with Bones Hyland led to him getting shipped out for close to nothing after a promising rookie season. His ability to fill up space and shoot from anywhere could make him a quick contributor next to a passer like Jokic.
Denvers’ offseason leaves a lot to be desired.
With the 37th pick, the Nuggets took Hunter Tyson, who has already drawn comparisons to their incumbent starting small forward Michael Porter Jr. as a 6’8 forward who holds his hat on his strong perimeter shooting. It seemed like a low-ceiling pick with little chance to impact, but Tyson showed out in summer league and has the eye of Nuggets fans and coaching already.
He averaged 28.8 points, shot 50% from three-point range, and scored a game-high 31 points on 7/9 shooting from three in Denver’s fourth game against Miami. He could be a plug-and-play backup for Porter off the bench as soon as 2023, and it appears Denver’s strategy could be paying off.
Denver was forced into a risky and uninspiring (from afar) offseason by being forced to lose multiple rotation players from their championship rotation. They lost veteran leadership and didn’t have open money to replace it, so they looked to build through the draft in the same way they crafted their starting lineup that led them to a triumphant season.
Every rookie is a risk, and the team could find themselves looking for answers as the season pans out, but their strategy will also provide them with the easiest way there is to find role players who fit on cheap contracts. Denver fans will watch with promise and nervousness to see how the next potential championship rotation is formed as the team rosters three rookies heading into the year.