Free agency opened with a bang as the calendar flipped from June to July and one of the biggest spenders was the Denver Nuggets, who committed more than $200 million to Nikola Jokic and Will Barton on new contracts. The small-market Nuggets are slated to spend with the big boys next season, a situation that will have to be rectified before the February trade deadline. Denver is more than $22 million over the luxury tax line, with a projected tax bill of more than $52 million, after the Jokic and Barton deals are made official and while their luxury tax bill doesn’t lock in until the end of the 2018-19 regular season, their ability to shed that much salary may quickly disappear between now and then.
Further complicating Denver’s objectives, there are precious few teams around the league with the available cap space to take on their bad contracts, a list that shrunk early in free agency after Dallas came to terms with DeAndre Jordan and Indiana used some of their available money on Doug McDermott. There may not be a more obvious trade partner than the Atlanta Hawks, who one of those teams that still has cap space and has made it known publicly that they’re interested in taking on money to grab extra assets for the future, whether that be young, cost-controlled players or future draft picks.
Rumors and reports indicate that the Nuggets are actively looking for a way to get off salary for Kenneth Faried (one year, $13.8 million left), Mason Plumlee (two years, $27.0 million), Wilson Chandler (one year, $12.8 million), and Darrell Arthur (one year, $7.5 million). Faried, Plumlee, and Arthur are the obvious candidates, but Chandler has been added to the list ever since Barton re-signed and was assured that he would be the starting small forward.
From the Hawks’ perspective, Chandler is the best player of that group – he’s a true 3, of which the Hawks have just one in third-year player Taurean Prince. There are a few guys who can masquerade as a small forward, led by Kent Bazemore, but nobody with Chandler’s physical profile outside of Prince. Chandler also has the most value league-wide, which would potentially impact the rest of the package Atlanta receives along with him, and given that Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has shown he values future assets more than competing in 2018-19, it would be a surprise if he acquiesced to a heavier-protected pick along with Chandler than if he wasn’t included in the deal at all.
Faried and Mason Plumlee have some on-court value, though not nearly as much as Chandler, since they both play the same positions as Dewayne Dedmon, John Collins, Mike Muscala, Miles Plumlee, and 2018 draftee Omari Spellman. Faried brings energy in transition and on the glass, but doesn’t fit the “shooting and playmaking” ethos Schlenk has preached in his recent comments. Mason Plumlee brings more playmaking prowess than his brother, but doesn’t bring as much of the defensive fortitude Miles does. Arthur, on the other hand, is pretty much entirely dead salary. He completely fell out of the Nuggets’ rotation last season and wouldn’t bring much to the table for the Hawks, though he does have some ability to space the floor offensively.
However, the most important part of a potential trade between Denver and Atlanta would not be the high-salaried players involved, but the assets the Hawks would pick up from Denver in the deal. The Nuggets retain all their own future first-round picks, at least one of which would have to be moved to Atlanta in the deal.
Details on the protections on the pick(s) would be up for debate between Schlenk and Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, along with long-term planning on the Hawks’ side. Atlanta is projected to have three first-round picks in 2019 (depending on where Dallas and Cleveland finish in the standings), so while picking up another 2019 first would be best for them value-wise, looking a bit further down the line would space out Schlenk’s draft choices in a sensible way.
Denver also has a handful of interesting young players in Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and Tyler Lydon, any of whom can be involved in the trade to alleviate the inclusion of one of Denver’s first-round picks. All three former first-round picks have gotten very little playing time in their careers due to Denver’s depth throughout their roster. Beasley and Hernangomez are both better players than Lydon, who spent most of his rookie year in an out of the G League, but Lydon has the extra year of team control on his contract.
As of July 1, there has been no reporting that Denver and Atlanta have spoken about a potential deal, but it makes too much sense for both sides to there not be interest for Schlenk and Connolly to work something out. It’s not a given that Atlanta will be the team with which Denver finds a deal, but with the Nuggets actively searching for homes for these players and Atlanta willing to take on salary along with future picks and young players, a trade is definitely there to be made.