OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Thunder are through to Round 2, but, lest we forget, the Nuggets had a heck of a year themselves. They somehow won 50 games despite Carmelo Anthony spending two-thirds of the season wrangling a trade to New York, and only find themselves at home tonight thanks to a spectacular Game 5 performance by Kevin Durant.
With Durant done wreaking his havoc, the one piece of business left to ponder from this series is where the Nuggets go from here.
Denver played remarkably well in the wake of the Anthony trade, ascending as high as No. 2 in my Power Rankings, but poor free throw shooting, untimely injuries and the fact Durant was on the other team did them in against the Thunder.
Nonetheless, the Nuggets are in a much stronger position heading into the summer than anyone ever imagined. Denver can sell free agents -- its own and others -- on the prospect of playing for a legit 50-win team with a lot of young talent. They can advertise a great coach in George Karl, one who grants his players a lot of offensive freedom, and an enviable location that allegedly gets 300 days of sunshine a year (none of which fell on the five days I was there).
But while rookie general manager Masai Ujiri and his team did a fine job of playing the Knicks and Nets against each other to land a mother lode in return for Anthony, his work is just beginning. Key decisions have to be made on several Nuggets this offseason, and if the wrong ones are made Denver’s extremely solid post-trade foundation will quickly crumble.
A few pieces of the puzzle are known. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari are long-term starters and aren’t going anywhere. Chris Andersen and Al Harrington are under contract and may be difficult to move, so they’ll be there too.
The rest of the rotation, however, could be in flux. Here’s one man’s look at the key personnel issues:
Nene: A free agent presuming he opts out of the final year of his contract this summer, it’s likely the Nuggets and he will soon agree on an extension. Star centers don’t grow on trees, making Nene the one irreplaceable player on the Nuggets, and unlike Anthony he likes Denver and wants to stay.
J.R. Smith: One of Ujiri’s goals has been to change the culture in Denver, one that had been highly tolerant of goofballs, miscreants and other assorted ne’er-do-wells. Smith has always been Exhibit A for this permissiveness, and while he certainly is talented, the Nuggets now have enough depth on the wings that they could lose him without noticing. As a result, I doubt he’ll be back. The Denver crowd seemed to feel this way too, giving him an unusually loud ovation when he checked out of Game 4 after his best performance of the playoffs.
Raymond Felton: The best trade asset the Nuggets have because he’s a good point guard on a friendly contract, Felton could do very well in Denver as a third guard but has let it be known he wants to be a starter; that won’t happen as long as Lawson is around. As a result, I expect Felton to be traded, most likely for frontcourt help.
Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler: Restricted free agents, I expect both to return and become building blocks for the Nuggets going forward. Chandler had an awful playoff series, but he’s only 24 as of May 10 and has improved every season in the league, plus his ability to play multiple positions helps the Nuggets match up big or small depending on the opponent. As for Afflalo, he might be Karl’s favorite player, and he’s the type of role player every team wants because he’s both a gritty defender and a spot-up 3-point shooter.
Kenyon Martin: Martin is an unrestricted free agent, and he represents probably the toughest decision. On the one hand, Martin provides a toughness Denver desperately needs in the frontcourt, as well as an athletic defender. On the other hand, he may not come cheaply, and for an older, oft-injured player with two surgically repaired knees, I’m not sure he makes sense in this program. Additionally, Martin has some say in this too. It’s not clear whether he’d prefer to return or head for greener pastures.
Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov: These two didn’t play any meaningful minutes in the playoffs, but the Nuggets like them both and they could influence future decisions on other frontcourt players -- such as re-signing Martin and potentially trading Andersen.
Mozgov is more well-known because he demonstrated in New York that his size makes him a passable backup center, and he can still get better. But I’m also told that Koufos impressed on the practice floor when he came to Denver, and that the Nuggets would like to see more. He’s a soft player who needs to be paired with a tough guy, but his offensive skills could be a plus if used in the right situations.