- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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It’s been a familiar refrain from a handful of front-office types during the first few days of the NBA’s gradual return to offseason normalcy: Denver’s Arron Afflalo is a popular choice when you ask execs to pinpoint the most attractive free agent outside of the big men.
Afflalo’s Denver teammate Nene, Dallas Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, New Orleans Hornets forward David West and Memphis Grizzlies restricted free agent Marc Gasol are universally seen as the most coveted players on the open market.
But Afflalo, with a blossoming offensive game to go with his more polished D, has his own growing group of admirers if you listen to the GM grapevine.
Sources told ESPN.com that the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, despite possessing no cap space to bid for the 26-year-old swingman, will continue to press the Nuggets to see if they’re amenable to sign-and-trade discussions. Sources say New Jersey and Minnesota, meanwhile, are among the teams with salary-cap space weighing whether to extend an offer sheet after free agency officially starts Dec. 9 that the Nuggets will have three days to match to keep Afflalo.
You tend to believe that the Nuggets have to match anything they see here. At a time when they know multiple teams are throwing big money at Nene -- after restricted free agent Wilson Chandler and unrestricteds Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith all bolted to China -- Afflalo’s future is the rare roster issue in Denver that the home team has control of.
You can also make the case that Afflalo, in the same group with Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson, is as valuable as anyone on the payroll in Denver’s post-Carmelo Anthony world.
“We feel comfortable that we’ll get something done there,” Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri told reporters in Denver on Wednesday.
Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to picture a cap-room team convincing itself that it’s a worthy exercise to test the Nuggets’ resolve, just as you figure some team out there will dare the Grizzlies with a monster offer to Gasol. (I’m told, for example, that Indiana -- one team that really hasn’t been mentioned as a potential suitor for the Spaniard -- rates Gasol above Nene and is strongly weighing whether to slap an offer sheet down for him.)
Afflalo, for his part, is waiting patiently back home in Los Angeles, insisting that he can handle another week or two of uncertainty in a free-agency process that started five months late.
“I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years,” Afflalo said with a laugh over the phone this week. “But I know I’m kind of towards the end of it. I was aware of the timing of free agency and the lockout, so I had mentally prepared for the situation that I’m in now.”
Asked if he has a feel for how desperate Denver is to keep him, given that Chandler will be stuck in China through March unless his team there unexpectedly releases him, Afflalo said: “I guess we’ll see, huh? I’m really excited to find out. It’s definitely a life-changing situation for me.
“The appreciation factor [for the Nuggets] is always going to be there. And they still have my rights. When [last] season ended, I always anticipated being back there, but at the end of the day you have to keep your options open because you never know. Whenever this process does end, I’ll be ready to take on whatever decisions come at that point.”
The combination of lockout uncertainty and his forthcoming free agency convinced Afflalo to resist his own offers in China and other foreign outposts to stay in the States and keep working on his offensive game after the hamstring trouble that plagued him late last season. He’s convinced that we’ll see more and more playmaking out of him -- more posting up against small guards, too -- to complement his 3 ball.
“My wanting to be better, my lack of satisfaction with just being a starter in this league, I think that’s my best attribute,” Afflalo said. “There’s not a satisfied bone in my body.”
As for his fellow Nuggets free agents, Afflalo added: “Obviously Wilson was restricted, so he had a decision he had to make that was best for him, which was understandable. Kenyon and J.R. were unrestricted, so there’s no telling which direction [their respective free agencies] would have gone. It’s a different situation with Nene, because he’s definitely been a valuable piece for that organization for a long time.
“It was always going to be an adjustment period for the Nugget organization. You just have to deal with it. For me personally, trying to gauge where I’d be most comfortable playing, it really hasn’t been dictated so much by those guys. I just definitely loved the opportunity I was given there. They have a competitive organization from the coaches to the staff there, so I’ve never worried about the personnel. They’ll find a way to win regardless if that particular group came back.”