While the core of the Denver Nuggets remained intact throughout the years, they may not have taken home the Larry O’Brien Trophy without a few tweaks last offseason.
Sure, Nikola Jokic is one of the best players in basketball. Absolutely, playoff Jamal Murray made the difference in some of the biggest games. Aaron Gordon stepped into a challenging role as the primary on-ball defender, matching up with Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Jimmy Butler.
All those guys were instrumental to the success, but Denver had to fill out the edges of the roster, and the championship came from some key offseason moves. The Nuggets signed bench forward Jeff Green to a paltry $4.5 million two summers ago. Last season, they signed Bruce Brown and traded for Kentavius Caldwell-Pope.
From that group, the most talked about was Brown, who signed for Denver on the cheap and swung game four of the NBA Finals with a 21-point performance. He is back in the free agency pool (along with Jeff Green), with no indication that he will return. While the Nuggets still have plenty of young players that can step into more significant roles, two major pieces of an eight-man rotation that won the championship needs addressing.
Championships are typically won on the margins. All three players had a major impact that turned a great team into a champion, and those players are difficult to predict year-to-year. It could be bench scorers like Eddie House and J.J. Barea, who swung games with clutch baskets. Key veterans like Green, searching for his first championship, have had a similar impact. The moves typically fly under the radar but make all the difference down the stretch of the playoffs, where depth can be crucial to survival.
With free agency approaching and a long offseason ahead of us, here are the crucial role players that could move and swing the championship next season.
Alec Burks, Detroit Pistons
Burks technically has a $10.5 million player option, but I see no reason that Detroit lets him leave for nothing. Seemingly a player that flies under the radar every season, Burks has quietly carved out a role as a third guard in the NBA. He is a gifted scorer who has shot the ball better from 3 every season (41.4 percent on 4.7 attempts last season) and is a better playmaker than given credit for.
The biggest problem for Burks has been his destinations of late. While the first season with the New York Knicks was a resounding success, year two had some struggles. When he moved to Detroit, he had one of his best statistical seasons, including a career-high in PER and true shooting percentage.
Burks’ offensive versatility and shot-making could win multiple playoff games, similar to Bruce Brown in Denver.
Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls
Caruso is a top-tier perimeter defensive player in basketball and has been shopped for the better part of a year. While the Chicago Bulls seem to be running back most of their core (Zach LaVine has been shopped), it finally might be time to see Caruso on a new team, with contenders circling like orcas around yachts.
It’s not hard to envision how Caruso can impact a winning team again as he did in helping the Los Angeles Lakers to the 2020 title. He’s a pest on the ball and everywhere off of it. There’s a second gear some players can reach in the big moments, but Caruso lives in it. He can defend forwards and quicker guards and works hard off the ball. Whoever adds Caruso will immediately be a better team.
The question for Bald Mamba is how much will it cost to acquire him? A trade involving Jonathan Kuminga would make sense for both sides – Chicago gets younger, and Golden State gets a ready-made winner.
If a trade like that happens, things change immediately for Golden State, which was plagued by a lack of perimeter defense. Caruso and a healthy Gary Payton II with Draymond Green (if he resigns) at the rim give the Warriors one last run with their aging core.
Harrison Barnes, free agent
Teams are lining up to offer contracts to Jerami Grant, Kyle Kuzma, Cam Johnson and Grant Williams as younger options to solve their power forward position. All those options are younger than Barnes and fine players, but it means Barnes might fly under the radar this summer.
I won’t argue that Barnes is better than any of those players (he’s probably better than a few), but I also don’t think he’s much worse when players like Johnson might covet $100+ million. Barnes is a starting rotation player with solid defense and good shooting for a power forward. Even though the playoffs sometimes have left a lot to be desired, he represents a more known commodity than some of the younger players he’s competing for contracts with.
If Barnes does fall under the radar, someone will scoop him up and get a good option for a contending team.
Yuta Watanabe, free agent
While he’s best known for being dunked on multiple times, Watanabe’s 2022-23 season went largely unnoticed in Brooklyn.
He finished with only 5.8 points in 58 games for Brooklyn but showed some elite shot-making by shooting 44 percent from 3 last season. He fits the bill of a player who can swing a title because he’s talented and likely to be cheap.
Watanabe won’t be a top-six rotation player on a championship roster but could easily slot in as a seventh or eighth man. Most importantly for any role player – he understands how to compete with star talent. When playing with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant last season, Watanabe shot 48 percent from 3, including four straight games in November in double figures.
He won’t be an offensive initiator on a championship-level team, but Watanabe can make shots, be smart with the basketball and play solid defense. That’s all you can ask for a great role player.
Joe Ingles, free agent
Do you want a role-player cut from the Jeff Green cloth? Joe Ingles is also chasing his first-ever championship at the spry age of 35 (36 in October) but still has plenty in the tank after recovering from a torn ACL.
Still, he managed 40 games last season and found his footing as the season went along. Ingles’ ability to create and shoot from 3 is coveted in the game, and he’s not a sieve on the defensive end.
Ingles isn’t going to blow you away with elite athleticism, but he brings a valuable role to any winning team. He isn’t afraid to get under anyone’s skin, will hit big shots down the stretch and can play with almost anybody. Like Barnes, if the big-name (and younger) power forwards go for too much money, a team will scoop up Ingles at a decent value.