Denver Nuggets: The perilous point guard situation

The Denver Nuggets’ point guard situation is already decidedly less-than-ideal, but it’s about to get a whole heck of a lot worse.

Make of this what you will: The best point guard on the Denver Nuggets‘ roster is Will Barton.

You could fight me on it, to which I’d respond that Barton’s assist percentage is third-best on the team (and 5.7 percent better than Jamal Murray’s), trailing only Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay. Meanwhile, Barton’s turnover percentage is 6.7 percent lower than Mudiay’s. Barton is, of course, a far more efficient and prolific scorer than Mudiay as well.

You could marvel at how far Barton’s come, and you’d be right to do so. Barton was an afterthought for two and a half years in Portland, firmly entrenched on the fringes of the league. In Denver, he’s blossomed. Barton’s elevated his 3-point percentage from 19.8 percent with Portland to 34.9 percent with Denver, his true shooting percentage from 44.8 to 53.8 percent, and his assist percentage from 11.7 to 16.5 percent.

You could be slightly horrified by the state of the point guard position in Denver. Again, this would be a reasonable response. The Nuggets have invested heavily in point guards, spending top-seven picks on both Mudiay and Murray within the last three years. Mudiay has struggled immensely, and the logical assumption would be that he and Denver’s long-term plans at the position have very little to do with each other. Murray is, at least, a useful player, but his position is nebulous.

Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but things are about to get a whole lot worse.

Barton is in the final year of his contract, earning just $3.5 million. He’s due for a healthy raise. At first glance, it looks as if the Nuggets should be able to dole out that raise. They possess Barton’s Bird Rights, and they only have $111.8 million committed next year, comfortably under the $123 million luxury tax threshold.

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Due to a quirk in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Nuggets actually have nowhere near $11.2 million of breathing room under the tax, because Nikola Jokic, as a former second round selection, is subject to different rules than most players on their rookie contracts.

Former first round picks enter restricted free agency following the expiration of their four-year rookie scale contracts. Second round picks, meanwhile, become restricted free agents if they enter free agency with three or fewer years of NBA service. If they have four or more years of experience, they enter unrestricted free agency, in which the incumbent team does not have first right of refusal.

This is Jokic’s third year of service. The Nuggets have a $1.6 million team option for Jokic’s fourth season. To maintain first right of refusal and not risk losing him, the Nuggets will decline Jokic’s mind-bogglingly cheap option and elect to pay him handsomely.

I’m going to work under two assumptions: 1) The Nuggets will offer Jokic a maximum contract 2) The Nuggets intend to stay under the luxury tax. As a 0-6 year veteran, Jokic’s max will start at around $25.3 million a year. To do both, the Nuggets will have to remove salary through trades. Making additional commitments will not be an option, which is why Barton will be playing elsewhere in 2018-19.

The Nuggets have two realistic options, and they’re equally unattractive. They can accept that Barton’s leaving after this year and push for the playoffs with their best point guard on the roster, or they can be proactive, move on from Barton, and likely move on from playoff contention. Aren’t you glad you’re not Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly?

As the trade deadline approaches, don’t look for the Nuggets to do anything radical. Rather, look for them to prepare for the future. Look for them to dump money (most likely one of Darrell Arthur or Kenneth Faried) in preparation for Jokic’s impending free agency. Look for them to begin the hunt for Will Barton’s replacement, because even if Barton remains in Denver through the deadline, the Nuggets will need a new cost-controlled, backup floor general next year.

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