In the 2007-08 NBA season, the Denver Nuggets finished 50-32, good enough for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Their post-season didn't last very long, as they were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. In the 2008-09 campaign they improved to 54-28 and won two playoff series in impressive fashion before succumbing to the Lakers in six games of the Western Conference Finals.
I want to show the shrewd steps they took to remake an underachieving team in an off-season where they had no draft picks, star players with declining trade value, and a bloated $87 million payroll.
Step One: The Draft
The Nuggets traded their first round pick (#20) to the Charlotte Bobcats in exchange for a future protected first round pick. This was an early sign that salary-cutting was the number one priority for them in the 2008 off-season. This move left Denver with no picks in the draft as they had already traded away their second round pick.
In a tiny bit of draft day wheeling and dealing, Denver picked up Sonny Weems (a 6'6" senior g/f from the University of Arkansas) in a three-way trade with Portland and Chicago. All they had to give up was their 2009 second round pick in the process.
Step Two: Deal with Your Free Agents
Before they added anything new to the roster, Denver had to make decisions about their own free agents. They had one restricted free agent, JR Smith, and two unrestricted, Eduardo Najera and Yakhouba Diawara. The Nuggets immediately tendered a one-year $3.04 million qualifying offer to JR Smith, which gave them the right to match any other team's offer within seven days, and let both Najera (New Jersey) and Diawara (Miami) walk without offering them new contracts.
Later in the off-season, they signed JR Smith to a long-term deal (3 years/$16.5 million).
Step Three: Purge Unwanted Players/Contracts
In what amounted to a salary purge, Denver gave Camby to the LA Clippers in an unbalanced trade for the option to exchange second round picks in the 2010 draft. This saved the Nuggets $20 million in cap space by ridding themselves of Camby's $10 million salary plus $10 million more in luxury tax. It also helped create flexibility for Denver to make future moves by creating a $10 million trade exception.
Step Four: Replace Outgoing Players
The Denver Nuggets replaced Marcus Camby's skill-set (defense, rebounding, blocked shots) and Eduardo Najera's role (high-energy bench guy) by signing Chris Anderson to a one-year $880 thousand deal and trading Bobby Jones, Taurean Green, and a 2010 second rounder to the Knicks for Renaldo Balkman.
They rounded out their roster by signing free-agents Dahntay Jones and Juwan Howard to one-year minimum deals.
Step Five: The Big Splash
While technically not the off-season, the Nuggets pulled off a block-buster trade one week into the 2009-10 season. Using the trade exception created by the Camby purge, Denver traded Allen Iverson to the Detroit Pistons for Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess, and Cheikh Samb. This trade produced another $9 million trade exception with a later expiration date than the one they had just used.
Later, Denver released McDeyess and traded Samb to the Clippers for a future conditional second round draft pick.
- June 25 - traded 2008 first round pick to Charlotte for future first rounder
- June 26 - traded for Sonny Weems draft rights
- June 27 - tendered qualifying offer to JR Smith
- July 15 - purged Marcus Camby
- July 24 - signed Chris Anderson
- July 28 - traded for Renaldo Balkman
- July 30 - signed Dahntay Jones
- August 22 - re-signed JR Smith
- October 3 - signed Juwan Howard
- November 3 - traded for Chauncey Billups
Relating this to the Blazers in '09
The Blazers have already finished steps one, two, and three. They drafted Victor Claver, Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham, and Patrick Mills. They let free agents Michael Ruffin, Shavlik Randolph, and Channing Frye walk. They purged Sergio Rodriguez to the Sacramento Kings.
You could argue that they may even be finished with step four, as they probably believe they can replace the outgoing players internally with Jerryd Bayless and the new draft picks. If so, they have completed steps one through four within a week of the off-season.
(I included Denver's timeline for last season to show you how long they took to complete the same steps in '08. A swift off-season doesn't neccesarily mean a successful one.)
That leaves only step five to complete. The Blazers have a lot more options to make a splash than the cap-strapped Denver Nuggets had last off-season. For instance, the Blazers can make the big splash in free agency, or they can wait all the way up to the trade deadline and use their cap space in an unbalanced trade.
With the new economic landscape in the NBA, it might be in the Blazers' best interest to punt this off-season and wait until the start of next season to make the big splash. If a team with little flexibility finds themselves below their expectation level one month into the season (think Bulls or Wizards or Bobcats) all of the sudden players become available for a better price.
Case in point, the Nuggets and Pistons had discussed the Billups/Iverson trade in the summer of '08, yet the deal didn't get done until November.
Patience, everyone. Rome (and the Denver Nuggets remade 2008-09 roster) were not built in a day. In July of last year, Denver fans were screaming for the head of GM Mark Warkentien, much like I've seen Kevin Pritchard's credibility questioned here on Blazer Sedge.
You don't judge an artist for each brush stroke, you judge the painting; don't judge the Blazers' personnel moves until the off-season picture is complete.