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Kiszla: Great NBA draft for Nuggets if R.J. Hampton can move Gary Harris one step closer to gone from Denver

George 2020

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One of these years, when the Nuggets decide it’s final­ly time to get seri­ous about win­ning the NBA cham­pi­onship, they will move on from Gary Har­ris as a starter in their back­court.

With the draft night trade for 19-year-old com­bo guard R.J. Hamp­ton, maybe Den­ver took one small step toward a future beyond Har­ris. And that would be a very good thing.

Nobody drafts bet­ter than pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball oper­a­tions Tim Con­nel­ly. Kudos to him for land­ing both Hamp­ton and Ari­zona big man Zeke Nna­ji late in the first round.

But is it OK to also con­fess I’m still ticked Con­nel­ly didn’t find a way to pry Jrue Hol­i­day from New Orleans, either at the Feb­ru­ary trade dead­line or when the Pel­i­cans again opened bid­ding in recent days?

Did Mil­wau­kee, which sent a haul of future draft picks to New Orleans, over-pay for Hol­i­day? Yes.

But here’s the deal: For fly-over NBA cities such as Mil­wau­kee or Den­ver, the price of a legit shot at a cham­pi­onship ring is nev­er going to be cheap. Why? Niko­la Jokic can’t pick up the phone and work a deal for Antho­ny Davis or James Hard­en. Joker’s great, but he doesn’t have the juice of Bron or KD.

Hamp­ton does not move Den­ver appre­cia­bly clos­er to the NBA Finals, at least not in the short term. At 6‑foot‑5, Hamp­ton is a dri­ve-and-kick guard who needs work on his jumper and his defense. In five years, maybe he’ll have game com­pa­ra­ble to Hol­i­day. But not now. He’s a project.

The acqui­si­tion of Hamp­ton, how­ev­er, makes total sense if Con­nel­ly is ready to make a big move for a vet­er­an that can bol­ster the Nuggets’ start­ing five in a major way.

There’s noth­ing wrong with Har­ris, except the fact Den­ver loves him way more than any­body else in the league does. While coach Michael Mal­one defends Har­ris like a mem­ber of the fam­i­ly, he has nev­er been quite good enough as trade bait, when the Nuggets have pur­sued Jim­my But­ler or Hol­i­day in block­buster deals they couldn’t close in recent years.

The Lak­ers, not sat­is­fied with their first cham­pi­onship since 2010, have added Den­nis Schroder, who just made life eas­i­er for LeBron James. It’s good to be the King.

The Bucks, deter­mined to show Gian­nis Ante­tok­oun­m­po he can win a ring with­out leav­ing Mil­wau­kee, paid a ran­som for Hol­i­day. They are going for it now.

The Nuggets? They’re hop­ing, pray­ing and bid­ing their time.

Con­nel­ly hopes Michael Porter Jr. can win the com­plete trust of Mal­one. Hey, I believe in MPJ. But does the coach? With agency loom­ing, Den­ver prays Jera­mi Grant re-signs instead of seek­ing green­er pas­tures else­where in the league.

Yes, the Nuggets have legit rea­sons for opti­mism. Their trip to the con­fer­ence finals was no fluke. But as their razor-thin vic­to­ry against Utah in Game 7 of the open­ing round reminds us, suc­cess is not guar­an­teed to any­one this side of Los Ange­les in the wild West.

Den­ver doesn’t skip steps. Doing his home­work dili­gent­ly as a tal­ent scout, Con­nel­ly is a straight‑A stu­dent. But he’s uncom­fort­able with the dice in his hands. Gam­bling is not in Connelly’s nature.

Two years ago, the Nuggets didn’t want to get good until the Gold­en State dynasty crum­bled. Now, they are wait­ing for LeBron to grow old. Keep wait­ing long enough, and Nuggets can watch Luka Don­cic win big with the back­ing of Mark Cuban’s mon­ey, or com­plain when Kevin Durant recruits anoth­er super­star friend to build a super team in Brook­lyn.

If the pres­ence of Hamp­ton allows the Nuggets to use Har­ris or Monte Mor­ris in a trade that puts them clos­er to equal foot­ing with the Lak­ers, this draft will be an unqual­i­fied suc­cess.

At some point, Con­nel­ly has to put his chips on the table.

Maybe the price of pok­er for Hol­i­day was too steep. I get that.

The Nuggets, how­ev­er, have been play­ing for next year since join­ing the NBA in 1976.

I’m bet­ting if Con­nel­ly goes and gets some real help for Jamal Mur­ray and Jok­er, they can win it all.

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