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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 free 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.