#22 – The Denver Nuggets

More than just a little part of me has the sneaking suspicion that Emmanuel Mudiay may end up being the best player in the 2015 NBA draft. And for the Knicks to have misfired and not taken the most explosive player in the lottery at the league’s most important position gets me more than a little scared for the future. Especially because New York is STILLL shelling picks out to Denver as a part of that Melo “Why didn’t we wait for free agency??” Trade.

Yeah, this was in high school.

In a lot of ways, I’m really excited for Mudiay and debated moving the Nuggs up a few spot on this list just because of his potential alone. While all top-ten picks should theoretically get a fair share of playing time and a chance to carve out a meaningful role on their new teams, it’s hard to imagine a better landing spot for the former Guangdong Southern Tiger. Going through the draft process, Mudiay was billed as a kind of John Wall/Derrick Rose lite; a prospect with insane athleticism and good size for his position who would need to work on his shooting to ever become an All-Star caliber player. In Denver, he’ll be able to use that next-level speed in tandem with the elevation and breakneck pace of the Pepsi Center to play coast-to-coast basketball and finish some mean one-man fast breaks. It’s really not all that hard to make the comparison to Michael Carter-William’s rookie season and imagine how an exciting point guard on a bad team could put together some crazy numbers. (Oh yeah, they smacked the Heat on opening night, huh).

The only thing is that the Nuggets might not be all that bad next year. And really, Denver is one of the teams I’ve had the hardest time projecting in terms of simple win-loss record. After having arguably the worst coaching in the entire league last year (hmm, maybe not) and a locker room so fractured it led to the jettisoning of multiple starters for late first-round picks, it really looked like the Nuggets would be ready to totally blow things up and rebuild around Mudiay and last year’s pleasant surprise rookie, Jusuf Nurkic. It wouldn’t be the worst idea; given how competitive the West is pretty much from top to bottom, an aggressive tear down would all but guarantee a top 5 selection in the 2016 draft.

Instead, Denver chose to extend both Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, making what appears to be a concerted effort at mediocrity. Zach Lowe at Grantland wrote an excellent article about Gallinari who had a strong end to last season, shooting 40% from 3 and looking like a pretty deadly small ball 4 in certain lineups (and especially if the Nuggets want to go super small with Faried at the 5). Personally, I don’t know how much I believe in those post All-Star game streaks. I think everyone’s going a little crazy with projecting the Jazz as a 7th or 8th seed playoff team and a top 3 defense after the way they stifled teams without Kanter. Teams decide to start tanking, players decide to start resting, and everyone is gassed after 60 games of competitive basketball and nonstop flights. The Gallo post-break may or may not be the one Denver gets next year but either way, he’s only 27 years old and that possibility is definitely there.

More importantly, both of those players are on great contracts right now, and it gives Denver the flexibility (and the leverage) to move one or both of them at the trade deadline if everything has been falling apart around them. Chandler was in multiple trade discussions last year and its not hard to conceive a potential contender dealing a first rounder for either of them if they believe it will take them over the hump. All of that will give Denver the freedom few lottery teams will have next year; they can reasonably expect to focus on player development while still competing on a night to night basis. Chasing a playoff spot if everything breaks right or looking to the future and prioritizing their young guns if the team starts out kind of cold.

Either way, things are looking pretty good for Manny.

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