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The Nuggets Don’t Need Another Piece Just Yet

Denver is a dark horse in the Anthony Davis conversation, but the 34-15 squad would have to give up what’s made them great to land the Pelicans superstar

Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray with Anthony Davis looming in the background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The city of New Orleans doesn’t know where its anger belongs. Most sports fandoms channel it toward their next opponent, which in the Pelicans’ case is the Nuggets, who are in town for Wednesday’s matchup. But Nikola Jokic doesn’t scare the Pelicans like Anthony Davis does; Davis told the organization Monday that he won’t sign an extension this summer and wants to be traded. (The Nuggets game will be the team’s first at home since Davis’s announcement. Some fans will be angry with the franchise savior opting out of his martyrdom; some fans will be upset with the front office that failed to build a contender around their generational talent.) Also on New Orleans’s list of public enemies: Rich Paul, Davis’s agent and the bearer of bad news. (Davis was fined $50,000 on Tuesday for his agent’s overtness. The $50,000 is, as Desus of Desus & Mero put it, “like when Uber takes too long and you have no problem with the cancellation fee.”) Next up is LeBron James, Paul’s other client/business partner/childhood best friend and a Los Angeles Laker. According to ESPN’s league sources (the very ESPN that Paul went on the record with for this very story), Davis wants to join the Lakers and would sign an extension there.

So to recap the villains haunting New Orleans on Wednesday night: the Nuggets, Davis, Paul, James, the Lakers, the league’s construction-paper-strength tampering rules, and a couple of NFC championship referees.

Because the 23-28 Pelicans might begin valuing losses over wins and because of the way the Nuggets are rolling now—Denver’s won 13 of its past 17 games—New Orleans may raise the white flag Wednesday (though throwing any flag regardless of color might be insensitive). The city could still direct its anger at Denver very soon, just not for Wednesday’s game. On Tuesday, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor made the argument for Denver being a potential Davis suitor. “The Nuggets are considered by front-office executives as the off-the-radar team that actually has the assets to complete a deal, should they choose to enter the sweepstakes,” O’Connor wrote.

Denver is Toronto-West in terms of balance, well insulated from top to bottom, stars to bench. Their depth would allow for New Orleans to entertain a trade package. A roster like the Nuggets’, which has produced a franchise-best 34-15 start despite an incessant injury report, has what the Pelicans need: options. Last season, when Nuggets head coach Mike Malone needed to solve multiple guard and wing deficiencies, Will Barton mushroomed into a one-size-fits-all handyman and then got paid last offseason. Absences that should crush the Nuggets (this season, Paul Millsap has missed eight games and has played limited minutes; Gary Harris has missed 18 games; Barton, in quite the role reversal, has missed 39 games) don’t because of reserves like Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris, and Torrey Craig. During the stretch in December when starters Millsap, Harris, and Barton were all out, the Nuggets remained at the top of the West. (They’re currently a game and a half back from the Warriors.)

Few teams are equipped to become even theoretical trade partners with the Pelicans, who aren’t happy about the prospect of dealing Davis and will likely demand a high price. The Nuggets aren’t as thirsty for Davis as the Lakers, but they’re a dark horse that could come up with the kind of haul you have to make two trips for: Millsap; Harris; Jamal Murray; rookie Michael Porter Jr., who’s out indefinitely following back surgery; and a couple of picks would be a good start. It would be a wild move: shelling out one team for one player and hoping what’s left is a contender. But for a team that’s still growing as much as the Nuggets are, it would represent a premature venture.

We’re far enough removed from Chris Paul forcing his way to Houston two summers ago to use that situation as a parallel. The Rockets dealt a grab bag: Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, their 2018 first-round pick, Sam Dekker, Kyle Wiltjer, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, and cash considerations. Beverly, Harrell, and Williams stayed put. Harrell became a Most Improved candidate and a reason for L.A. to trust tweeners again. Williams had the best season of his career and almost became an All-Star … as a backup. And the pick was flipped to the Hawks in a three-way trade that landed the Clips Danilo Gallinari, their Italian saving grace.

The situations aren’t identical. Though both Paul and Davis are prone to injury, the former is eight years older, and Davis is the superior talent. Because it was a sign-and-trade, Houston was also assured it was getting Paul for the long haul (for better or for worse), while Denver would need a commitment from Davis, who can opt out of his deal after the 2019-20 season. Despite the differences, the Houston-L.A. deal offers a loose preview: James Harden’s made an MVP case by taking the Rockets to a 12-5 record without Paul or much of a surrounding cast. The Clippers are superstarless with flexibility, a mix of veterans and young guns, realized and unrealized potential—the ideal surrounding cast. It’s easy to see how the Rockets would be better off with those pieces surrounding Harden than with Paul.

A similarly flexible roster has propelled the Nuggets to success this season. Denver triumphed the night news of Davis’s trade request hit, beating Memphis 95-92 in the kind of win that makes you romanticize role players. The Nuggets were down 11 with 3:45 remaining (after being down 25 in the middle of the third quarter) when Malik Beasley decided to turn garbage time into showtime and hit back-to-back shots with a steal sandwiched in between. He scored 13 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter to go with two rebounds and three assists—and he wasn’t even the hero. Beasley began to drive into the paint with under 50 seconds left and kicked it out to Barton, who hit a 3 for Denver’s first lead all the game. On the next possession, Jokic took his many, many pounds against Marc Gasol’s many, many pounds in the post and sunk a 7-footer to seal the game.

There was no Murray that game, Millsap missed all five shots he attempted, and the entire team did the Bird Box challenge at the 3-point line (22.2 percent), but the Nuggets still had enough spark to tie the franchise’s greatest second-half comeback. Fourth quarters have been “it takes a village” moments for Denver, which often winds up in tight conditions. Twenty-eight of the Nuggets’ 49 games have ended in clutch situations—defined as a game within five points with five or fewer minutes to go—which is sixth most in the league. Denver’s gone 20-8 in those games, accumulating the highest win percentage (.714 percent) in the NBA in crunch time. Most fourth-quarter rallies are based on heavy scoring, but the Nuggets capitalize with their defense. They allow just 99.7 points per 100 possessions in the final quarter—four points fewer than the next-best team.

Two impenetrable strengths that have carried the Nuggets—closing and defense—are both dependent on having a multitude of qualified players to call on. Adding Davis could disrupt those strengths because of the haul New Orleans would likely ask for. The unknowns are haunting, especially for a franchise as tightly bound by the cap (another forewarning from Houston) as Denver. Sure, thinking about a Jokic and Davis pick-and-roll for longer than 15 seconds is enough to reconsider the entire argument against, but there are too many uncertainties: Would Davis stay? Could Denver add him and perform on the same level? And what if Murray and Harris turn into exactly what the organization needs a couple of years down the line in New Orleans?

Flipping a large fraction of the roster would disrupt the team’s development cycle. The dream the Warriors sell is the warning the Thunder give: a homegrown team needs time. Denver is the third-youngest squad in the league. It can’t be sure of its trade inventory because of the rapid rate it’s growing at. Only four of the players in Malone’s 10-man rotation are older than 24 (Beasley’s 22), and the starting lineup has more guys still eligible to be on their parents’ health insurance than not. Jokic is a 23-year-old superstar in a 43-year-old’s body, and that 43-year-old body is having the best season of its career. The rookie, Porter, was a projected top-three pick before his predraft injury allowed him to fall to Denver at no. 14.

If Anthony Davis is the 6-foot-10 pot of gold at the end of the trade-machine rainbow, any organization should listen. A team with players ready to make the leap to new levels—to stardom, for someone like Murray, or established sixth man for Morris—should first wait to see where it lands.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly suggested that Michael Porter Jr. is out for the season.