Last Friday, the Thunder unexpectedly agreed to deal Paul George to the Clippers, and then Thursday night, OKC dealt Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul and picks. No one would blame you if you missed this other bit of Thunder news: OKC traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a top-10 protected 2020 first-round pick. For the Thunder, it was a move to avoid the repeater tax. For the Nuggets, Grant is the steal of the summer.
As good as the Nuggets were last season, they severely lacked a quality wing or forward who could complement Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray on offense and cover for them on defense. That’s where Grant comes in: The Nuggets didn’t add a star, but they did acquire a player who gives them a chance to neutralize opposing stars. It’s become a cliché to call a player a five-position defender, but Grant truly is one. He is 6-foot-9 and effectively defends players of varying size and skills. He can battle bigs and protect the rim as a shot blocker:
In the clips above, Grant alertly blocks Anthony Davis rolling to the rim and then contests his forceful perimeter drive. Jokic is a better defender than his reputation would suggest, but he still needs support protecting the interior. Grant is lean, but he’s strong and long with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, which helps on the perimeter when his size is blended with mobility.
Grant isn’t a stopper, but he’s a container; he makes life hard on go-to scoring opponents like he does above against Kawhi. He’s the rare player who could ably defend the stars on either Los Angeles team—the Clippers’ duo of Kawhi and Paul George, or the Lakers’ pair of AD and LeBron. Grant could also take on crucial assignments against Houston, Portland, and Utah. He did an excellent job defending James Harden last season, forcing the Beard into tough shots. The Nuggets didn’t have anyone for those ranging roles besides Paul Millsap, and Grant is even more versatile. Millsap was a critical piece, and Grant’s skill set is reminiscent of the veteran, which bodes well for his own production.
When Millsap on the floor with Jokic, the Nuggets outscored teams by a dominant 8.6 points per 100 possessions. Now they added a player in Grant who can fill in for Millsap, 34, an aging veteran who averaged only 27.1 minutes during the regular season and 33.5 during the playoffs. Without Millsap, their defense and offense suffered. It’s not that Millsap’s fill-ins were total scrubs, it’s just that each had one flaw that didn’t work well with Jokic, such as Juan Hernangómez’s defense, Torrey Craig’s jumper, or Trey Lyles’s overall inefficiencies. You could do worse than what Denver had behind Millsap. It’s tough to do much better than Grant.
Millsap was important because of his defensive ability and his efficient offense on a low ball-dominance role. Those offensive skills made him an ideal fit next to Jokic, who controls the ball as arguably the most talented playmaking big man in league history. Grant and Millsap aren’t clones, but their impact is similar. Grant doesn’t need to touch the ball long to make his impact: He’s a reliable 3-point shooter who shot 40.1 percent on 3.7 catch-and-shoot attempts in the regular season and playoffs, plus he rumbles the rim with pulverizing dunks.
Grant’s offense could also make Jokic even more deadly; he overhauled his shooting mechanics, removing a hitch and adjusting his release point, making him a reliable spot-up shooter. Grant doesn’t handle the ball as well as Millsap, but he can cut and attack closeouts with explosive straight-line drives, or finish with either hand from tough angles. These blend of skills are especially valuable to Denver, a team that runs a funky offense through Jokic. Their Serbian unicorn will run pick-and-rolls as the ball handler or set screens and make plays on the role; Grant gives Joker a target to pass to either as a spot-up shooter or as a cutter.
Steven Adams, seen in the clips above, is a really good center, but he’s an amateur passer compared with Jokic’s majestic brilliance. Jokic is such a stellar facilitator that the Nuggets will often screen for Jokic using Millsap, a smaller player like Murray or Gary Harris, or even another big in Mason Plumlee. Grant can throw down lobs like Plumlee, but he can also pop like the guards or Millsap and shoot or attack.
There could come a time in the playoffs, as rotations are shortened, when Plumlee’s impact diminishes, and Jokic and Millsap need a breather. Grant can step in and play center, something he did only sparingly over the past few years with the Thunder. If Michael Porter Jr. is able to stay healthy, or if Jarred Vanderbilt’s impressive summer league performance translates to the regular season, either of them could shift to the 4 with Grant at the 5 in times Jokic is off the floor. Contenders in the Western Conference got far stronger in the offseason, but Grant will help the Nuggets become nearly matchup-proof. If they also see some internal improvement from their core —Jokic, Murray, and Harris—and if Porter pops, they’ll be even more potent offensively. Consolidating bench pieces in a midseason trade could be an option too. No matter what happens, Grant will play a pivotal role.
The Nuggets had to give up only a protected first-round pick for Grant. The circumstances helped: The Nuggets could absorb his contract using a trade exceptions, so the Thunder didn’t have to take anyone back. Few teams could have done that. All the Nuggets need for this deal to be a slam dunk is for Grant to re-sign; he has a player option for $9.4 million next season that he’ll likely decline to sign for more years and more money. With Millsap, Plumlee, and Hernangómez all hitting free agency in 2020, the Nuggets would’ve been in the market for a player like Grant but wouldn’t have had the cap space to realistically pursue one. This was their best chance to add an ideal frontcourt partner for Jokic’s present and future.