The Pistons signing Jerami Grant to a three-year, $60 million contract was one of the most shocking moves from the first night of NBA free agency. But the most important part is what the deal means for the team who lost him. Grant was a key member of a young Nuggets team that made the Western Conference finals last season. Denver desperately needed him to come back and now has no way to replace him. Losing Grant might have closed Denver’s championship window just as it was opening.
The best way to see Grant’s value is to look at the players he defended in the playoffs. Per NBA Advanced Stats, Grant’s three most frequent assignments were Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell, and LeBron James. Anthony Davis was no. 5, and Paul George was no. 7. The list of players who can match up with combo guards like Mitchell, supersized wings like LeBron and Kawhi, and new-age big men like Davis is incredibly short. And there is no real list for players with that kind of defensive versatility who can also shoot as well as Grant did from 3 last season (38.8 percent on 3.5 attempts per game).
Grant is exactly the type of player the Nuggets need around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Their two young cornerstones are offensive-minded players who need their supporting cast to space the floor and guard players like LeBron and Davis. Grant comfortably switched assignments when defending the pick-and-roll between the Lakers’ two superstars in the playoffs, making their bread-and-butter play considerably less effective. The forward’s combination of size (6-foot-8 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) and athleticism made him the perfect counterpart to Jokic up front.
Every decision in Denver should be made with the goal of building a great defense to protect Jokic. He’s a generational offensive talent who can single-handedly carry his team on that end of the floor. The Clippers are still dizzy from the beating that Jokic put on them in the second round, while he more than held his own against Davis in the conference finals. But his offensive dominance only matters if someone else can cover for him on defense. Trading for Grant last offseason elevated Denver above the pack in the West. Losing him sends them tumbling back down.
His absence won’t be as noticeable during the regular season. The Nuggets filled his hole in the rotation by signing JaMychal Green to a two-year, $15 million contract on Friday. Green is a solid two-way big man who should have played a bigger role for the Clippers last season, and he’ll help space the floor for Jokic while assisting on defense. Denver could re-sign Paul Millsap as well, a savvy interior defender who is getting a little long in the tooth at 35 years old but is still valuable on that side of the ball. Green and Millsap should be able to do enough on defense to balance out the Nuggets’ offensive firepower and allow them to blow bad teams off the floor.
But the regular season is no longer how success is measured in Denver. And winning in the playoffs means beating great defensive teams. Those opponents will be able to slow down Jokic and Murray. The Nuggets can’t expect to turn every series into a shootout. They will have to grind out defensive slugfests, too. And they just lost their most critical player who can help them do that while still allowing the offense to stay afloat. The vast majority of defensive difference makers in the NBA usually drag their team down on offense. Grant is one of the few who don’t.
There are a lot of similarities between Grant’s departure and the way the Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon last offseason. Brogdon, like Grant, was a key member of a young team that had made the conference finals and looked poised to contend for years to come. But the Bucks viewed him as a “luxury” and didn’t match the massive contract (five years, $85 million) the Pacers offered him. It didn’t seem to matter in the regular season, as the league-leading Bucks replaced him with more limited players (Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, and Donte DiVincenzo) on smaller contracts. The people who don’t value Grant as highly will likely be able to take the same victory lap in March and April. But his absence, like Brogdon’s in Milwaukee, will rear its head in the postseason.
The goal for small-market contenders like Denver and Milwaukee shouldn’t be to build the most financially efficient roster. It’s OK if Grant isn’t “worth” a $20 million annual contract on a spreadsheet. To the Nuggets, he’s worth however much money he asks for, because there’s no way they can replace him. They are a small-market team that doesn’t tend to attract elite free agents and is trying to build a championship squad around a flawed superstar. Their margin for error compared to big-market teams built around flawless players like LeBron and Kawhi is nonexistent. And now it’s gone.
But the most heartbreaking part for Denver is that it didn’t even lose Grant over money. All reports indicate that the Nuggets were willing to match the contract he received from Detroit. The problem was that the Pistons could offer him a much bigger offensive role. There was a limit to how much Grant could continue to get better on a team with Jokic, Murray, and a rising young star in Michael Porter Jr. Grant averaged 8.9 field goal attempts per game last season, and would have been lucky to match that number again this year given Porter’s need for more shots.
Detroit is offering Grant the chance to become the face of its franchise. It’s the next step in an incredible rise for a player who was a second-round pick out of Syracuse in 2014 and spent his first three seasons in Philadelphia as part of The Process. Grant was taken two spots ahead of Jokic in the same draft, and his emergence into a $20-million-a-year player is almost as unlikely as Jokic’s rise. No one saw this coming. Grant shot 6-of-20 from 3 in two seasons in college and shot 30.1 percent from 3 on 1.7 attempts per game in his first four seasons in the NBA.
That kind of shooting improvement doesn’t happen often. It goes beyond just work ethic. He needed to have the underlying shooting touch to improve, as well as the muscle memory to learn new mechanics at a later stage in life. There are a lot of NBA players who have locked themselves in a gym for a couple offseasons and still couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. Grant played with some of them in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City. His history of making unusual improvements means his time in Detroit can’t be written off as a mistake, even though it will be a massive challenge.
Grant is going from playing in space off a transcendent passer to joining a bizarre roster that is overflowing with centers and doesn’t have much shooting or playmaking. He will have to create shots against defenses geared to stop him and won’t have anyone to create easy looks for him. Detroit has two shoot-first point guards who can’t space the floor in Derrick Rose and the newly acquired Delon Wright, and will be developing Killian Hayes, the no. 7 overall pick in this year’s draft. Hayes has an intriguing combination of passing and scoring ability for a 6-foot-5 guard, but he’s also a 19-year-old with limited athleticism who played at a lower level in Europe last season and almost never uses his right hand.
Grant could end up being unfairly compared to Christian Wood, the ubertalented young big man whom the Pistons let walk on Friday partly to open up cap space to sign Grant. But they probably could have afforded—and used—both if they hadn’t poured money into Mason Plumlee. The other decisions Detroit made are not Grant’s fault. He should be judged on his own merits.
It’s easy to see why many doubt that Grant can keep getting better. He has to make just as dramatic an improvement as a ball handler and decision-maker as he did as a shooter. But it’s also easy to see why Grant wouldn’t listen to the skeptics. There were a lot of doubts about whether he would even stick in the NBA. His own college coach (Jim Boeheim) criticized him for declaring for the draft after only two seasons. Grant is still only 26. He owed it to himself to see exactly how good he could become and not accept limitations on his game.
Basketball is a game of confidence. If Grant didn’t believe that he could raise his game if given more offensive responsibility, he would never have become as good as he was in Denver last season. The odds are that he will become an inefficient volume scorer on a bad team in Detroit. But he will never know until he tries.
Grant can always go back to a 3-and-D role like the one he had in Denver. He will be 29 when his contract expires. He would be right in the middle of his prime, having spent the last three seasons expanding his offensive game. His career could end up looking a lot like Andre Iguodala’s, who was 30 when he signed in Golden State. Iguodala was the perfect fifth option for a championship team, but he might not have been able to accept that role if he hadn’t led teams in Philadelphia and Denver in his 20s.
The Nuggets can’t afford to be too upset about Grant’s departure. The return of Ricky Rubio (Wolves) and Derrick Favors (Jazz) to their old teams in the last week is proof that time heals all wounds. There’s a very good chance that Denver is stuck in place for the next three seasons, trying and failing to find someone who can fill Grant’s shoes. The team will need someone with his skill set to take the next step. But it’s just so hard to find players like Grant that their best chance of doing that might be waiting for him to come back.