The Denver Nuggets are being challenged by one of those so-called “good problems to have”. They’re still in the early stages of their rebuilding plan, and frankly, it is a bit ahead of schedule considering their roster and current place in the standings.
They have a budding superstar in Nikola Jokic. They have a current, yet injured, All-Star in Paul Millsap. They have two great young backcourt players who can score on a whim in Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, and enough solid role players to make a statement in the playoffs this season (that is unless they run into the Golden State Warriors in round one).
The team is in a favorable position. They have pieces to win now and additional pieces to win in the future. But too many similar pieces might be their largest issue.
Denver’s backcourt is beginning to clog up. Murray has solidified himself this season as the starting point guard, while Gary Harris has been the starting two guard for some time now. Behind them are 21-year old Emmanuel Mudiay, who shows occasional signs of promise only to tear it all down one play later, 21-year old Malik Beasley, who has shown some flashes, and the old man of the group; the 27-year old Will Barton.
Barton’s path to success in the NBA has taken longer than expected. He bounced around in the G League with limited success before he was called up to the NBA. It wasn’t until he landed in Denver that he found a role that suits him and allows him to thrive.
Barton is a pure scorer. Putting the ball in the basket is his calling as a professional basketball player and he’s damn good at it, especially in the 2017-18 season. He averages the second most minutes on the team – behind only the aforementioned Harris – and the fifth most points, playing mainly shooting guard with a few stints running the point. His averages of 14.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.0 assist per game are starter numbers. His shooting clips of 43.5/35.8/76.3 are respectable enough to be a viable, consistent, and dangerous weapon.
The issue isn’t how good Barton is or how much he contributes to the team – because he’s prone to go off for 25-plus points at a moments notice. The issue is how he fits into the Nuggets long-term plans.
Barton is only 27, but on this team, that’s veteran status. Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler are the only current rotation players older than him, and neither of them are over the age of 30.
The Nuggets will surely desire a veteran presence as they move forward, especially to play sound and smart basketball with second units, but Barton isn’t a second unit player anymore. With Murray, Harris, Mudiay, promising play from Beasley, and Barton, someone is going to find themselves either on the bench or on another team. Mudiay could very well be traded away, but it’s clear that Murray and Harris are here to stay for the long haul, and as long as Beasley continues on the path he’s on, odds are he sticks around, too (or he’ll at least be a nice trade sweetener).
What Barton brings to the Nuggets – or to any team for that matter – is superb, rim-rocking athleticism with a smooth shooting stroke. He’s an unrestricted free agent this upcoming summer and he will demand some well-deserved money. Denver would surely love to keep him around, but they have a lot of their money tied up with current assets and will have to pay Jokic before or when he becomes a free agent; whether it is this coming summer or the one following.
Of course, if the Nuggets are interested in Marcus Smart, as reports have stated, Barton (or Beasley/Mudiay) could very well find himself on a new team by the Feb. 8 trade deadline – and that new team could be the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics.
The Nuggets backcourt consists of unlimited offense but very limited defense. Smart is someone who has a major impact on the game without having to be a threat on offense every play. The Nuggets have plenty of offensive weapons, but defensively, their 109.2 defensive rating (ranked 23rd out of 30) could absolutely use someone such as Smart. As long as Millsap is out (which will likely be until after the All-Star break), the Nuggets have gigantic holes on defense. Smart would be able to at least fill in a few of them.
However, if Denver decides to hold onto Barton and keep him for the rest of the season, then they’re still in the same position they’re in now. If they trade for Smart it exacerbates the situation further. With Smart, the Nuggets would have two offensive threats and a defensive presence. The need for Barton would only diminish. If the Nuggets don’t trade for Smart and keep Barton, then they have to decide if they want to pay him, which would be a whole other financial problem. There isn’t a scenario where it makes sense for Denver to keep Barton for their long-term future. They can either trade him now, lose him for nothing, or re-sign him for a pretty penny and continue with a cluttered backcourt. None of these options seems great for Barton or the Nuggets, which makes it clear why it is a good idea that he be moved to another squad.
Whatever team Barton continues his professional career with will know one thing for sure. He’s going to get buckets. The Nuggets will have to manage this situation carefully to get as much out of their solid scoring guard as they can.
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