After they traded Carmelo Anthony in February, the Nuggets nearly led the league in both points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, a feat that gave some pundits reason to believe they’d upset the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. A few bad breaks (remember that uncalled Kendrick Perkins basket interference in Game 1?), some shaky late-game execution and a lot of Thunder awesomeness doomed the Nuggets in that series, but with Nene, Ty Lawson and the Melo bounty, the future looked very bright in Denver.
But now, only a few teams have a more uncertain immediate future, and perhaps none have more at stake as the league decides how to handle the salary-cap mechanics surrounding free agency this fall. And on Wednesday, the Nuggets’ future became even shakier as the Denver Post‘s Benjamin Hochman reported that Kenyon Martin signed with Xingiang Guanghui of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Martin, who possibly inked the largest contract in CBA history, became the third member of Denver’s core (joining Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith) to sign with the league, which has banned NBA players from cutting out early to return to the NBA when the lockout ends. In theory, this means all three — all of whom are free agents — must stay in China until mid-Feburary (when the regular season there ends) or late March (when the playoffs usually end). Skeptics have wondered if Chinese teams might be able to get around this rule by simply releasing NBA players when the lockout ends, and many of the international leagues with limited slots for foreign-born players have a history of cutting them abruptly.
Each departure on its own is no big deal. Martin is a 33-year-old unrestricted free agent who barely shoots or gets to the line anymore, though he remains a useful rotation guy on both ends. Smith is an unrestricted free agent who has clashed with coach George Karl and figures to fall behind Andre Miller, Lawson and Arron Afflalo (a restricted free agent) in Denver’s guard rotation. Chandler is a restricted free agent, and though he’s young, talented and versatile, he overlaps enough with Danilo Gallinari that it wouldn’t be a death-blow for Denver to lose him. The Nuggets have tendered Chandler a qualifying offer, meaning they will have the right to match any competing offer for him.
But all three bolting to China together? This could transform the Nuggets from of the league’s deepest teams to one of its shallowest, even if they manage to re-sign Afflalo. Remember: Nene, the team’s best player, is also an unrestricted free agent, and if Denver loses him, it will be left with a big man rotation of Chris Andersen, Timofey Mozgov, Al Harrington, Kosta Koufos and rookie Kenneth Faried. Yikes.
While it’s easy to say the Nuggets would have major cap room if Nene does leave, we really have no idea if that will be true. Under the old collective bargaining deal, elements of which will persist in the new one, Denver held varying levels of control over all of its outgoing free agents. That control came with a price: salary-cap holds, or artificial charges to its cap number that would effectively take it out of the free-agent derby. The only way to get rid of such cap holds was for a player to sign elsewhere or for Denver to renounce its rights to such a player. It may well have done that with Martin and Smith, but will the new system allow the Nuggets to do so now that the two have signed abroad without entering NBA free agency — and could return to the NBA in time to sign with a playoff team next season? Will cap holds even exist?
Even if Denver can rid itself of those restrictions, that still leaves Nene, Chandler and Afflalo, and together those guys (using the old rules) carry cap holds large enough to take Denver just over last season’s salary cap. Nene’s massive cap hold would vanish upon his signing elsewhere, potentially freeing up space, but the Nuggets will not be able to sign a player of Nene’s caliber in the free-agent market.
None of this is certain, obviously, given Denver’s unprecedented situation and the new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon. And this team has lived with uncertainty for a while now.
When the offseason started, it was unclear if the Nuggets would have cap room or end up well over the salary cap. They remain in limbo in that sense, but now they’ve entered another level of uncertainty: Can they even fill out an NBA-level seven-man rotation? Everyone loves Faried and rookie swingman Jordan Hamilton, but we really have no idea if they’re ready to contribute in a competitive Western Conference. Even Mozgov, a solid player in EuroBasket, is an unknown NBA commodity (aside from his foul rate).
For the record, it seems Martin and Smith can argue over who inked the largest deal in CBA history. Smith’s agent, Leon Rose, confirmed to SI.com that Smith’s contract with the Zhejiang was the richest in the league’s history, which would put its value at around $3 million for one season of play. Rose also said that Smith’s deal was “net of taxes,” meaning the team would take care of some or all of Smith’s U.S. and international tax obligations linked to the contract. Now initial reports say Martin’s deal might trump Smith’s, and Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! pinpoints the value at $3 million.
This matters little to the Nuggets, who face perhaps the most uncertain future of any NBA team.