There was a lot of preemptive criticism over the maximum-level deal that free-agent big man Nene seemed sure to receive, whether it was a five-year, $100 million contract from the Nuggets or the four-year, $75 million package that rival suitors could offer. Nene is a very nice two-way player, but he does not look the part of a franchise cornerstone. So the NBA know-it-alls were perched over their keyboards, ready to rip a general manager for overspending after a lockout designed to engineer financial restraint.
Guess what? The Nuggets retained Nene late Tuesday with a five-year, $67 million deal. That means he’ll make $13.4 million annually — a bit less than Tyson Chandler will earn on his four-year deal with the Knicks, about $1.4 million more per season than Atlanta’s Al Horford is paid and “only” about $3 million more per year than the Clippers gave DeAndre Jordan, a relatively unproven player, at least compared to a veteran like Nene.
This is a fair deal, and if the Nuggets pair it with the re-signing of restricted free agent Arron Afflalo and the continued development of point guard Ty Lawson and forward Danilo Gallinari, they would be positioned to make the playoffs this season and maintain their future financial flexibility.
Remember: This team nearly led the league in both points scored and allowed per possession after the Carmelo Anthony trade last season, and it might have pushed the Thunder hard in the first round of the playoffs if not for an ill-timed injury to Afflalo and an awful non-call on an obvious Kendrick Perkins basket interference down the stretch of Game 1. Denver will have issues on the front line, and it might miss J.R. Smith’s shot creation and range (not his defense), but this team should nail down one of the final three seeds in the Western Conference. The Nuggets could do better if something goes wrong among the West’s five-team upper echelon of Oklahoma City, Dallas, San Antonio, Memphis and the Lakers, four of whom are dealing with questions about either age (Lakers, Spurs), significant roster changes (Mavericks, Lakers) or the ability to sustain last season’s improvement (Memphis).
Nene is one of the league’s most efficient scorers, but he relies more than most stars on teammate assists to get his points. About 70 percent of his baskets came via assists last season, a larger-than-average number for big men. Nene is a great off-the-ball cutter, and he thrived on the attention Anthony drew. He also got some easy looks via Kenyon Martin’s smart passing on pick-and-roll plays. Martin put up a better-than-average assist rate last year for a power forward, and he got really good at setting a pick, catching the ball on the way to the hoop, surveying the defense and sliding a quick pass to Nene along the baseline for a layup or dunk.
Martin is in China now (along with Smith, also an unrestricted free agent, and Wilson Chandler, a restricted free agent). The Nuggets’ big-man rotation beyond Nene consists of a lumbering center (Timofey Mozgov), a stretch power forward (Al Harrington), a non-passer who can’t stay healthy (Chris Andersen) and some unproven young guys (including rookie first-round pick Kenneth Faried). Gallinari could also play some power forward in small-ball lineups, but Nene may lose a few of the easy buckets he got playing with Martin.
That’s what worries me a little about Nene, and why Denver has done well to lock him up at a reasonable price: He has never proved himself as the go-to centerpiece of an offense. Nene is a ridiculously efficient post scorer, but he’s uncomfortable working with his back to the basket, and he depends almost entirely on his quickness to score near the rim. Whether he faces up or backs down his opponent, Nene’s go-to moves are spins and drop-steps built on his speed. When those don’t produce an opening, he has less of an in-between game to fall back on — no refined “crisis moves” to produce a good look. His speed and his solid stand-still jumper have been plenty good enough, but what happens when age takes some of that speed? Nene is already 29, after all.
The same is true on defense, where Nene is something like a “B+” player and not an “A” guy. He allowed 49 percent shooting on post-up attempts (a below-average mark for a big man), according to Synergy Sports, and bigger guys can bully him in the post and on the glass. Mozgov’s emergence at center would offset this a bit, but Nene has to become a better rebounder now for Denver to again rank as one of the league’s best defensive-rebounding teams. Nene’s speed makes him a good pick-and-roll defender and mobile helper.
This all sound a bit negative, so let’s be clear: There are not many big men who grade as “B+”/”A-” types on both ends of the floor, and the few who exist get paid the big money they deserve. Nene is one such player, and the money here is fair. The Nuggets are essentially capped out for this season, given cap holds attached to the China brigade, but they still have room left in the Anthony trade exception, and they are set up nicely for the future. Assuming they re-sign Afflalo for about $8 million per season (and that might be low), the Nuggets have about $42.5 million in committed salary for 2012-13, a number that does not include cap holds tied to Gallinari and newly acquired Rudy Fernandez. Denver also has the amnesty clause in the bag for use on Harrington or Andersen later.
The Nuggets have emerged from the Anthony saga with assets (Gallinari will probably end up the long-term prize), cap flexibility, a decent tent-pole big man in Nene, a rising point guard in Lawson and some interesting supporting pieces on the wing. If Mozgov or Faried develops as an interior threat to flank Nene, this team should be good right away. It still lacks a franchise-level superstar, but so do most teams. The only thing you can do without one is pile up talent and stay lean on the finances, and Denver is doing that well.