Can the Denver Nuggets survive the Western Conference elite’s without Jerami Grant?

Denver Nuggets Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Denver Nuggets Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

Can the Denver Nuggets remain a top contender without Jerami Grant?

The Denver Nuggets are one of the most exciting, young contenders in the NBA currently. Coming off a Western Conference Finals run, Denver looks poised to stay amongst the top of the West peak for quite some time.

But their chances to continue that success took a massive hit last week when forward Jerami Grant decided to sign with the Detroit Pistons in free agency. The move came as somewhat of a shock to most around the Nuggets, fans and the team’s front office seemed confident in his return. The loss is a significant one for Denver given Grant’s skillset and the way he fit next to their star duo in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

Grant brought a unique combination of athleticism, length, defense, perimeter shooting, and the occasional ability to create off the dribble, which became a luxury for the team. His defensive responsibility might’ve been as big or important as any players in the league. Denver asked Grant on a nightly basis to defend elite wings like LeBron, Kawhi, Luka, etc…but also switch onto elite guards like Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell frequently. This gave Jokic and Murray the ability to focus mainly on what makes them so special on the offensive end of the floor, rarely having to always defend the other team’s best player.

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Well, that luxury has now been pulled from underneath the Nuggets’ feet so to say, and not having a defensive weapon like Grant at their disposal, is something that could collapse their immediate chances at regaining a top-three seed in the Western Conference Playoffs next season.

What made Jerami Grant’s decision more confusing and disappointing was that the Denver Nuggets offered him the same $20 million per year deal as the Detroit Pistons did. An all too familiar feeling and reminder for Nuggets fans, being let down by free agency decisions has become a tiresome routine for the fan base.

The main cause of Grant’s departure from the Mile High City apparently had to do with being promised a bigger role by Detroit than the one Denver currently offers him. Ultimately, he bet on himself, and for that Grant should be applauded and respected. But as a diehard fan of this franchise, it’s hard not to feel sort of done cheaply by him and puzzled by the choice.

Grant has some deep ties to the Pistons front office, making it understandable for his comfort in joining the organization. I just never thought he was unhappy enough being the third or fourth option on a Western Conference Finals team, to want to leave to a franchise that hasn’t competed in meaningful basketball games in at least a decade it seems. But the time for being upset isn’t now, the Nuggets had to go to whatever back up plan they had in the chance Grant chose to leave, something they didn’t seem too prepared for. However, Tim Connelly did a more than commendable job given the circumstances, of trying to add pieces that could make up for what has been lost in Grant.

Denver immediately pivoted their attention to former Clippers forward JayMychal Green, a familiar foe after the team’s second-round playoff battle this past season. Both parties were able to agree on a two year, $15 million deal and provide the Nuggets with a band-aid for their gash of losing Grant. Green is a solid veteran, averaging 8.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while shooting 37.4 percent from beyond the arc throughout his six-season career.

He’s not the individual defender that Grant is but he’s got a great motor, he’s a better rebounder and you could argue is a more consistent shooter. Green doesn’t have the lateral quickness that Grant possesses but he’s also a really good athlete and has the length with a seven-foot-two inch wingspan to replicate a little of what Grant did defensively for Denver.

Bringing back Paul Millsap then became the top priority for the team, re-signing the veteran to a one-year, $10 million deal. Millsap was a big reason the Nuggets were able to start the process of becoming a contender, after signing with them initially in 2017. He was a mentor of sorts to Nikola Jokic and helped grow his confidence into becoming a star player and a calming force in the locker room. Having Millsap to have some of the continuity of last year’s core back is huge with the loss of Grant.

The intangible things that would’ve been lost if Millsap chose another team, combined with Grant and Torrey Craig both leaving, might’ve been insurmountable for Denver to overcome to repeat last year’s success. You saw Millsap get into it with Marcus Morris during Game 5 of the Nuggets second-round playoff series with the Clippers and it changed the team’s entire demeanor. Having that sort of presence back is something stats can’t measure and was crucial to keep intact for this group.

Millsap’s return combined with the addition of Green should give Nuggets fans optimism. The 3-point shooting of both of them at the four spot next to Jokic opens up some interesting offensive possibilities for Denver. Neither Millsap nor Green will be able to defend guards or elite wings like Grant did, but the combination of the two should provide head coach Michael Malone with at least some options to replenish the Nuggets’ defense.

The other options for the Nuggets to make up for the absence of Grant will be in-house, with Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton. Porter Jr. is a player Denver fans are obviously very excited and hopeful about what he can become, especially after his play during the playoffs. His Per 36 minutes numbers averaging a double-double of 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting 38.2 percent from 3 in 19 postseason appearances were beyond promising.

MPJ has the ability to be the best scorer on this team and become the third link in a trio with Jokic and Murray, that could be an all-timer for Denver. But his handle could use some work and mainly, he now must take the next step as a defender. Porter Jr. was constantly exploited in the playoffs defensively on the perimeter and mainly on switches. His 113.0 defensive rating is a great representation of that and won’t be enough now with Grant gone if Denver wants to take that championship step.

The fact MPJ only played three percent of his minutes last season at the small forward position is concerning as well, seeing as now he could potentially start at the three for the Nuggets and will be asked to defend way more often against wings. It’s going to be interesting to see if he can dial in on his defensive deficiencies and improve next season, Denver’s future and present are now all in on it.

Will Barton’s return is something that has flown under the radar, mainly because of the knee injury that kept him out of the NBA bubble. He’s been a sparkplug of a scorer for Denver the past six seasons and his shot creation, playmaking, and defense were sorely missed during the team’s playoff run.

Now that he’s healthy, Barton gives the Nuggets another wing to replace Grant’s shooting and defense. He’ll probably end up being Denver’s third or fourth scoring option next year, but Barton’s value will be felt much more defensively than prior seasons. The leaps he made last year on that end of the floor were not praised enough, Barton was one of the Nuggets’ more reliable defenders and his near career-best of 1.8 defensive win shares in 2019-20 justified that. He won’t be able to replace Grant’s defense or overall skillset individually, but he should be able to chip in to help remedy a little of what has been lost.

MPJ, Green, and Millsap collectively can replace much of what Grant provided Denver, especially as a defender and if you throw Bol Bol in there too, the Nuggets have allocated a more than competent solution for the loss of Grant.

If all else fails and maybe not even in the case of some doomsday scenario, the last option the Nuggets now have at their disposal might be the one that gives fans the most excitement. With Grant choosing to sign with the Pistons, Denver didn’t have to quite frankly overpay him $20 million a season and instead now has both Green and Millsap on super trade-friendly deals. The door will be wide open for the Nuggets to make a trade before or at the trade deadline next season if things aren’t going well and not panning out as the front office would’ve hoped.

The Denver Post’s Mike Singer also reported that the Nuggets have created a $9.5 million trade exception in an apparent sign-and-trade deal with Detroit, that also included Nikola Radacevic going to the Pistons and cash considerations coming back to Denver. Denver actually used a similar trade exception to acquire Grant from Oklahoma City, so this is another card they have in their hand to play now.

They could package Green, Millsap, or both with someone like maybe Gary Harris in a deal during the season for players like Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo, or Bradley Beal, all three of whom Denver fans have been talking about for years and especially now with the Grant situation. The more likely outcome though is probably Denver utilizing that trade exception to acquire a veteran piece, maybe someone like Trevor Ariza or Myles Turner.

It’s still surprising, frustrating, and ultimately just disappointing that Jerami Grant is no longer a member of the Denver Nuggets. I really felt he was going to stay here in Denver and seemed to be a guy who fits perfectly not only on the court but off the court with this current core. I’m not sure the Nuggets now have enough to compete with the top teams in the West this season.

With the Lakers adding Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol, the Clippers adding Serge Ibaka, the Warriors returning to form despite the loss of Klay Thompson, the Suns trading for Chris Paul, and Portland bringing in Robert Covington, it’s hard to see a path where Denver finishes as a top-three seed again in the conference. But it is doable and there’s plenty of options for the Nuggets to utilize to replace Grant and there’s optimism with what’s already been done to fill that gap.

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Denver Nuggets fans just wanted to be the pretty girl at the ball for once, but Jerami Grant had other plans heading to the Motor City. We’re just hoping the team’s championship window didn’t just close, as fast it seemed to open this past summer.