Nuggets Journal: Should Denver trade its 2024 first-round draft pick? It’s not so simple

The NBA Finals ended this week, but the busiest time of year for most teams is just beginning.

Draft week marks the final full week of the 2023-24 league calendar before free agency opens July 1 and a new year technically begins. There’s already been a major trade between Chicago and Oklahoma City, one major contract extension between Indiana and Pascal Siakam, and several stops and starts on a particularly entertaining coaching carousel.

The draft (June 26-27) figures to be equally enthralling, if only because there are zero certainties. In a draft class perceived to be weaker than usual, any given prospect’s potential is truly in the eye of the beholder. There’s no Victor Wembanyama this time. The first round feels unpredictable from top to bottom.

The Nuggets hold one pick late in that first round (No. 28) and another late in the second (No. 56). Due to a combination of Denver’s more immediate title window and the apparent subpar talent available, the big burning question is whether general manager Calvin Booth will use that first-rounder or trade it. During his end-of-season news conference, he said Denver was open to all options: “trade up, trade down, look to trade out.”

So what’s the most useful way to deploy the 28th overall pick?

The natural answer might be to package it with other trade assets and try to improve the roster for 2024-25. The reality is that trading it isn’t that simple. Here’s why.

Denver’s most tradable players on the current roster from a salary-matching standpoint are Reggie Jackson and Zeke Nnaji. Trade partners are likely to be skeptical about the value of those two due to their struggles last season, so if the Nuggets were to hypothetically package them, they would have to throw in at least one draft asset — maybe more — as a necessary sacrifice.

Teams are not allowed to trade picks more than seven years into the future, and as things stand, the Nuggets are hampered by the Stepien Rule. The rule requires the Nuggets to possess at least one first-round pick in every other draft, and they have already traded their 2025, ’27 and ’29 first-rounders. This 28th pick is their only golden ticket, for one day only.

So let’s say they attach No. 28 to Jackson (who’s expected to exercise a $5.25 million player option) and Nnaji, who signed a shiny new extension last October (four years, $32 million). Their 2024-25 salaries add up to $14.1 million. That’s pretty darn good. Enough to net a really solid top-six rotation player in an ideal outcome. Alex Caruso, the linchpin of that Oklahoma City trade, has a cap hit of only $9.9 million next year. There are high-quality backup bigs out there within that price range. Toronto’s Kelly Olynyk makes $12.8 million.

But draft day is not in the year 2024-25. Draft day is in the year 2023-24. Nnaji’s new $8.9 million salary doesn’t go into effect until five days later. Until then, his outgoing salary for trade purposes is only $4.3 million, with a poison pill restriction in his contract that complicates matters even more by inflating his incoming salary figure for the receiving team in a trade. The point is, Nnaji and Jackson do not add up to $14.1 million for the Nuggets’ purposes on June 26. They add up to $9.3 million.

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The Nuggets don’t have any other bench players with salaries exceeding $3 million, so the remaining contracts cannot net a worthwhile return unless they’re attached to something much bigger. And Denver isn’t exactly eager to offload Christian Braun and Peyton Watson while they’re on rookie contracts.

Then there’s this: Aggregating salaries in a trade would hard-cap the Nuggets at the second luxury tax apron, effectively eliminating their chances of keeping Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Denver’s organizational philosophy across multiple front office tenures has been driven by a core tenet: draft and develop. Hitting with the 28th pick will be difficult, but the Nuggets have exceeded expectations with recent late first-rounders. They’re almost definitely going to use this pick to select a prospect, rather than trading out of the draft in a move that might be awkward and forced. It’s just a matter of whether they land another hidden gem.

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