It's hard enough to get deep into the playoffs, but staying at that level is even more difficult. What the Nuggets do in July might go a long way toward determining their staying power. Denver hit the fiscal jackpot last season, paring payroll while improving its talent en route to making the Western Conference finals after five consecutive first-round playoff exits.
Cutting salary and improving on the court will be much more difficult this time around. The Nuggets have more than $71 million in salary committed to players for the upcoming season, not including a $2.7 million qualifying contract offer to Linas Kleiza.
After signing free agents, the priority of which is their own big man, Chris Andersen, the Nuggets will likely start the 2009-10 season over the luxury-tax threshold, expected to be in the neighborhood of $70 million to $71 million, and try to take small steps during the season to trim salary by season's end to come in around the tax threshold.
So, how much wheeling and dealing should the Nuggets do when free agency opens tonight at 10:01 p.m. MDT? Is the current configuration of players still good enough to make another run at an NBA title?
"The thing I've told my staff over the last couple of weeks is we have players that can improve," coach George Karl said, referring specifically to Carmelo Anthony, Nene and J.R. Smith. "You have three guys that have a fairly big window of growth ahead of them. If possible, we have a good chance of signing Chris (Andersen). I think he will be a better offensive player for us next year too."
But even if Andersen is signed, as well as Kleiza, is this roster good enough to win the West?
"I think the main thing that we've been trying to do is stay hungry and stay humble and realize we don't have it all figured out," said Rex Chapman, Nuggets vice president of player personnel. "It was a very tight Western Conference race. So we're all pretty pleased with the past year, but we have work to do."
San Antonio already has fired the first shot among Western Conference teams this offseason, trading for high-
scoring wing Richard Jefferson. He adds firepower and fresh legs to a roster that had begun to look old and stale. His addition immediately vaults the Spurs back among the contenders.
Free agents can sign starting July 8, after which point Nuggets fans will learn how much owner Stan Kroenke is willing to add to the team's payroll.
"He had a lot of fun with (last) year's team," Karl said. "I think he's committed to still being financially responsible, but in the same sense he wants to win like we won this year and make this a three-, four-, five-year window of having good seasons and great playoffs."
Mark Warkentien, Nuggets VP of Basketball operations, said Kroenke never set a salary limit last season. The front office was so effective in trimming back - cutting more than $20 million - he'll likely take the same approach this offseason.
But the challenges are different. Andersen is a coveted free agent, capable of commanding a salary that hovers near the midlevel exception (last year, that was $5.585 million). Kleiza could return for the qualifying contract offer. If guard Anthony Carter is re-signed, the least he could make this season is $1.3 million. The least Dahntay Jones could make is $1.033 million. Ty Lawson's $1.198 million rookie contract will be paid with the money Denver recently gained from selling its second-round draft pick for $2.25 million.
And there still may be a role player or two the Nuggets want to add in addition to signing their own free agents.
"The draft is an opportunity to improve your portfolio. I think we did that," Warkentien said. "Now, you look at it and say, 'OK, we purchased that at the right price,' and now look at the market conditions tomorrow to totally look at the global 360-degree condition of the league. We go back and (say), 'OK, what do we do now?"'
Chris Dempsey: 303-954-1279 or firstname.lastname@example.org Free-agent city
There is talent to fill needs at every position with this free-agent class. Denver Post NBA reporter Chris Dempsey analyzes the free-agent landscape:
Nuggets free agents
F/C Chris Andersen, unrestricted: "Birdman" is the Nuggets' top priority.
F Linas Kleiza, restricted: Subpar season damaged his worth on the open market.
G Anthony Carter, unrestricted: Ty Lawson's presence could be trouble for the veteran.
G Dahntay Jones, unrestricted: Are there enough dollars to keep him in Denver?
G Jason Hart, unrestricted: Didn't play much, but has been well thought of in free agency in years past.
C Johan Petro, unrestricted: No qualifying offer means Petro is free to fly away.
Top five free agents
Jason Kidd, G, Dallas Mavericks: Aging, yes, but can help a championship contender.
Ron Artest, F, Houston Rockets: Tough defender, and the fact he has stayed out of trouble boosts his stock. A slower step hurts it.
Carlos Boozer, F, Utah Jazz: Has to opt out first, but if he does, Detroit is very interested.
Ben Gordon, G, Chicago Bulls: The streaky shooter is believed to be interested in Detroit.
Allen Iverson, G, Detroit Pistons: If he accepts less money and a lesser role, The Answer can still help a number of teams.
Five honorable mentions
Mike Bibby, G, Atlanta Hawks: Hawks want him back, but the price may be too high.
Lamar Odom, F, Los Angeles
Lakers: Lakers want Odom back,
but can they sign both him and Trevor Ariza?
Shawn Marion, F, Toronto Raptors: The question is whether Toronto wants him. Probably not.
Rasheed Wallace, F, Detroit Pistons: Not expected to return, and baggage worries potential suitors.
Antonio McDyess, F, Detroit
Pistons: He forced his way out of
Denver and may not return to Detroit, either.
Looking ahead to 2010
LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers: Teams are giving away players to clear salary cap space for a shot at King James.
Amar'e Stoudemire, F, Phoenix Suns: Arguably the best big man on the market; must opt out first, and could be traded this offseason.
Dwyane Wade, G, Miami Heat: Miami already has begun the process of trying to keep its young superstar.
Chris Bosh, F, Toronto Raptors: Best player in the 2010 class whom no one talks about.
Dirk Nowitzki, F, Dallas Mavericks: Must opt out first, but if he does, he's looking at his last big contract.
How this works
Free agency begins at 10:01 p.m. tonight (12:01 a.m. EDT, July 1). At that time, player agents can begin negotiating contracts with team executives. Players cannot be signed to a contract until July 8. Restricted free agents are players who can receive a contract offer from another team, but must wait to see if the team they played for during the past season matches the offer. Unrestricted free agents are free to sign a contract with any team without waiting for a counteroffer.