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NBA AM: A Very Different Nuggets Team

The Denver Nuggets are a very different team today and they could be even more different this summer… There is risk in playing too hard in restricted free agency.

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A Different Nuggets Team:  The Denver Nuggets have endured an ugly season, so it’s only fitting that as the 2014-15 season winds down some sunshine is poking through the proverbial cloud that’s surrounded the team for months. Last night in Orlando, forward Danilo Gallinari dropped in 40 points and Denver won, 119-100, ending a three-game skid and showing how right things could look for the Nuggets.

The Nuggets overwhelmed the Magic defensively, executing arguably the best defensive performance the team has put together all season, and everyone that played contributed in a big and unselfish way.

After the win an almost giddy Melvin Hunt, the interim head coach of the Nuggets, was all smiles and jokes. His enthusiasm for his team is infectious and it’s clear why the Nuggets have turned things around. Under ousted head coach Brian Shaw, post-game sessions became more about blame and finger pointing while Hunt just loves to gush about his team.

His team has noticed too. Nuggets guard Ty Lawson said the big change with Hunt is how much energy and positivity he has injected into the process.

“He is giving everybody confidence,” Lawson told Basketball Insiders. “He is a very upbeat person. I think he just wants everybody to succeed; you feel it when he walks into the room and when he talks to us. He has us all on the same page, that’s helping us out right now.”

There is no doubting that Hunt has changed the demeanor of a team that was sliding into discontent. Lawson has been one of the brighter points on the Nuggets’ season and arguably one of the team’s best players. The changes around him have been welcomed.

“We’re playing faster,” Lawson said. “I think everybody is buying into the defensive end. When we get stops, we get easy scores. That’s our blueprint for what we’re doing right now.

“I just like the way everybody is jelling, everybody is playing their role. We have defined roles now and right now it’s working for us.”

The Nuggets have a big summer filled with questions ahead of them. Will the team blow things up and start over? Who will lead the team, not only from a coaching point of view but from a management and leadership point of view? How many players will be back?

There is a sense that if the Nuggets are planning on a major rebuild, Lawson may want out. Kenneth Faired, who agreed to a massive contract extension this past summer, continues to be mentioned as a possible trade candidate despite his new long-term pact; that’s how tough this season has been on the relationship the team has with some of its core players.

It’s something the team has to resolve one way or another this summer.

There is no doubting that the players inside the locker room like playing for Hunt, and many have thrown their support behind Hunt being named the full-time coach going forward.

The Nuggets have said that Hunt will be among those considered for the job when they open their search at season’s end. But the next hire has to be more than just a coach the players like playing with, it has to be a coach that can vault the team back into the hunt in the West. Being slightly better won’t cure the relationship problems – winning and winning big may be the only solution.

The Nuggets are a very different team today than they were a month or so ago. They may be an even different team several months from now.

The Nuggets are 7-5 under Hunt as head coach, so while the results have been better than the 56-85 record posted by Shaw in his season and a half as head coach, it’s not as if the Nuggets are now running the table; they are simply playing to their ability and that’s a good sign for a team that has to figure out its future.

Don’t Push Too Hard:  There will be a large number of restricted free agents hitting the market in July. Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, Orlando’s Tobias Harris, Detroit’s Reggie Jackson and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard are the bigger names of the bunch.

Each are likely to stay where they are, but all of them have been put in a situation where seeking an offer sheet from another team may be required in order for them to maximize their free agency potential.

Last summer, two players (Detroit’s Greg Monroe and Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe) found the restricted free agency process frustrating because both of their home teams made it very clear both publicly and privately that they would match offer sheets and that made getting a real offer more difficult than expected.

Bledsoe ultimately reached a deal with Phoenix, while Monroe took the qualifying offer that made him restricted, so that he could be unrestricted this July. It was a risk and one that likely cost Monroe some short-term money, but it will allow him to pick his next team unimpeded.

Several of the teams facing the same situation this summer have tried to soothe their fans by making statements or commenting off-the-record that they too would match offer sheets. However, a number of the high powered agents involved in this process have started to warn teams that if they engaged in an anti-offer sheet campaign in the press that they would urge their clients to take the qualifying offer and look to unrestricted free agency in 2016 when the NBA salary cap could balloon to well over $85-90 million.

Most of the players poised for deals in July would like to sign them and get locked in to the security that comes with it. There is also a sense that most of them want to sign four-year deals so that when they hit free agency again they will have their seven years of service and be eligible for the next maximum contract salary tier.

NBA teams can clearly take any approach they’d like with their would-be free agents; however, it does seem that allowing their home team to control the process is something the agents involved have taken notice of, and with the cap swelling to insane levels over the next few years, the long-term risk is basically injury and some players may be willing to take the risk if the process gets too crazy or too limiting.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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