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Nuggets Creeping Closer, But is This the Year They Break Through in Free Agency?

By Christopher Dempsey, Altitude Sports

Thursday, June 29, 2017 | Christopher Dempsey | Denver Nuggets

The upcoming free agency period is going to quickly answer a couple of questions related to where the Nuggets are in their lifecycle.

- How attractive are they to the most sought-after free agents?

- Is Nikola Jokic’s breakout second season enough to recruit off of? Or does there need to be another season adding to his body of work?

The Nuggets are close, without question. Since taking over in 2013, the front office trio of Josh Kroenke, Tim Connelly and Arturas Karinsovas has never been in better position to make a significant strike in free agency than this year. This is due, first, to what they have been able to accomplish as front office. Players and agents now know what they are about, know how they operate and know they are focused on taking care of their athletes in everything from creating a “family” atmosphere in the organization to the improvements in their workspace from new locker rooms and training facilities to an upgraded lounge. And coming down the pike is a new practice facility.

All of that is a big deal because the health of an organization is scruitinized more closely than ever by athletes and their representation. Money matters, of course. But so does a stable, upwardly-mobile franchise. It was a big deal for the the Nuggets to get the meeting with Dwyane Wade last summer – and then to have the sure-fire future Hall of Famer be so pleasantly surprised with what he saw and heard that he spoke glowingly about the Nuggets in interviews after his decision was made.

They’ll be looking to carry that momentum to this summer’s free agency, which starts Saturday. But, in Denver, there is a fact that those who are intoxicated by the rumors and comings-and-goings of the free agency season won’t necessarily want to hear: The Nuggets are in good shape whether they hit on a big-name free agent or not. They are almost perfectly positioned as they continue to work toward being a playoff team that can sustain that level of play and contend when the opportunity presents itself down the road.

As presently constituted, the Nuggets should expect one thing right off the top next season: To be better at home. They won 22 home games last season, which was fine given the space they were coming from, a losing home record in 2015-16. Yet, it’s not unreasonable to ask a good team to win 30 times in their own arena, to go 30-11 at home. If the Nuggets did that alone, and win the same 18 games on the road they did last season, they’d be a 48-win team. And with Jokic in his third season, Jamal Murray in his second season, Gary Harris coming off his best season as a pro, and a number of other players that made improvements or project as improving, getting to 30 home wins is not an impossible or improbable task. And 48 wins is likely to get the Nuggets into the playoffs. It would have been sixth in the Western Conference in the recently-completed season.

The league itself is starting to fracture. The Golden State Effect – and to a lesser degree, Cleveland as well -- has forced front offices to put themselves in one of two categories. Those are can contend and those who can’t contend, and make decisions accordingly. So, the Chicago Bulls deal Jimmy Butler instead of adding talent around him, and unabashedly announced they are starting over with young players. The Clippers deal Chris Paul and chart a longer-term course building around Blake Griffin, who they’ll try to retain in free agency. The Rockets, who welcomed Paul with open arms, continue to stockpile talent for a title run.

You’re either going young or going for it. The middle is thinning out. And in this climate, the Nuggets are nicely positioned. This isn’t about waiting out the Golden State Warriors, or any other team. It’s about staying on a course that has seen them increase their win totals in each of the first two seasons under coach Michael Malone, and has seen them draft and develop some good young talent. Does the team want to add a big name star? Sure it does. Should the Nuggets feel pressured to mortgage some of their young talent to do it? Indications are they don’t, and right now that’s a solid line of thought.

Nuggets brass has always said it will not skip steps to getting back to playoff relevancy. Their patience in that regard is being tested. It might take one more summer for them to be a real player in free agency. We’ll see. But they are also on the doorstep of having that patience rewarded.

Christopher Dempsey: or @chrisadempsey on Twitter