To Nene, or not to Nene. This is the potentially franchise-shaping question facing the Denver Nuggets.
This is becoming familiar territory for Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri, who no sooner got the job last season when he was thrust into the Carmelo Anthony saga. That one ended well for Denver: Melo and his wandering eye got a max extension and a trade to the Knicks. The Nuggets got valuable assets and picks, including players like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler -- who were already accomplished starters to a degree but also young and cheap enough to build and plan around.
But what about Nene? In a lackluster free-agent class, only Nene and Mavs center Tyson Chandler figure to command max money. Some NBA executives question whether either player is worth a contract starting at the max of $17.4-$17.8 million. If Nene wants to push for a sign-and-trade to a contender -- such as Dallas and Miami, two of the teams on his list -- he'd have to settle for a four-year deal with smaller raises than the Nuggets can offer.
If he wants a five-year deal, he'll stay in Denver. If he just wants a change of scenery, he could get a four-year deal from any number of teams that have cap space or could create it, such as the Nets, Warriors, Rockets or Pacers. In short, Nene has options. Not as many options as Anthony, who had the full extend-and-trade avenue and max sign-and-trade scenario going for him -- but options, nonetheless.
So, why aren't the Nuggets panicking? One, if Ujiri survived the Melodrama, the Nene-a-thon will be a piece of cake. And two, the Nuggets have options, too.
If Nene bolts, Denver is projected to have the most cap room in the league next season -- nearly $39 million, and more if they amnesty Al Harrington between now and then. They have their own first-round pick in 2012 and '13, and could wind up with more if Nene departed via the sign-and-trade route. As weak as this free-agent class is, this year's draft will be deep and exceptional. Not a bad time to undertake a one-year rebuilding/reloading plan if that's what the Nuggets are forced to do.
Also, the Nuggets brass need to find out what Gallinari is going to be in major minutes, not to mention Timofey Mozgov, another piece they got from the Knicks for Anthony. The sting of a rebuilding year also would be minimized by a shortened season. It'll be over fast, and if the Nuggets missed the playoffs, it wouldn't be long before they'd be preparing to pick a potential All-Star in the lottery.
While the Nuggets won't be in the running for a potential superstar free agent like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul or Deron Williams, their copious cap space and assets obtained in the Melo trade would give them flexibility to be one of the biggest players next summer. So do the Nuggets want Nene back? Of course. Ujiri has told him that on many occasions, and as with Anthony, the Nuggets exec has taken the time to build a relationship with his star so there's mutual trust.
But if someone is willing to pay Nene the max in the next week or so, making a 14-point, seven-rebound center a $17 million player? There may be no way to avoid parting ways. And as in the case of Anthony, it could wind up working out for the best for both sides.