The more things change, the more they stay the same. Less than six months after the Denver Nuggets declared themselves a serious force in the West following an incredible run to the conference finals, the franchise is once again stuck in the second tier of contenders trying to make it. Nikola Jokic was voted the league’s best player, but Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and the rest of the Nuggets’ supporting cast struggled to repeat their production from last season with any regularity.

If Denver’s bottom is as high as any other team in the association, the Nuggets’ ability to raise the ceiling will be a deciding factor for an organization quickly approaching the championship phase or the development phase. For a team that has spent most of the last three years as a franchise, that is, a player on the road without being a player on the road, there is no better time than now for the Nuggets to make a complete deal.

To save Denver’s front office some work, we’ve identified the top two players the Nuggets should focus on before the 2021 NBA trade deadline. You can thank us later.

2. Harrison Barnes to Gary Harris of the Nuggets, Ball, 2021 first round pick and 2024 second round pick

No other player on Denver’s roster has irritated and disappointed Nuggets fans as much as Gary Harris since the organization owned a first-round pick in 2014. At his best, Harris is a general manager’s dream for the perimeter 3 and 3 players who do well in the modern NBA. He uses his quick two-meter wingspan to gobble up his opponents, and on the other hand, his deadly blows from the outside cover the distance between the ground and the earth. At worst, he’s such a black hole in the offense that even his excellent defense doesn’t put him much above replacement level.

The problem with the Nuggets is that we’ve seen far worse players than Harris in the last three years.

Since averaging 17.5 points per game on nearly 40 percent shooting beyond the arc in 2018 and a +5.3 plus/minus for cleaning the glass, Harris has failed to score more than 12 points per game while his shooting numbers have gotten worse each year. Even when you factor in his excellent defense, which places him in the 89th percentile of the league according to Synergy Sports data. In the percentile ranking of all defenders, the Nuggets barely have the advantage in minutes played over Harris.

For a team that already has little margin for error compared to the best competition in the West, the need to bring Harris in and out late in the game based on the team’s offensive or defensive needs may become too much for Mike Malone and his team.

Enter Harrison Barnes.

After his infamous flame-out in the 2016 NBA Finals, Barnes has found a second life as a rotation spot in Dallas and Sacramento. Despite all the success he’s had since leaving the Golden State Warriors, Barnes is experiencing perhaps the best year of his career this season with a Kings team that just can’t seem to get out of its own way.

Not only does the forward have a 62% shot percentage, but he also has the same defensive versatility that has made Harris so valuable: He regularly switches to smaller, faster guards without getting burned. What’s even more impressive is his ability to cover the inside, as the Kings regularly use his massive 230-pound frame when an inside defender like Marvin Bagley isn’t up to the task.

With Sacramento still miles away from competing, the Kings not only get a draft pick and a prospect in Ball, but also a player in Harris who could still be valuable if he can solve his shooting problems. As for Denver, in Barnes the Nuggets are getting a defenseman who not only plays with the consistency Harris lacked, but also has a contract that will decrease in value over the next two seasons – a rarity in the league.

It’s simple: Gary Harris was good at times for the Nuggets, but Harrison Barnes would have been better.

1. Kyle Lowry vs Gary Harris, Ball, Fasundo Campanzo, trade exception Jerami Grant and two first round picks in 2021 and 2027.

With Monte Morris not up for sale by signing his contract extension in December, the Nuggets will have to make up for the lack of promising prospects by picking one that is far enough in the future to significantly increase his value. Even if Denver takes on even more uncertainty, it’s entirely possible that Toronto will ask for Zeke Nnaji in a trade as well, making the price for the Nuggets even higher and losing other young, marketable assets besides the aforementioned Morris.

Either way, if Denver has the ability to add Lowry, the franchise shouldn’t be thinking about acquiring a world-class point guard.

Lowry will continue to rely on his favorite offense, the pick-and-roll, in which he is the last ball carrier nearly 30 percent of the time, according to Synergy, but the guard will also have the opportunity to expand his offensive repertoire with sets in which he must dribble the ball.

Although the Raptors rarely use this move, Nikola Jokic’s passing game is an essential part of the Nuggets’ offense, as the big man usually punishes defenders who don’t see the move coming with his skillful tackling. Even as opposing defenders anticipate the pass and hold one of Denver’s wingers in front of his chest to prevent him from grabbing the stone, Jokic is smart enough to pick up the ball for a split second to lull the defender to sleep before shooting at a teammate who hasn’t stopped the run. While not the most exciting routes in the game, they have proven to be among the Nuggets’ deadliest actions precisely because their simplicity lends itself to all the adjustments and tweaks Nikola Jokic’s brilliant mind can imagine.

Give them a point guard who is as smart as the Nuggets and can establish himself on the court as a think tank that outscores opponents every night.

But just as importantly, Lowry’s arrival at the Mile High City will allow Jamal Murray to play at an offensive position in the most critical minutes of the game. While Murray has proven he can make an impact a few times, there’s no denying that his combination with a capable point guard has proven successful in the past. While the Nuggets are a respectable plus-5.8 when Murray is at a position of 1,321 possession, according to Glass Clearing, Denver is a shocking plus-12 when they move him to a two-guard position, in a slightly smaller sample size of 1,239 possessions. Some of those numbers are certainly due to the fact that Monte Morris outplayed Harry Harris most of the year, but there were also good indications that Murray could have benefited from keeping opponents off the ball and increasing his slashing and spot-up looks.

Note that the addition of Kyle Lowry would be an infusion of talent on the second line after the Nets acquired James Harden earlier in the season. For a franchise on the verge of contending for an NBA Finals berth, there’s no better time than now to make a big move.

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