Frustration is really the only word that makes sense to describe the feeling surrounding the Denver Nuggets. After losing Game 7 to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western Conference Semifinals, the defending NBA champions' dreams of going back-to-back are no more. The Nuggets are now forced to go down a path where they will need to once again become the hunters instead of being the hunted, and this loss to the Timberwolves is significant for more reasons than one.

League MVP Nikola Jokic left it all out on the floor, averaging 29.0 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game in this playoff series against Minnesota. The Nuggets had done a great job of masking their secondary problems alongside Jokic all season. But Jamal Murray's constant string of injuries limited his overall production this year. Michael Porter Jr.'s confidence dropped near the end of the year when his minutes and shooting opportunities declined. Unfortunately for Denver, the Timberwolves exposed their weaknesses tenfold in Games 6 and 7, proving that the Nuggets' depth was nonexistent by taking everyone outside of Jokic out of the equation.

Minnesota outscored Denver 213-160 over the final two games of their series. In this series as a whole, the Nuggets averaged only 97.6 points per game with an offensive rating of 106.6 overall. Not only would Denver have ranked last in the league with this offensive rating during the regular season, but they would've also been dead-last in scoring. The clear offensive deficiencies the Nuggets had against the Timberwolves are a major concern for this group moving forward, despite their opposition being the best defensive team in the NBA.

So, where do the Denver Nuggets go from here? Will the proper adjustments be made in the offseason with this current roster, or will Michael Malone work with the front office and general manager Calvin Booth to redesign this team around their three-time MVP?

One year ago, this team was celebrating their first championship in team history. It appeared as if Jokic and Murray would be dominating the league for many years to come, with Denver looking like the next-best dynasty in the Western Conference. Now, as they prepare to enter the offseason as a second apron tax team, the Nuggets are faced with key decisions that will not only impact their immediate championship odds but also the long-term future of the franchise.

Michael Porter Jr.'s struggles cloud future

Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) following an injury in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves during game one of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Ball Arena.
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Michael Porter Jr. has always been labeled as the difference-maker for the Nuggets. While he struggled in the 2023 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat last summer, Porter's rebounding and perimeter scoring abilities have mostly aided Jokic and Murray in recent seasons. That is why Porter is valued so highly as the No. 3 option on the Nuggets' roster.

The 2023-24 season was the healthiest we have ever seen Porter. He played in all but one game during the regular season, and he made a career-high 220 threes. Porter was fantastic in Denver's opening-round series, averaging 22.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting 48.8 percent from distance against the Los Angeles Lakers. This was the version of Michael Porter Jr. the Nuggets needed on the floor if they were to have any chance of defending their championship.

Give the Timberwolves credit for the job they did defending Porter, especially Jaden McDaniels, but the fact of the matter is that the Nuggets forward completely disappeared against the Timberwolves. Porter shot just 13-of-40 (32.5 percent) from three-point range in this seven-game series, averaging 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

Once again, Porter's disappearance in a playoff series has created cause for concern in Denver.

The 25-year-old forward, set to turn 26 at the end of June, enters the offseason with a lot of financial stability. The Nuggets signed Porter to a five-year, $172.5 million max rookie scale contract extension in 2021, meaning he will be entering Year 3 of this deal ahead of the 2024-25 season. Porter is set to make just south of $36 million next year, tied for the 29th-largest cap hit in the league. Denver and the Phoenix Suns, who have Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, and Devin Booker, are the only teams in the league with three players making at least $35.8 million next season.

The implications of the salary cap and tax lines have become major for franchises like the Nuggets amid the league's new collective bargaining agreement. Denver is set to be a second apron team and will be hit hard by not having the ability to utilize trade exceptions and aggregate salaries in trades. Teams that cross the salary cap’s first apron can't acquire players in sign-and-trades, sign players using more than their taxpayer midlevel exception, or sign players in the buyout market if their salary exceeds the non-taxpayer midlevel exception.

For a team like the Nuggets, financial implications are going to be a main topic of discussion when the front office sits down to evaluate the state of their roster. Jokic, Murray, and Porter carry a total cap hit of over $123 million entering the 2024-25 season. Does Denver really want to be tied down to this kind of money, especially given the lack of offensive force this group just showed against the Timberwolves in the Western Conference Semifinals?

The Nuggets are champions. What they achieved in 2023 can never be taken away. However, there comes a time when every organization needs to make the right moves to transition into a new stage. The idea of potentially trading and moving on from Porter after his inconsistent playoff performances over the last couple of seasons is certainly going to be a part of these front office discussions over the summer.

Ultimately, the initial belief around the league is that Porter isn't expected to be going anywhere. The organization values his place on the roster next to Jokic and Murray. Plus, he is one of the team's few high-volume perimeter shooting threats. Moving on from Porter would leave the Nuggets with a massive hole to fill on the perimeter, as he was the only player on their roster to make at least 150 threes this season.

Then again, trading Porter could get the Nuggets out of the second tax apron, allowing them to rapidly retool their roster with youthful, athletic options next to Jokic and Murray. The bottom line is that this is something Malone may not want to do. As the longest-tenured voice of the franchise, Malone's input is going to matter to Booth and Denver's front office this offseason. The Nuggets head coach has always spoken highly of Porter and his growth through the years, which is why it is hard to believe that this mindset has changed due to a drop in confidence during this year's playoff run.

Looking ahead, past this upcoming offseason, the Nuggets will need to consider moving on from Porter. With an upcoming contract extension for Murray as well as Aaron Gordon entering the final years of his current deal, it is possible that persistent struggles from Porter could lead to his eventual departure from Denver.

Assuming the Nuggets hold off on making a move regarding Porter right now, their next order of business will be deciding on the futures of Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope contract situations

 Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) talks with guard Jamal Murray (27) during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in game one of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Ball Arena.
Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

There are no questions being asked about the Nuggets wanting to keep Caldwell-Pope and Murray. These two veterans make up their championship backcourt, and Murray is an All-Star-worthy player the Nuggets envision keeping alongside Jokic for the long haul. However, both players' contract situations will need to be addressed during the summer.

Caldwell-Pope owns a $15.4 million player option he could decline to become an unrestricted free agent. At this time, this seems like a plausible path for KCP this offseason, seeing as he is now 31 years old and will have various suitors on the open market as a proven champion at the shooting guard position. Although he won't see a max-level contract, Caldwell-Pope could easily receive an offer of at least $20 million per season from another team if he were to become a free agent. This may very well be a situation where the veteran wing would need to turn down larger offers in the short term from other teams if he were to remain in Denver.

The advantage Denver has in this situation is that they own Caldwell-Pope's Bird rights and can offer him a new five-year contract. As NBA capologist Yossi Gozlan pointed out recently, frontloading a new contract for the veteran and decreasing his salary over a five-year period may be the best approach for the Nuggets pertaining to their long-term financial situation.

If Caldwell-Pope were to become a free agent and look to leave the Nuggets, the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, and Oklahoma City Thunder could all be playoff teams that look to add an experienced 3-and-D option on the wing.

Murray and his contract situation are a little different than that of Caldwell-Pope since he is eligible for an extension entering the final year of his current deal. Without Murray, the Nuggets wouldn't be in the championship position they currently find themselves in, which is why hammering out the fine details of his new extension will be vital. A new max extension for Murray would be in the ballpark of about $208 million in total through the 2028-29 season.

This is likely going to be the offer on the table from Booth and the Nuggets in the offseason. Whether or not Murray accepts this deal is 100 percent his call to make, as he could potentially wait and try to maximize his value in free agency following the 2024-25 season. The important note here is that Denver hasn't given any thought to splitting up their duo of Jokic and Murray, which is why this max extension will be his to decide on.

The bottom line is the Nuggets are going to need to be willing to spend well into the luxury tax, likely crossing the second apron again, in order to retain their championship core for at least a few more seasons. There are no questions about Jokic or Murray leaving Denver anytime soon, but the cost of keeping players like Porter, Caldwell-Pope, and Gordon will be extensive. That is why as the Nuggets enter the offseason, they will need to keep a very open mind when it comes to the money allocated to the rest of their roster.

Nuggets to address shooting, frontcourt depth

Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone in the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves during game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Ball Arena.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There is a path for the Nuggets to avoid the second apron during the 2024-25 season, but it involves trading either Reggie Jackson or Zeke Nnaji. In October, the Nuggets agreed to a four-year, $32 million extension with Nnaji, despite the former first-round pick struggling to carve out a consistent role behind Jokic in the frontcourt. Nnaji certainly possesses the potential to grow into a key weapon, but Denver doesn't have time to wait around. This makes his $8.8 million cap hit entering the summer an intriguing trade asset for the Nuggets to possibly wiggle under the second apron line.

The question here then becomes: What team out there is going to want to take a chance on Nnaji, who is just now starting that four-year extension? Denver is going to struggle to find a viable trade partner for Nnaji while also staying below the second apron, which is why they could have to attach their 28th overall selection in June's draft to the deal. In any move to trade Nnaji or Jackson, the key for the Nuggets is going to be finding minimum contract-like players who can build extra shooting depth on the wing. There is also a need for frontcourt help behind Jokic.

The Nuggets have put themselves in their current financial position. To be a championship team, you have to be willing to spend money in today's NBA. While this roster was primarily built through the draft over the last decade, players like Gordon and Caldwell-Pope were bought by the Nuggets' front office. The cost of keeping these players on new, long-term deals is just now beginning to have an impact on the organization's ability to consistently field a competitive roster outside of just their starting rotation.

The trade market is not going to be friendly to Denver. As a second apron team, they can't attach outgoing salaries to bring in a player of higher value and cost. Essentially, moving Nnaji in an offseason trade would be a salary dump move for Denver to try and open up more flexibility, especially if they are to extend the contracts of Caldwell-Pope, Murray, and possibly Gordon.

Of course, talking trades with the Nuggets is always going to cause fans to look back on Bruce Brown and try to come up with a way to bring the valuable swingman back into the championship equation. Brown remains a player the Nuggets love, and those feelings are mutual. Unfortunately, there just isn't a realistic scenario in which Denver can make the financials work to bring back Brown on his current $23 million contract with the Toronto Raptors unless they were going to be moving on from Porter. It is expected that the Raptors will look to move Brown in an offseason trade by picking up his team option for the 2024-25 season.

A total of 13 players are under contract for Denver entering the offseason, including Caldwell-Pope and Jackson, who own player options, as well as Vlatko Cancar with a $2.3 million team option. The back end of the Nuggets' roster will be filled out by minimum contracts, but it is worth noting that they own the 28th and 56th overall selections in this year's draft. After selecting three rookies last summer, Denver could be prepared to add two more youthful options to their bench.

Unlike older teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, who haven't utilized the draft to build their roster in recent years, the Nuggets have found a lot of success by utilizing their developmental staff.

“That’s another reason why we got three rookies,” Booth told The Ringer before the 2023-24 season. “To get some guys that know how to play, and they’re under control.”

Maintaining their two draft picks in June would give Denver the ability to draft two more younger players who would be under control moving forward. Jaden McDaniels and Jordan Poole are two recent players who were selected 28th overall in their respective drafts, so perhaps the Nuggets will find a diamond in the rough.

Denver remains high on Peyton Watson's potential as a primary defender on the perimeter, and he showed flashes of his scoring potential during the regular season. Watson is expected to see his role increase heading into his third season. Julian Strawther is another player the Nuggets are going to spend a lot of time with during the offseason, fine-tuning his game. The hope in Denver is Strawther can become yet another 3-and-D player who can thrive in catch-and-shoot scenarios, possibly replacing Caldwell-Pope down the line.

Change is inevitable for every franchise in the NBA. For the Nuggets, major changes are not necessary right now. The way their season and quest for back-to-back champions ended is certainly a disappointment. However, Denver still has the capability to maintain their championship-proven starting group. Dynasties may be forged through dominance, but they are maintained by overcoming adversity. A minor setback in the playoffs now leads the Nuggets to stare at themselves in the mirror in order to make a decision on whether their potential dynasty is real or simply fool's gold.