Nuggets’ best bet: Let Iguodala test free agency

Nuggets brass finally got a chance to introduce the team’s newest star to local media and fans Thursday, a ceremony delayed for a week by those pesky Olympics.

I showed up at Andre Iguodala’s first Denver press conference to ask the questions that arose when the trade was made:

— Do the Nuggets and Iguodala have an understanding about the parameters of a new contract?

— Will Iguodala exercise the early termination option in his current contract, which would make him a free agent following his first season in Colorado?

— Whether it happens after one season or two, will the Nuggets let him test the market, as they did with Nene, and risk losing him if another team is willing to overpay him?

— If not, are the Nuggets amenable to a max contract for Iguodala, a very good player, but a questionable value at 30-35 percent of the salary cap?

Iguodala and Nuggets general manger Masai Ujiri said all the right things in response to this line of questioning, but they also kept their remarks pretty vague.

When I asked Iguodala about the early termination option in his contract, this was his reply:

“Well, it’s funny because Masai and I spoke about we’re both looking forward and what he expected from me and things that I wanted to accomplish. We weren’t coming into this thinking this would be just a one-year deal. We were looking towards the future.

“So definitely already looking ahead and looking to see how we can go forward and this not being just a quick stop for me. Knowing this is a great organization, got a lot of feedback from a lot of different guys — former players, current players, even the trainers, about the organization and this would be a great place for me to have some great years ahead of me and possibly ending my career here.”

So, are the two sides already at work on a new deal?

“No, we haven’t spoken about the actual deal, but just how this wasn’t going to be just a one-stop,” Iguodala said. “This is definitely a place that I could see myself for more than just a year or two.”

The devil, of course, is in the details. What contract number would it take to keep Iguodala from testing the free agent market, either next summer or the summer after that? And would it be a number so big that it eliminates the financial flexibility Nuggets management has cultivated ever since it began dismantling a roster that was top-heavy with big contracts for Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin?

I reminded Ujiri of the Melodrama and his vow never to put the Nuggets in that position again.

“Before we get into stuff like this, obviously, we do our homework and we try to do our due diligence,” he said. “No, we don’t want to be in that situation again, and we’ve had good conversation with Rob Pelinka, Andre’s agent, and also Andre. And Andre has indicated that this is somewhere he would love to play.

“So negotiations and all that stuff, it’s our job and we’ll do it and we’ll figure it out. We’ll take it a step at a time and we’re just glad to have a player of his caliber in our organization.”

I followed up by asking if he has a timetable in mind.

“Timetable doesn’t matter, in our opinion,” Ujiri said. “It will come. We’ll figure it out at some point.”

To refresh your memory, Iguodala is scheduled to be one of the 25 highest-paid players in the NBA this season at $14.7 million. The final year of his current contract, 2013-14, calls for a salary of $15.9 million.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, he would be eligible for a max contract next summer starting at about $16 million with annual bumps of 7.5 percent. If he plays out the final two years on his current contract, he would be eligible for a max contract starting at $19 million in the summer of 2014.

It is difficult to imagine Pelinka, who also represents Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, forgoing free agency for Iguodala in exchange for much less than a max contract.

There’s just one problem: Iguodala is not worth that much money. He’s a very nice player, but not that nice. With the luxury tax growing increasingly punitive in the out years of the new collective bargaining agreement, a four- or five-year max contract would have a significant effect on the Nuggets’ ability to add any other pieces. It would essentially be a statement that the current cast, with Iguodala, is good enough to contend for a championship.

None of this should be interpreted as criticism of Iguodala as a player. He is one of the game’s most versatile performers. He’s a premier perimeter defender, an excellent passer and a capable scorer in the open court. He is also utterly unselfish, a rare trait in top NBA players, and should fit very nicely into George Karl’s offensive system, which depends upon both unselfishness and athleticism.

He is not, however, a great halfcourt offensive player and he does not fill the Nuggets’ most obvious offensive need — a player with the nerve and ability to take and make a contested final shot with the game on the line.

For all the skills he brings to the table, it is very rare for a player who has never averaged 20 points a game for an entire season to get a max contract.

So the questions remain: Are the Nuggets willing to give him one, or something close to it, to prevent him from testing free agency? Are Iguodala and Pelinka willing to accept anything less to forgo free agency? And if the answer to both of those questions is no, what happens then?

Here’s my theory: The Nuggets, like most of the other teams in the NBA, believe the 76ers overpaid Iguodala. He has very little motivation to opt out of the final year of his current deal because it’s highly unlikely anyone else will offer the $15.9 million he’d be opting out of.

So that gives the Nuggets two years to come up with a new deal. It also gives them the option of taking it all the way out to the end of his current contract. As they did with Nene, they could offer Iguodala the opportunity to test free agency, where they would have an advantage over any other suitor — the ability to offer a fifth year.

They would be gambling that no other team would make him a crazy offer, but that’s a gamble Ujiri took with Nene and it worked out.

It’s seems unlikely that Pelinka would approve a new contract that starts significantly below what Iguodala’s current contract pays him. It seems just as unlikely that the Nuggets would extend him at that level unless they have no choice. So the best option for both sides may well be Iguodala playing out the final two years of his current contract and then letting the market determine what happens next.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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