Donovan Mitchell Trade a Loss for Nuggets
  • Jeremy Freed

Donovan Mitchell Trade a Loss for Nuggets


GQ

We could have said it before, but it's official now: the trade that sent the 13th pick of the 2017 draft to the Jazz in exchange for Trey Lyles and the 24th pick is a big loss for the Denver Nuggets.

This was finalized on October 31st, the last day for teams to exercise their third-year options on their rookie contracts, a day when the Nuggets did not decide to invite Tyler Lydon back for the 2019-20 season.

For the uninitiated, an NBA first-round draftee signs a contract that varies in salary, depending on the draft slot, but is consistent in structure. It's a four-year contract, with the first two years guaranteed, and the last two years at the team's option. These do give the teams more control, but the options must be exercised early on -- by October 31st. A team gets year one, and just a few weeks of year two before it has to make the call on year three, and similarly, just a few weeks of year three before having to make the call on year four.

As such, very few players don't get their third year exercised -- only four total in the last two seasons -- but Tyler Lydon is on that list. It's a pretty big indictment, as one may surmise. After really only a single season of play, the team has determined that it doesn't want to keep a young player in a cost-controlled, team-friendly contract any longer. The average NBA salary is 6.4 million dollars, and the Nuggets decided that the 2.2 million they would pay Lydon would be money poorly spent.

It's tough to blame them. Lydon spent most of his rookie year in the G-League, with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and hasn't been able to crack the rotation with the Nuggets at all in 2018-9. He's spent 12 minutes on an NBA basketball court in his professional career. Total. He's hit one shot and one free throw. That's it.

But this isn't to drag Tyler Lydon, who undoubtedly wishes his time in the NBA has gone differently thus far; let's turn the focus where it belongs -- on the Nuggets front office. The braintrust had found some success in trading down in the draft before (it's how they got Gary Harris!), but it isn't always a popular move. The NBA is far more of a star-driven league, since only five players can play at a time. Teams yearn for the chance to acquire single exceptional assets at the cost of multiple good pieces: in the NBA, four quarters rarely equal a dollar.

That's why it's so important to 'get your guy.' The scuttlebutt at the time of the draft was that the Nuggets were high on OG Anunoby, an uber-athletic wing out of Indiana, someone who would have undoubtedly been available at the 13th pick, considering he ultimately went 23rd. But the Nuggets wanted to have their cake and eat it too, so they traded the 13th pick for Trey Lyles and the 24th selection, where Anunoby was unavailable. The Utah Jazz used the 13th pick on a fairly familiar player: NBA Rookie of the Year runner-up and franchise centerpiece Donovan Mitchell.

Some have said the Nuggets were never going to take Mitchell, that the roster was too guard-heavy at the time, so they might as well make the trade and get extra pieces. But the Nuggets were clearly unafraid of positional redundancy. In the 2016 draft, they selected Juan Hernangomez to play power forward, then in the 2017 draft acquired Lyles, a power forward, and drafted Lydon, a power forward, and a week later signed Paul Millsap, a power forward -- all in the span of a calendar year! They wouldn't have found space for an electric combo guard coming off the bench? Especially with Emmanuel Mudiay floundering so terribly? That argument doesn't hold water. He wasn't their guy.

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If Anunoby was, they should have just taken him. He came back sooner than expected from his right knee injury, playing 74 games his rookie season, and starting 62 for a Toronto Raptors team that put up the best record in the Eastern Conference. And with the Nuggets looking at weeks without Will Barton, and having to turn to an unremarkable Torrey Craig, having OG Anunoby to slot in to the starting line-up would have made a very impressive-looking team very dangerous indeed.

Staying put and drafting Anunoby would mean no Trey Lyles - which is not insignificant. He has been a key piece off the bench, averaging 10.5 points, 5.5 boards, and 1.9 assists in 21 minutes a game, basically as their sixth man. But the minutes that Lyles is playing could easily go to Hernangomez and Malik Beasley -- two recent draftees that might show more ability given more playing time.

As it is, with the Lydon option declined, the Nuggets traded Donovan Mitchell for Trey Lyles: a trade that no one makes. Even if the Millsap signing had gone well (and after an injury-shortened first season and a slow start to his second, it has not) he is 33 years old. The possibility does exist that Lyles may be the power forward of the future for Denver - he just turned 23 this week - and the world may look back at this deal some day and call it a 'win-win,' but that day is not today. Until further notice, the Nuggets gave their Northwest rivals the key to their post-Gordon Hayward future and took little in return.

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