The thrill of the NBA trade deadline usually comes towards the final days. This season’s edition was no exception, as weeks of speculation all materialized into a flurry of transactions a couple of hours before the 3 PM EST (3 AM in Manila) deadline.
Among the more active teams was the Denver Nuggets, whose run last season in the bubble was one of the feel-good stories in what was a long and grueling season. From Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic’s individual exploits to the team effort in taking down the favored Los Angeles Clippers, the Nuggets earned the respect of their peers even after being eliminated by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in five thrilling games.
However, Denver struggled right out of the gate, going 1-4 through the first five games of the 2020-2021 season. Jokic finished with a triple-double in three of those five games (he actually had one quadruple-double if you count turnovers), but that was perhaps the only silver lining in the early part of the season. After weathering through some hurdles that included injuries and players missing time due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the Nuggets went on five-game winning streaks in January and late-February/March to get back on track.
Currently the Nuggets are in fifth place at 26-18, and with the Lakers currently struggling without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Denver has an opportunity to sneak in and earn home-court advantage even just for the first round of the playoffs (even in a crowdless season, it’s still an advantage nevertheless).
Indeed, they look like a team going all-in, as their recent moves right before the trade deadline show they mean business.
The Aaron Gordon Trade
Denver Nuggets Receive: Gary Clark, Aaron Gordon
Orlando Magic Receive: Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, 2025 first-round pick (top-five protection through 2027) 
The loss of Jerami Grant in free agency was huge as there was no athletic big man to help cover for Jokic on defense. Paul Millsap is not getting any younger or healthier and although Bol Bol showed flashes of promise, he was still not ready for the rigors of a full NBA season. Michael Porter Jr. was a revelation in the bubble but his early absence in the season due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols compounded their woes.
Enter Aaron Gordon. Not only is he an instant upgrade from their current setup, but he falls within the age range of both Jokic and Murry while also allowing the Nuggets to revert back to the bubble lineup that allowed them to take down favored opponents. Gordon’s offensive stats are somewhat similar to Grant’s (save for his free throw shooting and points per game), but his rebounding and defensive potential (1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals per 36 minutes) will bode well for Jokic and the Nuggets.
The fact that they were able to get Gordon by giving up Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, and a protected first-round pick speaks volumes. While he has had his bright moments, Harris has failed to get his footing after a solid 2017-2018 NBA season, when he averaged 17.5 points on 48.5 percent shooting and 2.3 3-pointers per game. Since then, however, he hasn’t played more than 57 games in a season.
Hampton was a highly touted prospect coming out of the NBL, but he has so far had minimal impact on the squad. Perhaps getting out of a loaded Nuggets squad could change things for him.
The JaVale McGee Trade
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: Isaiah Hartenstein, 2023 second-round pick (protected Nos. 31-46), 2027 second-round pick (unprotected)
Denver Nuggets Receive: JaVale McGee
In a nutshell, Denver is taking a page out of the Lakers’ book: develop a center rotation to suit any matchup. The trade is the type of trade you make when you want to build your roster, but it’s not without its limitations.
Among the centers the Lakers deployed, it was McGee that lost the most minutes. In the 2020 playoffs, McGee never cracked 15 minutes of playing time and in the finals, he was either listed as a DNP-CD or inactive.
The Nuggets likely acquired McGee for his defense, as his 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes could indicate his ability to be an effective defender in spurts. McGee is also a solid lob target so even as the offensive schemes will change with Jokic out, he can work with Murray and the likes of Will Barton, Monte Morris, and Facundo Campazzo in the pick-and-roll.
The trades are expected to add a little bit of youth and some more athleticism, plus championship experience from McGee, to a team whose pace is 29th in the league at 97.0. While this plodding pace is naturally attributed to how the offense revolves around Jokic, Denver gets back some of the flexibility that they missed especially during the start of the season.
Trades can naturally make or break a team, and with the moves the Nuggets pulled off, it’s safe to say that they’re sticking to the tried and tested formula that helped them pull off a deep run in the playoffs.