How the Denver Nuggets handed the Utah Jazz a contending core

Utah Jazz (Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports)
Utah Jazz (Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports) /

Hindsight, as we know, is 20/20, and neither the Utah Jazz or Denver Nuggets have ever entered an NBA Draft with its benefit. Regardless, it must be painful for the Nuggets to reflect on the decisions they made that led to the Jazz’s current path to title contention. They gift-wrapped and personally hand-delivered them their two best players for next-to-nothing in return.

Recently, we’ve been profiling the best trades in Utah Jazz history, and the two moves that we’re discussing in this article have already been covered. Still, it feels almost surreal that the Denver Nuggets drafted both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and traded them to the Utah Jazz on draft night for, effectively, a bag of peanuts and some pocket lint.

In the aggregate, the Nuggets swapped Gobert and Mitchell in two drafts separated by 4 years in exchange for Erick Green, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon and cash. Only one of those players is still an active NBA player, and with all due respect to Lyles, we’ll simply say that he isn’t quite on Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert’s level.

It’s a baffling, compounding series of events. It begs for a deeper dive. How could the Nuggets allow this to happen? What circumstances led them to believe these decisions would benefit their team? In simple terms: How? Why? How? 

We’re here to answer all of those questions and explain how the Denver Nuggets handed the Utah Jazz the two most important players in their current championship-contending core.

June 27, 2013: Utah Jazz acquire Rudy Gobert from the Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets were coming off of a very successful 2012-13 NBA season heading into the 2013 NBA Draft, having finished with a 57-25 record. They disappointed in the postseason, losing in the first round to the Golden State Warriors, but they still very much felt like a team on the cusp of greatness.

The Nuggets were one of the deepest teams in the Association, with six players averaging in the double digits in points per game. Headlined by Ty Lawson (once one of the Association’s most promising guards before alcoholism and personal troubles cut his career short), Danilo Gallinari and Andre Iguodala, this high-octane George Karl-coached outfit led the NBA in points-per-game in 2012-13 with 106.1 per contest.

In fact, their ceiling was limited on the opposite end of the floor, as the 101.1 points they allowed per game ranked 23rd in the league. In other words, they probably could have used the services of future 3x Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

At the time, the Nuggets rostered two young, starting caliber centers in 25-year-old JaVale McGee and 23-year-old Kostas Koufos. The former in particular was beginning to grow into a skillset that was comparable to the young Frenchmen’s, as McGee blocked 2.0 shots per contest that year, finishing with a solid 102 Defensive Rating. The Nugs also rostered a 23-year-old with seemingly immense potential in Kenneth Faried, who primarily played the 4 given his 6’8 frame, but also provided traditional big man skills.

Please recall what we’ve already said about hindsight. Still: Kenneth Faried plays in China, Kostas Koufos is retired, and JaVale McGee is a good rotation player on a veteran’s minimum.

Maybe the Nuggets should have stuck with Gobert.

He certainly could have shored up that mediocre offense. Knowing what we know about the Stifle Tower based on his tenure with the Utah Jazz, we can say that he would have contributed more than Erick Green, whose Player Efficiency Rating (PER) with the Nuggets topped out at an underwhelming 8.9.

The Denver Nuggets made an egregious error in this draft day deal with the Utah Jazz. That’s forgivable. Every front office in the NBA makes mistakes. Four years later, the Nuggets would make an at least equally large one.

June 22, 2017: Utah Jazz acquire Donovan Mitchell from the Denver Nuggets

By 2017, the Nuggets were in a very different place. George Karl was gone, and replaced by current day skipper Mike Malone. Some significant players carried over from the 2013 roster, including Gallinari, Faried and multifaceted wing Wilson Chandler. The team itself was considerably less successful, having wrapped up an uneventful 40-42 season, but brighter days were ahead as 2020-21 MVP Nikola Jokic was beginning to author his breakout.

The 21-year-old’s basic counting stats of 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game clearly pointed in the direction of a future NBA superstar. Indeed, it would seem the Nuggets managed to sow-up the center position without the addition of Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert. In fact, the Nuggets also rostered a 22-year-old Jusuf Nurkic. As quality of a player as he’d become, the Nuggets clearly nailed their decision to favor the Joker.

They probably still could have used Donovan Mitchell though.

Instead, they traded the prized young Utah Jazz star to Salt Lake City on draft night, and the return was paltry at best.

Nothing about the Nuggets’ roster construction in 2016-17 justifies this deal with the Utah Jazz. Sure, they rostered a rookie Jamal Murray, but with Nikola Jokic emerging as one of the Association’s best passing hubs, it isn’t difficult to imagine a Murray/Mitchell backcourt dominating the NBA behind Jokic’s prodigious playmaking.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets received nothing in return for Mitchell that’s particularly relevant. By 2020-21, Lyles averaged 5.0 points per game for the San Antonio Spurs, and Lydon was out of the league altogether.

Again, hindsight is clairvoyant. The Nuggets can make the case that they moved Gobert to the Utah Jazz because they already had promising young centers, but it’s quite clear that the return they received for him was wholly insufficient. The Mitchell error stings harder, if only for the fact that he’d fill a position of need for Nuggets today (the only position in their starting 5, in fact, that isn’t ironclad) and the package they received for him is yielding zero dividends for their current cause.

Fans of the Utah Jazz will not complain. Yes, the pair is flanked by solid veterans like Mike Conley Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson, but Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are clearly the two most important cogs in an extremely well-oiled Jazz machine.

Next. Best trade in Jazz history with the Phoenix Suns. dark

The Denver Nuggets just happened to decide to trade the Utah Jazz the most important pieces of their core for a pittance.