The Denver Nuggets were clearly still nursing some wounds at Thursday’s end-of-year press conference with local media, but there were also some signs of hope.

Nuggets President/Governor Josh Kroenke, General Manager Calvin Booth, and Head Coach Michael Malone appeared together on stage for a 30-minute press conference to discuss the end of the season and the future prospects of the Nuggets organization. It was an interesting presser with several fascinating dynamics at play, but the word of the day was “united” as the Nuggets attempt to assuage concerns after an unexpected playoff exit.

“It wasn’t the outcome we all wanted. We realize that,” Michael Malone declared in no uncertain terms, “but I still have a tremendous amount of faith and confidence in our group across the board, and to sit up here with Josh and Calvin and for us to be united and on the same page with that is really all that matters.”

“The emotional reaction to losing cannot force you to make emotional decisions.”

The Nuggets were clearly far more successful this year than most other teams in the NBA. They have the MVP. They were tied for the second most wins in the regular season. They were one of three teams to finish in the top 8 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

But at the end of the day, the trio on the stage knows they’re playing for more than just regular season success. That couldn’t have been articulated better than an admission of fault from Malone, who shared he may have overworked the starters through the regular season and into the playoffs.

“On one hand, we got the two seed. On the other hand, I’m watching our players in Game 7 of the second half, and our guys look dead tired,” Malone lamented. “They did, and I think you guys probably saw the same thing. So, did I run our players into the ground? I’m sure that’s definitely part of it. Much was asked of Jamal, KCP, Michael, Aaron, and Nikola especially, and we were not afforded the opportunity like we were last year to rest players down the stretch.”

The battle between regular season wins and player development is an organizational tale as old as time. It’s commonplace in sports. The coach plays those that are most ready to win games now. The front office expects development of younger players with the promise of winning more games in the future.

“The general manager and owner’s job often times is to make sure the long term view is something that we’re satisfied with,” Calvin Booth shared honestly. “Coach Malone’s down there talking in the trenches with them every night. A lot of times, [the short term and long term plans] are aligned, but sometimes, they flow away from each other.”

With the benefit of hindsight, the battle between the coaching staff and front office over playing younger players was perhaps more intense than initially believed. Christian Braun played 1,655 minutes this year, nearly 500 more than the season before. Peyton Watson played 1,488 regular season minutes and was a regular part of the rotation through the first round of the playoffs.

Rookie Julian Strawther played 545 minutes and, in Calvin Booth’s admission, struggled with his jumper before sustaining an MCL sprain in January. Fellow rookies Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson played a combined 170 minutes. They weren’t ready for the speed and athleticism of the NBA at the outset.

Of course, Booth isn’t going to wave the white flag on those draft picks being contributors so easily.

“I think more than anything, they need more seasoning. They need to get in the gym. They need to play summer league. They need to get sharper.”

Whether the Nuggets will be ready and able to afford young guys playing excessive minutes is to be determined. The Nuggets had to rely on their starters for a reason. Of the nearly $178 million the Nuggets spent on their roster this past year, roughly $152 million was dedicated to Denver’s five starters. Just $26 million was committed to the other 10 roster spots.

And now, the starting five will almost certainly become more expensive if the Nuggets intend to re-sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The veteran starting shooting guard has a player option for the 2024-25 season that he will almost certainly decline, and the Nuggets were noncommittal about their ability to retain his services.

“KCP’s been a great addition the last couple of years,” Booth expressed. “Obviously, we’d love to have him back. We’re going to take a hard look at what that looks like.”

The NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement took centerstage in discussions about the financial picture of the team. There are of course concerns about Denver’s ability to keep their team together, something Josh Kroenke articulated well:

“I think one important footnote about this group that we have down in the Nuggets locker room is the core of this team was assembled under a different CBA, and we drafted and we developed, and we built this team under a different set of rules. Those rules have kinda changed on the fly. Last summer, [the luxury tax] wasn’t quite as pertinent as it is going be this summer.”

“There’s going to be some concerns coming in with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and the new rules that we’re going to have to be very aware of and we’re going to have to plan accordingly. They do make it difficult to retool a championship roster on the fly, but that’s why we’ve got Calvin.”

Booth’s approach, especially with Denver’s current roster situation, appears to be a pricy starting five to go with 10 smaller salaries. Denver can accumulate those other 10 players in two ways: minimum contracts, or draft picks. Booth prefers draft picks that can stick around for multiple years.

“I believe a lot in continuity, and I do believe that the guys that are worth having are often times you have to draft…That’s the way I view things, and obviously we’re going to have a lot of conversations about how to approach roster building, but I will continue to be the guy that thinks growth and development is the way to go.”

Could that growth and development help the Nuggets find a replacement for Caldwell-Pope internally? That might be the plan if the price tag for Denver’s starting shooting guard gets too high. Christian Braun was specifically discussed as a possible future starting shooting guard, and Booth and Malone both appear to be in Braun’s corner.

“He obviously has the intangibles and the physical strength and athleticism and defense,” Booth shared on Christian Braun. “He has to make the improvements as he has in shooting the ball. I don’t know how you could see a player in his second year that’s done what he’s done and not think he has a chance of starting (in the NBA). He’s ahead of schedule in that regard.”

“I think with Christian Braun, it’s all going to come down to one thing: to be a shooting guard in the NBA, you’ve gotta be able to make shots. It’s the bottom line,” Malone echoed Booth’s words. “If you want to simplify CB’s future as a starting shooting guard in the NBA, it will be determined upon his ability to be a 38% or above three-point shooter.”

This is the circle of life for any contender. The best players are retained. The role players are poached away by other teams. The replacements are elevated to larger roles. It will be interesting to see whether Braun can step into a larger role or not, but that appears to be the fallback plan if Caldwell-Pope departs in free agency.

Lastly, Nikola Jokic was brought up toward the end of the presser and how the Nuggets must take care of him going forward.

“When Nikola Jokic is on your roster, you’re going for it,” Kroenke implored. “You have the best player in the world, and you have a responsibility to him and the group to try and go for it. So, for Nikola, for Jamal, for Michael, for everybody that we’ve kind of grown and developed over the course of time, I think that’s kind of our responsibility.”

Jokic is about as good as he’s ever been, but the wear and tear is starting to show. Jokic may not have been the player who was most tired by the end of the season on the Nuggets roster. His Game 5 against the Minnesota Timberwolves proved that, a performance that was otherworldly.

His Game 7 performance showed fatigue.

“Somebody sent me a stat, I think the last five or six years, I think Nikola’s played the second most minutes in the NBA behind Jayson Tatum. Lot of miles for a big guy,” Malone lamented on his superstar shouldering a heavy burden. “So yes, probably have to be a little smarter about some of the decisions we make and making sure that when we get to the playoffs, he’s mentally, physically ready to go and can give us his best effort.”

“I have to sometimes pick my head up from the bunker and say ‘Okay, it’s not about just winning the next game.’ It’s about ‘How do we win this season?’ And if that means resting guys a little bit more, lessening their load, their minutes, their games played, we will have to look at everything across the board so then when we do get to the playoffs, we give ourselves the best chance.”

Will that come in the form of more minutes for backup big man Zeke Nnaji? Will Calvin Booth find a way to add another backup center option? Will the Nuggets simply forgo more games with the intention of resting Jokic more frequently throughout the regular season? 79 games played was a heavy burden, and now that Jokic has won three MVPs, it may be time for him to enter a new phase of his career in saving some extra energy for the playoff push.

Whatever happens, the Nuggets are not satisfied. They will retool and try to find ways to improve the roster. That might not be possible, especially with a crucial decision on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looming.

We will see what the Nuggets do.