When the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz traded their star players one day apart, it was only natural to compare the way the two deals played out. Beyond the matter of chronology, the package the Jazz got in return for Deron Williams was essentially the same as the one the Nuggets passed on, opting to send Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the New York Knicks instead.
At the time of the trades, both Denver and Utah were holding playoff spots in the Western Conference, with the Nuggets a game-and-a-half ahead of their Rocky Mountain rivals. From there, the two teams saw their paths diverge. Denver went 18-7 after trading Anthony and Billups, threatening to win the Northwest Division before being knocked off by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the opening round of the playoffs. By that point, the Jazz's season was long over. Utah, already in a tailspin by the time Williams was dealt, won just eight of its last 25 games.
It's easy to look at those results and figure that the Nuggets "won" the pair of trades. However, before doing that it is important to consider the disparate goals of the two teams. By adding three established starters from the Knicks (Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Danilo Gallinari), Denver ensured immediate contention. The Jazz, by contrast, ended up with a pair of No. 3 picks out of the Williams trade--forward Derrick Favors, a promising rookie last season, and the Nets' 2011 selection that Utah used on Kentucky big man Enes Kanter.
Thanks to the deal, the Jazz can boast a pair of lottery picks from each of the last two drafts (Favors, Kanter, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward), something no other NBA team can match. Those four players figure to form the core of Utah's next contending team.
In particular, the Jazz is counting on Favors to develop into an anchor in the middle. After one season at Georgia Tech and one in the NBA, Favors is badly in need of polish. At the same time, his potential is evident. Already, Favors is dominant on the offensive glass and capable at the defensive end. In time, he will have to develop the ability to score in the post. Already, there are positive signs in this process. Favors increased his usage rate nearly to league average after the trade without sacrificing his shooting percentage.
All-Stars Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal rank among Favors' four most similar players at the same age from the SCHOENE Projection System. O'Neal might be the best comparison. If Favors follows a similar development path, he'll be ready for his close-up in 2013-14. By then, players similar to Favors averaged 6.8 wins above replacement, a projection that puts Favors among the league's top 20 players that season.
Hayward also made strides during the course of his rookie season. Overmatched early on, Hayward shot a stunning 54.5 percent from beyond the arc after the All-Star break to become an efficient scorer. The fresh-faced Butler product announced his presence in a late-season upset of the Lakers, scoring 22 points and beating Kobe Bryant off the dribble for a highlight-reel dunk. Hayward followed up that performance with 34 more in the season finale against Denver.
The Utah rebuilding project is far from complete, even with the additions of Burks and Kanter. It's still not clear whether Devin Harris is the answer as the long-term replacement at the point for Williams. There's also a major logjam in the middle, where Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap were supposed to be the Jazz's starting duo. Jefferson's hefty contract could make him expendable. Utah experimented with Millsap at small forward, a configuration that might work defensively but would require him to improve his outside shooting. A deal for another wing player who could help fill one of the league's biggest holes at shooting guard might clear things up.
Denver rode unparalleled depth to last year's strong finish. Five Nuggets rated as worth at least five wins above replacement by Basketball Prospectus' WARP metric, a number matched only by the Portland Trail Blazers. Denver also had eight players post at least two WARP; 12 teams did not even have five players so valuable.
Already, however, the Nuggets' rotation is under attack in free agency. On Monday, Chandler signed to play in China, which meant inking a one-year contract without an out clause to return to the NBA should the lockout end. Chandler was one of five core players for Denver whose contracts are up. Kenyon Martin, Nene and J.R. Smith will all be unrestricted free agents, while Chandler and Arron Afflalo will be restricted. That's far and away the most talented group of free agents of any team in the league.
The Nuggets have given little indication that they will re-sign either Martin or Smith, costing the team an effective post defender and a spark plug off the bench. Denver should be able to match any offer to Afflalo, a strong perimeter stopper whose offense has improved in the Mile High City. That leaves Nene, the most valuable of the Nuggets' free agents. Nene led Denver in WARP and posted one of the league's top True Shooting Percentages last season, which will make him coveted as part of a thin crop of free agents.
Should Nene depart, the Nuggets will likely have enough room under the cap to pursue a replacement. There are other quality centers on the market, including Tyson Chandler of the Dallas Mavericks and Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, but luring those players away from their former teams could prove difficult. From there, it's a considerable step down to options like DeAndre Jordan. Denver has few in-house alternatives. Chris Andersen is more effective as a reserve and neither Kosta Koufos nor Timofey Mozgov has proven worthy of playing 20 minutes a night.
No matter what happens, the Nuggets will probably outplay the young Jazz next season. It's in the years to come where the results from the trades the two teams made this February could reverse themselves to Utah's benefit.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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