Despite a couple of rough losses in recent weeks, the Denver Nuggets currently hold the best winning percentage in the Western Conference with a record of 9-4 (69.2%). While Michael Porter Jr. has arguably been playing his best ball yet, and Nikola Jokic looks primed for another MVP run, there are still some clear flaws that Denver will have to clean up if they hope to compete for an NBA championship later this season, particularly on the defensive end of the court.
Through the first 13 games of the year, the Denver Nuggets hold one of the worst Defensive Ratings in the NBA (113.3) and allow nearly 115 points per game as a team, which ranks in the bottom half of the league. While they’ve struggled to prevent various positions from scoring, just under half of those points allowed come from inside the paint (53.7).
Statistically, Denver ranks as one of the worst teams in defending this area of the floor, allowing their opponents to knock down 48.8% of their shots from the field, the fourth most in the NBA.
Unless Nikola Jokic suddenly evolves into the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon or Dikembe Mutombo, swatting away shots left and right, I doubt this is an aspect of the Nuggets game that will improve as the season progresses.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Denver should move on from Jokic in any way, as that would surely send the fans (and franchise) into full-on panic mode. However, they should definitely consider upgrading at the backup center spot to help provide some valuable minutes off the bench and keep opposing bigs at bay around the paint.
One player that’s capable of doing exactly that is the young Spanish seven-footer, Santi Aldama.
Who is Santi Aldama?
Santi Aldama is now in his second season with the Memphis Grizzlies after getting drafted 30th overall a year ago out of Loyola-Maryland University. Where the Las Palmas native averaged over 20 points, 10 rebounds, and nearly two blocks a game as a senior.
Since his rookie season, he’s already doubled his minute total and cemented his place in the Grizzlies’ starting lineup while the team awaits the return of former lottery pick, Jaren Jackson Jr., who led the league in blocks last season.
Through Memphis’s first 14 games of the year, Aldama has taken on a similar role as the team’s most impactful interior defender. He currently ranks in the top ten in Defensive Win Shares (0.116) amongst NBA centers averaging at least 20 minutes a night, and has been holding opponents to just 26.9 points in the paint per game. This ranks him ahead of players like Ivica Zubac, Jusuf Nurkic, and Jarrett Allen, all of whom receive similar minutes on a nightly basis.
It’s also worth noting that he’s well over doubled his rebounding totals since last year, averaging over six a game, and he’s shooting 33% from three on more than 3.6 attempts a night. Both of these would be welcome attributes to a Denver Nuggets team that currently ranks in the bottom half of the league in rebounds (44.2 per game) and could still use more offensive firepower to compete with a loaded Western Conference. Particularly if he’s consistently able to make plays like this.
Most importantly, Aldama is averaging 1.2 blocks and 0.9 steals per game in his first opportunity to play significant minutes for an NBA franchise. Currently, he’s responsible for 36.2% of the Grizzlies’ total blocks, which is almost identical to renowned defenders like Bam Adebayo and John Collins.
Why would Memphis trade him?
There’s no question, in my opinion, that acquiring Santi Aldama would pay off in numerous ways for the Denver Nuggets, but why would the Grizzlies be so willing to move on from the young big man?
Well, even though Santi Aldama is currently the team’s starting power forward, playing next to Steven Adams, and averaging almost twice as many minutes as the next man up, Brandon Clarke. He’s only been given this opportunity because the Grizzlies are still without Jaren Jackson Jr.
While there is a chance that Aldama retains his starting position even after Jackson returns from injury, I find it hard to believe that head coach Taylor Jenkins is going to bench Steven Adams in place of the Spanish forward. Particularly given that Adams is a top-five rebounder (11.4 per game), and hits over 60% of his shots from the floor.
This means that the Grizzlies can either hold on to Aldama, ensuring they have a solid backup option for the remainder of the season, or they can look to the future and get a decent return while they still can.
As for the Denver Nuggets, they’re not exactly a team with a lot of tradeable assets. They have limited draft picks they can use as leverage and even fewer contracts they can move on from at the moment. However, Aldama is going to be a heck of a lot cheaper to acquire than bigger names like Anthony Davis or Myles Turner, and Memphis doesn’t really have any reason to keep him, outside of possible insurance if anybody were to miss time.
Denver can test out a trade for Cancar but being that he’s never averaged more than 11 minutes a game throughout the course of an entire NBA season, I doubt Memphis will take the bait. With that said, a trade involving Zeke Nnaji for Santi Aldama could pay off in major ways both now and in the future.
Using this trade as an example, Denver would get more immediate help on the defensive end, as Nnaji has never averaged more than one block or steal a game in his career (including college). And Memphis would essentially be swapping one backup center for another with more offensive potential, which could help the Grizzlies break into the top ten in scoring. Memphis would also be getting a 2026 second-round pick, which they don’t currently have.
While Zeke is probably the better perimeter shooter, shooting over 46% from three-point range in his career, he’s also struggled to stay on the floor over the last couple of seasons and offensive output is not the Nuggets’ biggest need at the moment.
As previously mentioned, Denver’s biggest flaw is with their interior defense. Even with Zeke Nnaji returning to the lineup soon, he’s never going to mold into the player the Nuggets need him to be. The team brought in DeAndre Jordan this summer to act as their number-one backup and primary rim defender, but he has yet to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Denver Nuggets should wait for Nnaji to get healthy, and then ship him off for Aldama, providing more immediate value to a team desperately pushing for their first-ever NBA title.