Tracing Denver Nuggets Payroll and the Development of a Title Team

In 1990 the entire payroll for the Denver Nuggets was $10,333,000. For the 2023-24 season, Nikola Jokić alone will make $47,607,350. Here we look back at how payroll has paralleled the development of the reigning title team.

Jokić's salary makes up 25% of Nuggets Payroll in the 2023-2024 season.
Jokić's salary makes up 25% of Nuggets Payroll in the 2023-2024 season. / Nic Antaya/GettyImages
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Times change...

You'll hear little complaints from Denver Nuggets fans. Perennial title contention is a massive improvement over the confusion, turnover and lack of commitment that's characterized the teams of the past.

Still, it's wild to think that, in less than 35 years, we've seen the Nuggets payroll balloon from $10 Million to over $185 Million. That's a 1,700% increase. For context, the average American salary during that same period has grown by around 200%.

The majority of that growth follows the success of the league. But some of it reflects the team's shift in perspective over time. The Nuggets have climbed from listless stagnation, through struggle and tumult, to sweet dominance. And dominance isn't cheap.

Tracing the Nuggets payroll over the past 30+ years reveals the team's massive transformation. In a way, it tells the story of how the Championship Nuggets came to be, and what they might become in the future.

Denver Nuggets Payroll History

Since 1990, the Nuggets have rarely strayed far from league average in payroll terms. In general, they've held reliably to a narrow gap between the salary cap and league average.

But there are some interesting patterns and deviations we can focus on. Mostly, the timeline splits neatly into three sections.

The Dark Years

The 90's Nuggets fell largely the victim to indifferent ownership. There was inconsistency and turnover at all levels under the series of associated holding companies that passed the team around for the entirety of the decade.

They did get a new arena. That's gotta be worth something. But payroll spending held strong below league average.

Even in situations where taking on a contract seemed like a solid investment, purse straps refused to loosen. A great example of this is letting Dikembe Mutombo walk in 1996 after the team's best playoff showing in years. No surprise, the team's general lack of success in the 90's reflected this general indifference from above.

The Melo Years

The Kroenke's took over in 2000 and shifted gears, bumping payroll spending above the average for the first time in at least a decade and slowly navigating the Nuggets in a somewhat more sustainable direction.

It didn't take long for spending to dip off for a few years while the team found it's footing. This time, however, the dip was more the product of thoughtful decision making than crippling frugality. GM Kiki Vanderweghe was hard at work unloading bad contracts and positioning for a major draft acquisition.

That magical pick would arrive in 2003, in the form of Carmelo Anthony. Few things, it turns out, do wonders for your payroll like a rookie who can give you 35 minutes across 82 games. The arrival of Melo (the original) would kick off a decade-long stretch of playoff appearances.

When a title seems within reach, it gets a little easier to open up the checkbook. Suddenly the team was in a position to look beyond just cleaning up, and forward towards building a contender.

In 2006, the Nuggets did finally shell out, signing Iverson and extending Carmelo. Payroll peaked in 2007-2008, but the Nuggets could not get it done. Iverson played only a single full season before heading off to the Pistons.

Having gotten Chauncey Billups and a returning (though notably weathered) Antonio McDyess in compensation, the team actually improved that following season. The 2008-2009 season saw their first trip to the conference finals since 1985. Unfortunately, they would fall to Kobe and the Lakers for the second straight season.

The Iverson experience seems to have bread reluctance to repeat big roster moves. Without another star acquisition, it looked increasingly unlikely the team would ever make it out of the West. Carmelo certainly recognized this when he shipped himself to the Knicks in 2011.

The Joker Years

Playoff busts continued. Then, in 2013, long-time Head Coach George Karl was fired just a few weeks after being named NBA Coach of the Year. Tim Connely came on as GM about 10 days later. A decade-long stretch of playoff appearances came to a screeching halt. It was time to rebuild.

Again, a draft pick would kick off a new generation for the Nuggets. But this next major draft boon would look a lot different from 2003. Instead of the #3 pick, it was #41. Instead of starting 82 games, it was 24, and in the Adriatic League. Jokić was never inevitable, until he was.

In 2016, the draft Gods smiled once again upon Denver. With a pick swap that originated in the Carmelo Anthony trade, the Nuggets drafted Jamal Murray. Murray wasn't an obvious hit at first either.

It was during the 2017-2018 season that things started looking like they might pan out. And as it became clear that the seeds were firmly planted, the cash started flowing again.

While it seems obvious now, there's an argument to be made that the 2018 Jokić extension was a major vote of confidence from up top. Extending Jamal and bringing in Aaron Gordon for 2020 echoed that. And ownership doubled down in 2021, locking MPJ down on a max.

And ultimately, those decisions would payoff in a 2023 Finals victory. With that first NBA title under the belt, there's every indication that ownership is committed to keeping the ball rolling. Unfortunately, the cap structure may make that difficult.

As it stands, the Nuggets are on the hook for $182 Million for the 2024-2025 season. That's already above the first apron without the roster even being filled up. With the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) turning the screws on teams that are habitual line-steppers with regards to salary cap, it could start to get increasingly difficult for the Nuggets to keep and land the right talent.

Takeaways

If you examine payroll fluctuations across the NBA, it becomes pretty clear that team payroll, when compared to league average, serves as a broad indication of whether a team is serious or not. Heavy spending won't get you a title. In fact, the heaviest spenders tend to fall short. But refusing to spend money can virtually guarantee disaster.

With the Nuggets approaching the 'heavy spender' side of the spectrum, the possibility of spinning this lineup into something of an NBA dynasty remains on the table. Time will tell if the Nuggets are able to continue developing younger talent and navigating cap restrictions to keep the dream alive.