Dragons Continuing to Coast
- By Ken Walden, Day 1, 2023
The Dragons surprised the league, and maybe themselves, with last season's success. The first expansion team to make the playoffs, grabbing the #8 seed in only their second season of existence, the Dragons rode new franchise player Jevon Novak to the first round of the playoffs and a quick dispatch by the Seattle Thunder.
But last year is last year, and the question for fans and the league is what's new? Having traded their first round pick to obtain Novak, Denver had only a second round pick in this year's draft. And they don't even have that--due to the general manager sleeping through the draft, and an assistant manager's mix-up in hurriedly getting a pick to the league officials, the Dragons ended up with Eddie Clemons, rated as the least talented pick of the draft by one commentator. Clemons was immediately released and the Dragons came away from the draft with nothing.
Free agency was the focus for Denver, however. They came into the offseason with north of $33 million to spend and another two years before they have to make any large contract decisions. Denver made an early splash with a $20 million offer on center James Spencer, but the Devils matched the deal and the Dragons came away with nothing. That venture cost the Dragons the early days of free agency, and caused them to shy away from the few young frontcourt talents left, guys like Isaiah Foreman and Richmond Benson, who were also restricted free agents and would have tied up the Dragons money until most players of note were off the field. Instead, the Dragons made a large one-year offer to veteran Orien Young. Their offer doubled the two-year offer fielded by the Scorpions and assured that the vet would come bring his game to Denver. In addition, it assured that Denver met the salary floor in their third season and avoided any penalties. However, another team perhaps had the same idea, driving up the salary in a bidding war that eventually netted Young a $16 million paycheck from the Dragons. Interesting, $2 million less than offered by the other team, who most likely did not have the playoff aspirations of the Dragons or perhaps has large of a role on the roster.
Young brings 16 years of experience to Denver, and management clearly hopes he will have a positive effect on the young players. A driven competitor and fan favorite, Young has already made his presence known on the team as a leader, encouraging the young players to begin working out early and prepare for the season. Young strengthens a questionable frontcourt which struggled with rebounding and defense last season. And he adds a dangerous offensive presence under the rim, which should only benefit an offense with an already deadly backcourt. Teams may now be punished for playing OB1 and Novak closely at the perimeter, as Denver's ball movement and pick and roll can take advantage of Young's shooting.
The Dragons also re-signed Cliff McCaffrey, who has shared starts at the power forward position the last two seasons with Clay Stanback. McCaffrey is a fantastic rebounder who has done well in the team's motion offense as a stretch four and a good passer. He will undoubtedly share minutes with the veteran Young, who isn't expected to be able to play 35 minutes on the fast-paced Dragons squad. Tarvis McWilliams was brought in from the Knights, a flexible 15-year veteran who can back up Mitchell van Bree and add some defense and playmaking to the team. McWilliam's ability to pass should work well in the offense, and give the Dragons some alternative lineups with his positional flexibility.
Lastly, Denver took a shot at several undrafted players, adding some young talent to develop at every position. "Coach Winters loves to work with young guys," said one Denver staffer. "These guys will see a lot of work in camp and practice, and if they get a shot during the season will have the chance to show their stuff. Young and McWilliams are a couple of older guys who will be this season's key backups, and so we're going to continue to find young guys to grow behind them and hopefully take some of those spots in the future."
Missing out on James Spencer, the Dragons clearly shifted gears to move their money to next season's free agency. Young signed a one-year contract, and between cap space they already have, that contract ending, and others ending after this season, the Dragons should again have north of $30 million to spend. That will give them another shot at bringing in an impact player, ideally an All-Star talent in the frontcourt. The season after that it will be time to re-sign Bracey, Novak, and van Bree. Or the Dragons could make a move earlier, trading for that impact player during the season, and perhaps using Young's large salary to match a large contract. While the Dragons did not make the big step upward they hoped to make during free agency, they have at least avoided backing themselves into a corner.
Nothing will be startlingly different when the Dragons take the court this season. Coach Winters is focusing on continuing to develop the young talent that is there, now with some further veteran support. The Dragons will shoot again for the playoffs, but most likely struggle to keep up with Western teams that improved dramatically over the offseason. But next season they will have their own pick, and enough money to sign a max contract. Letting the young players continue to develop this season, particularly those question marks like Stanback and Durrant, will allow the Denver management to make some key decisions. However, until the Dragons find more defense and more rebounding, they will not be able to contend with the greats in this league.
No surprises here. The Dragons will continue to rely on franchise player Jevon Novak to win games for them. They found a rhythm in the second half of the season in which they relied less on 40 point games from Novak, and instead improved his assists, and hope to continue that this year. Calvin Astroth had a promising back half of the season backing Novak up and will continue to get minutes. Denver also feels good about 3rd year man Clifton Hamer and will see how each looks in training camp.
The position continues to belong to Odell Bracey. While he improved slightly from first year to second, his numbers in the second half of the season were actually dramatically better. The team hopes that OB1 starts where finishes and has a breakout season in his third year. Dejuan Jefferies provides a lot of instant offense off the bench--he had the deadliest 3-point shot on the team, and one of the better in the league. However, if his defense is suspect, the team might allow Tarvis McWilliams some minutes here, as he could match OB1's playmaking while providing better defense than Jefferies.
This is a pivotal year for Mitchell van Bree. Bree had a great first season and regressed in his second, seeming to have a hard time fitting in the new Novak-driven offense. The team hopes that this was a blip, and that Bree becomes a bigger contributor this season now that they have settled on their offensive and defensive schemes. Another worry here was a lack of a good backup for van Bree last season, but now the team has Tarvis McWilliams, who they are comfortable playing serious minutes here. Behind him are some undrafted rookies, if they make it through training camp, and Clay Stanback, who may see more minutes here with the addition of Young at PF. This is also a make or break year for Stanback, who was the best player on the team in his rookie season, but regressed as van Bree did in year two. Was his rookie season an expansion aberration, or can he play in the big leagues?
The only position to see a major change from last season, the Dragons will be starting Orien Young here, barring a training camp disaster. Young brings experience and offense to the position, which has rotated through many hands the last two seasons. The hope is that having a serious post threat will challenge defenses to cover all of the offensive threats. Behind him will be Cliff McCaffrey, who has been the one reliable rebounder the Dragons have had, and who has done well for himself as a stretch passing four in the offense. Backing him up will be Stanback, an undersized 4 who has done surprisingly well at the spot, and some undrafted rookies. If Young has endurance issues, the position will likely be split between him and McCaffrey.
Probably considered by most a huge weak spot on the team, the Dragons looked to upgrade the position in free agency but failed. They also chose not to make several trades that might have helped them here at the cost of future picks. And part of the reason is they still feel pretty good about Cedric Durrant. An expansion draft grab, Durrant has struggled at times to stay on the court for 32 minutes, but has produced surprisingly good stats for the minutes he manages to play. The Dragons are curious what his third year on the team could look like, and this season will determine whether he's worth continuing to develop or needs to be replaced pronto. Last season the Dragons brought in veteran Marcus Enright to shore up this position, and he played increasing minutes as the season went on. However, he doesn't match the team's schemes particularly well, and showed signs of aging. Behind him is a third year Dragons pick in Rodrick Guinn who needs minutes to develop but has some backup potential. The Dragons will either watch Durrant flourish this season into a legitimate starter, or get ready to spend their picks and/or cap space on landing a serious starter who fits into the team's offensive and defensive schemes.