DENVER — The Denver Nuggets lack a first-round pick in the NBA draft for the fourth straight year. That doesn't mean they'll simply be spectators Thursday night.
With the 34th overall pick in the second round, the Nuggets are willing to move up into the latter part of the first round if the right player falls to them and the right trade partner comes along.
"We're more up on our toes, looking to be aggressive, than back on our heels and in a defensive posture," said Mark Warkentien, the Nuggets' vice president of basketball operation and reigning NBA executive of the year.
"That wouldn't be a major upset, but the right guy has to show up."
That right guy would likely be a point guard.
The Nuggets, who won a franchise-best 54 games and nearly beat the league champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, have three point guards who will be in their 30s next season: Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter and Jason Hart.
They'd love nothing more than to come out of this draft with a young point guard who can take some of Billups' minutes and keep him fresh deeper into the postseason.
Billups tired out toward the end of the conference championship after leading the Nuggets within a whisker of their first trip to the NBA finals.
The good thing for Denver is that this year's draft is deepest at point guard.
The last time the Nuggets had a first-round pick was 2005, before the current front office regime took over.
In '06, they picked Leon Powe with the 49th overall selection and sent him to Boston. They had no picks in '07 or '08. But it's a misnomer to say they didn't do well on draft day those years when you consider who they ended up with on their roster.
Under Warkentien, who made a name for himself on draft day in Portland, the Nuggets have built one of the league's best teams in the most unconventional of ways.
In '06, they traded for J.R. Smith, who has emerged as one of the league's best and most exciting sixth men and who is certain to get starter's minutes next season.
In '07, they had two first-round picks going into the season and traded them to Philadelphia for Allen Iverson, who in turn was dealt to Detroit last November for Billups in the biggest trade in franchise history. They also acquired Von Wafer, who was a starter in the playoffs for Houston last season.
In '08, they dealt a draft pick to Charlotte for a future No. 1 from the Bobcats, which could end up giving them a lottery selection as early as next summer. And they traded a future second-rounder for Sonny Weems, who starred in the D-League last season.
"I think draft day has been kind to us," Warkentien said. "I'd say our record reflects we've taken our draft day assets and made our roster better."
Under Warkentien and coach George Karl, both of whom will enter the final year of their contracts in 2009-10 unless they get extensions, the Nuggets have won 45, 50 and 54 games.
"If we kept those picks in '06 and '07, we wouldn't have our backcourt," Warkentien said. "Because we basically traded the '06 and '07 picks for Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith.
"And we'd certainly do that again."
The Nuggets' top five scorers all return next season, including star Carmelo Anthony, Nene and Kenyon Martin. So what they need out of the draft is a player who can give them some solid bench minutes, and they hope it's at the point.
After the draft, the Nuggets' top priority will be re-signing Chris "Birdman" Andersen, who made just under $1 million last year and was arguably the league's best bargain in his spectacular comeback from a drug suspension.
The Nuggets also want to re-sign Dahntay Jones, who also made less than $1 million. He went from playing in the D-League to being a playoff pest that drew the ire of the Hornets, Mavericks and Lakers.
Andersen and Jones are unrestricted free agents, as is Carter. Their other restricted free agents are Johan Petro and Linas Kleiza, who could be dangled to move up into the latter part of the first round Thursday night.