The Denver Nuggets have been to the playoffs seven straight seasons and have posted three straight 50 win campaigns for the first time as an NBA franchise. Despite the consistency they have displayed on the court, the front office is once again in a state of flux.
The Nuggets announced today Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman will not have their contracts renewed and thus will cease to be employed by the club at the end of August (Denver Post article, Tomasson article on FanHouse). This is no surprise as Warkentien has been granted permission to speak with other teams about their front office vacancies. Over the previous four seasons the Nuggets have had quite a few cooks around the fire. Warkentien, Chapman, Bret Bearup and George Karl have all had a say in personnel matters and do not forget Stan Kroenke ultimately determines what he is willing to spend which plays a considerable role in player personnel decisions.
Despite the crowded kitchen Warkentien was the head chef and he made a significant mark on the franchise.
Warkentien worked his way up from a scout for Seattle almost 20 years ago and he proved to have a good eye for talent. He was part of the management team in Portland that constructed the talented, but combustible “Jail Blazer” roster that was as close to winning a championship as you can get without getting to the finals when they blew a double digit fourth quarter lead in Los Angeles in 2000.
He found his way to Denver in September of 2005 in what would be Kiki Vandeweghe’s final season as General Manager. Vandeweghe was disposed of in the same fashion Warkentien was, his contract was not renewed when it expired prior to the 2006-07 season at which time Warkentien was promoted to Vice President of Basketball Operations. Chapman was brought in to fill his old position of Vice President of Player Personnel and Bearup was brought on board as an advisor.
The Nuggets were coming off an embarrassing first round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers complete with Vandeweghe’s prize acquisition Kenyon Martin feuding with George Karl and being suspended for the final three games of the series.
Warkentien was on the job for only three and a half months when he swung for the fences trading Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first round picks for Allen Iverson. Trading for Iverson was a risk, but it was a good risk to take. Denver had been in desperate need of a second scorer to take the load off of Carmelo Anthony and there was ample proof the roster as constructed had gone as far as it could go. Plus, AI only had two and a half seasons left on his contract which would gave the Nuggets a year and a half to give an AI/Melo combination a chance before he could be moved as an expiring contract.
Warkentien pulled off another good deal later that season swapping Earl Boykins and Julius Hodge to Milwaukee for Steve Blake. Boykins was a crowd favorite, but was basically a tiny two guard with a hero complex while Blake was long enough to play in the backcourt with Iverson and was a decent, but not great, three point shooter.
After a disappointing first round loss at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs the decision was made to give the team time to gel and the roster was basically kept intact for the 2007-08 season which made perfect sense. Expectations were high for Denver and while they did not blow the roof off the league the Nuggets did earn their first 50 win season in 20 years. Sadly, everything came to an abrupt end with an unceremonious first round sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.
It was painfully obvious that the duo of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson could score points, but they were not contenders. The order came down from Kroenke to slash payroll as it was clearly insane to pay such a large luxury tax bill for a team that could not even win a single playoff game.
The result was the Marcus Camby salary dump which earned Warkentien wide spread disdain for his comment after that the Nuggets were playing chess not checkers (“It’s not a checkers move. It’s a chess move. Chess is a tougher game to understand, you’ve got to wait longer to see the results of the move.”). The outrage of fans was to be expected as Camby, though a wildly overrated defender, was seen as the last line of defense and lone player willing to worry about defense first and offense second. There were widespread proclamations that the Nuggets would give up 120 points a game without Camby and what made matters worse was they did not get anything in exchange for the former Defensive Player of the Year.
I argued that as a salary dump Denver did a very good job considering the Suns had to give up two first round picks to get Seattle to take the expiring contract of Kurt Thomas off their hands. Plus Camby had two years left on his contract, not one as Thomas did. The Nuggets could have done much worse.
The Camby trade worked for two other reasons. Nene had always been a second class citizen in the Nuggets front court as he was stuck behind Camby and Martin in the rotation. The trading of Camby allowed Nene to become a full time starter and he flourished as a result. The second and equally important benefit derived from the Camby trade was it finally gave the Nuggets some financial flexibility.
That flexibility paid off quickly. When Iverson showed up for training camp it was clear he had lost a step as he dealt with a sore knee. Warkentien and the Nuggets jumped on the chance to swap AI for Chauncey Billups. While it is true the Nuggets allowed the trade exception from the Camby trade, which was expertly “refreshed” in the Billups deal in another nice move by Warkentien thanks to some fancy accounting, ultimately expired the fact that Camby’s $10 million salary was off the books opened up the opportunity to add Chauncey’s roughly equal salary to the books going forward.
Chauncey provided an immediate spark for the Nuggets thanks to his on court leadership and savvy presence the Nuggets had been desperately lacking. Denver had not had a true point guard who could help space the floor and hold his own defensively in years and the results were spectacular.
Warkentien also replaced much of what Camby provided by signing Chris “Birdman” Andersen to a minimum salary. Birdman would lead the league in blocks for 48 minutes while not insisting on shooting four hideous jumpers a game like Camby did. With the addition of Dahntay Jones and a newfound commitment to defense spurred by George Karl Denver surged to the Western Conference Finals and gave the Lakers a scare. Warkentien deservedly earned the Executive of the Year award as a result.
Heading into the 2009-10 season the Nuggets were poised to challenge the Lakers and Warkentien once again was able to bring in talent on the cheap as Denver acquired Arron Afflalo for a trade exception while letting Jones, a less talented and older player, to go to the Pacers for more than double Afflalo’s salary. Denver also managed to pull off a draft night deal to acquire a longtime object of their desire in Ty Lawson to provide support to Billups.
Alas, we all know how last season unfolded. However, while Denver never approached the sixty win plateau of an elite team Warkentien oversaw the very difficult transition from a playoff team to a contender all while slashing payroll.
Warkentien was not a flawless executive. We never were able to see how effective he was with managing a draft because the Nuggets regularly traded their first round picks, usually along with a player as carrot along with an unwanted contract. He did make the comment that very few rookies are capable of earning time on a playoff team, which is generally accurate, when downplaying the value of first round picks, but as we have seen in Phoenix, teams that pass on the first round year after year tend to age poorly.
The ultimate flaw in the Warkentien ear was the Nuggets inability to see the need to add another quality big man during the 2009-10 season. While George Karl’s illness ultimately derailed the season the decision to stand stick with the current mix of players was a disappointing one. When Kenyon Martin went down late in the season coupled with the loss of Karl the Nuggets’ season was all but finished.
Even in the summer of 2010 Warkentien was unable to pull off a deal to get into the bottom of the second round and land the player Denver coveted, Derrick Caracter who ultimately went to the Lakers of all teams, and the Nuggets were unable to acquire the big man they so desperately needed as Jermaine O’Neal took his talents to Bunker Hill. Plus with sign and trades as popular as Despicable Me the Nuggets also failed to get a trade exception from Toronto, or land Michael Beasley in a three team deal who I am convinced could have been immediately flipped to Minnesota for a first rounder, when Linas Kleiza departed.
Reflecting on the Warkentien regime it is difficult to ignore the results. The Nuggets were a true contender for the first time in decades and Warkentien lead the charge of competing while adhering to economic responsibility. When a team has finite financial resources to work with, as is the case with most NBA teams, bad contracts can bring a franchise to their knees. Warkentien only completed acquisitions that made financial sense and he did an excellent job of finding quality players at discount prices (Dahntay Jones, Birdman, Afflalo, even Lawson).
With the need to be fiscally sound even more crucial with the upcoming CBA it is not a good time to see an executive who worked to avoid overpaying for players, including the sin of bidding against himself, while finding players who can contribute on the cheap depart. I wrote how the Al Harrington signing showed the end of the Warkentien era as it was an exorbitant contract for a player that is on the downside of his career and that appears to have been true.
As he moves on to direct another team, hopefully in the Eastern Conference, let the record show Mark Warkentien did a fantastic job with the Denver Nuggets. He could not afford to make mistakes and he rarely did. Sadly, he was one transaction away from putting the Nuggets over the top and did not get to see a championship come to the Mile High City. He departs the team at a dangerous time with an aging core, a superstar who is balking at accepting a guaranteed $85 million and ownership quite possibly in transition.
Regardless of what happens from here on out, I would like to wish Mr. Warkentien good luck in the future and thank you for a job well done.
Warkentien’s Best Deals
7) J.R. Smith contract – J.R. Smith was a free agent in the summer of 2008. He came off an explosive second half of the season where he scored at least 15 points 14 times while coming off the bench for Denver including a scintillating 43 point outburst in Chicago (albeit in a loss). Smith was still a brash youngster, heck he still is, but showed dramatic improvement each year with the Nuggets yet he still flashes incredible potential. Some teams would have signed him to a six year deal just to hang onto him bidding against themselves along the way. Warkentien worked out a three year deal, just over the mid level exception that gave Smith some financial security, or at least as much financial security as these guys will ever have the way they spend money, while still making him accountable to continue to improve in order to get a big long term contract in 2011.
6) Arron Afflalo Trade – With Dahntay Jones leaving for Indianapolis with a much more substantial contract than Denver was willing to offer (again financial responsibility, how many teams would have pulled out all the stops to hang onto a player who was the hero of a playoff series and regretted it later) the Nuggets were in need of finding another shooting guard who could play the defensive counterpart to J.R. Smith’s flamethrower act. When Detroit signed Ben Gordon to a horrible contract Afflalo was superfluous. Warkentien jumped on Afflalo recognizing his ability to consistently hit the corner three as well as defend. Afflalo showed marked improvement in his third year in the league and looks to be a staple of the Nuggets’ rotation for years to come under his reasonable rookie contract.
5) Chris Andersen Contract – I had repeatedly proclaimed the Nuggets were not going to be able to afford Birdman following his coming out party in 2008-09. Having signed a one year deal, Denver did not have his Bird Rights and thus could not go over the mid level exception to sign him. Warkentien was able to get Andersen to accept half of the first year salary he could have received elsewhere in exchange for giving him five guaranteed years. This deal may not look so hot three years from now and Birdman, while he improved statistically, did not provide the energy he did the year prior was a must sign for Denver to remain a contender. Hopefully Birdman can recover from the knee issues that plagued him last season and have a year where he combines the statistical improvement with the inspirational play that made him such a valuable commodity.
4) Marcus Camby Trade – When the opportunity to dump Camby’s salary on the Clippers arose Warkentien jumped on it. Having lost out on Elton Brand the Clippers were desperate to spend their money and cut their losses. Had Denver held out it is possible the Clippers could have signed someone, eaten up their cap space and the Camby trade would not have happened. Additional points for opening up the center spot for Nene and having the vision to realize how this deal helped the Nuggets’ prospects for the future even though it was a salary dump mandated by ownership. It paved the way to acquire Chauncey (and turned out to be a very nice chess move).
3) Ty Lawson Trade – Having traded their first round pick to Memphis to convince them to accept Steven Hunter’s broken down body, and contract to match, the Nuggets were without a first round pick in the 2009 draft. They did have a future first rounder of the Charlotte Bobcats that was lottery protected. Warkentien realized the potential for the Bobcats’ pick to never pay off in the top ten thanks to the addition of Stephen Jackson, the presence of Larry Brown and the soft middle class of the east. They traded the Bobcats pick to Minnesota for Ty Lawson who after returning to North Carolina for his junior year had just won a championship and had fixed his creaky jumper. Lawson played very well for the Nuggets and could be the point guard of the future. He also proved to be a thorn in the side of the Lakers as they could not contain his quickness, nor could D.J. Mbenga control his explosiveness. At the very least he can play enough minutes to ensure Chauncey’s legs are fresh late in the season.
2) Allen Iverson Trade – We already mentioned the Iverson trade was a gamble. It was a definite risk, but a risk that was limited in the sense it did not cost them their future and at the very least would pay off at the box office and make the Nuggets must see TV at the very least for curiosity’s sake. Give Warkentien credit for recognizing it was not working out and not stubbornly clinging to Iverson when the time and opportunity to move on arose.
1) Chauncey Billups Trade – The trade that made the Nuggets a contender, even if their window proves to only be a year and a half, gets my nod for Warkentien’s best deal as the Nuggets Vice President of Basketball Operations. Again, Warkentien had the confidence and perspective to see the Iverson gambit failed and he did not hang on to give it one more go when it clearly was not going to make Denver relevant in the postseason. Bonus points for the Iverson and Camby trades above for making this deal possible.
Warkentien’s Worst Deals
5) Steven Hunter Trade – Honestly, I thought this was a good trade as it brought a defensive minded seven footer who could run the floor to Denver. Hunter had struggled with injuries, but was never as injured as he was in Denver appearing in a career low 19 games during the 2007-08 season. Even when he was healthy Karl had little faith in him. Hunter was shipped to Memphis along with a first round draft pick to save money.
4) Renaldo Balkman Contract Extension – Warkentien was clearly infatuated with Renaldo Balkman and while he was able to acquire him for a song, Balkman was never able to get on George Karls’ good side and when he was signed to a four year extension that is $1.675 million, plus luxury tax, that is money Denver does not have to further upgrade the roster. I see the same things in Balkman that Warkentien sees and while he is relatively cheap and can certainly outperform his contract, if neither Karl nor Adrian Dantley were/are going to play him, he is dead weight. With three more years on his contract, maybe Balkman’s time will come after all.
3) Signing Chucky Atkins over Steve Blake – As pointed out above, Denver signed Atkins, a washed up guard who would never make a positive impact on the team, over Steve Blake to save a little money. While Blake is no world beater he has gone on to become a very good three point shooter and pass first point guard. Atkins was shipped off to Oklahoma City along with a first round pick to acquire Johan Petro and a second rounder. Atkins may have saved Denver a little cash, but they would not have had to include a first rounder to send Blake packing.
2) Losing Linas Kleiza for Nothing – Kleiza is no world beater, but he is a solid player and I have written enough about how I think Denver should have been able to get something from Toronto. It is possible Warkentien was out of the picture by this time as it corresponded with the Harrington signing which was very un-Warkentien like. More on Kleiza below, because I know everyone wants more Kleiza.
1) Failure to Make One More Move – Denver was in position to contend for a championship in 2009-10 and even before news broke that George Karl was going to miss time to fight throat cancer Denver never made a deal that clearly put them on equal footing with the Lakers. Perhaps nothing ever made sense or the blessing was not given from ownership to add some salary. Even so 2009-10 will forever go down as a missed opportunity for the Nuggets.
Two That Got Away
Heading towards the 2008 trade deadline Linas Kleiza was an up and coming player that had some significant value around the NBA. Warkentien apparently had reached an agreement to send Kleiza to Sacramento for Ron Artest when George Karl put the kaibosh on the deal. It is difficult to blame Karl for now wanting a locker room with J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Kenyon Martin and Ron Artest. A Kleiza (and Eduardo Najera) for Aretst deal would have made the Nuggets much more dangerous and Kenyon Martin would never have had to guard Kobe Bryant that season in the playoffs with Artest on board. More importantly, maybe Denver avoids the eighth seed and the Lakers in the first round. Still, the risk was minimal, other than a potential homicide in the locker room, as Artest was entering the last year of his contract.
Another Kleiza trade that may not have been quite as close to happening, but was definitely on the table would have brought David Lee to Denver. Lee is a flawed player, most of them are, but would have really helped Denver’s need for more defensive rebounding. Lee may not have seemed like a good fit with Kenyon and Nene claiming most of the minutes at power forward and center although he would have been a nice get in exchange for Kleiza who only played one more mediocre year for Denver anyway.