The Blame Game: Stan Kroenke’s Money Edition

With Carmelo Anthony’s eventual departure looming over the entire season, Nuggets fans have had nothing but time to point their fingers in dismay. Exactly where did we go wrong with Carmelo and whose fault is it? Despite a payroll annually among the most expensive in the league, many are placing the blame on Stan Kroenke’s plan for a new era of far less extravagant spending. While there is some merit to the idea that Stan’s influence could have planted the seeds of doubt in Melo’s mind, to charge Stan’s frugality as the grave injustice that’s ran poor Melo out of town is little more than crying over spilt milk.

For those who want to play the blame game, there’s plenty of time and ammunition to throw at everyone.  I’ve long held the notion that it’s nobody’s fault Carmelo’s tenure in Denver has ended, and I’d wish no ill will towards him so long as his departure was not as self-serving and extravagant as Lebron’s. If we look at the facts of Stan’s management and his spending, is there truth to the idea that saving money has taken precedent over winning basketball in Denver? I leave it up to you to look at the facts and make that assumption, but I’d argue it’s nothing but endless dwelling on past mistakes that just may not have been easily predicted and avoided.

In my mind, Stan Kroenke already bears the scars of poor and short-sighted ownership decisions with regard to the Nuggets. How does Stan look right now with the fifth highest payroll in the league and a pretending roster clinging to playoff mediocrity? These were not the expectations for this team, and they certainly didn’t want to be known as a swirling rumor mill instead of a basketball team. Yet this is the reality we all are living in. If I wanted to, I could wax poetic all day about how Kroenke should have realized the time to spend was last year and 2009 when his team was a true contender. Instead we’ve broken the bank on the Al Harrington’s and Allen Iverson’s of the world while real opportunities passed us by. With the benefit of hindsight, feel free to blame Kroenke all you want for this. In some ways, it’s deserved although I’d challenge those who think they could have so easily predicted this at the time.

I find the time and energy spent dwelling on this could be better spent thinking about the present and things we can control. Yet with Melo’s exit now imminent we can’t escape the sad sobbing blame game everyone wants to focus on instead of acceptance and moving ahead.

If you really want to blame something for all this, look no further than Kenyon Martin. It’s not his fault he took such a lavish and gigantic contract offer despite injury taking him out for a significant portion of it. Yet somehow its Kroenke’s fault that despite living up to his commitment to honor that contract, he didn’t continue spending lavishly enough on top of it. Perhaps Kenyon Martin should have been traded for Andris Biedrins you say? Nevermind the fact that during the time Mark Warkentein allegedly tried to trade with the Warriors, Denver was keeping a secret that Martin needed yet another surgery and could miss a significant portion of his final year (which was uninsured for knee injury).

Due to a combination of bad luck, bad timing, and simply a terribly bad contract Kenyon Martin has never been tradeable in his Nuggets career. If healthy, a Kenyon Martin with less wear and tear on his body could have been a fantastic player for Denver. The Nuggets probably should have had the foresight to realize that such a long maximum contract for his injury history was a risk too big to take. At the time however, it showed incredible commitment by a new owner to a fanbase that had suffered terrible teams for too long. Despite Kiki Vandeweghe’s recklessness in pursuing Kenyon, his arrival sparked a new era of relevance and seven straight playoff appearances.

Kenyon showed glimpses of what he could do while healthy, but only played 63% of possible games with Denver. For a cornerstone with a max contract, he was out nearly half of the time with injuries and only averaged 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds in his Nuggets career. If you are blaming Kroenke for not cashing out on Martin and trading him, you’re living a fantasy. He has not been tradeable and no amount of good or bad management could have changed that. Kenyon Martin the person is a success story who worked hard for every cent he’s earned. Kenyon Martin the contract is a bad decision coupled with bad luck that’s crippled this team in its best years of competing.

Fans living in the past who think Kroenke’s cheapness robbed them of trading Kenyon for an Andris Biedrins or Al Jefferson are delusional. Biedrins is a poor man’s Nene that never happened – an inept offensive player filling the role of a tall, overpaid “defensive presence” on a team that can’t play defense. Al Jefferson is a legit starting Center, but an awful defender as evidenced by the Jazz becoming so poor defensively that despite adding a player of his caliber, Utah finds its franchise fumbling and nearly as messed up as Denver’s. Biedrins however is and was a total joke as a guy who might have made Denver a contender.

One of my favorite Nuggets bloggers, Andrew Feinstein of Denver Stiffs, made a case for a feasible trade that could have swung the Nuggets’ championship window wide open for years. That is a trade with the Hornets last summer involving Emeka Okafor, which was a larger deal that might have involved Kenyon but at the cost of adding a ton of future payroll in exchange. Okafor is the kind of athletic, defensive minded Center that Denver has long been searching for. Is it fair to blame Kroenke for failing to add a high priced Okafor or Tyson Chandler to an already bloated payroll? Considering the difficulties in trading a maxed Kenyon Martin who’s had more knee surgeries than you can count on one hand, I don’t think it’s realistic or feasible to get too upset about it. Though in hindsight it really would have been great.

If you’re not catching my drift yet, Hindsight is always 20/20. Maybe the Nuggets should have spent anyways even though they foolishly overpaid Kenyon. Done something that could have shown Melo that Denver is going to pay when it means winning basketball. As much as fans don’t want to hear it, that move was Al Harrington. While desperate fans lauded it at the time, more cautious and skeptical fans like my colleague Jeremy predicted that no move was the right one to make versus signing Al Harrington. Again, blame Kroenke for this one all you want. The truth is, many supported the move when it happened and couldn’t come up with a better solution as Denver’s free agent options were limited after striking out on luminaries such as Udonis Haslem and Jermaine O’neal. Both Udonis and Jermaine signed with other teams and are out indefinitely with injuries.

For me, the idea that poor Melo loves the Nuggets and has been cruelly pushed away by a tyrannical penny-pinching owner is nothing but a convenient excuse for those who can’t come to grips with reality. The Nuggets made some mistakes building their roster, some they were not able to fix and some that were simply a result of bad luck, bad timing, or Cancer. Should we cry about them regardless? No, it’s time to own up to them and move on.

Forget the blame game. Melo has played ringmaster in his own circus of free agency to perfection, and those who absolve him of all blame because of Kroenke are overlooking facts and evidence to the contrary. Melo is represented by CAA and got a glimpse of what they can deliver during Lebron’s “Decision” in the summer of 2010. Since finagling his way out of Denver, Carmelo has seen his media presence and popularity skyrocket. He’s seized full control of his free agency a whole two years before his contract is officially set to expire.

If this season has taught me anything about Carmelo, it’s that he is a great player but not a team guy. Regardless of his reasons for it, Melo has shown he can’t commit himself to a winning team now because of concern they won’t spend enough to win in the future. Under normal circumstances that’s fine, he could give his all to his coaches and teammates then simply sign a max deal wherever he wants in free agency. Because of the CBA, he needs to get out now or he risks too much for himself to give Denver the last honest year they are paying for.

Adrian Wojnarowksi has quoted a source saying “Melo hasn’t checked [of Denver] only because he never checked in.” Call it bad luck or a perfect storm of circumstance that landed a drastically new CBA coming up in a year Melo had unfortunately guaranteed to the Nuggets. To quote Melo himself, “Time is ticking man and time is money.” That’s not another playoff push and a championship calling Melo’s name. It’s a big money contract he can only get with Denver, but somewhere else.

Fans that want to make Kroenke or Melo the villain in this do so out of anger and disdain for an uncertain future. Melo can say whatever he wants about Denver’s supposed cheap plan for failure in the future. What are the chances that if Melo signed an extension, the Nuggets might feel better about extending Arron Afflalo or Nene? I don’t know because it’s just speculation – the same kind of speculation that leads to this tragic comedy that Stan Kroenke brought this upon himself.

I, for one, am happy to see Denver weary of making the same mistakes and in a position to take advantage of a CBA that is fairer to mid and small market teams. I’m grateful that Denver has not made a desperate, Cleveland-like effort to convince a coddled star into staying by taking on a Jamison or an Andris Biedrins. I don’t equate that spending as much money as you can now means you want to win tomorrow and the act itself justifies whatever consequences it may have.

I wish things would have been different for Denver, and they had been smarter and luckier to build a championship team around Melo. The thing is I’m willing to let go of those frustrations to live in the present with acceptance that Melo wants out of here regardless, and he’s been on a crash course to be gone all year.

Denver fans have had it better than they think. Could Kroenke have afforded a few millions more in losses to satisfy Melo’s appetite as well as the fans? Sure, but none of that guarantees you are going to win. Stan Kroenke hasn’t done everything right, but he’s spent money on winning teams here, more than you can say for many franchises. But when you spend foolishly, you only end up paying for it in despair down the line.

Melo will be gone soon. Win or lose, the players who will wear Denver across their chests will all have reason to play for something besides themselves. They will be a team – in a realer sense than this years Melodrama sideshow ever was. You can wallow in regret or embrace the reality that this team wasn’t going anywhere from the start. Forget the blame game, the Nuggets were always facing a very tall mountain to climb either way.

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Charlie Yao

Contributor at Roundball Mining Company since 2010. Unhealthily obsessed with Nuggets basketball since 2002. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at the links on the left.
  • Zeiram

    Let´s look at this from a bright side Denver, the way this plays out is actually favorable to you. Melo won´t leave for nothing, you might actually get talent, young players and some lottery tickets back for him. Even better compared to the Cavs situtation, unlike Bron Melo isn´t arguably the best player in the NBA and your team is known for winning at least more so than the Cavs. Should Melo really leave soon your owner may actually utter “We will win a championship before he does.” and it might not be a joke.
    So have patience, endure the circus for the few days left and look ahead.

    – a pistons fan

  • http://www.denverstiffs.com Andrew Feinstein

    This is a great column, Charlie. I agree with everything you’re saying!

  • Frontrange

    It’s the trading of all the draft picks for short term savings that bums me out both at the time and looking back. Not having rookie deals with reasonable contracts meant over paying for role players (like Earl Watson, Reggie Evans, Birdman and Harrington).

    2004 – Trade Jameer Nelson for future 1 (Julius Hodges)
    2005 – the draft we needed to be long term useful produced Alex Hervelle, Hodges and Klieza . .
    2006 – Traded away 2 second round and 2 firsts. The firsts were for AI which seems like a good gamble at the time and retrospective.
    2008 – Rolled over our first pick to the following year . .hmm would have Nic Batum, Serge Ibaka, Courtney Lee, Goerge Hill or Ryan Andersen been useful 1M/year players. All them picked in the 6 slots after our pick.
    2009 Traded 1st pick to get rid of Chucky Atkins (turned out to be Taj Gibson); #34 in the second round for cash (could’ve been Dejaun Blair); Steven Hunter and 1 to save money . .

    In my mind we practiced short term gain . .selling an asset today to save a few dollars instead of taking the pain in one year but adding cheap longer term assets. Even we had even had one of Gibson, Ibaka or Blair instead of Malik Allen, Johan Petro, Steven Hunter, J, Howard, we’ve had a legit bigman to compete and rest our injury prone bigs plus cheaper assets on the books.

    There is no question the Martin contract was a problem but management compounded the issues buy not investing in draft picks which can be significant savings. Plus, the really went into cost cutting mode just as ‘Melo’s extension was coming due in 2008/2009 when they should have been investing in long term improvement.

    It not look this is hindsight 20/20 . .even at the time those trades were not about basketball sense but minimizing today’s dollar damage. We all couldn’t believe the Nuggets didn’t take Blair.

    • Charlie

      I agree Frontrange. Perhaps I should have pointed out better how those money saving moves with the draft picks came back to bite the Nuggets badly. As we all know, the money savings from the pick that could have been Dejuan Blair and the 2010 first rounder ended up not being worth it.

      Like you said, Denver may have ended up saving money then, but they ended spending more as a result. Especially when these assets could have gotten Denver into the draft last year, a draft they really wanted to be in. Instead, the money has turned into an enormous luxury tax bill for Al Harrington and a team that has gone nowhere.

      Normally, you won;t see posts like this on RMC because as I said, this type of speculation is pointless to me. However I feel like I have to pull some punches at how fans are coping by doing the easy thing and making Melo the victim so they can turn their back on Denver like he did.

      It’s not that this kind of complaining just rubs me the wrong way. It’s the fact that these fans are acting like a spoiled rich teenager who are up in arms about the fact their parents bought them a Toyota Camry instead of a Mercedes as their first car.

  • http://fawm.org The Maestro

    Great post. I’d love to hear Jeremy’s take on all this, too.
    I think there’s possibility here for some addition-by-subtraction. With Melo gone – and Billups still in town – we will be a completely different, yet not necessarily worse, team.

  • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com Jeremy

    Definitely a very good post Charlie, I am so glad you are writing on RMC.

    I too agree that Kroenke is an easy scapegoat. Fans forget about all the cash he has poured into this team. I calculated that in the 2007-08 season Kroenke dumped nearly $100 million in salary and luxury tax payments for a team who were swept in the first round resulting in a scant two home playoff game paydays. When he dumped Camby it was wholly justifiable. This year he greenlit (green lit? greenlighted?) the unfortunate Al Harrington contract that is going to be a millstone on the Nuggets for the next two seasons.

    As far as the proposed trades, I can see the Nuggets surging if they do pull the trigger with Knicks. Gallo and Chandler will fill in very well at small forward and with the trade fiasco behind them, the team can focus on basketball.

    • Frontrange

      The fact they are trying to include Billups in the deal is a blatant signal of cap savings and tearing down the roster. The deal could be worked without him and Felton pretty easily. Futher, I don’t think Chandler or Gallo will be here long term – Chandler will look for 6-8M/yr depending on th CBA and can’t see the Nugs giving him that. I suspect Gallo will be unhappy with leaving the east coast as well. I hope I am wrong.

      I don’t have a ton of sympathy for Stan and his billions. If you can afford the price tag for 4 professional sports teams, I don’t think you should expect the fans to pay for rebuilding projects ’cause you won’t spend the variable costs to gamble on making a team competitive championship caliber. I have no problem with management decieding that they overpaid the 07/08 version of the Nuggets with AI/Camby/Melo not fitting well together. But when the team is competitive, if the owner is not willing to make the investment to give us a chance, then I do think he should shoulder the blame.