One of the more delightful aspects of being a Nuggets fan these days is knowing how competent the team’s front office is. Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke have proven to be a dynamic duo that isn’t afraid to make a bold move when necessary. Through his first year and a half as the Nuggets Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, it was as if everything Ujiri touched turned to gold. But in his most recent transaction, sending long-tenured veteran Nene to Washington in exchange for the young, enigmatic JaVale McGee, he might very well have put the first blemish on his otherwise near-perfect track record.
Why the Nuggets decided to send Nene packing hasn’t been publicly disclosed. Ujiri stated the move was made with “the big picture” in mind, specifically with the team moving in a younger direction, but that’s not why Nene found himself on the wrong end of a last-minute, trade-deadline deal. General managers don’t trade away 29-year-old franchise cornerstones with that type of reasoning. The fact is, moving forward there was something the Nuggets brass saw in Nene that they felt the team would be better off without.
Fans speculate it was a combination of his bulky contract, injuries, underwhelming play on the floor and meteoric rise of rookie, Kenneth Faried. Though all of these elements likely played a role, one more than any other stands out the most: money.
At $13 million per year, Nene was going to cost a franchise entrenched in a “youth movement” a pretty penny to keep. The Nuggets knew this from the minute they signed him, yet Ujiri and Kroenke remained determined in cajoling him to come back this summer after he made it clear he wanted to move in a different direction. When Ujiri and Kroenke became successful in their quest to re-sign the Brazilain big man, they wore smiles on their faces at his press conference that could have covered more skin than the traditional bikinis donned by the women of Nene’s home country.
Less than three months later, the Nuggets capriciously decided his contract was too much to handle. The team needed room to re-sign Wilson Chandler and eventually, Ty Lawson. Removing Nene’s $13 million-per-year contract aided in this regard but it wasn’t mandatory in order to have secured Chandler.
Coming to the conclusion that Nene’s contract was going to become an obstacle is understandable; trading him in a last-second deal for perhaps the most frustrating player in basketball wasn’t. In this sense, Ujiri committed two major errors with the Nene-McGee deal: first, he failed to maximize the return on his assets, and second, he disregarded team chemistry and the value of having a level-headed veteran like Nene in the locker room.
While it’s still entirely too early to judge the trade as a whole, some things have come to light that allow us to gauge it’s initial repercussions. The most telling has been McGee’s play on the floor. After initially starting several games and playing extremely well, McGee has since been relegated to the bench averaging close to 20 minutes per game. He commits fouls at an alarmingly high rate, many of which make no sense. His awkward spacing can negatively affect the offense and jeopardize his ability to play any sort of one-on-one defense. At times he’s like a snail coming up the floor in transition while at others it’s as if he thinks he’s a point guard, dribbling excessively after collecting a defensive rebound. On Saturday, McGee compiled one of his signature performances that have been published across the Internet when he goaltended a shot, blew a dunk, fell down and had his own shot blocked all in a 60-second span.
Saying McGee has no positive attributes is erroneous. He’s an excellent shot blocker, has a few solid post moves, can rebound well and knows how to finish around the rim with authority. The problem is, much like former Nugget, J.R. Smith, McGee can’t seem to filter the flow of negative, detrimental plays that intermix with his skill set. All too often McGee’s performances are a mixed bag of jaw-dropping, athletic displays of brilliance and nonsensical, boneheaded mistakes that leave you scratching your head. For this reason fans have no choice but to ponder how much McGee actually helps the team win when he’s on the floor and how much better off the team is with him rather than Nene.
Moving forward the Nuggets will have three options with McGee: trade him, re-sign him or let him walk as a free agent this summer. None of these will end up coming to fruition without the Nuggets front office at least looking somewhat naive.
Letting him walk solves nothing. This means the Nuggets begged Nene to return, signed him then performed a salary dump just three months later. The team will have lost not one, but two solid NBA big men and will have nothing to show for it. If this is the case, put the Nene trade down as a complete failure for the Nuggets front office.
Depending on what they get in return, trading McGee could end up paying off or taking the Nuggets right back where they started. Banking on the way he’s played thus far and his notorious reputation as one of the more difficult players in the NBA, there’s a good chance nobody is going to cut ties with premier assets for the right to secure a potential headache for years to come. A desperate lottery contender may be willing to dish out north of $10 million per year for McGee, but it certainly won’t do this in unison with sacrificing its other building blocks. So while it’s entirely possible the Nuggets turn around and flip McGee for an improved package, the likelihood is not extremely high.
Re-signing McGee is, once again, only treading water. You would have traded away a mature, professional (albeit inconsistent) veteran with a hefty contract for an immature, project-player who is also going to receive a promising payday. Before coming to the Nuggets, McGee proclaimed he’s going to be seeking $14 million per year — which is even more money than Nene gets paid — and while it may seem outlandish now, once summer hits and teams have cap space to work with, even cantankerous big men like McGee become extremely attractive assets. Fearing the possibility of losing McGee for nothing, the Nuggets might very well end up with a serious case of deja vu, having to overpay yet another big man while straddling the team’s payroll with an albatross contract once again.
In the end, this — just like all trades — can only be judged by what ultimately develops. Should the Nuggets sign-and-trade McGee to the Charlotte Bobcats for an unprotected first-round draft pick, I’ll gladly bite my tongue and admit to having prematurely labeled this trade as questionable. But no matter what, Masai Ujiri will have learned a lesson: Big men simply don’t come cheap and building a winning culture is a vital part of being an NBA general manager. Bringing in wayward sons of futile franchises isn’t usually part of the recipe.