The 2012 NBA Draft went like a lot of people thought it wouldn’t. With their first selection the Nuggets took a European player on virtually nobody’s radar and with their second selection they took someone high on everyone’s radar… the first-round radar, that is. Immediately following the Draft there was, for the most part, a negative and visceral outburst by fans (and columnists) in reaction to the surprise selection, and while the visceral part is understandable, the negative deserves some perspective.
Prior to the 2012 Draft Masai Ujiri’s track record was essentially flawless. That wasn’t an opinion, but more a consensus. Every move he had executed, every signing he had coaxed — it was all masterful. If you wanted, you could probably make an argument that his most recent test (the 2012 NBA Draft) was on par with everything he’s done up to this point. Truth is, nobody who covers the Nuggets knows the draft on a scale evenly remotely close to what he does, so until his most recent additions take the court for everyone to see, Ujiri is still untouchable.
But here’s the difference between the threshold that was his track record prior to the Draft and following it: Ujiri admitted himself that there was more at work with the Nuggets first-round selection than just going for the best player available. For those who follow the draft closely, you know, this is a cardinal sin.
The theory sort of goes that the first round contains the most amount of talent (shocking, I know). No matter what type of dire financial situation you’re encompassed by, no matter how many duplicates you have at one position, no matter what type of team needs you possess — selecting the best player available should never ever appear anywhere but No.1 on your priority list.
When the Nuggets selected Fournier with the 20th pick in the first round, questions regarding whether the team followed this time-honored principle were immediately raised. At the time, Perry Jones and Jared Sullinger were still on the board. Both were considered top 10 picks as recently as three months ago by many of the best draft analysts in the world. Both ended up going to first-class organizations (with highly regarded general managers) who have appeared in the NBA Finals at least once over the last three years: Sullinger to the Celtics and Jones to the Thunder.
Not long after, Ujiri and team president Josh Kroenke corroborated their fans’ unsettling sentiments by holding a dubious press conference with a palpable narrative: that they were happy with the team as is. The duo repeatedly touched on this theme throughout the night even though it should have had nothing to do with the way they approached the Draft.
In his opening statement Kroenke introduced the thesis, saying “our team was in a pretty good position across the board… our existing roster we felt deserved to move forward and compete together.”
Ujiri then followed closely behind revealing that “as George [Karl] has said, Jordan Hamilton is our rookie for next year… You have to give [your players] more of a chance, maybe… our players need to develop as much as we can… we’re happy with our team and we’ll keep plugging away… We wanted that option [of Fournier playing overseas]… our roster is pretty full and pretty full with young guys.”
It’s as if they felt the need to justify the Fournier selection. Instead of saying “we got the guy we wanted,” they continuously fell back on the alibi “we’re happy with our team; we needed no improvements.” If they had landed Royce White or Andrew Nicholson, both of whom they publicly expressed interest in (who RMC also had ranked as Top 3 selections throughout our Big Board series leading up to the Draft), would they have said the same thing? It’s like assembling a team of superheroes to fight a villain-driven apocalypse, knocking on the last guys’ door and saying “Look, we kind of already have a full squad here. If you want to come you can, but we’d really prefer if you just stayed home and sat this one out, you know, so you don’t get in the way. Hope you understand!”
But the worst part of this supposed overseas “flexibility,” that factored so highly into the decision to draft Fourier given how many times Ujiri mentioned it in the press conference, is that one side (the side that actually has to go overseas and play the basketball) doesn’t even want it in the first place. That’s right, Fournier doesn’t want to play in Europe any longer. He’s done. He wants to come over to the NBA. The very next day after he was drafted, when meeting with the Denver media Fournier proclaimed, “I want to play (for the Nuggets) next season. I don’t want to come back to Europe. I need to be the best player I can, score and play defense.”
That’s about as clear, cut and dry as it gets.
This, of course, raises all sorts of questions, starting with, did Ujiri even cover this potential roadblock prior to drafting Fournier? You’d think, logically, that if Fournier was so high on the Nuggets wish list that prior to the Draft during any number of their interviews with him, at some point in time, they would have gone over this situation. If not, then Ujiri essentially structured his draft around a “flexibility” that never existed in the first place. That valuable last roster spot they so desperately (and erroneously) desired, which they did not want to give to a rookie, might very well end up going to a rookie when it’s all said and done anyways, especially when you throw Quincy Miller in the mix.
(Side Note: How awkward is the conversation between the general manager and the guy drafted to be stashed that doesn’t actually want to be stashed?
Ujiri: So Evan. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that we like you, a lot. You’re our guy! At the same, time we kind of had the intention of stashing you away.
Evan: But I don’t want to be stashed.
Ujiri: I understand, you’re eager to play in the NBA. I like that. That’s good. But–
Evan: –I don’t want to be stashed.
Ujiri: You have no choice but to be stashed.
Evan: No. I came here to play. I’m not going back to Europe.
Ujiri: Look man, you gotta understand where I’m coming from. I have a coach who hates rookies — hates em. When I ordered him to play Faried last year, I thought he was going to drop dead on the spot. You should have seen the expression on his face. It was like I backed up one of those giant boulder-hauling dump trucks filled with baby kittens and just unloaded it off a cliff into shark-infested waters. We have an extremely young roster, and as you can imagine, limiting these confrontations is No. 1 on my priority list at this point in time. So, you either get stashed or you end up fetching cough drops for the guy during every waking minute of your life over the next year.
Evan: Wow. That’s extremely graphic, Masai. I’m sorry. But I just can’t budge. I’m coming Denver.
Ujiri: We’re stashing you.
Evan: Cough drops it is then!)
Coaches and NBA general managers have very different agendas. This is well documented. When given the choice, general managers will always prefer to build for the future and avoid ephemeral fixes; coaches, on the other hand, have only one goal in mind and that’s to win as many games as possible regardless of how crippled the team may be in the long run because of it.
No matter how much Ujiri likes and appreciates Karl as coach, it’s absolutely imperative he maintains a fine line between front office dealings and coaching. Even going so far as to re-sign Karl’s favorite player — the 36-year-old Andre Miller — to a reasonable contract is a questionable decision given Miller’s age, shoddy defense and Karl’s affinity towards playing a two-point guard lineup. Karl recently praised Jordan Hamilton as a likely top 10 selection in this year’s draft but with Harrington and Chandler ahead of him on the depth chart and Miller taking all the backup shooting guard minutes how is he ever supposed to see playing time?
Nobody will ever know what Nuggets strategy was heading into the 2012 Draft. If Ujiri really did have Fournier as the best player available when the Nuggets selected at 20, then this point (and entire article, for the most part) is moot, thankfully; however, the actions displayed after the fact would suggest otherwise. From the surface (and according to Ujiri himself) it appears as though drafting a player who could be stashed overseas for several years played a key role in selecting the lone foreign pick in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft. If true, this will go down as the first real blemish on Masai Ujiri’s otherwise spotless record, as letting a coach who once vetoed a David Lee for Linas Kleiza trade dictate your draft strategy therefore preventing you from selecting the best player available, is some straight up Elgin Baylor-Donald Sterling type of stuff the Nuggets just don’t need to be on… ever.
For now, Ujiri is still untouchable.