Masai Ujiri leaving the Denver Nuggets has the potential to be one of the most devastating franchise decisions the Kroenke family has ever made. Conversely, the Nuggets might hire the next Masai Ujiri and be just fine. Either way, the decision to let him speak with the Raptors and ultimately sign with his former Canadian squad said something about the Nuggets as a franchise. It said something about the Kroenkes and it said something about the order of the Nuggets’ priorities. Our writers have a few ideas about what that something is, which we’ve laid out below in our latest Roundball Roundtable.
As the Nuggets try and move on from Masai Ujiri it seems as if there will be plenty of viable candidates that the team can plug into his position.
After all, the Nuggets have a young roster that just won 57 games, and outside of Andre Iguodala and Cory Brewer, everyone in the rotation is locked up for the next few years.
But things aren’t that simple. The Nuggets roster is built in a very particular way, a way that suits what they want to do under George Karl very well.
And many times a new front office wants to put their own coach in place, one that fits their stylistic vision and preference.
So now Nuggets ownership has a tough decision that’s getting even tougher.
Do they move on with someone outside the organization or inside of it?
If they go inside, which seems likely from recent reports, one would assume the roster and style stays the same — that the major moves are to just improve this roster via the draft, or smaller contracts for veteran role players this summer.
If they go outside things can get drastically different for the Nuggets, so much so that a lottery pick could be coming in the near future, maybe even multiple.
You see while Denver fans may love and at times hate some members of the roster, almost everyone fits what the Nuggets try to do really well and is valued in some way by the current front office.
But a few current Nuggets are players that not every general manager will be enamored with.
How does Kenneth Faried, someone of such limited offensive skill and who struggles on defense, fit in a slower system? How much of Ty Lawson’s offensive brilliance would they tie into an up-tempo style of play? We all know not every front office values JaVale McGee the way the Nuggets do right now.
And that doesn’t even address the superstar aspect. The jury is still out on being able to win without one and right now the Nuggets don’t have one.
Sure Lawson is a fantastic offensive player, but he struggles mightily on the other end of the floor. Danilo Gallinari showed the biggest developmental jump outside of Lawson, but he is now recovering from a torn ACL.
If a new front office enters Denver with the hopes of changing things drastically there are a lot of players on this roster that probably need to go, players whose very effectiveness is tied into playing in up-tempo games.
So, it drastically limits the Nuggets search for Masai’s replacement. Instead of looking all around the league Denver is now forced to look all around the league for anyone willing to continue to build the roster around an up-tempo style.
Limiting anything that much is always a troublesome decision; but right now the Nuggets probably have no choice.
Three million a year for someone who will never touch a basketball during a game is a lot of money. Throw in the difficulty of measuring direct on-court impact by one man in the front office and you start treading in some murky monetary waters. But Masai Ujiri is worth every penny, and here’s why…
In his first year on the job in 2010, he was welcomed to the Nuggets by a toxic and deteriorating relationship with then franchise cornerstone, Carmelo Anthony. He was immediately put in the unenviable position of trading a near priceless commodity when that commodity is blatantly and repeatedly praying to sign nowhere else but with New York. And yet, with no leverage to speak of, Masai not only hoodwinked the Knicks into making a deal when they could have easily just waited until the offseason, but he essentially received a king’s ransom from them. In one fell swoop, Ujiri not only traded away an asset whose value was (for Denver) depreciating at an alarming rate, but skipped years of rebuilding and amazingly made the team better.
This feat alone is worthy of eternal praise and gratitude but Masai didn’t stop there. In 2011 he drafted Kenneth Faried, who no one can argue was anything but a complete steal as the 22nd pick. He followed that up in 2012 with the drafting of Evan Fournier. Despite some of the blatant “Gallophobic” criticism that the pick was initially hit with, Fournier’s late-season stretch this year may have just revealed him to be yet another steal.
The extensions both Lawson and Gallinari received were universally lauded as being very fair prices for two up-and-coming players and even his mistakes (JaVale just missed another defensive rotation) were not so crippling as to be completely untradeable. He kept the roster as flexible (or rather, “tradeable”)as possible so that when the time was ripe, he could pounce.
And pounce he did, as perhaps his greatest accomplishment came this past offseason when he turned muddy and corroded water into sweet, red wine. Capitalizing on Dwight Howard’s distant dissatisfaction in Orlando, in the guise of innocent facilitator, Ujiri somehow turned the crippling contracts of Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington into Andre Iguodala. Getting rid of the combined $52 million over the next five years due to Afflalo and Harrington for nothing is one thing, but turning them into Iguodala (who was the crux of the 57 win season) is downright masterful.
Masai was not alone in these decisions and there still remains a group of very smart and capable people in Denver’s front office. But the main orchestrator is now gone and the $3 million Denver saved in letting him go serves as a poor replacement.
Winning in the NBA costs money. A lot of it. According to StorytellersContracts.com, the last six NBA champions had payrolls ranked as follows: 2007 Spurs, seventh highest; 2008 Celtics, fifth highest; 2009 Lakers, sixth highest; 2010 Lakers, highest; 2011 Mavericks, third highest; and 2012 Heat, fifth highest. While this doesn’t mean that spending guarantees rings, it does point to the opposite. If an organization gets too miserly, it’s almost certain that they’ll remain well outside of championship contention.
Of course, the rankings above are for player and not executive or coach salaries, but the same principle holds true across the board: If you want top talent, then you’ve usually got to dig deeper into your pockets. At some point in the future Nuggets fans will probably find out, if there are as yet, unknown underlying reasons why Denver failed to lock down a contract extension with Ujiri while they had the chance. But on the face of it, it certainly appears to be out of sheer cheapness — an unwillingness to pay top dollar for one of the most talented front office minds in the business.
The major irony here is that the post-Melo Nuggets have been carefully constructing a team which can compete without “superstar” players making maximum salaries, and that Masai Ujiri was the primary architect of that process. The notion that it is a good business decision to “save” a couple million dollars a year by cutting loose the man who has helped you maximize the value of the dozens of millions you are spending flies in the face of reason. Stan Kroenke obviously didn’t become a billionaire by being a dummy, but it is difficult to see much wisdom in refusing to match Toronto’s offer and retain Ujiri.
And on top of it at least appearing to be a stupid move made to merely pinch pennies, it is also short-sighted in terms of failing to recognize and appreciate the potentially damaging ripple effects it could have on the organization. Ujiri is the first, but may not be the last domino to fall. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, “George Karl’s status has become ‘unsettled’ following [Ujiri's] departure,” and the Clippers appear to be making a concerted effort to woo Karl away from the Nuggets. And as well respected and liked as Ujiri is by the players (as evidenced by Danilo Gallinari’s recent statement), Denver’s front office may have a more difficult time now not only retaining Andre Iguodala, but also attracting free agents.
The bottom line result of the decision to let Ujiri go will likely prove to be that it was more costly in negative repercussions than the money saved was beneficial.
But perhaps more importantly, the bottom-line message to the fans is crystal clear: The Kroenkes are in no way seriously invested in building a legitimate championship contender, but unfortunately — and disappointingly — are instead content with camping out halfway up the mountain rather than climbing to the summit.
With Masai Ujiri leaving for Toronto, the most pertinent question for the Nuggets faithful is how well the organization can move forward.
When Ujiri joined the Nuggets he inherited a fairly talented roster. Seven of the nine most used players from the 2009 conference finals team were still on the roster, and new additions Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington were upgrades over Anthony Carter, Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza. Despite the talent of that roster, there were serious limitations that cast doubt on the organization’s future. The 2010-11 Nuggets were one of the oldest and smallest teams in the league, built around a disgruntled star with a woefully incomplete two-way game and a pair of injury-prone and subpar-rebounding big men, and with little financial flexibility. The team was unlikely to win a championship and had few options to improve.
Now, Ujiri leaves behind a roster which is arguably just as talented as the one he started with — the 2012-13 team set the franchise record for regular-season wins, best home record, and longest winning streak. But these Nuggets are in a much better position to improve than the previous team. The Nuggets are one of the youngest and biggest teams in the league, built around strong defenders, rebounders, and playmakers. The team does not have a lot of financial wiggle room under the luxury tax line, but should have the space to retain Andre Iguodala and either keep or replace Corey Brewer. The team also has all of its own first-round picks and the possible option to swap for better picks in the years to come.
There are certainly challenges for the Nuggets’ next GM to overcome in trying to create a championship-level team. JaVale McGee’s contract could prove to be a major hindrance. Gallinari and Chandler have struggled with injuries. Andre Miller is a terrible fit with the rest of the roster. The no-superstar model is still unproven at the championship level. This saga may have frightened away potential free agents, including Iguodala. I would have liked to see Masai Ujiri address these challenges over the next few years, and I share in others’ disappointment in losing him through what appears to be a cost-saving move. But if the Nuggets are able to find a competent replacement, the team has enough assets and enough flexibility to improve on a team that’s already pretty good.
It hurts. It obviously hurts to see Masai Ujiri go, but it was inevitable. As soon as the Nuggets got to the point of allowing him to speak to the Toronto Raptors it was pretty much a done deal. Would you turn down a $15 million contract? That’s a ridiculous amount of money and while most say that Denver should have buckled down and matched the offer, that was never going to happen. There are only a handful of teams in the league that would pay that kind of money for a GM, and the Raptors are obviously one of them.
The biggest mistake the Nuggets made was not extending his contract last summer. Ever since Masai came to Denver his value on the open market grew every year. If Josh Kroenke had any sense, he would have picked up on this and slammed a reasonable extension on the table for Ujiri.
The fact that Masai actually thought for as long as he did shows his attachment to the Nuggets organization. Talk all you want about how meticulous he is in his decision making. Yes, he generally takes his time, but this was a no-brainer, and the fact that the thought of leaving something in the range of $7 million on the table even crossed his mind shows how much he wanted to stay in Denver.
He was a great GM who made a lot of terrific decisions and a couple of mistakes on the way. He always conducted himself as a gentleman and genuinely seems like a great person who deserves everything coming his way. It’s sad to see Ujiri go and it will be interesting what the next GM can do with this roster.