If you’re a chocolate enthusiast you’ve probably experienced the irritating stains the delectable dainty can often leave behind. I’m sure most people have one or two white shirts in the wardrobe with subtle traces of the brown substance imprinted onto the fabric, which refuse to vanish no matter how many times they’ve been washed. In the NBA, general managers come and go, but their errors often linger even when they are long gone. Thus the pressure on a GM is excruciating, as one careless decision can set a team back for years to come, and even if they end up losing their job, a stain of their tenure often remains as a constant reminder of their regime.
Masai Ujiri is gone, and the whole of Nuggets nation grieves. After all, the Nigerian-born GM accomplished the seemingly impossible — after trading the team’s superstar he practically skipped the obligatory rebuilding stage and constructed a roster capable of championship contention. He did everything his own way and is rightfully being applauded for excellent front office work. I am just as sad as anyone to see Ujiri depart, but make no mistake — he is not taking an unblemished record with him to Toronto.
When you make a bad decision as a GM, it can often trigger a domino effect of consecutive blunders. That was precisely the case when Ujiri decided to flatter his free-agent-to-be center with a 5-year $67 million extension. I’m sure I don’t need to argue for why overpaying Nene was a terrible decision, but I will anyway.
Masai committed about an average of $13 million per year on a player in his late twenties, who had an injury history, a tendency to take games off, little interest in defense and averaged 14.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in the previous season. For the sake of the argument, let’s ignore Nene’s flaws and focus solely on his numbers.
His 2010-11 numbers were close to his career-highs, so it was safe to assume that at his age he would not get better. Just to illustrate my point, here are a couple of veteran big men who put up similar numbers this season and their 2012-13 salaries.
Glen Davis – $6.4 million – 15.1 points, 7.2 rebounds
Marcin Gortat – $7.26 milllion – 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds
Luis Scola – $4.5 million – 12.8 points, 6.6 rebounds
Now, obviously, every player’s contract is based on subjective evaluation and not just numbers. For instance, Marc Gasol’s numbers are quite similar to the above-mentioned players, but his defensive prowess, leadership and intangibles drive up his market value. Nene, on the other hand, lacked most of these impalpable qualities.
There is no question Nene got overpaid, but Ujiri was forced to make a decision. He is an intelligent man so it was hardly a grave miscalculation. He was fully aware of the fact that he was overpaying the Brazilian but didn’t want to lose him for nothing. And thus Denver fans cringed.
Masai quickly realized his mistake and once again did something that defied logic — he managed to trade Nene’s seemingly untradable contract. As JaVale McGee made his way into town, most Denver fans rejoiced. McGee was on the right side of his twenties, athletic and looked like a better fit for a transition based offense. JaVale finished the regular season strong and put up two monster games against the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs, as Denver lost in game seven.
And then came the bomb. Ujiri re-signed McGee to a 4-year $44 million contract. It was perhaps not as painful as the Nene contract, but this season it proved to be almost equally detrimental.
This season JaVale averaged 9.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 18.1 minutes of play and took home a $10 million check for his efforts. He will make another $34 million over the next three years.
McGee is only 25. He could still get better and is an amusing presence, but while his humorous and often incomprehensible tweets are of great entertainment value, he has made more Shaqtin’ A Fool appearances than shown actual signs of improvement since joining the Nuggets.
Perhaps it’s not all on JaVale. Just like an infant, a young basketball played can only learn through the trial and error method, and for that you need to play big minutes. Then again, can you really blame George Karl for limiting JaVale’s minutes to around 18 per game? After all, JaVale perpetually — willingly or not — traumatizes his coach with his inexplicable actions on the floor, leaving Karl with his face buried in his hands in disbelief.
Ujiri has been fantastic in finding the right trades for Denver. The Carmelo trade aside, Masai got rid of Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo and landed Andre Iguodala, who has been instrumental to the Nuggets’ success. But he did make the mistake of overpaying Nene, and then refused to yield and let go of JaVale, as he wanted to protect his investment. To Masai’s defense, he was in a tough position, and many wanted JaVale back after how he finished the season before going into free agency, but not at that price.
If Iguodala was to opt out and re-sign with Denver, the team will not have enough cap space to make any big free agent signings this summer. However, if McGee’s contract was not on Denver’s books, the team could add a very good free agent, who could be more of a factor and perhaps even get the Nuggets over the top next season. Sadly, that is not the case. While McGee is tradable, it’s hard to see any team taking on three years of his contract.
When a general manager, no matter how good, ends his tenure with a franchise, he always leaves a stain behind. Sometimes, that stain is of Rashard Lewis proportions, other times it’s barely noticeable, but it’s always there. JaVale McGee is the stain that Ujiri leaves behind, and his successor will do what every newly appointed GM has to do — get equipped with a pair of rubber gloves and a sponge and start scrubbing.
Follow me on Twitter: @VytisLasaitis