JaVale McGee – The Stain Masai Ujiri Leaves Behind

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


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Vytis Lasaitis

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  • Poz303

    In a league where big men get overpaid, I don’t know if this will ever be seen as a “stain”. Java le still has some huge upside and I hope he starts next season. I would certainly agree that 11 million for 18min a game is tough to swallow, not sure that is on Masai.

    Denver have made an “investment” on a young freakishly athletic 7ft player. It would be in their best interest to do everything possible to develop this talent. I read that Ty Lawson was going to work with McGee this summer. Hopefully that’s an indication that they both believe he will be the starter come next season.

    I’m thinking this stain might fade.

    • sherlock

      This was going to be my point exactly. Centers are paid big bucks, that’s just where the market is at right now. 11 mil a year for 18 min a game is rough, but that’s not on the player or Masai that’s on Karl. Yes McGee makes some head scratching plays, but I think the reason Masai felt it was worth signing him is 1)If we didn’t pay him someone else gladly would have 2) He’s young enough that he can still improve in many areas of his game 3) The dude is an athletic FREAK, he can jump out of the gym and can run the floor, which is what Denver does best.

      To call this a “stain” on Masai’s tenure in Denver and that he’s leaving behind a turd in McGee just isn’t true, it’s bullshit actually. Are we all upset Masai chose to go elsewhere, when it seemed like we were building something great in Denver? Hell yes we are. I’m more pissed off at ownership in that they took so long to start getting Masai a new contract, they could have had him back if they paid him like they should have. I love this site, but have never disagreed more with one article.

      • LBJ

        Actually, the 18 minutes a game ARE on McGoof. When he played well, Karl gave him more PT. When he played like a jackass – firing up wild shots, forgetting to block out and missing his defensive assignments – Karl sat him.
        If he wants more PT, he should start by getting his ass in shape. Its hard to get big minutes when you are gasping for air and walking after 5 minutes on the court.

        • sherlock

          My point is that as a young player, coming from DC where he didn’t get a lot of good coaching, he’s going to make mistakes. He’s going to try to swat every shot out of the gym, he’s going to miss defensive rotations, he’s going to take a questionable shot throughout an 82 game season. An AVERAGE of 18 minutes a game is not enough to develop any player into who management WANTS the player to become. Of course there are going to be times when he needs to be benched for stupid plays or not hustling enough etc etc..The point I was trying to make is, he needs to develop his game and he can’t do that from the bench that’s (was) on Karl specifically.

          I also have a hard time believing that he’s not “in shape.” I played college basketball and I can tell you during the season his ass is in SHAPE. He’s a transplant from the east coast, sea level. He’s been in DENVER 1 year, altitude kills your lungs. If I’m not mistaken I believe he has asthma. Dude needs time and PLAYING time for us to see what he is or isn’t. His UPSIDE is already higher then what we had with Nene and a smaller contract.

          • LBJ

            I can’t imagine he is the only guy in the NBA with asthma. There is a reason he rarely plays more than 8 minutes in a row. Check out the last golden state game – he was literally walking after 5 minutes on one of his shifts.
            I remember watching Shawn Kemp in the NBA – so I don’t agree that everyone has their ass in shape.
            I actually agree with your comparison of McGee with Nene. Ujiri absurdly overpaid him – a mistake that he corrected by dumping him. I actually agreed with resigning McGee as well after his performance in last years’ playoffs. This year he was way too inconsistent – a great game would be followed by a series of horrific games. In the West, if you give away too many games developing players – you are watching the playoffs on TV.

  • Mentaty

    McGee is an above average NBA center. Those are very rare and very useful, unless your coach decides he does not want to play with a center(small ball nonsense). So Karl and Masai were not on the same page with this one. I don’t consider it a stain though. McGee’s per minute production was still pretty good,and he is young with no bad injury history. Other teams will notice that so he has trade value.

    His two biggest flaws are related: he fouls too much and doesn’t get enough defensive rebounds, because he is always going for THE BLOCK.

    If Karl wants to continue playing tiny lineups (and he continues to be the coach) then McGee is a wasted asset and should be traded.

    • herpderpnuggets

      Exactly, a lot of rotations this year left a center on the floor under 7 feet, which is not good considering this team plays great because of their size matchups. If mcgee could just 5 or maybe 6 more minutes next year i could see him getting better, and possibly more success for the nuggets.

    • satchow

      No they’re not very rare. By definition half of the centers in the league are “above average NBA centers”.

      • J.j. Koosh

        Uh I think you need to look up the definition of average again. If I take the numbers 8, 7, 8, 6, 8, 8 and 14 the “average” is about 8.5 so there is only one above average number there. the same is true of centers of about 100 in the league there are only a handfull of above average ones.

        • satchow

          Sure, you can come up with a tiny contrived sample set to argue your point, but fact of the matter is that with a sample size of 60 (Assuming each team has 2 centers) you won’t get this specialized case you are talking about.

  • DavidRMC

    Really good article Vytis. I think McGee isn’t as difficult to trade as we think, young, athletic big men with little injury history are a rare enough commodity in the league and even at the seemingly high price of $11 million a year there is a market out there for him.

    That said I don’t think the Nuggets trade him unless they are going all-in on win now and trade for a star (where he could either be a trade asset or something needed to be pawned off for cap room, depending on who they’re trading with). If they stay on the same path they were last season or even if they blow it up, JaVale’s a work in progress whose salary isn’t completely crippling. Who knows, maybe the contract looks like a steal in two years. If not, it was an admirable swing and miss for a Nene contract that would probably have been even worse.

  • herpderpnuggets

    well now that karl is gone mcgee will get some minutes

    • Poz303

      Wow, did not see that coming.

    • tytechortz

      Yep. Goodbye Karl, hello McGee starting. And it’s about time.

  • will

    McGee seems too long, akward and clumsy to be a good starter. I think people mistake McGee’s clumsiness for stupidity.

  • Henry Hughes

    “…stain…of Rashard Lewis proportions.” Now that is good writing. And spot on. How on earth did Otis Smith last as long as he did? I guess having a Dwight Howard on your roster covers a multitude of sins, eh?

  • googergieger

    Yeah if only we saw some flashes of greatness in the regular season where the coach rewarded him by playing him more…

    McGee wasn’t given a fair chance. End of. Even when he played great he didn’t get the minutes. When he played bad he was taken out immediately. Hopefully with a new coach he gets a fair shot and is taught how to defend better. SVG!

  • jt

    mcgee played great disciplined defense when he started against golden state in the playoffs if thats the mcgee we get we have an awesome young center

  • nich obert

    Hm. Nenes defense, leadership and intangibles reminded me a lot of Marc Gasol this year, we pretty much got the bad year from Néne still recovering from last year and screwed by the Olympics that we expected..and he will played 300 more minutes than Javale and was a huge part of the team that Wałl pushed into the best midseason turnaround since the year the Nuggets and Warriors both went nuts in the 2nd half after slower starts.

    The thing nobody seems to get is this: you guys haven’t fixed Javale. He’s still the same player. He’s AMAZING sometimes, and an insane negative others, I can’t blame the outside DC media for not watching many Wiz games, but he was never as much of a bonehead as people thought. He looks about the same to me. Maybe a little more efficient since we inexplicably got him the 8th most post touches in the league one year (while Javale and Pam whined abut how we weren’t using him enough) and you guys rightfully mostly use him as an energy / rebounder / put back / alley oop guy.

    Nene is tough. I’ll never get why you guys thought otherwise, unless he flipped a switch once he got here. I just remember him playing a lot from 09-11 there,and trying to come back after cancer with terrible conditioning and getting repeatedly re-hurt.

    I’d say a solid 80% of DC is happy we made that trade still. And 80% of Denver is happy too. At least if the only options are Javale and Néne

    Can’t wait to see us fighting for home court next year with the “twin towers” Néne and Okafor lineup being a top 2 defense (with wall) again