“In Ujiri We Trust.”
The phrase could be found in the blog comments, in the tweets, in the message board posts, and on the lips of many a Nuggets fan over the past few years, as Masai Ujiri skillfully shepherded the Nuggets through the Melodrama and crafted a roster which achieved historical success for the franchise, and earned him the Executive of the Year award.
So when the news broke that Ujiri would not be staying with Denver, a shocked, loud and angry “WTF?!?” reverberated through the halls of Nuggets fandom.
The press conference Josh Kroenke held the day after firing George Karl, and about a week after Ujiri had announced he was leaving for Toronto, enshrouded the fate of the Denver Nuggets’ front office and coaching staff in uncertainty, and planted seeds of doubt in the minds of many Nuggets fans.
Was Denver’s young owner truly acting in the team’s best interest, or merely being brash and cheap, cutting top shelf talent just to pinch pennies?
One interesting aspect of the presser was how it differed in tone and rhetoric from previous ones. One thing was crystal clear from Josh Kroenke’s verbiage: He wanted to assert that he, and he alone, is The Man in charge of the Denver Nuggets.
The refrain that “Stan Kroenke is cheap,” or alternately that “the Kroenkes are cheap,” was (and to an extent still is) often heard in Nuggets fan circles. This narrative has generally been floating around, but was greatly amplified after the news broke that Ujiri was Toronto-bound.
But anyone not aware of Stan’s existence would have remained entirely in the dark after watching Josh’s post-Karl firing press conference. In statement after statement, the younger Kroenke uttered a litany of “I”s and “me”s in describing the decision-making processes of the Nuggets organization.
A small sample:
“For next year, I’m not lowering expectations at all. I’m going to try to win every game I can.”
“I’m incredibly excited about the opportunities that are ahead of me.”
“I needed to take a step back and assess where I wanted to take the team.”
(On the Karl firing): “This was my decision. At the end of the day, it was never Masai’s decision, it was always mine… I know sports on a lot of different levels, …and I have no intention of taking my foot off the gas with anything I’m doing going forward.”
“I can assure all the fans that we are going to be fine. We are excited about the future and hopefully they trust me at this point because I was the guy that hired Masai.”
It seemed to many that Josh Kroenke was very intentionally bending over backwards to shatter the quasi-puppetmaster perception of Stan pulling strings behind the curtain, as well as to stress that even when Masai was seated in the GM chair, the buck stopped with Josh and nothing was done without his input and approval.
The topic of the conference was Karl and Ujiri, but it seemed to really be all about Josh.
Looking back to the two big press conferences in the 2012 offseason – one after the Iguodala trade, and the other to roll out the new uniforms – the mode of discussing what Denver was doing tended to be expressed in “we”s rather than “I”s. And going back further, that tended to be the Nuggets’ m.o.
As such, the “me-centric” (and borderline hubristic) nature of Josh’s comments really jumped out starkly, and it seems likely that the viscerally negative reactions a lot of Nuggets fans had to his statements is at least partly derivative of that tone.
The angst in Nuggetsland was further compounded when Pete D’Alessandro became the next to bail, accepting Sacramento’s offer to take charge of the Kings’ front office, and was followed out the door shortly thereafter by scouting director Dan Tolzman and director of player personnel, Mike Bratz. (For more details on this, see Kalen’s post, “What to make of the Nuggets’ front office exodus”).
“In Kroenke We Doubt” seemed to be precipitously close to replacing “In Ujiri We Trust” as, if not a new catch phrase, the defining mood amongst Nuggets fans.
But how quickly perceptions can change.
In the space of less than a week, Josh Kroenke has filled the vacated positions with two men who are very highly esteemed and well respected around the league.
Tim Connelly was brought on as the Nuggets’ new executive vice president of basketball operations (a marbled mouthful of a title which reinforces the “Josh in charge” structure of the organization), and Brian Shaw as Denver’s new head coach. (See Kalen’s “Who is…?” posts on Connelly and Shaw for more on their respective reputations and pedigrees).
And, for the most part, it seems that the majority of Nuggets fans have breathed a sigh of relief, especially after an interview with the dreaded Vinnie Del Negro was reported.
Josh Kroenke may not have regained the full confidence of the fans. However, it’s safe to say that with these hirings he did reclaim a good measure of the benefit of the doubt, though questions remain.
Could Kroenke have retained Ujiri by matching Toronto’s offer or pushing harder for an extension earlier last season, or was Masai fully intent on finding his way back to the Raptors regardless?
Was firing Karl after he was named Coach of the Year for helming a team which, against the odds, achieved a franchise-best 57 wins really the correct decision?
Is Josh Kroenke willing to let go of top talent just to cut a few salary corners?
There is some subjectivity in all these questions, and those involved will almost certainly never completely spill the beans about their innermost thoughts (though Karl was surprisingly candid in several interviews following his firing).
But what we can say for now, at least, is that Kroenke has legitimately mitigated the more apocalyptic doubts and fears (among them, declaring himself GM) of many Nuggets fans by bringing on board two highly qualified, exciting and enthused up-and-comers who appear to be compatible with his vision of how the team should be run, and eager to grow and develop the players, the organization, and themselves.
On a gut reaction level, it felt good to see Josh Kroenke revert to more “we”-oriented rhetoric at the presser to introduce Tim Connelly, and one would expect to hear more of the same on Tuesday afternoon’s introduction of Brian Shaw (2 p.m. MST) where, presumably, all three members of the young Nuggets triumvirate will be presenting a united front.
Of course, the proof will be in the pudding. Will they be able to retain Andre Iguodala, who recently let it be known that he would opt out and test the waters of free agency? How will they approach draft day? The resolution of these and many more as yet unanswered questions will, by and by, inform us as to just how competent this newly assembled team really is.
But one thing is readily apparent: Josh Kroenke has been quick and assertive in replacing lost talent with some very impressive and promising – if less established – talent.
To have done so is an encouraging sign, and if this new team delivers a Nuggets product which is successful – especially in the postseason – then Josh stands a reasonably good chance not only of alleviating the recently festering doubt of many fans, but genuinely earning our trust.
Josh Kroenke can come across as lawerly and political (in terms of spin doctoring), and it seems unlikely that fans would ever have the same enthusiasm for him as they did for Masai.
But even if “In Josh We Trust” never quite takes root as a motto, it appears much more likely now than it did even just a week ago that it might become an accepted narrative amongst Nuggets fans.