Recently, Mark Cuban wrote a very revealing and intriguing blog post on the Dallas Mavericks’ recent offseason maneuvers. This was brought to my attention by Matt Moore’s insightful reaction to Cuban’s post. As they are really great reads, I would highly recommend reading both in their entirety before proceeding. Cuban’s post is here at BlogMaverick.com, and Moore’s article is here at CBSSPORTS.com.
The central theme of both is the conundrum of what to do with an aging superstar, and how that decision may impact short- and long-term team building. Is it best to trade him for draft picks and other young assets, tanking for the hope of the next draft superstar and sacrificing current success for future gains? Or to take a win-now-at-all-costs approach and milk the value of that star for all he’s worth while you can? Or alternately, choose a middle ground in an effort to have your cake and eat it, too?
In 2011, under Masai Ujiri’s competent guiding hand, the Nuggets successfully delayed facing this music when confronting the departure of Carmelo Anthony, who was abandoning Denver not due to nearing the twilight of his career, but rather for his desire to play for a worse team under a brighter (and more lucrative) media limelight.
Thanks in large part to receiving a hefty handful of assets in exchange for Melo, Denver could plausibly choose the third way and opt to stay competitive (and, in fact, improve) while undergoing a fairly significant retooling process. And it worked pretty well – for a while.
But this summer the somewhat tenuous threads which had held the Nuggets’ unconventional “success without a superstar” project together finally began to unravel, as Ujiri departed for Toronto, Josh Kroenke fired George Karl, and Andre Iguodala – their prized pickup from the previous offseason – split for the team who beat them in the first round of the playoffs (with the added shady innuendo of his allegedly secretly confiding in Warriors coach Mark Jackson – during the series – about his dissatisfaction with the Nuggets’ tactics).
The flood gates seemed to burst open, and in their wake Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelly – or as they’ve come to be known in the comments section, “KronCon” (h/t RMC reader “Bricks”) – made a series of rapid-fire moves. Each of these was by no means disastrous, and all could be seen as reasonable deals in their own right, ranging in quality from redemptive (the hiring of Brian Shaw) to thrifty (signing Nate-rob on the cheap) to dubious (the acquisition of Foye).
Taken as a whole, however, this suite of moves comes across as a hastily assembled patchwork which could be seen at worst as desperately plugging holes in an increasingly unstable dyke, or at best as making sub-optimal but necessary adjustments for postseason success. And from what I’ve seen, the resulting roster is regarded by nearly all – irrespective of positive or negative opinions about the new front office’s decision making thus far – as a fairly confusing jumble (I’ll politely refrain from using a phrase beginning with “cluster”) which we won’t be able to fully make heads or tails of until we see this team on the court and get the opportunity to observe how the rotations, chemistry and system shake out.
But of course, most Roundball Mining Company readers are all too familiar with the events of the 2013 Nuggets offseason, and the main reason for recapping them here is to set the stage and frame the context of the specific tatement Cuban made which, to me, strongly resonates with issues the Nuggets will be facing this season and beyond:
Culture is very important to the Mavs. Your best player has to be a fit for what you want the culture of the team to be. He has to be someone who leads by example. Someone who sets the tone in the locker room and on the court. It isn’t about who talks the most or the loudest. It is about the demeanor and attitude he brings. It is amazing how when the culture is strong, the chemistry is strong. When the Mavs have brought in players that didn’t fit or buy in to our culture it created on the court and off the court problems. Its possible to handle one guy who may not fit it. It’s going to have a negative impact on your won and loss record if you have more than one.
Our culture is one of the reasons I won’t trade Dirk.
When you turn your team upside down and try to figure out what the culture of the team is, you take the greatest risk a team can take. Dirk sets the tone for our team. He works as hard, if not harder than anyone… That mindset. That selflessness. His work ethic is something I want to be in place long after he has retired. But to do that we have to transition with him, not in a void.
It is when Cuban says things like this, that you’re forced to simply say “He gets it.” The Lakers don’t have much of a culture besides “winning.” That’s a function of their payroll, their fortune, their access to talent on and off the court in building teams. But so many NBA teams squander their lives away by pursuing only basketball concepts rather than by building that culture. Certains teams have. The San Antonio Spurs, for example. The Miami Heat under Pat Riley are another. Say what you want about the way he brought the Big 3 together in Miami, but Riley sold LeBron James on taking his talents to South Beach by preaching a winning culture, and by sticking with it. You don’t hear word of James’ cronies running the joint like they did in Cleveland. And that’s for a reason.
Too often teams overlook what building a program does for you. It’s true that often that goal is compromised by the lack of a superstar like Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki. But we’ve seen teams with good culture rise from the ashes much faster than those without who squander their years in mediocrity.
Riffing off the bolded statements above (all emphases mine), and using them as a lens through which to examine the Nuggets, here are some observations and questions about what the team has now become, and going into the future, what its trajectory and fortunes might be:
- “Culture is very important.” – It’s a no-brainer to agree with Cuban that team culture is important not only for the Mavs but for every NBA team. Which for Denver raises the question: What exactly is the culture of the Nuggets now, anyhow? After eight years of the team being largely defined by five elements – Karl’s coaching, Melo as the star, the “three-headed monster” triumvirate front office, Ujiri’s tenure, and the Kroenke family’s overseeing of operations throughout the entire process – only the final component remains. In retrospect, it may prove to have been the most important one, although probably the least attention was paid to it by the media and fan base. Until we see how the new Nuggets unfold, we can’t know much, but one fact will rise above all others: The Kroenkes, having assumed full control, should likewise be recognized as being fully responsible – and accountable – for the success or failure of this team, and the quality of the organization.
- “It’s going to have a negative impact on your won and loss record if you have more than one [player who doesn't fit into the culture].” As “the culture” of the Nuggets remains somewhat of a mystery, it’s hard to say much about this assertion except to simply point out how much turnover the roster has seen. And to be clear, this means nothing automatically. Ujiri and Karl made success out of a big roster shakeup which exceeded the expectations of most pundits. But in the current roster, with so many NBA-worthy players competing for so few minutes, it will be a challenge for Shaw and the FO to prevent the frustration of guys who aren’t getting the minutes they feel they deserve (and perhaps, rightfully so) from becoming a team-fracturing dilemma. On the flip side, this point could illustrate a silver lining to Iguodala’s exit. If he truly did not want to remain in Denver, as much as the team will miss what he delivered on the court, in the long term it could be better for the team if by staying he would have poisoned the well. After all, who wants to be the chump whose girlfriend or boyfriend isn’t into it anymore, but only hasn’t broken up because of not finding someone better yet?
- When you turn your team upside down and try to figure out what the culture of the team is, you take the greatest risk a team can take. This was the passage from Cuban’s blog which really grabbed me. Because “turn your team upside down and try to figure out what the culture of the team is” sure sounds like a dead ringer description of what just happened to the Nuggets over the past three months. Which is not necessarily to suggest that Cuban is correct, or that the remaining core players, under Shaw’s leadership, are incapable of keeping the team at an even keel despite all these changes. And “the greatest risk” may be a bit melodramatic. (Why else would I put it in the post title?) But one thing is absolutely clear: Josh Kroenke has taken risks. Major ones. And it seems apparent that he has lost a few gambles as well. I hope that it’s fair to say (and based on our conversations, I believe it is) that most of your RMC writers at the very least see more steps back than steps forward this offseason. And speaking personally the cost-benefit analysis ain’t looking too hot. Having locked in so much payroll on so many middling players, the Nuggets’ flexibility has diminished considerably, and although there are few “untradeable” contracts on the roster, there are also few “appealing” trade assets which the Nuggets would likely be willing to give up. The one thing we know for certain: We will learn the answer to the question of how big a risk the Nuggets have taken, and what the cost will be, in due time. I for one hope to be proven wrong, and to be pleasantly surprised that KronCon’s gambles paid off.
- “But so many NBA teams squander their lives away by pursuing only basketball concepts rather than by building that culture.” Regarding the Nuggets, this is a very compelling blade which could slice either way. Karl’s Nuggets were a patently concept-driven team with a near-religious commitment to 3-pointers and paint points run off the dribble-drive, combined with relentless running. But what was the “team culture”? That identity was fractured and relegated to disparate elements – Faried and Brewer for their energy, Iguodala for his defense and leadership, Lawson for essentially running the show. Gallo the guy who steps up and comes through. The team has lacked a true leader in the sense of having one player who encompasses multiple dimensions of running the team rather than filling a niche. I wrote a post last year about the Denver’s need for Lawson to step up as a leader and arguing that he should be named team captain, and with Iggy gone and Gallo out, if he’s not the guy who willingly and capably takes up the mantle, it’s hard to see how the Nuggets won’t struggle. At this point both “basketball concepts” and “team culture” remain so enigmatic that it’s far too soon to judge. But it’s something to watch for.
- But we’ve seen teams with good culture rise from the ashes much faster than those without who squander their years in mediocrity. After years of wallowing in the lottery, it took the Nuggets the good fortune of landing Melo (and the subsequent hiring of Karl) to dredge them out of the murky depths of the league’s perpetually bad teams. Have they done enough to stay afloat? Or, as has been repeatedly bandied about on Twitter and elsewhere, have the Nuggets doomed themselves to the dreaded fate of becoming the new Bucks? (With apologies to Milwaukee fans). As much as I hate to be pessimistic, at this point I’m more worried than optimistic. But again, nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong. The portal through which that could realistically happen, though, is some kind of trade which makes better sense of this still-enigmatic roster.
The fact that this post raises more questions than it answers is at least in part a function of the Nuggets not yet having clarified in concrete terms where they’re headed. And as hard as it is right now to get a grasp on what exactly this new incarnation of the team will end up being, the matters of culture and identity will certainly prove to be very important to the Nuggets’ immenent and future success. It’s undeniable that Denver has taken some major risks (some, perhaps, more out of necessity than their own choosing), but whether they promise to continue or threaten to unravel the (relative) success the team has had over the last decade remains to be seen.
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