Repercussions of moving in different directions

A few nights ago I was watching college basketball. This year’s impressive crop of college freshman were on display, all turning in big performances. One of those players was Jabari Parker. My goodness, Jabari Parker. I’ve been watching college basketball with an eye focused on scouting for three to four years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player dominate the way he has right from the start. And the crazy thing? Jabari Parker isn’t even ranked as the top prospect on the few scouting websites I trust most — which kinda got me thinking about the Nuggets, as I often do in life when I start thinking deeply about anything. I pondered the Nuggets draft situation this upcoming year, the fact the Nuggets have only one pick instead of two — which they originally had but changed when they sent one of those picks to Orlando in the Arron Afflalo trade — and how the Nuggets lost a lot more than just Andre Iguodala when he left this past summer. But what I thought about most, what I kept coming back to, was that…

… the reverberations of not re-signing Masai Ujiri will extend on for years. In Josh Kroenke’s eyes, and maybe in the eyes of most executives in the Nuggets organization, this was a tough loss, but one the Nuggets have already moved on from. Masai Ujiri may have been the reigning NBA General Manager of the Year, but being that he was still human means he was, and always will be, replaceable.

Here’s the problem: Everything Ujiri did to build this team he did in a certain format to fit a certain style of play. We’re seeing this right now, as the Nuggets have no legitimate post-up threats and are a team born to run. Bruce Springsteen would be proud. Additionally, Ujiri made moves in his brief tenure that would affect the team years down the road when he probably thought he’d still be with the Nuggets. Some of those moves are coming to light already.

We all know Ujiri was a brilliant general manager. But looking back, I have to wonder: Was this guy some kind of savant? Some kind of genius? Because here we are, 2014 is nearly upon us, and ESPN and Twitter and almost every other media outlet or source of sports information can’t go three minutes without mentioning just how incredibly ridiculous this upcoming draft is gonna be — the same exact draft the Nuggets, for the first time that I can remember, have (or, had) two picks in the first round.

Coincidence?

Had it been any other general manager, I’d probably say yes. But this is Masai Ujiri we’re talking about here. Coincidence isn’t in his vocabulary.

If you’re pickin’ up what I’m layin’ down then you’re just now realizing that, yes, there’s a chance Ujiri gazed into the future of his crystal (basket)ball, witnessed the type of talent that would be available around this time in college basketball, and forced the Knicks to surrender their 2014 first-round pick way back in February 2011 when Carmelo Anthony forced a trade to New York. If you’re not pickin’ up what I’m layin’ down, then read the previous sentence again so that I can pick up whatever it is I’m laying down and store it wherever it is you store what is laid down in these types of situations.

Right.

Now, obviously this is just speculation. I’m simply thinking writing aloud here. And whether Ujiri knew this draft class would be loaded or fairly standard is really not what’s important. What’s important is understanding why this potential move of genius, along with several others, flew out the window when Ujiri wasn’t re-signed this past summer…

When Ujiri brought Andre Iguodala to Denver it was an incredibly risky move. Iguodala was on the final year of his contract and the Nuggets gave up a lot to get him. But it paid off — at least for a year. After acquiring Iguodala the Nuggets went on to have the best regular season in franchise history, in large part due to his defensive presence. What that trade with Orlando and Philadelphia hinged on, however, was Masai Ujiri and his magical toolset of cajoling vocalizations. Because prior to Iguodala’s arrival in Denver the Nuggets had a string of free agents — Arron Afflalo, Nene, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, basically everybody who meant anything to the team’s long-term success — all of whom Ujiri sweet talked into re-upping with the Nuggets. So, why would Iguodala be any different?

Had Ujiri been retained, it probably wouldn’t have. Like all the big-time free agents before him, Iguodala would have been disappointed about the way the Nuggets lost in the first round, and like all the big-time free agents before him he would have eventually picked up a pen and signed on the dotted line after Ujiri used The Force on him. Iguodala left because the Nuggets were a disaster this summer. No premier free agent would have weathered the storm the Nuggets went through this past June. Which brings us back to the recurring theme of this article (say it with me like the collective Wheel of Fortune crowd chant): Don’t let the reigning General Manager of the Year walk after his contract expires when he just constructed the best regular-season team in franchise history and is in line for a well-deserved raise just like every other employee that moves up the proverbial business ladder in a competent firm around the country!!!

Had Ujiri stayed, Iguodala likely would have as well. The Nuggets would still be a threat in the West and they’d still be on a path towards contending for an NBA title. Ujiri would have likely destroyed the 2014 Draft, landed a player or two that would have immediately payed dividends and morphed into a stud down the road, and I’d still be sleeping instead of writing this article.

But that’s not what happens when you dismiss the best people in the world at their position. Apple is not the same company without Steve Jobs; the Nuggets are not the same franchise without Masai Ujiri. Trading Arron Afflalo and one of their 2014 first-round picks to the Magic (the less valuable of the two) for Iguodala was a tough pill to swallow, but as long as Ujiri was still in Denver it was a risk worth taking and one the Nuggets benefited greatly from. However, with Ujiri in Toronto that trade was rendered a donation to the Orlando Magic of the most benevolent kind.

Arron Afflalo, who’s on one of the better non-rookie contracts in the NBA and continues to improve his scoring average every season since coming into the league seven years ago, is averaging 22 points, five rebounds and five assists per game while shooting 49 percent from the floor and 50 percent from beyond the arc through eight games this year. When Ujiri flew to Toronto, Afflalo was gift-wrapped to the Magic in exchange for a one-year rental of Iguodala.

As for that 2014 first-round draft pick, the good thing is the Nuggets still own the better of the two between their own and the Knicks’. But both the Knicks and Nuggets are on pace to miss the playoffs this year with the Knicks even showing early signs of Trainwreck Syndrome — something Carmelo Anthony has flirted with all too often throughout his NBA career — which means both teams have a decent shot of landing in the lottery. Unfortunately, one of these picks was served on a silver platter to the Magic for a one-year rental of Iguodala the minute Ujiri decided it might be nice to get paid what his value would fetch on the open market.

Instead of having Masai Ujiri and Andre Iguodala, or Masai Ujiri, Arron Afflalo and two first-round draft picks, the Nuggets have neither of those options. Yet in an odd twist of fate — call it poetic justice, if you will — the very man that’s responsible for the Nuggets’ current state and that promising first-round draft pick may also be the same man who ends up salvaging these botched moves for the Nuggets, as Carmelo Anthony’s ongoing quest to elevate the paradigm of Heroball seems to be sinking the Knicks one game at a time, therefore increasing the Nuggets’ chances of landing a high draft pick in the process.

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This article is not a eulogy about days of yore with Masai Ujiri at the helm; rather, it’s a reminder of the lingering repercussions a franchise faces when it fails to take the necessary steps to retain exemplary personnel. Losing Masai Ujiri didn’t just change the direction of the Nuggets; when he was dismissed, so was the Andre Iguodala trade. And when the 2014 NBA Draft gets underway, his absence will be felt once again.

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Kalen Deremo

Kalen was born in Durango, CO, in 1988 and graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2013 with a degree in journalism. He's now an itinerant hoping to travel as much as possible before eventually succumbing to the "real world." Aside from writing Kalen likes movies, music, spicy food and the great outdoors. Edward Abbey is his current idol.
  • heykyleinsf

    UGgghhh.. is that why my comment about this very same issue was erased?
    I am so grossed out by the continual apologizing for Iggy.
    I have no idea why my comment about not having 2 picks in an insanely talented draft pool was erased. Iggy WAS A WASTE!!
    It grosses me out that people apologize..
    I can’t believe the lengths people go to..
    I don’t know what ever the problem is …
    What’s so complicated about how Iguodala DUMPED us????

    Geez.. all these people trying to make him a good guy…
    Why can’t you just get over it? He IS NOT.
    He’s a jerk.

    • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com/ Kalen

      We don’t delete comments unless there’s a lot of cursing, but I went back in and adjusted the comments so if you curse it just won’t appear at all anymore — at least with most cuss words. Also, if your comment has been flagged at least three times it won’t appear as well.

      • heykyleinsf

        well actually it didn’t post the first time…
        then I edited out the F word
        then I posted it.. it showed up..
        then was gone a few seconds later
        then this story..
        but regardless

        It goes on.. and you brought it up yourself.
        We lost a first round draft pick because of Iggy..
        But nobody wants to lay anything on Iggy himself for that loss.
        Especially hurts that 2014 is an amazing pool of talent.
        Iggy.. flat walked away.. not only that.. kept us hanging for
        2 months while the free agent pool dried up..
        and took less money to flat walk away..

        And it’s everyone else’s fault.
        Which is just flat delusional.
        Give me a break!!! … please..

        • gimpcom187

          That’s because he had an out clause that ONLY makes sense to exercise. It was incumbent on the Nuggets to figure out a way to make him desire to stay or to ship him along to another franchise for pieces. It’s not Iggy’s responsibility to stay with a team that ousts its HOF coach and clearly very good GM just to appease Josh K or the announcers or You.

          For the sake of being with a good team that fits his talents better did Iggy make a bad decision? NO. Did he have a better shot at optimizing his winning in Denver? Not a chance. Players negotiate opt outs to give themselves the flexibility to optimize salary, team fit and chances of winning. He actually took a few million less to end up in a MUCH better situation for those things. He’s not a saint or a bad person. He’s the embodiment how a free market system works.

          As an aside. Have you ever had a job? I can’t imagine a person who has ever had a job would have zero understanding or empathy as you seem to have.

          • heykyleinsf

            so the standard of compassion..
            is forgiving an overrated millionaire that plays basketball for screwing over my favorite team?

            Just call me Heinrich Himmler then…

            • gimpcom187

              Great response. Indicate you are being irrational and unrelentingly negative. Well heh at least im not one of the worst human beings thats ever sucked oxygen. Congrats!

        • Charliemyboy

          Here’s your break. Imagine that Iggy played for GS last year. He wanted to play with a faster team so he switched to play for Denver. Would you be pissed? Why can’t an individual do what is best for him? Loyalty these days is superseded by practicality and realism. NBA is a business first. I don’t like the taste of sour grapes.

          • heykyleinsf

            never were sweet to begin with charlie.
            Was skeptical.. but hopeful.. but still skeptical from the get go…

            I would let it go..
            if so many “fans” wouldn’t be giving the dude fanboy fellatio

            My driving force here.. is the self-loathing adulation.

            Yeah.. igyy is Alex English, Skywalker, Issel, Ty Lawson and
            Doug freaking Moe all wrapped in to one…

            The dude resented the day he came, had no love while he was here, schemed his way out.. and drilled us good as a going away present.

            Wasn’t he awesome?

      • heykyleinsf

        thank you for replying though Kalen.
        You didn’t have to and in general I like your opinions and fortitude.
        I just can’t agree.. that Iggy was some kind of saint..
        I want to puke.

      • pgwarner

        Thank you Kalen. I appreciate that.

  • NiceGuyHickson

    so are we having knicks draft pick ?!

  • Mitchell Carroll

    Not to play devil’s advocate (well, no, actually TO play devil’s advocate), I really don’t understand how Josh Kroenke got such a terrible rap as a personnel guy. From everything I’ve seen and heard, Kroenke plays a major role in every Nuggets move that is made. Yet, all the credit goes to Ujiri. Did anyone notice that in the span of a few years the Nuggets had two executives of the year? Two guys that are totally different and one of which that went on to run the Raptors into the ground (or at least kept them there)? Yeah, obviously last summer could have played out better for the team. But Iggy was leaving regardless, as he has said multiple times. Kroenke has done a pretty good job all things considered, and I’m at the point where it’s actually relatively upsetting how everyone, this site in particular, just piles on and on.

    • LBJ

      Could have played out better? Understatement of the year. Losing Iggy’s cap space (I don’t see much ability to use much of our trade exception) – will have us paying for these mistakes years into the future.

    • Ernie

      Well, since every move before Ujiri left looked reasonably good and every move after has been a disaster I would say Josh Kroenke has no evidence to show he has any talent as an executive without Ujiri.

  • Will M

    I think it’s a pretty big stretch to say that Masai knew this draft would be loaded in 2011. I really doubt anyone is able to accurately predict drafts 3 years in advance. Guys like Wiggins, Randle, Parker, etc. were only 15/16 at the time.

    Unless you have some kind of special access to Iguodala’s mind, I think it’s also quite a stretch to say that Iggy would still be here if Masai was. I’m sure players care who the GM is, and I’m sure some are better than others at convincing players to stay, but I think you’re vastly overrating Masai’s ability to convince players to stay. Of the players you cited as players who Masai brought back, all except for Nene were coming off of rookie contracts. It’s not hard to bring back players coming off rookie contracts due to the fact that you can offer them better deals (financially) and can match offer sheets for restricted free agents. With the Nene situation, Denver offered a more lucrative deal than any other team. I could be wrong, but I’m betting the security of a 5th year and more money played a bigger role than Masai having a silver tongue.

    I don’t doubt that Masai was a great GM, he’s one of the best, but it’s not like he’s completely without fault and could do no wrong. I mean, just look at Javale’s contract. Denver is paying 8 figures to a backup center.

    I believe you are also overstating the risk of the Iggy trade. In hindsight, yes, it was risky and did not turn out well for the Nuggets in the long run. But at the time of the trade, it wasn’t known that the 2014 draft would be THIS loaded, that the Knicks & Nuggets would be likely lottery teams, and that Afflalo would take the next step offensively. It was generally considered by pretty much everyone to be a great trade for the Nuggets (and Lakers/76ers…), especially after Iggy started talking about wanting to resign and stay in Denver long term only a couple days after arriving.

    I very rarely comment on this site and generally enjoy your analysis of everything Nuggets related, but this particular article seems full of wild speculation that can’t really be backed up.

    • eman

      Not to sound cynical or maybe it is but in the one and done atmosphere of the NCAA/NBA player developement not being aware of the potential athletes some 4 or 5 years out is a recipe for disaster.

      DeRon Davis is the projected number 1 pick in the 2017 nba mock draft on nba draft central. He just entered the 9th grade at Overland High School in Aurora, CO.

      • Andrew

        Go BUFFS! Get DeRon!

      • Will M

        I’m not saying they aren’t aware and actively scouting young guys who are only in 9th grade – I’m sure they are. What I’m saying is that it’s extremely difficult to accurately project the players. Guys in 9th grade haven’t even finished going through puberty yet. Some of them have hardly even started. Hell, I was 5’3″ starting 9th grade and ended up being 6 feet the end of my sophomore year. Guys just develop and change so much in high school that banking your team on some kids in 9th grade is completely ridiculous. I’m betting the 2017 mock draft looks pretty different in 3 years than it does now.

    • LBJ

      While I agree McGee’s contract looks absurd under Shaw’s system – it didn’t look quite so bad under Karl’s fast break offense. BTW – we had the ability to offer Iggy a 5th year and GSW did not. We chose to offer him the same amount as GSW and not fully guarantee his 5th year. After watching Josh’s disastrous offseason unfold – he made a smart decision to move on.

  • LBJ

    This is spot on – and is consistent with what I have been posting since the end of last season.

  • Ernie

    Kalen, you can’t both praise Ujiri for knowing about the 2014 draft and setting us up for it and at the same time trading for Iggy to lose that ability. One of those moves was wrong. And even if Iggy was still magically here this team is not winning the championship, so my guess is that trade will haunt if the Knicks do end up in the lottery.

  • ryan cordova

    Didn’t the Golden State GM just come out and say he had absolutely no problem convincing Iggy? And that Iggy’s cousin was basically soliciting them during the playoffs?

    Don’t you think it’s a bit absurd to think that Masai would’ve kept someone who was confiding in another team’s coaches about our dirty play during a playoff series to stay with the team he just betrayed?

    Also, are you really praising Masai for setting up for next years draft at the same time you’re praising him for getting rid of one of those picks for a player who bolted at the first chance?

  • Scott

    So if the Knicks keep crashing and burning and end up with a top pick we get it right? So why don’t we just keep trying to improve and fight for a playoff spot? This gives me optimism for a win-win season.

    • Ernie

      The East is really bad. At 4-6 the Nugs would have the 7th spot as of last night. So you can hope for whatever you want, but I think it will be hard for the Knicks to not make the playoffs.

      • LBJ

        I assume you mean the Nuggets would have the 7th spot in the lottery?

  • pgwarner

    I keep wondering why everyone thinks the Nuggets and Josh let Masai go. The facts as I recall were this: Josh and Masai had a handshake agreement that doubled Masai’s salary and brought him in line with most GMs in the league.
    Then Masai asked for permission to talk with Toronto. Josh said yes. He came back with the 3 mil plus deal. Then Masai asked Josh NOT TO MATCH that offer and make things embarrassing for both of them because he would turn it down. He was gone.
    Ujiri left. The Nuggets did not lose him. The Raptors made him an insane offer to go when he already wanted to go. He broke an already agreed to deal and left. What I related above came from statements by Masai and Josh.
    AI was gone too. He considered Denver a backwater. It was that simple. He said so.

    • Ernie

      We blame Josh because it was only a handshake deal with Ujiri due to the Kroenke’s stupid policy of not extending anyone until their contract is up. Which has the effect of letting your best management people leave.

      Any other organization and Masai is signed earlier and still here.

      • pgwarner

        That is speculation. You don’t know IF he would have signed. You do not know IF he would have asked to talk to the Raptors at that time.
        As to what “any other organization” would have done you have no idea either.
        You know what you think you would have done. Only thing is we don’t have all the facts.
        Facts: Masai and Iggy wanted to be someplace else. Masai liked the sophistication of Toronto and Iggy wanted a city with style and a nightlife. They both said that. Further Masai said he was going home! Toronto had made it clear that they wanted him. He knew that. LOL

        • LBJ

          Why did we have to wait until after Ujiri’s contract expired? Why didn’t we give him a new deal – at the market rate – before the season even started? He certainly had earned it – but Josh didn’t get it done.

          • pgwarner

            Apparently Josh thought it was done. Masai backed out. All I know is what they both said. Masai, who everybody loves played him, and told Denver and the Nuggets kiss my…

            None of us has all the facts. That is for sure.

            I do know this. Getting pissed at a billionaire who owns sports teams at the end of the day leaves you pissed and he is still a billionaire with two sports teams. Or six teams – whatever they have.

            • LBJ

              Why would anyone with half a brain think a “hand shake” deal is “done.” Furthermore, why would anyone with Kroneke’s money be outbid by Toronto? Joshy is a way over his head and has destroyed a nice team with his blundering.

              • pgwarner

                As far as the handshake idea it was reported in the Post (FWIW) that Josh thought they had a bond and a shared vision for the team. I did not say it was bright but thats what the two of them said. If you want see what I said below about it.
                I don’t disagree with the idea that he messed the team up. I don’t think I said that Josh was either right or smart here. I think a lot has to do with his desire to feature Javale truth be told. Their was noise that he was pressuring Masai to do that.
                The outbid idea is not in the facts though. Keep in mind Masai told him not to match or beat Toronto’s off as he would turn it down. It feel apart but not over the Nuggets not paying enough. Masai wanted out.

        • Ernie

          What facts do you need? Fact: The Kroenke’s have a policy in place where they don’t sign management to a new deal until the old one was finished. Fact: Masai was woefully underpaid during his time in Denver. Fact: A market rate contract would therefore have been a represented a significant financial change for Masai. Fact: No other team could negotiate with Masai until his contract was done, anything else is tampering. Fact: Toronto didn’t even have an opening until the year was over. Question: If going to Toronto represented HOME (even though he didn’t grow up there) why did he require such a large contract to get him? I thought money wasn’t a big factor? Opinion: People who use LOL in blogs are weenies.

          • pgwarner

            Fact: At the time they agreed to things he was not executive of the year. The team had not won 57 games. That was in the future. The money offered was inline.

            Your right, no other team could negotiate with him.Fact: You don’t know if he would have asked to talk with Toronto before he signed no matter when it was. Or do you have some inside info that said Masai would have signed without talking to them BEFORE they fired their GM? All they had to do was fire the guy and hire him. The tampering was always in place.

            He said Toronto was like “going home” argue with him.

            Fact: You don’t know they HAD to offer a large contract to him. You don’t know what he would have taken. Who said money wasn’t a factor? I didn’t.
            You made it personal, Erine. Take it easy! I don’t chose to get bent out of shape.. LOL

          • pgwarner

            It just occurred to me that you thought I was laughing at you. No, you misunderstood me. I thought it was funny that Masai and Iggy were shallow and were disrespecting Denver.

            • Ernie

              Ah. I did think you were laughing at me. But I thought the use of the word weenie was innocuous enough to show my response was in good fun.

              Also tampering is more serious than you might think. If true Toronto would be fined heavily and might have to give up draft picks. It’s not just a badge of dishonor. And most of the time you give a home town discount, not a home town bonus.

              I guess we just won’t agree on this one. Almost every executive left. To me that says Josh is toxic.

  • Sharkboy242

    Like other’s before me have said – You’re making BOLD assumptions here. For one, I don’t think Masai could have convinced Iggy to stay…

    Which goes on to my next point – You’re giving him so much praise for landing us two draft picks in 2014 yet he got rid of one for basically nothing anyways. Not only was it nothing, we loss an amazing SG in Afflalo. Ultimately Masai made a terrible move here.

    • gimpcom187

      Except he gave one up when it was very plausible to assume neither would be before the 20th pick and certainly unreasonable to think BOTH had any real chance to be a lottery pick. The team needed to make either a HUGE upgrade for a top 10 player in the league OR two Big upgrades to become legit contenders. Iggy provided one of those for them (the other upgrade needed to be someone with borderline all-star talent that could play some minutes at center like Lamarcus Aldridge or Al Horford, etc)

  • matymaddog

    If he had the foresight to know how good the draft class would be then why was he trading our pick and afflalo for an aged iggy? Doesn’t make any sense. On top of everything, the $10 mil to mcgee was terrible and no one can guarantee iggy stays. On top of it all, Masai chose to leave, it has nothing to do with him being retained. It was widely reported he asked the Nuggets not to up their offer as he wanted to go to Toronto. It was well known that Kroenke wanted to keep Masai

    • Drewbueno

      If he wanted him to stay so badly, he should have rolled out a Godfather offer.

  • ny nugs fan

    but didn’t iguodala have some crazy contract number and at his age was risky and would have reduced options for the team in years to come?

    i thought the scuttlebut on the whole iggy deal was that at his price the nugs basically let him walk and he went to the warriors and begged in knowing the nugs were not willing hostages…. no?

    and while i’m on the subject i like iguodala but if you asked me btwn iguodala and afflalo… man i’d take afflalo any day