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.
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.
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.
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.