The hosannahs are already pouring in for Masai Ujiri, general manager of the Nuggets, who finds himself in that rare and enviable position of public figures in the modern world where everything he does is great, and when he undoes it six months later, that’s great, too.
When he signed Nene to a big, new contract last December, that was great because you don’t want to lose a free agent for nothing. And when he traded Nene to Washington for JaVale McGee three months later, that was great because Nene wasn’t really worth all that money.
Similarly, when he signed Arron Afflalo to a big, new contract about the same time he signed Nene, that was great because of Afflalo’s considerable upside. And when he traded Afflalo today as part of the blockbuster four-team deal that delivered the best center in the game to the Los Angeles Lakers for the fourth time in modern history, that was great because Afflalo wasn’t really worth all that money, either.
Ujiri’s popularity is understandable. He made lemonade out of the Carmelo Anthony mess and he is Boris Yeltsin to predecessor Mark Warkentien’s Leonid Brezhnev when it comes to openness and public accountability. He’s been honest about the challenges of contending in a league where superstars prefer the glamor markets and Denver isn’t one of them.
But Ujiri’s willingness to rapidly undo whatever he’s just done must be considered in weighing the latest deal, which brings to the Nuggets a quasi-star in Andre Iguodala. In exchange, the Nuggets surrendered Afflalo, Al Harrington and a first-round draft pick.
“Iggy,” as he’s known (because in Philadelphia, AI was already taken), is a very good player. He made the men’s Olympic team this year because he’s an outstanding on-the-ball defender — in basketball parlance, a stopper. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands all the time, but he’s a capable scorer when he has it, particularly in the open court.
On the other hand, he’s not a great shooter — career .461 — and particularly not a great free-throw shooter, which earned him the scorn of 76ers fans at a number of clutch moments last season, when he shot just .617 from the line, a career low. You’ll see him referred to in accounts of the deal as an All-Star and Olympian, which is true but also a little misleading in that each of these things happened once and may or may not happen again.
Those issues aside, Iggy will improve the Nuggets’ defense, which badly needs it. For the coming season, barring injury, it is a worthwhile exchange. The problems are two-fold — the big picture and the seasons beyond the next one.
The big picture
What the Nuggets have done here is help to facilitate the latest migration of a superstar to one of the NBA’s chosen franchises. Orlando and the Lakers were unable to swing a conventional two-team trade, in large part because the Magic didn’t want to deal with a repeat of the Howard drama as Andrew Bynum approached free agency. So the two teams needed other teams to facilitate the latest heist by the Lakers.
In the 33 seasons since 1980, when the NBA came back to life on the back of a sensational rookie named Magic Johnson, only nine of the association’s 30 franchises have won championships.
The Lakers lead this tally with 10 out of the 33. Some of this success was based on good fortune. When Gail Goodrich became a free agent in 1976 and signed with New Orleans, no one knew one of the compensatory draft picks the Lakers received would turn into the first overall pick — Magic — three years later. And it was Jerry West’s prescience as a general manager that got the Lakers a 17-year-old prodigy named Kobe Bryant in a trade with the unsuspecting Charlotte Hornets two weeks after the 1996 NBA draft.
But it’s also undeniable that the Lakers’ success is built upon the explicit desire of the game’s greatest centers to leave wherever they were for the bright lights of Hollywood. This trend began with Wilt Chamberlain in 1968 and continued with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974 and Shaquille O’Neal in 1996.
It is as if great big men have a divine right to play in L.A. and the Lakers have a similar right to acquire them, one way or another. In markets such as Denver, where an NBA championship remains a distant dream, the association’s alleged interest in competitive balance becomes a punch line.
Howard is the second Orlando star to migrate west in a generation, following Shaq. This is significant for the Nuggets, obviously, because they play in the same conference with the Lakers. In fact, it was the Lakers who eliminated them from the playoffs just last spring. Adding Howard to a team that already includes Bryant makes the Lakers once again the favorites to come out of the West.
The Nuggets say the trade would have happened with or without them.
“We found a way to get in afterward,” general manager Masai Ujiri said Friday on the Dave Logan Show. “It could easily have been a three-way deal and Iggy would have been in Orlando.”
The seasons beyond
Besides the likely ascendance of the Lakers yet again, the downside of the deal for the Nuggets is that it embroils them almost immediately in another contract drama.
In addition to all his attributes, Iguodala, unfortunately, is also overpaid, which is why more teams weren’t clamoring to get their hands on him. He will earn $14.7 million this season, which is OK with the Nuggets because Afflalo and Harrington combined will earn $14.2 million. Close enough for government work or NBA salary cap accounting.
After that, Iggy has a player option for 2013-14 of $15.9 million, meaning he can elect to become a free agent either next summer or the summer after that. Either way, NBA players are seldom looking for pay cuts.
If he opts out of the final year of his current contract to go for one more long-term deal at 29 rather than 30, he will be eligible under the new collective bargaining agreement for a contract starting at $16 million a year and growing at an annual rate of 7.5 percent. If he waits until the summer of 2014, he’ll be a 10-year player eligible for a max contract that starts at $19 million and expands from there. Whether any team offers him such a deal, of course, remains to be seen.
As nice a player as Iggy is, he’s not worth 30-35 percent of the salary cap, especially as the luxury tax gets more punitive in the out years of the new labor agreement. Which leaves the Nuggets with the usual three choices:
— Overpay to keep him, delivering a max contract to a player who has never averaged 20 points a game in his career.
— Trade him before he can leave as a free agent, meaning possibly as soon as this winter, depending on whether he makes an early commitment on that player option year.
— Roll the dice, as they did with Nene, and hope they can get him at a more reasonable rate as a free agent.
Ujiri suggested such questions are premature.
“When the time comes, we’ll figure that out,” he said. “We didn’t get him as a rental. We want to win. All those other things I think we will figure out.”
The trade would make sense in the short term if the Nuggets thought they were ready to contend for a championship this season. But the youth of Denver’s best players — point guard Ty Lawson and forward Danilo Gallinari are each 24 years old — and the formidable Lakers lineup in the twilight of Bryant’s career suggest the Nuggets’ window for championship contention is likely to be later rather than sooner.
Ujiri’s decision seems simple enough. He thinks Iguodala makes the Nuggets better, which is probably true. But the issues surrounding his contract can’t be put off for long. In the end, there’s no guarantee the Iggy era in Denver will be much more than a passing fancy. Here’s hoping it’s fun while it lasts.
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