Monthly Archives: June 2013

Michael Cuddyer and the drama of the hitting streak

He came up in the first inning with runners on first and third, one out and a chance to give the Rockies an early lead against the Giants. He struck out.

“I was upset with myself in that first at-bat because the job was to get that guy in from third with less than two outs, and I didn’t,” Michael Cuddyer said afterward. “That was bigger than the streak to me, and I didn’t come through.”

The streak would be in jeopardy by the time Cuddyer came to bat in the eighth. He’d gone 0-for-3 against Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, never getting the ball out of the infield.

“It had everything to do with Bumgarner,” he said. “He was on his game today, there’s no question about that. He had a good cutter. Threw his curveball a lot, which you don’t see from him as often as he did today, and it was good.”

The crowd of 41,845 at Coors Field was well aware what was at stake when he dug into the box in the eighth against Giants reliever Sandy Rosario with two out, nobody on and the Rocks down 5-1. Barring a miraculous comeback, it would be his last chance to extend the longest hitting streak in the big leagues this season. I asked him if he was thinking about that as he stepped in.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I mean, it’s hard not to. Yeah, definitely. But at the same time, what helped me from being anxious is the fact that we needed base runners in that situation. So I was taking, which helped me see the first slider, and then I saw his fastball second pitch. So I felt good after those two pitches, and then squeaked one up the middle.”

Cuddyer slapped Rosario’s second slider back toward the mound. Rosario reached out with his bare right hand to knock it down.

“He hit it, actually,” Cuddyer said. “I think he got his hand on it.”

I wondered if he had a fleeting thought that Rosario was going to come up with it.

“No, it happened too quick,” he said. “And if he would have caught it, he would have caught it. That’s the way the game goes.”

Instead, the ball skipped off Rosario’s hand and continued its journey back up the middle, hit too sharply for either middle infielder to cut it off. As Cuddyer rounded first base, the crowd rose to give him an ovation. An umpire collected the ball and flipped it to the home dugout. Moments later, Cuddyer scored the Rocks’ second and final run on a Wilin Rosario double to right.

Cuddyer now has at least one hit in 27 consecutive games, the longest hitting streak in the majors this season and the longest in Rockies history, eclipsing the previous record of 23 set by Dante Bichette, now the club’s hitting coach, in 1995.

If you add walks and being hit by a pitch, Cuddyer has now reached base safely in 46 consecutive games. That, too, is a Rockies franchise record — and the longest such streak in the big leagues since 2007.

A career .275 hitter, the 34-year-old Cuddyer is now batting .344, one point behind the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina for the National League lead. His OPS of .983 is 178 points higher than his career mark.

“Hitting is tough, you know?” said Carlos Gonzalez, who hit his league-leading 22nd home run batting in front of Cuddyer in the sixth.

“He’s been doing something really amazing this year. Everybody was really excited for him to continue that streak and let’s see how far he goes. That’s one of the difficult things to do. I mean, that record seems almost impossible. I think the farthest I got was like 16, and it feels like he’s been hitting for a month. It’s good for him and hopefully he can continue to do that. He’s giving us a lot of opportunities to win games.”

About the only concession Cuddyer made to superstitition was to quit shaving early in the streak. He’s kept the beard.

“Now I kind of like the way I look,” he said with a grin. “My wife might disagree, but it is what it is.”

Other than that, he has not indulged any of the less hygenic ballplayer superstitions — wearing the same socks day after day, for instance.

“No, I mean, I wear the same uniform every day,” he said, laughing. “I’m not really a superstitious type of guy. You’re going to go out and play. I wish we all had that much power where we could determine the outcome just by the clothes that we wear.”

If the streak is wearing him down mentally, there’s no sign of it. He is as friendly and ready to laugh as usual.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. I mean I’ve never been through anything like this before, I think it’s pretty obvious. So you just enjoy the ride and have as good at-bats as you can.

“There’s no question that it’s pretty awesome, pretty cool to go out and do. But when you get in the box, you can’t focus on it. Obviously, it’s in your head and in your mind, but there’s a job at hand.”

Cuddyer’s streak is not the only feel-good story in the Rocks’ clubhouse. There’s also the fact that they’re still in contention for the National League West title at the season’s midway point after losing 98 games a year ago.

“We had our backs a little bit against the wall going into this series and we were able to win this series, two out of three against a good Giants team,” Cuddyer said.

“We’ve got the Dodgers coming in. That’s the thing about the way that the schedules are nowadays. You’ve got chances to win the division. You have to win inside the division. And this streak that we have going on right now, in the middle of (16) in a row of playing division opponents, is a testament to that. And hopefully we can go out there and take care of business.”

Which has been Cuddyer’s motto all year.

“I think the thing that I’ve done well this whole season is focus on that at-bat,” he said. “Focus on the pitches that are going on in the particular at-bat that I’m in. Not two at-bats from now or three at-bats from now. And I think that’s helped a lot.”

Somebody mentioned that he is now almost halfway to Joe DiMaggio’s major league record 56-game hitting streak, a record some people believe will never be broken.

“I’m right there with those ‘some people,'” Cuddyer said. “It’s incredible. It’s unfathomable. It’s one of those records right up there with Cal Ripken and those types of records.”

In every long hitting streak, there are games like Sunday’s, when it comes down to a final at-bat, and maybe a matter of inches, from ending. Cuddyer made it through the close call. Now he gets a day off before seeing how much longer he can carry it.

George Karl on his firing: ‘I think I called it stupid’

George Karl is still more perplexed than angry. A week after Josh Kroenke fired him as Nuggets coach following the best regular season since the team joined the NBA in 1976, he’s still trying to figure out how anybody looks at a 57-win team without any all-stars and decides the coaching staff needs to be blown up.

But a week after the fact Karl was finally ready to talk, so we sat down over breakfast Thursday morning and went through it.

“I think I called it stupid,” he said, recalling his final meeting with Kroenke, the one where he was dismissed after eight and a half seasons. “I think I did say, ‘I want you to know I think this is really stupid.'”

He said he’s had preliminary conversations with the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers about their coaching vacancies, but nothing substantive to this point. And he admitted he feels a little hypocritical about that because he doesn’t think Lionel Hollins or Vinny Del Negro deserved to lose their jobs, either. Each won 56 games last season.

But Karl suggested that his regular-season success in Denver — the Nuggets have won 62 percent of their games since he took over Jan. 27, 2005 — made it seem easy, and that perhaps a young CEO like Kroenke, who has never been affiliated with a pro team not coached by Karl, sees only the potential upside from here, and not the potential downside.

“I think (former GM) Masai (Ujiri) and Josh both thought it was easy to win,” Karl said. “It is not easy to win.”

But let’s start at the beginning . . .

The lead-up

“I had felt since the trade deadline that Masai and Josh were over here and we were here and it seemed like we were getting further and further apart,” Karl said.

“But I thought it was just my paranoia and just coaching. It seemed like I would piss them off with what I said in the papers or how I handled the game or whatever. But the harmony of our team, I thought, was in a very good place.

“There’s never a true, beautiful love affair between player personnel and management and coaches. There’s always going to be a window of conflict. I could feel that Masai was edgy on some situations, but I didn’t think it was ever a problem.”

What situations?

“Situations, games. Mostly about quotes in the paper and stuff like that. I don’t really want to go into detail. There are mistakes that you make when you talk to the press so many times. You make little mistakes. Sometimes it bothers the management, sometimes it doesn’t. But that was the only thing.

“And then Masai had a meeting with the coaches after the season. It was not an easy meeting, but I thought it was a fair beginning of re-evaluating where we’re going, what we’re going to do, day by day.”

I asked him how much the first-round playoff loss to the Warriors weighed on that meeting.

“It was, I think, a week after the playoffs, maybe 10 days. Everybody expressed their disappointment. The coaches were disappointed, but excited. The team is an exciting team to the coaching staff. We thought we had guys that could have great summers. It’s the first time we could have Wilson Chandler in during the summer because of injuries and circumstances of the lockout and stuff like that. We think we could help him become a better player.

“There were all types of things that were energizing — (Kenneth) Faried and Ty Lawson making the USA team — that suggested to us we could have a great offseason and continue the process into another great year next year. That was the coaches’ feel, I thought. Obviously, upstairs they were thinking something different.”

The contract

Kroenke explained his decision to fire Karl largely in terms of his contractual situation. Two years ago, coming off two seasons dominated by Karl’s neck and throat cancer (2010) and the Carmelo Anthony trade (2011), Kroenke gave Karl a three-year contract with a team option for another three. It was an unusual structure. Options are more often for single years, and easier to pick up, than for multiple years, requiring a commitment similar to that of a brand-new contract.

“It turns out to be a bad option,” Karl said. “It put me and them in a bad position. But the only meeting that I had directly with Josh, I was very, very aggressive, I thought. I think it was on a Sunday (June 2). The first 15 minutes, I was definitive, and I want the fans to know this, that I wanted to coach this team. I had no problem coaching the team on a one-year deal. I was fine with a one-year deal.

“I mean, I want to coach, maximum, four or five more years. I would love it to be in Denver. And I said that to him: ‘I want it to be in Denver.’ But do I think I deserve a three-year extension? No.

“I said, ‘And if you want me to coach next year on a one-year deal, I’ll coach. But there are ramifications to that situation.’

“And I explained that to him — my coaching staff, how I protect my coaches, the passion for the game, the anger of being on a one-year deal will fester up and then it will go back down. You’re on a winning streak, it won’t be a problem. You’re on a losing streak, it’ll be a problem.

“That’s the discussion we had. Maybe I convinced him that it’s not the best way to go; I have no idea. But I want the fans to know that I definitively wanted to coach this basketball team, and if I had to do it on a one-year deal, I would have done it. I was just trying to explain the environment it might bring.”

Karl has made good money during his career and is financially secure. So his concerns about a one-year deal had more to do with his assistants. He has fretted privately over the years about the steady exodus of assistants who left for bigger pay days. He was afraid that an entire staff in the last year of its contracts would be ripe for poaching.

“The negative scenario for me was, like (Oklahoma City coach and former Karl assistant) Scottie Brooks loses an assistant coach. Like, (new Detroit head coach) Mo Cheeks, gone. Say Mo Cheeks takes another guy, and someone comes in here and takes John Welch or Chad Iske from me and offers them a four-year deal for $1.3 million. The thing that worried me on a one-year deal was losing my staff. We’ve been doing that for a long time and it’s frustrating to me. We lose guys every year — Scottie Brooks, Jamahl Mosely, Stacey Augmon. I mean, the list is long.”

So that’s how they left it. According to Karl, he made it clear he would coach the final year of the deal if necessary, but that there were drawbacks to that situation. He felt he had planted the seed of an idea that maybe  killing the three-year option and adding one more year to the year remaining on the deal might be a workable compromise.

“I thought it was a very positive meeting and I was energized by it,” he said. “We had a couple of workouts on Monday and Tuesday. It was fun being in the gym, starting to talk about the draft. And Wednesday night he said, ‘Let’s meet Thursday morning.’ That meeting took 30 minutes and his mode was he wanted a change. It was basically, he wanted to go a different way.

“I thought about fighting, but I didn’t fight very hard. I didn’t want that emotion. I wanted to control myself and I did, I think.”

Did he ever mention explicitly the contract compromise he had envisioned?

“I said, ‘There could be a compromise here.’ Did I say there had to be a compromise? I don’t think I ever said that. He might have envisioned my passion for that as that, but I know I said, ‘I’m ready to coach this team. I want to coach this team.'”

The basketball issues

Much of what Karl has read about the club’s motivation since his firing perplexes him because he doesn’t recall meetings with Kroenke or Ujiri at which the criticisms now coming out were brought up.

“This stuff that I didn’t play the young players. I don’t remember those meetings. First, the quote should be that I didn’t play the young players enough, because I played a lot of young players. I didn’t play JaVale McGee enough. I didn’t play Jordan Hamilton enough. Evan Fournier probably should have played more minutes, but even he got a good rookie year. I think he got a good rookie year and we won 57 games and he’s ready for next year. He’s going to be in a great place.

“Kosta Koufos is a young player and he’s turned into a 25-minute NBA basketball player. Kenneth Faried is in a great place. Could he have played a few more minutes? Probably. But I think the maturity of understanding winning and what it takes to win and seeing why certain things win, seeing how a smart and experienced player is maybe better than a young and talented player, all those things, I think JaVale McGee has gotten better because of it, I think Kenneth Faried understands it better now than he ever has.

“And the next step was ready to be made: ‘OK, Kenneth, you want this responsibility? Remember, you’ve got to take the responsibility that Al Harrington showed. You’ve got to be a leader in the locker room.’ There are little things other than just the games and the stats of the games.

“I don’t remember the meetings where anybody ever told me that if you don’t play this or don’t do this it’s injuring where we want to go. They’re making it out that I was insubordinate. I don’t remember that. Other than my attitude of playing and winning and trying to win, possessed by winning, being aggressive to win.”

I mentioned the criticism of his loyalty to veteran Andre Miller, who won Game 1 of the Warriors playoff series with a last-minute shot but went downhill from there, finishing the series with a .420 shooting percentage.

“I think that’s a fair assessment,” he said. “I think that’s a fair evaluation of the games. But Andre Miller, the year he had, he’s a foundation of the team. I thought he earned that. I thought he had an incredible year. I didn’t expect a year like that out of Andre Miller. And then he’s basically the reason we won Game 1. By Game 6 you’re bailing on a guy who just won Game 1?”

The complication for Karl was that he had mostly played a three-guard rotation of Lawson, Miller and Andre Iguodala, with Corey Brewer moving to the backcourt at times when he wanted more length. But in the playoffs, Brewer disappeared about the same time Miller did, which left Karl with only inexperienced options like Fournier, a 20-year-old rookie, and Hamilton, who had barely played during the regular season.

“Corey wasn’t playing very good,” Karl said. “The next guy was Evan. I’ll admit that in hindsight maybe I should have tried to build his confidence up rather than, as the series went on, pull the plug on him.”

In any case, it was Ujiri who kept pointing out that the Nuggets had the third-youngest roster in the association. Karl assumed that meant the front office saw the same growth curve he saw.

“From the one meeting I had beforehand, I never felt something was about to happen, but my friends in the league had started saying, ‘Hey, George, be careful.’ I probably had half a dozen phone calls from guys in the league saying that.”

The postseason issues

Karl’s career regular-season record is 1,131-756, a winning percentage of .599. The last time he had a losing record in a regular season was 1987-88 with Golden State — 25 years ago.

But his postseason record is 80-105, a winning percentage of .432. This is mostly what his critics point to when they talk about the Nuggets taking the next step — winning in the playoffs.

How does he view his postseason record?

“Disappointment,” he said. “I don’t think I have a big foundation to fight my record. It’s not good. But I think my last five years is better than people think it is.

“Four years ago, we went to the conference finals. Three years ago, I think we would have gone to the conference finals if I didn’t get sick.”

Karl was forced to leave the team down the stretch in 2010 to be treated for neck and throat cancer. Assistant Adrian Dantley coached the team to a first-round playoff loss to Utah.

“Two years ago, we make the Melo trade. I don’t care what you want to say, we did a hell of a job keeping that team together and playing Oklahoma City pretty damn well in that playoff series. We lost one on a referee’s call, and (Kevin) Durant started his greatness in that series by kicking our ass, stealing a game from us. Disappointing? Yes, but if you go back and put that video on today, I think you’ll see a lot of good stuff.

“The next year was the lockout year and the Nene trade, so we’ve made another major change and we now have a team that basically has one guy from the conference finals team — Ty Lawson. All new faces, Nene gone, everybody gone, and we almost beat L.A. Without Wilson Chandler.

“And this year, disappointment. No question, disappointment. Did we think we could win without (Danilo Gallinari)? Yes. We went 7-1 without Gallo down the stretch. Maybe that was an illusion we should have been more worried about.”

So what happened?

“A good young team got the momentum and cockiness in their head. I thought we fought hard from Game 3 on, but both series, including L.A. the year before and this year, and this is on my shoulders, we had trouble getting into the fight, understanding the playoff fight, understanding it is cutthroat, mean, dirty, ugly. We came in with our kind of regular-season attitude. It’s a different world.

“That’s on me, but it’s on the young guys, too, to understand. You’ve got young guys out there trying to figure it out. In the Laker series, when you’ve got (Pau) Gasol, Kobe (Bryant) and (Ron) Artest going against Gallo, Corey Brewer and Ty Lawson, it’s interesting.

“I remember after the series Ty coming up and saying to me, ‘Do you know what Kobe told me in the fourth quarter? He told me, “I’m going to foul you every time down and they’re not going to call it one time.”‘

“That’s the type of intimidation that comes into a playoff series. There is verbal, mental, emotional intensity that you have to live in to learn about. And this year that was probably my disappointment, is Golden State found that magic and I thought we could be the team that found that magic. If we would have found that magic and won that series, scramble around and maybe steal Memphis, and the reality is that’s not that far from happening.”

What’s next

I asked Karl if he has had contact with any of the teams now looking for head coaches.

“I will say I’ve had preliminary conversations with both the Clippers and Memphis,” he replied. “Nothing that’s to say something’s going to happen. I definitely think it’s in the first stage of a process that has however many stages. I have interest in both jobs. I think both teams are very good.

“The one thing I don’t like about it . . . I feel bad. I feel a little slimy, because I don’t think Lionel should have lost his job and I don’t think Vinny should have lost his job. So all of a sudden now I’m being hypocritical because I’m bitching about, ‘This should not have happened, this is wrong, this is the wrong stuff for basketball.’

“It might be the right stuff for Josh Kroenke, but it’s the wrong stuff for the game of basketball. And it’s sick and a little sad that coaches are losing this much respect or appreciation. I don’t think the game is going to be healthy if we continue down this path of blowing up coaches who have done well.

“But I also want to say that the Kroenkes have treated me well. My eight and a half years is a special eight and a half years. I found a home. I’m going to live in Denver. And the fans, for me, I mean, the connection the fans made with me here was deeper than it was even in Seattle. And both ways. The fans who don’t like me are pretty intense. But I mean, I get people who are pretty emotional coming up to me now, almost crying, making me cry.

“In time, it’s going to be eight and a half great years, and eight and a half fun years of coaching. A lot of different personalities on the court, in the front office. The league is going through a tremendous change right now from the standpoint of marketing and internet and media coverage and social networking. It’s eight and a half years of an amazing amount of interchange and information and I think we did it pretty good.

“The stories are tremendous. Coaching staffs, the people who came here and left here and went on to do pretty good. Brooksie in Oklahoma City, Chip Engelland in San Antonio, Jamahl Mosely (in Cleveland), Stacey Augmon out in Vegas. Coach (Tim) Grgurich.

“And I think we’ve got three great assistant coaches now. I think Chad Iske and Melvin Hunt are NBA head coaching candidates. John Welch is such a great basketball guy that if he wanted to be a head coach, I think he could be, but he loves the gym so much I don’t know if that’s what he really wants. But those guys are A+ coaches and I have no idea what the next guy wants to do with those guys. I know I want them on my staff. And then the guys underneath them, Patrick Mutombo, Ryan Bowen and Vance Walberg, are tremendous guys. We have six NBA guys, and that family is very close to me. That family is why I probably fought the ugly battle that probably cost me my job, or they’re accusing me of, because they’re the ones that need security.

“I’m old enough, I got enough money, I’m going to be fine. Security to a 40-year-old guy that has three kids in fifth and sixth and eighth grade, security is a lot more important to him than it is to me, who now has a million dollars in the bank. And they do so much work for me and show so much loyalty to me, I think it’s my right to fight for them. And if Josh thought that was wrong, so be it. I’m going to probably continue to do that in my next job. I’m going to fight for the guys that fight for me.”

His message to fans?

“Thanks for touching my inners. Most fans, it’s always outside. But because of my cancer, because of my identity with the community and the closeness I’ve gotten with some hospitals, I think there’s a soulfulness to what I’ve gone through here that I don’t want to give up, and I probably won’t give up.”

Doug Moe: Nuggets ‘could go right down the tubes’

Keep in mind Doug Moe has seen this before. He was the Denver Nuggets’ coach in 1990, coming off nine straight playoff appearances, when the organization decided to go in a different direction.

Here’s a list of the directions they chose:

Paul Westhead (44-120)

Dan Issel (96-102)

Gene Littles (3-13)

Bernie Bickerstaff (59-68)

Dick Motta (17-52)

Bill Hanzlik (11-71)

Mike D’Antoni (14-36)

Dan Issel (84-106)

Mike Evans (18-38)

Jeff Bzdelik (73-119)

Michael Cooper (4-10)

Fourteen and a half seasons later, they finally resorted to George Karl, who went 423-257. After missing the playoffs for 11 of the 13 seasons after Moe was fired, the Nuggets embarked on a streak of 10 straight postseason appearances, the last nine under Karl.

Considering the polarities of their personalities, Moe and Karl have a lot in common. They’re former players from back in a day when pro basketball was not yet a license to print money. They carry Carolina blue basketball blood. They came to Denver a generation apart and coached some of the fastest, highest-scoring basketball the National Basketball Association ever saw. Following Karl’s dismissal last week, they’re likely to share the franchise record for consecutive playoff appearances for quite some time.

Karl did better in the regular season (.622 to .548), coming within nine wins of Moe’s total in 109 fewer games. Moe did better in the postseason, getting out of the first round four times to Karl’s once.

Neither coached in a championship series while in Denver, and neither has anybody else. The Nuggets have never been there. These two are the royalty of Nuggets coaches through nearly a half-century of existence. Each made the conference finals once; each lost there. (Karl, of course, made it to the NBA Finals in 1996 with the Seattle Sonics and lost in six games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.)

More than a decade after his last NBA gig, Moe agreed to serve as a bench assistant to Karl shortly after his arrival. He was like a tour guide on a new planet, explaining the elevation thing and how it made Hakeem Olajuwon suck oxygen out of a bottle on the bench. Moe left the travel grind behind — again — as soon as he could without hurting anybody’s feelings.

Karl leaves a young roster where Moe left an old one. The rebuild that was inevitable after Moe’s firing isn’t inevitable now, although it remains to be seen whether the current roster is a fit for the new coach.

So Moe is a Karl guy, and might be expected to defend him. But he’s also an irreverent Brooklynite, condemned to say what he really thinks because he can’t keep from laughing at the other choices.

On the Logan show Monday, for example, when Logan asked Moe, a resident of San Antonio these days, whether Spurs fans think their team can win three in a row over the Miami Heat and capture the Finals without going back to Florida:

“Are you serious?” asked Moe. “You’ve got to be kidding. I mean, it’s like a lock. Miami has no shot. This is San Antonio, this isn’t some other place in the world. That’s a comical question.”

But what does Moe think will happen?

“Oh, I think Miami will probably end up winning, mainly because normally I think the team that wins the third game wins, in a series where one team’s a little better than the other. But San Antonio, having three games at home is, you know, if they win two of them that’s great and then they’ve got to go back and a team as good as Miami, they should be able to hold their home court on two final games. So I think the 2-3-2 really helps out Miami and I think they probably end up winning it.”

Moe has systems, ideas that turn long division into shorthand and make it easy to know what you think. Whether it helps you find the right answer in any particular instance is a different question.

“I always go on the theory . . . like what happened in the previous series,” Moe said. “As soon as Miami beat Indiana in the third game, it was over. As soon as San Antonio, and they were awful in the first two games against Golden State and should have lost both of them, but as soon as they won the third game, it was over. So I go on the third-game winner is the team that will win the series.”

This is Moe’s explanation for what happened to the Nuggets in their first-round series against the Warriors, too. Before we got to that, I asked him what he thought of the decision to fire Karl.

“Well, George is terrific. George did a great job, and I think it was a bad move. I think it will turn out to be a bad move. But in this business you can’t get upset at anything that happens. They want to go in another direction and it’s kind of a whole new face on the organization and stuff, so, those things happen. I feel totally confident George will end up in a pretty good place.”

And the roster?

“The roster’s good. It’s a nice team, a good team. But I think one of the big question marks they’re going to have is who they get in, can he handle the job. They could go right down the tubes. I mean, that’s a possibility.

“It’s not a great team, it’s a good team. They have a lot of depth and that was the strength of their team last year . . . There’s enough good teams in the league, or teams with average talent, you know, you slip, you can drop out of the playoffs.”

Moe does not believe the Nuggets are suited only to the full-court cirque du soleil displays they’ve made famous in the last couple of seasons. But he does give Karl, the sixth-winningest head coach in NBA history, credit for what versatility they displayed.

“I happened to see the Memphis games,” Moe said. “And the Memphis games were all basically half-court games. (The Grizzlies) got ’em slowed down. (The Nuggets) won ’em all. They can play that style. At least, they could last year. George was a good enough coach, he could adapt to things, and I didn’t think they had any problem. In fact, I remember saying to myself when I saw them play there, if it came down to the playoffs, they had to play Memphis, they could beat ’em in any style. That was my thought.”

The Nuggets took three of four from the Grizzlies last season, sweeping the two in Denver and splitting the two in Memphis. Neither team scored 100 points in any of the four.

I asked Moe about the playoff series that seems to have cost Karl his job, the first-round loss to the Warriors.

“Again, I thought the Nuggets had to win the third game out there, and they didn’t. It turned out to be their downfall,” he said.

“To be perfectly honestly, they didn’t step it up enough defensively. They just didn’t make it tough enough on Golden State. Golden State was hot during that period. It was one of those things. They ran into a team that couldn’t miss and they weren’t able to take ’em out of it.

“I saw the same thing down here. I went to the San Antonio-Golden State games. San Antonio totally, 100 percent, lucked out in the first game, got killed in the second game, but they were able to step it up and actually shut down Golden State defensively and that was the difference in that series. And Golden State was the type of team you probably had to put a little more pressure on defensively than Denver did, looking in hindsight.”

As for Karl’s future?

“I think he’ll coach this year,” Moe said. “That’s my opinion, but then again, what do I know? I think he’ll end up with the Clippers, and that’s a totally wild guess. I mean, I haven’t talked to George. I’ve just seen a couple of things said. But that would be my guess, that he ends up with the Clippers.”

As for the playoff follies that got Karl fired — seven first-round eliminations in eight tries (not counting the year he underwent treatment for neck and throat cancer and Adrian Dantley coached them in the playoffs) — Moe offered the calm reason of a 75-year-old retiree:

“You’ve got to remember, Denver was playing against L.A. and San Antonio most of the time in the playoffs, which makes it a little bit more difficult to get out.”

Is Josh Kroenke the Nuggets’ Jim Buss?

Some of the obstacles awaiting 33-year-old Josh Kroenke as he steps out from behind the curtain are not of his own making. Being a 30-something named Josh, for example. That rustling sound you hear is Broncos fans thrashing involuntarily in their seats.

As chief executive of the Nuggets and scion of an empire builder forced to hand over the reins, at least officially, by NFL cross-ownership rules, the younger Kroenke has done something unprecedented in NBA history: He has lost the league’s executive of the year and coach of the year the same year.

In fact, the same month. Nearly the same week. Masai Ujiri and George Karl won their awards on consecutive days in early May and both were gone by early June. Karl had talked about the coach-of-the-year award being a jinx, but this is a bit fast, even by the standards of that checkered award’s dubious history.

Nuggets fans don’t have Karl to kick around anymore. They don’t have Ujiri to credit for making chicken salad out of . . . well . . . the 20th and 22nd picks in the NBA draft, which isn’t as easy to do as it sounds.

The team is now all about the young Kroenke. He is not pretending to be a hands-off owner who will select a new general manager, hand over the basketball operation and wish him luck. In fact, he left open the possibility he’ll select a new coach first, which would make it clear he’s the chief basketball operations executive.

As Kroenke patiently explained it last week, he has been the Nuggets’ chief basketball operations officer since hiring Ujiri as executive vice president of basketball operations nearly three years ago. When I asked about the shadow of his famous father, Silent Stanley, and speculation that Karl was the latest victim of the elder Kroenke’s hardball negotiating style, the younger Kroenke insisted he was on his own.

“There wasn’t any involvement with my dad other than he said to do what I think is best,” Josh Kroenke said.

With Ujiri and Karl gone, I asked if he was ready to be held personally accountable for wherever the Nuggets go from here.

“Yeah, I mean, I was prepared for it in 2010 and I’ve been prepared this whole time,” he said. “It’s never fun jumping into a volatile situation such as, you know, people could view that with the uncertainty around here with the two main positions as volatile, but I’m fully confident in myself, in my own abilities.”

I mentioned Jim Buss, the second-generation owner in Los Angeles who, by all accounts, made the decision to hire Mike D’Antoni as Lakers coach rather than Phil Jackson despite having a well-respected general manager in Mitch Kupchak.

“I can’t speak for Jim Buss,” Kroenke said. “The Lakers organization is one that’s bounced us from the playoffs several years and I have first-hand experience at that, so I’m never going to say a negative thing about the Lakers because I’ve got to beat ’em before I can say anything.

“As far as myself, I’ve prepared for these moments most of my life, whether it was riding around in the car as a teenager with my dad, listening to him on the phone, talking to other business associates about professional sports, interning with the NBA league office right after college, playing basketball in college. I was a sponge while I was at the University of Missouri regarding the game of basketball and different strategies that are implemented. So I don’t think I’m a typical person in this position.

“But it’s going to be a big challenge going forward and I think that there is, judging from the reaction that I’ve gotten around the league and some of the people that have reached out to me about the positions that are available, there’s a lot of people that would want to come work with me in Denver.”

So let’s look at the two big decisions that stripped the Nuggets of their award-winners and swept back the curtain to reveal the young Kroenke as the man pulling the levers.


To hear Kroenke tell it, there really was no decision with respect to Ujiri. They had a handshake agreement on a new contract — reportedly at about $1.2 million per season, more than doubling Ujiri’s rookie GM deal — but also an understanding that Kroenke would let him out of it if something truly extraordinary came along. In various retellings, this option included only the Raptors, for whom Ujiri previously worked, or was more general in nature.

Tim Leiweke, the former Nuggets president and longtime AEG executive in Los Angeles, is the new poobah at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, charged with making its marquee franchises — the Maple Leafs and Raptors — relevant again. He made Ujiri an offer he couldn’t refuse — reportedly $3 million a year for five years. Kroenke mentioned the handshake deal, then shrugged, congratulated his friend and wished him well.

The obvious question was why not fight for him? Why not match the offer? It’s not as if the Kroenkes lack the money. Josh’s parents are both among the nation’s 100 wealthiest individuals, according to Forbes, with a combined net worth of $8.5 billion.

Why should the Raptors, of all teams, be able to afford a GM’s salary the Nuggets could or would not? When I posed this question to Kroenke at his press conference last week, he off-loaded the decision to Ujiri.

“Masai told me not to,” Kroenke said. “He said, ‘Josh I’m not going to tell you to match. I think I have already made my decision.’ His press conference was very revealing because it showed his love for the city of Toronto. In his opening statement he said ‘I am home’ several times and that is a great thing for Masai to feel. I don’t think it was his intention to move on from Denver this quickly, but Toronto was always a special place for him, as well as Denver is.”

I totally get why both Kroenke and Ujiri chose to frame the move this way. It takes them both off the hook — Ujiri for disloyalty, Kroenke for cheapness. But I don’t believe this sentimental story about going “home” for a minute. Toronto was one of many global stops for Ujiri, a native Nigerian, and not a particularly long one.

Of course he called Toronto home at a press conference in Toronto. If he’d signed a new deal in Denver, 10-to-1 he would have called Denver “home” at that press conference. In fact, he may have said he was coming home when he returned to Denver from Toronto in 2010; I don’t remember. This is how mercenaries bond with local communities, by claiming a loyalty that doesn’t actually exist. After two stints with the Nuggets, he’d lived in Denver longer than in Toronto.

Ujiri is not looking for a sentimental landing spot. He cares much more about succeeding at his trade, about becoming the architect of an NBA champion, than about his mailing address. He’s 43 years old. Do you think Toronto is his final stop? Me neither.

No, the appeal of Toronto was all about the money, and not just the salary, although Ujiri, who goes from being the lowest-paid GM in the NBA to one of the highest-paid, did not deny its importance.

“Financially, I think it was big,” he said.

But there is also the general looseness of the purse strings under Leiweke, who needs to make an immediate impact on a sad sack NBA franchise — the facelift includes new uniforms and possibly a new name — and has been given the resources to do it. It’s not just Ujiri’s salary that would have been smaller in Denver. His budget would have been, too.

This is the thing about Kroenke Sports Enterprises that sometimes perplexes fans. On the one hand, it represents deep-pocketed ownership by a certified billionaire for a franchise that operated on a shoe string for much of its history. That means stability: It’s not moving. It’s not getting sold. The owner isn’t getting his possessions thrown out on the sidewalk, not to get Nuggets fans thrashing involuntarily to flashbacks of their own.

On the other hand, you’re not getting what a hard-nosed businessperson would consider irresponsible spending. You’re not getting the exuberance of Mark Cuban or the late Jerry Buss. You’re getting competitive rates for players and coaches and bargain rates for pretty much everything else. You’re getting a mandate to operate in the black, meaning the size of Silent Stanley’s bank account is seldom relevant. Ujiri will have more scouts in Toronto, more freedom to ask for other things that may come up and more financial support for his basketball development campaign in Africa.

Now, KSE may be right in this case. It may be right that Ujiri at $1.2 million is a sound investment and Ujiri at $3 million is dramatically overpaying the latest hot executive. We won’t know until we see where the franchise goes from here. If the Nuggets continue to draft well and trade well and win a lot, the decision to let Ujiri go will be vindicated.

Under the Kroenkes, the Nuggets have adopted a “team” approach to the front office, which is probably why the younger Kroenke believes he can replace Ujiri and go on as before.

But this “team” approach can have unintended consequences, too. Before Kroenke hired Ujiri, the team was a triumverate of Mark Warkentien, Rex Chapman and Bret Bearup, who didn’t particularly like each other and produced palace intrigue that made the Kremlin envious.

A word of caution: Finding good NBA players in the middle or bottom of the draft’s first round is not as easy as it’s looked lately with Ty Lawson (drafted by the previous regime), Kenneth Faried and Evan Fournier. Once upon a time, near the end of the Doug Moe era, the Nuggets’ inability to jump from good to great was blamed largely on the mediocre players they kept drafting because of poor draft position.

The notion that Kroenke can step in for Ujiri is worrisome. Ujiri has been scouting basketball players on a global basis for most of his adult life. Kroenke has been preparing for a role as a sports owner and executive most of his. These are different paths.

John Elway has demonstrated that someone not steeped in scouting and film work can make good personnel decisions if he has good people around him. Over the past three years, Kroenke may have done essentially the same from behind the curtain. But Ujiri was a big part of those calls. Who will have Kroenke’s ear next? One hesitates to mention the Jerry Jones model — the owner who was a college player and thinks he knows more than he does.

However it turns out, I would suggest you take the prodigal-son-returns-home story with a shaker full of salt. Ujiri went back to Toronto because of the money — not only for him, but for his operation.


Try as he might to be accountable — and the younger Kroenke spent more time talking to reporters last Friday than his father has in 20 years — he could not address the real question hanging over his firing of Karl:

What, specifically, did he object to about a coach who just led the Nuggets to the best regular season in their NBA history, 57 wins without a single all-star on the roster, who was 423-257 — a .618 winning percentage — over eight seasons and part of a ninth?

Was it that his teams were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in eight of their nine consecutive appearances? That’s a valid reason, but a risky one. The last time the Nuggets decided nine consecutive playoff appearances weren’t good enough, they fired Doug Moe and missed the playoffs 11 of the next 13 seasons.

Kroenke didn’t want to say anything that might be construed as negative with Karl now looking for work, so he denied that the first-round playoff loss to the Warriors had anything to do with his decision. I’m going to operate on the assumption he said this out of courtesy to Karl and that it is not true.

The irony is everybody in the organization pretty much agrees now that it was the magic act of wringing 57 wins and a No. 3 seed out of a young, interesting but obviously incomplete roster that created the expectations that led to Karl’s firing.

“The 57 wins that we had, was it a little bit much for this young team?” Ujiri asked on his way out the door.

“Those guys played hard. They’re talented. I think George did a great job. And so, did we get ahead of ourselves? When you sit back and think about it, the third youngest team in the NBA. They still have to grow, they still have to get better. I don’t think out of the core group of maybe eight, nine, 10 players, I don’t know if there’s one person that you’d say is not going to get better. They’re all going to be better players.”

As Kroenke explained it, Karl’s contract status was the heart of the problem.

“There were a couple different factors, but the main one that was coming up consistently was there was a contractual issue with George,” he said.

“George is entering the final year of his contract. We have a three-year option after next year and after several discussions with George it was a tough situation because I don’t think he was comfortable going in on the last year of his contract and I was in a tough position because I couldn’t extend him at this point in time.

“So, with the status quo being like that, I just decided it was best for us both to get a fresh start. I have an immense amount of respect for George as a coach and as a human being, and for us to get a fresh start now and allowing him, if he chooses to continue his coaching career elsewhere, I thought it was best for all parties involved.”

Why couldn’t he extend him at this point in time?

“You know, we’ve gone under a huge, I don’t want to say rebuild, I just say retool, kind of on the fly here over the last several years, and we have a completely different roster than we did when we made the Western Conference finals a few years ago,” Kroenke said.

“I think as teams evolve, their personality evolves as well, and with a lot of younger players on our team now and those guys are going to be under contract for the foreseeable future, I couldn’t make an accurate decision on if George was the right guy for the long term and so at that point in time I needed to make a decision for the short term.”

Odd, because this latest iteration of the Nuggets seemed clearly the one Karl liked best. No superstar to placate, no compromises to get certain people enough touches or compensate for certain no-shows at the defensive end. It is hard to dispute that Karl got the very most out of this roster during the regular season — hence his award.

But it is also hard to dispute that the Nuggets were not the same team in the playoffs. They shot .478 in the regular season, .438 in the playoffs. They shot .343 from long distance in the regular season, .311 in the playoffs. They gave up 101.1 points per game in the regular season, 107.2 in the playoffs.

The Warriors did not do what most of Denver’s first-round opponents have done — slow down the pace and make it a half-court game. The Warriors ran and shot, and boy, did they shoot. Karl’s defenders will point out that the Warriors were a buzz saw to begin the postseason, then slowly cooled off. They shot .576 from the floor in their first three wins over the Nuggets.

There was grumbling in the front office that Karl was outmaneuvered by Golden State’s second-year coach, Mark Jackson. Going into the series, Karl seemed eager to play small against a Warriors team anchored up front by the limited mobility of Andrew Bogut and David Lee. Even without the injured Danilo Gallinari, Karl thought he could play a small forward — in this case, Wilson Chandler — for long stretches at power forward. Chandler rebounds well enough to play the part and would have a big offensive advantage against the slower Lee.

When Lee went down with a torn hip flexor in the first game, everything changed. It was Jackson who went small, announcing he would start Carl Landry in Lee’s place but actually starting a third guard, Jarrett Jack. Small forward Harrison Barnes moved up to power forward and Chandler lost his matchup advantage. With power forward Kenneth Faried hobbled and center Kosta Koufos ineffective, Karl felt he had little choice but to go small, a matchup that didn’t work against the Warriors’ suddenly small lineup.

I’m told Ujiri and Kroenke were frustrated by Karl’s reluctance to start center JaVale McGee, whom the executives awarded a four-year, $44 million contract just last summer. Belatedly, Karl went big in Game 5, starting McGee for the first time, and the Nuggets got a win, although McGee was a minor factor. That was the Andre Iguodala game. McGee started again in Game 6 and the Warriors closed out the series.

For their part, Karl and his staff cringed at McGee’s defensive lapses. One trip, he was swatting away an opposing shot and drawing ooohs from the crowd. The next, he was nowhere to be found. Starting him next to Faried, another unpredictable defender, made the defensive game plan seem optional, which was not the message Karl was trying to deliver to his young team.

The front office was also frustrated by Karl’s loyalty to veteran Andre Miller, who had a great Game 1, winning it on a final shot, but went steadily downhill from there. The front office would have liked to see more of Fournier, a 20-year-old rookie who shot .353 in the series.

For all the quibbling, the main issue was whether to commit for multiple years to a coach who couldn’t seem to figure out the postseason. If this sounds familiar, it is pretty much the same criticism aimed at Moe a generation earlier. Both coaches took advantage of Denver’s elevation to produce a decade of regular-season winning by running other teams out of the gym. The Nuggets had the best home record in the association this season at 38-3.

When the playoffs come around, everything changes. Opponents are no longer coming to town after playing the previous night, getting to their hotels at 4 a.m. They are no longer forced to adjust on the fly to Denver’s unconventional offense. They acclimate to the elevation and they game plan to stop a team that lacks anyone who has to be double-teamed consistently.

Is this Karl’s fault? It is not. But it’s a conundrum the Nuggets have to face at some point. If Brian Shaw and Lionel Hollins are at the top of Kroenke’s coaching wish list, as has been reported, the Nuggets will at least entertain playing a slower style that might produce less regular-season success but have more of a chance to succeed in the postseason. That’s a risky tradeoff because seeding still plays the biggest role in determining whether a team advances in the playoffs. Not to mention the fact that the Nuggets roster, as currently constituted, lacks both the outside shooting and inside power game a half-court team needs.

“I wouldn’t have made the decision that I made if I thought that we were going to take a gigantic step back in the near term,” Kroenke said. “Do I expect us to win 57 games next year? We’re going to have our work cut out for us. One, we have some injuries, and two, we’re going to have to be working through a new system, a new coach, and everybody’s going to have to be getting comfortable with each other.”

Well, yeah, that’s what happens when you fire a coach who just won 57 games. For better or worse, it’s all on Josh now.