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.

Masai

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.

George

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.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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