A rude awakening for Nuggets’ new brass

Introductory press conferences in sports are a lot like weddings. Both are festive occasions, full of promises and hope, that tell you diddly about how the marriage will turn out.

The Nuggets have had a series of these press conferences lately:

— Josh Kroenke, the son of the owner, reminding everyone he’s been the man ultimately in charge of the basketball operation for the last six years, including the last three, when recently-departed GM Masai Ujiri was around.

— Tim Connelly, introducing himself as the new GM.

— Brian Shaw, introducing himself as the new head coach after Kroenke fired his predecessor, George Karl.

Each was full of optimism, of course. The Nuggets are coming off a 57-win season, the best in their history. The latter two could hardly believe their good fortune. Generally speaking, GM and head coaching jobs come open because the previous guy did a lousy job and the team stinks. The new kids on the block seemed positively giddy to be asked to assume command of a 57-win team.

They all expressed confidence that Andre Iguodala, the team’s best defender and only former Olympian or all-star, would re-up with the club if he opted out of the final year of his old contract and became a free agent, as he ultimately did.

When Kroenke met the media a month ago after parting ways with Ujiri and Karl, he was asked if he was lowering expectations for next season, given this rather significant reset.

“Not at all,” he said. “Not by any means. But do I think that 57 wins is within our range? Of course. Do I think that we will get there? I’m not sure. I can sit here and I can plan for the next number of years, but the one thing you can’t plan is injuries. We are starting the year and we are going to be without one of our leading scorers (Danilo Gallinari, out with a knee injury) for a significant portion of the year.

“I have a contractual situation this summer with Andre Iguodala. Andre and I know each other very well; I have had good conversations with him over the last week and I think Andre knows the direction that I want to take the team. I think that he is excited about it and that is going to be a big piece to our summer as well.

“For next year I am not lowering expectations at all. I am going to try to win every game that we can but also implementing a long-term vision on how to get to the ultimate goal of getting to the NBA Finals and winning an NBA championship.”

Two weeks later, during Connelly’s introduction, the two men now at the top of the Nuggets’ basketball operation were asked whether they were optimistic about Iguodala returning.

“One hundred percent,” said Kroenke, borrowing one of Ujiri’s favorite phrases. “We’ve had some good discussions about that already. I had a good conversation with his agent last week. Looking forward to following up with them. Andre’s somebody we definitely want to bring back and he’s well aware of our intentions to bring him back as well.”

Added Connelly: “The last guy we spoke to prior to this press room was Andre. He’s such a pro. He’s in there working out. He’s priority No. 1. We’ll be very proactive trying to reach an agreement that both sides are happy with.”

Finally, there was Shaw, at his introduction five days later:

“I spoke with him, he was in the day I was here doing my interview. I know him a little bit. He spends a lot of time in L.A. in the offseason, so I’ve gotten to know him over the years. I know him and Kobe have the same agent. I’m excited about having an opportunity to coach him. The freshness and youth of our GM, owner, myself, and the guys on the team that he plays with and what they were able to accomplish this year, it’s exciting. I’m looking forward to what I think we can do and he, obviously, would be a big part of that. I haven’t really spoken to him since, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity of working with him.”

Shaw, you’ll notice, was the most circumspect about predicting what Iguodala would do. He’s also the member of the Nuggets’ new triumverate with the longest experience in the association.

In any case, it’s beyond doubt that they wanted Iguodala back, that he was their “priority No. 1,” and that they were pretty confident he wanted to come back.

After opting out of the final year of his old contract, worth nearly $16 million, to seek a longer-term deal, he met separately with officials from as many as six teams in Los Angeles. Among them were the Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors.

One report had Sacramento offering $56 million over four years, an average of $14 million per. Another said the Kings offered $52 million, an average of $13 million. During the NBA’s ten-day moratorium on signings and trades, teams sit down with free agents and make pitches such as this. They nearly always tell the player that if they don’t reach a verbal agreement at that meeting, the offer may or may not still be there later. The free agent dominoes fall quickly once they start, and teams generally make it clear they might move on to Plan B at any time, so if the player wants the deal in front of him, he’d better take it while it’s there.

Iguodala left the meeting with Kings officials without accepting their offer. It was later reported that the Kings formally withdrew it that night in order to move in another direction. Iguodala also concluded his meeting with Shaw and Connelly without committing to any of the Nuggets’ proposals. Denver offered $52 million over four years, a league source confirmed, and also presented possible five-year scenarios. As his original team, the Nuggets were the only franchise allowed to offer five years under the collective bargaining agreement.

What Pistons GM Joe Dumars offered at a meeting Monday night has not been reported, but it seems likely to have been in the same neighborhood.

The Warriors took a little longer to make their offer because they had to offload some salary first. In a trade with Utah, they lightened their player payroll by some $23 million, shipping out Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Brandon Rush and multiple draft picks, taking back only Kevin Murphy, due to make less than $1 million next season.

Having cleared the cap space, the Warriors offered Iguodala $48 million over four years, an average of $12 million per. Iguodala accepted that offer Friday.

“It’s a great opportunity,” he told TNT’s David Aldridge. “I’m trying to win a championship.”

This is the key point here, and it should not be overlooked. Players like to say it’s not about the money and cynics like to say it always is. In this case, Iguodala had an opportunity to make more money from lesser teams and turned it down. Evidently, he considered the Nuggets one of these lesser teams.

Nuggets brass might be baffled by this analysis considering their team won ten more games during the regular season than Iguodala’s new team, but it also lost a first-round playoff series to the Warriors. Nuggets management might also wonder why Iguodala would join a team with two younger wing players in Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. When those players come up for new contracts, Golden State may find it can’t afford to keep them all.

The Nuggets cannot be accused of being cheap here. They made a competitive offer, an offer larger than the one Iguodala ultimately accepted.

But the Nuggets’ new brain trust may be so happy with each other — and with their new jobs — that they can’t look objectively at what the rest of the association sees, which is a team that has now lost its GM, coach and top free agent in a little more than a month following the best regular season in its NBA history. From outside the organization, it is a situation that looks at best uncertain, with a first-time coach and first-time GM, and at worst bizarre.

Based on what they had to say beforehand, Nuggets management was surprised by Iguodala’s decision. Considering he accepted less money than they offered, I’m guessing they were more than surprised.

Kroenke’s mention of his personal relationship with Iguodala, and Connelly’s reference to him working out in the Nuggets’ gym, seem pretty naive in retrospect.

One might argue that they had to say they were optimistic — what’s the alternative, saying publicly they don’t like their chances? — but when the leaders of your organization are 33 and 36 years old, credibility is more important than bravado. It looks now as if they didn’t have a very good read on the situation, which is exactly what you worry about with an untested management team.

I’m told they have various secondary options on their board that they will now pursue. Pickings are getting slim. Reportedly, the top free agents have already chosen destinations: Dwight Howard and Josh Smith to Houston, Chris Paul back to the L.A. Clippers and, now, Iguodala to Golden State.

The Warriors will reportedly have to renounce veteran combo guard Jarrett Jack to make the numbers work, so he might be an option for Denver. Monta Ellis remains uncommitted as of this writing, although, unlike Jack, he’d be a high-priced starter. Pairing him with Ty Lawson would give the Nuggets one of the smallest and worst defensive backcourts in the association.

In any case, it would be hard to argue now that Nuggets fans should not lower their expectations for next season. Whether or not the Warriors had a better chance at a championship prior to Iguodala’s defection, they do now.

Meanwhile, the message about the new Nuggets’ brain trust is worrisome. Their assessment of the situation in this first big test, their self-identified top priority, was something less than prescient.

After losing their GM and coach, they said everything would be fine. Now they’ve lost not only their top free agent, but some of their credibility, too.

About Dave Krieger

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

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