Category Archives: Nuggets/NBA

Breakfast with George Karl

Had breakfast with George Karl a week ago, just before he and the family left for Italy to see Coby play and enjoy a family holiday.

The girls of DJ’s Berkeley Cafe — this is what they called themselves — had to have their picture taken with him. The woman who entered when he did had to tell him she was a fan. About half the people he runs into think he’s still the Nuggets’ coach and wish him luck in the next game.

Between the public battle with cancer, the generally entertaining and successful basketball team and the continuing work through his foundation on cancer, George is very popular when he’s out and about. I invited him to north Denver for breakfast thinking he might go unnoticed. I was completely wrong about this.

Excerpts of our conversation:

Q: So how have you been?

A: Well, you know, the summer was normal. My son plays summer league and we do family things in the summer time. Everything was normal. I think the emptiness, the shallowness of ‘What the hell’s going on?’ probably didn’t start until mid-September, when the guys are back in town. You know they’re working out and everybody’s in the gym. September’s a fun time because you’re starting to get excited but you don’t have any pressure. The pressure doesn’t start until you actually start practicing.

ESPN has been fun. I mean, it’s incredible what ESPN has done. I was there 8 1/2 years ago and it’s an amazing transformation. The town of Bristol now is the capitol of sports TV. And why I have no idea. But it is. And it’s growing and growing. When I used to be there, it was so much slower and smaller. It was a small town when I was there 8 1/2 years ago. Now it’s a big city. It just blows my mind.

Q: Do you think you have a future there?

A: It’s not something that I necessarily want to do the rest of my life. I would probably rather stay in the gym.

Q: Have any coaching opportunities come up yet?

A: No. I’m hoping they don’t come this quickly.

Taking a team in the middle of the year is not the most advantageous situation. We had a helluva ride here [32-8 following Jeff Bzdelik (13-15) and Michael Cooper (4-10) in 2005]. It’s the only time I’ve really ever done it. I’m sorry — when I went back to Seattle in ’92, I guess [27-15 following K.C. Jones (18-18) and Bob Kloppenburg (2-2)]. Seattle was desperate to get back in.

There are parts of how my life is now that I’m enjoying. I’m enjoying scheduling time to see my family, hanging out at my kid’s school and being involved in the neighborhood and all that good stuff. As you get older, you probably like that more.

Having more time being at home, being with Kim and Kaci and some more time to socialize, and then I have my time to go to ESPN, which connects you. And I have some other endeavors, doing some videos and talking about maybe doing a book. I’m not a big book writer because I don’t think I want to tell all the truth right now. I think that’s the next chapter.

Q: When you’re done?

A: There are some things, like cancer and the empathy and the consciousness I would like to bring to my story, a lot of people say it would be a good story. There are some other possibilities. Teaching. Maybe talking about what I think about my career and my life, not a biography but more what I’ve learned. What I’ve learned from people. What I’ve learned from Phil Jackson, what I’ve learned from Dean Smith, what I’ve learned from Larry Brown, what I’ve learned from Doug Moe. And then also maybe have a writer go talk to them about me, because I’m not afraid of somebody saying, ‘Well, I think George is a jackass.’ That’s been written before.

Q: Have your views changed at all about what happened to you here?

A: I still don’t have a tremendous understanding of it. It’s funny, when I walk around Denver, people still think I’m the coach. They’re like, ‘Hey, good luck tomorrow!’

Q: Do you watch the games?

A: When I have a relaxed moment, I do. I don’t ever say, ‘I can’t do that because I have to watch the Nuggets game.’ It’s really strange but in my discussions with ESPN and amongst other situations in TV and radio, Denver doesn’t come up. It just seems like the rest of the nation doesn’t think they’re relevant. So I think they’ve got to re-prove themselves.

Q: They’re playing better lately.

A: (Nods). JaVale [McGee] getting hurt, one, opened up the lane, and two, I think it makes it easier to coach the team. You can find minutes for four guys and you have one big guy, which you probably need. Against 30 or 40 percent of the teams, you need a big guy. But about 60 percent of the teams, the spirit of the team is to play fast.

Even in the first 10 games, I think it’s shown that they play better when they play fast. They’re actually playing at a faster pace than we did last year. I mean, it’s close.

Q: The original plan seemed to be to feed JaVale in the post. Can that work?

A: The thing we went to three or four or five years ago, of attacking, attacking, attacking, the first couple years we had Melo and we tried to balance it. We tried to attack and get Melo his isos and then he had some post-ups. What we found after the Melo trade was it’s better to say, ‘This is the way we play.’

What the whole thing comes down to is you can’t lose the strength of the team, and I think the last three or four games the game’s been tilting back to playing very aggressive. So it’ll be interesting where it ends up.

I love Ty (Lawson) having a great year. I’m happy for him. I’m happy for Timo (Mozgov) because in a lot of ways, I thought, what happened the last three or four years, the two guys that got screwed by me, by my decisions, were Birdman [Chris Andersen] and Timo. Both of them now seem to have found a place and that makes me happy.

Q: What’s your take on JaVale?

A: He came here as a player that played 30 minutes [in Washington] without earning that responsibility, was given that responsibility because they were a bad team. My year with him last year, I was trying to figure out what he was. I thought at the end of last year he earned the right to get more minutes this year but I don’t think he earned the right to be given 30 minutes.

Q: Did you ever have a sit-down within the organization about JaVale’s role?

A: I don’t remember that conversation directly, one-on-one, either with [owner] Josh [Kroenke] or even [former general manager] Masai [Ujiri]. I think they tried to lobby through my assistants quite frequently, especially Masai. But we were having such a fun year last year that the opportunity probably didn’t come up until we lost to Golden State.

Q: Have you relived that series much, or replayed it in your head?

A: Gallo’s injury took our defense. Say we were above average defensively, and I think that probably would be a good way of phrasing it. And we went from above average to ordinary. We had no versatility in our defensive schemes. Wilson [Chandler] was the only guy that we could maneuver around. And we run into an offensive team that was the best at what we did the worst — cover the three ball.

And then you take your versatility out and you’re playing two small guards that their guards can shoot over even with good defensive position. They took the momentum from us in Game 2, shooting the hell out of it, and Games 3 and 4, that building was, it had a karma to it. We took it to Game 6. It wasn’t my favorite series I’ve coached. I wish I would have done a better job trying to figure out how to give confidence to our offense and/or our defense. Even in our two wins, I thought they were on guts and grit more than they were on good basketball cohesiveness. I think we were trying to find answers quite often in that series and didn’t find answers. And that falls on the coach.

Q: Do you think Andre Iguodala was Mark Jackson’s “mole”?

A: No question.

Q: Does that bug you?

A: I just think that’s media hype. I mean, that series was not a physical series. Everybody wants to be more aggressive with the guy kicking your ass, so . . . .

Q: The media didn’t say it. Jackson said it.

A: I thought Mark had a lot of tricks in that series that were bush- . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what they were. Almost high-schoolish. They were beneath the NBA level. And they might have worked. They might have motivated his young team in a good way. You know, he’d announce a starting lineup and start another guy. C’mon, man. You think we’re not ready for that?

Q: Is your goal still to coach in the NBA again?

A: One more time.

Q: I’ve thought the best chance would be a situation like the one when you came here, a team that’s underperforming with nothing to lose.

A: It bothers me a little bit that no one realizes that coach Grg [Tim Grgurich] and I were two of the guys that started player development, and our history of developing ordinary players into better players is off the charts. It bothers me that our practice habits and how we prepare before the game and work our guys out is being copied by 10-15 teams in the NBA. It bothers me that not only did you have a winning program, you had a culture that was admired by other NBA people.

And I’m not saying it can’t be duplicated or done better. I know it can. But in the same sense, there’s a chance it can’t. I just thought it was a year too early, maybe two years too early to not try one year more to see if it would go a little further. Because it was pretty impressive. Statistically, it’s extremely impressive.

It might have a little Moneyball to it. It works in the regular season, doesn’t work in the playoffs. We’re aware of that. We’ll listen to that criticism and see how we’ll change it. I think Oakland [baseball’s Athletics, the Moneyball model] has tried to change some of its philosophies with the Moneyball system.

Q: Are you still frustrated about the ending?

A: I’m not frustrated with eight and a half great years, fun years. The window of frustration is small compared to, I found a home and an unbelievable eight and a half years. To take not winning in the first round of the playoffs as your scapegoat, I don’t think you evaluated it fairly. That’s just my opinion. Obviously, there was a bigger opinion somewhere else.

Q: When did you decide that Denver would be your permanent home? Seemed like you really liked Milwaukee, too. Any other stops in the running?

A: My hope was to coach another two or three or four years, ride out this chapter of development and, you know, fade into the sunset. I would never live in Cleveland. I don’t think I’m a California guy. Seattle, it just rains too much. So I think you’re right, Milwaukee, when you get older I think you look for a home a little bit more, probably. But you know Boise has always had a good proximity to my first family. We hang out in McCall, Idaho in the summer time. My idea before Denver was I’d probably move to Boise and have a winter home in Phoenix or Tucson or someplace.

But now, Denver’s weather, its beauty . . . The street has always been nice to me. It still is. I get a lot of, ‘I’m a Nuggets fan but I’m more a George Karl fan because of what you’ve gone through.’ A lot of cancer patients, survivors, feel friendly enough to come talk to me about their story.

Q: What’s your foundation up to?

A: We do lots of work locally, including with the Boulder Community Hospital. We raise $100,000 a year and donate it to other charitable organizations that I think are really good for cancer in Denver. I have no desire to be in a national program. I want, whatever my foundation does, I think it’s all going to be in Colorado.

Q: Why is that?

A: In my history of advocacy, I think I’ve always thought about the national, federal side of it, and I think it’s too big to be successful. So over the last five or 10 years, I think you should work harder taking care of your community, being involved in your city, maybe even in your region, your town, because you can maybe have more of an impact. I used to write checks for presidential candidates and think whoever wins the presidency is important. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that the national government is basically a bank that’s kind of messed up. I don’t know that that’s the case with national cancer societies. I think the American Cancer Society of Colorado does a great job. But Colorado has an ability to be one of the top cancer care centers in the country. I think all of cancer care can be done better. I think we need to rethink how to do this better.

I’m a big advocate of integrative care. I think holistic and integrative care, bringing in meditation and acupuncture and massage and relaxation, I think we need to open our minds.

The society of cancer advocates reminds me of an NBA locker room. It has a lot of ego and a lot of money. Insurance companies — lot of ego, lot of money. Pharmaceutical companies — a lot of ego and a lot of money. Doctors — a lot of ego and a lot of money. Hospitals, non-profit, profit — ego, money.

I’m sure cancer is not the only situation like this. I’m sure diabetes might have the same nightmares.

Q: Do you address it the same way you address it in an NBA locker room?

A: I’ve never had the chance, but I would. I really think if we all would kind of work as a team, that we’ll all come out of it better off.

Q: How do you overcome ego and money?

A: (laughs). I’m better at ego than money, probably. I mean, millions of dollars have messed up a lot of parts of the game of basketball. If you’re playing for the money, I don’t know if you can be really good.

Q: Percentage-wise in the NBA, how many players in your experience are basically in it for the money?

A: More. It’s growing. Every year it’s gotten more.

Q: Less than half?

A: That would be interesting, to ask that question. I think almost all players now, in the summertime, are businessmen and are worrying about whatever, their brand and these words I keep hearing. But the great players still, when it comes October first or November first, they understand what 82 games is.

That’s why I admire LeBron a lot. I think he’s the best guy in basketball and he is possessed to win championships. I’m sure he understands that’s going to make him more money, but that’s not why he’s that way. He has a goal to catch Michael. He thinks he can. And he is driven.

If Julyan Stone would have that same passion, of just, ‘I want to get on the court, I want to play 15 minutes a game and I can do that,’ if that’s what his drive is, he’ll get there better than, you know, ‘If I get on the court I might make a couple million dollars a year.’ The drive’s got to be the passion for the game and I think the game has gotten so business-oriented, so agent-player relationship centered, that it’s hard to not say that money’s always going to be a part of the decision of where [a player] goes.

But I still think the great player is driven by the passion for the game and not by the check that he gets every two weeks.

Q: So what’s the plan? Wait for the phone to ring?

A: There are days I wish it would ring and there are days I don’t want it to ring. I mean, I watch the Knicks play and I wouldn’t want to be in that hell for a million dollars. It’s just New York City and the Garden and the immensity of the pressure. I think Mike Woodson is standing up to it with tremendous integrity.

Q: Best team in the West?

A: San Antonio, probably. I’m a Golden State fan. I’ve never seen a team with that many offensive weapons. David Lee and Bogut, you could run an offense through them and they could win games. If the Denver Nuggets had Bogut and David Lee, they’d be good. And they’re not among the top offensive options. Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala. They have so many weapons offensively that can blow up, and they’re doing a pretty good job with the defense. I think Houston and the Clippers are still in that stage of development that I think they could be very good by the end of the year, but they have their moments now when they struggle.

The team I like a lot and it bothers me is New Orleans. That Davis kid is coming and their three guys out front, Holiday and Gordon and Evans, can get to the rim, and they can score. Gordon can be a great shooter. And then they’ve got the Ryan Anderson kid who’s the best shooting four in basketball.

Q: So why does it bother you to like them?

A: I think they should be playing better. But I’m still on record that I like ’em a lot. I like them because Anthony Davis is a basketball player. He’s not a big man. He’s a basketball player that’s seven feet tall. And I just think the game is about basketball players, not necessarily position players.


A rough start for Brian Shaw

I first met Brian Shaw 24 years ago, in October 1989, at a banquet in Rome honoring the Nuggets, that year’s NBA entry in the McDonald’s Open, a four-team bracket during the preseason that passed for international competition at the time.

Longtime Nuggets fans may remember that international road trip — coach Doug Moe stood for most of the trans-Atlantic flight because he hadn’t yet discovered Valium for his flying anxiety — as coinciding with former owner Sidney Shlenker’s increasingly desperate attempts to sell the franchise.

A couple of young American players had taken Italy by storm, choosing the Italian pro league over the NBA. Danny Ferry, the second overall pick in the NBA draft that year, and Shaw, a first-round pick the previous year who spurned the Boston Celtics’ qualifying offer, were instant celebrities. They were validating European basketball.

I got an opportunity to speak with them for only a few minutes at that banquet. Like John Elway six years earlier, Ferry didn’t want to play for the flaky owner who had drafted him, in this case Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers. Shaw, then 23, had a more complicated tale. Only one quote from our conversation made the Rocky Mountain News on Oct. 22, 1989:

“The chance for security for me and my family was really important. I want to eventually go back.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, Shaw offered more detail on the radio show last summer, just after being hired to replace George Karl as the Nuggets’ head coach:

“When I got drafted by the Celtics the year before that, in ’88, they were over the salary cap and I was only able to make the minimum for a first-round pick. So what I did was I only signed a one-year deal, which everybody kind of said was crazy, but I felt confident in my ability that I’d have a good showing my rookie year and so it made me immediately a restricted free agent my second year.

“So basically the Celtics came back and they just gave me a qualifying offer and they was playing hardball. Fortunately for me, Danny Ferry had just gotten drafted by the Clippers. He didn’t want to go play for them. Our owner over in Italy, a very wealthy man, offered Danny $2 million to come over there and play for a season, which was unheard of over there. I think at the time Bob McAdoo was the highest-paid player in Europe and he was making about $400,000.

“So I was making $150,000, that’s what I made my rookie season. So this owner, he said he wanted to make a splash. At that time, most NBA players only went over there at the end of their NBA careers. He wanted to get some young, first-round picks to come over and kind of change things up. So he offered Danny Ferry $2 million and he offered me a million dollars to come over, which took me over all the guys who were drafted in front of me.” Shaw was the 24th overall pick in ’88, out of UC-Santa Barbara.

“So, 35-game season, as opposed to 82 here, and Boston still was playing hardball with me, so I said, hey, basketball is basketball, and I went over and played a year there as a teammate with Danny Ferry and had a great, great experience. No regrets, learned a lot, and it made Boston, in my mind, come to their senses, and they came back with a fair offer. So I came back the next season.”

Shaw returned to a four-year, $5.5 million contract and played in the association until he was 36.

The point of the story is that Shaw has always been a bright and independent sort, which are excellent qualities in a head coach. It’s beginning to look like he will need all of that and more. His hiring was only one part of owner Josh Kroenke’s deconstruction of a 57-win team.

“I think I called it stupid,” Karl told me after the June meeting with Kroenke at which he was fired. He concluded that the young Kroenke, Stan’s son and the man in charge, thought winning was easy and had come to take for granted the Nuggets’ regular-season excellence. After all, Karl had been the coach throughout the younger Kroenke’s tenure as an executive with the team.

The fact that I disagreed with the decision to fire Karl doesn’t mean I want Shaw to fail. Quite the opposite. There are few people on Earth more willing to engage in conversation about basketball, besides Moe and Karl, of course, especially Moe when trapped on an airplane back in the days before they made you evacuate the galley and sit down.

But the decision to fire Karl was paired with a misread of free agent Andre Iguodala, who Kroenke thought would accept an offer to stay until the day he signed with Golden State. General manager Masai Ujiri’s departure for Toronto just before Karl’s firing left the Nuggets scrambling to adjust to Iguodala’s defection with a front office in flux.

New GM Tim Connelly collected a random sample of the available journeymen free agents, from Nate Robinson and Randy Foye in the backcourt to J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur up front, the latter in trade for Kosta Koufos, the center dispatched to make room in the starting lineup for JaVale McGee, who had averaged 18 minutes off the bench for Karl.

It’s been only two games. Last year’s team was not only 0-2 but also 0-3. With a road-loaded front end of the schedule, Karl’s last Nuggets team was 11-12 in mid December before taking off. So, yeah, it’s very early.

Still, a year ago’s 0-2 was a little different. Except for LeBron James and the Heat, the Nuggets won all their early home games. They just didn’t have many of them.

When they lost to Portland 113-98 Friday night, it was their first loss of a home opener in five years and broke a 23-game home regular-season winning streak. It was their first regular-season loss at the Pepsi Center since last January. At 38-3, they were the NBA’s best home team last season.

Like Moe before him, Karl took advantage of the environmental advantage provided by the mile-high elevation, not to mention the time change for visiting teams on back-to-backs from the west coast. So it was strange to see the Nuggets looking exhausted and the visiting Trail Blazers looking invigorated Friday night.

“Our team looked very tired, just to be honest with you, from the jump, especially our bigs,” Shaw said. “They just looked winded. (The Blazers) looked like they’re the team that play in the altitude and we were the team that was coming in on the second night of a back-to-back, the way we came out tonight.”

The rationale for firing the coach of a 57-win team was the history of first-round playoff exits. So Shaw came in with a mandate to coach a style more conducive to postseason success, meaning slower and more half-court oriented, to better suit the style characteristic of the postseason.

The irony is that Karl’s final first-round exit, the one that broke the camel’s back, was to a team that didn’t attempt to slow down the Nuggets at all. The Warriors beat the Nuggets at their own game, mainly because they shot the ball better — .494 from the floor, .404 from three and .785 from the line, compared to the Nuggets’ .438, .311 and .730.

This defeat might have been interpreted as reflecting an overemphasis on athleticism and underemphasis on skills in assembling the roster. Or it might have been interpreted as the consequence of an unfortunate late-season knee injury to forward Danilo Gallinari, one of the Nuggets’ best shooters and a big forward whose ability to shoot from long distance spreads the defense and creates lanes for athletes who want to get to the rim. Or it might have been interpreted as bad luck, running into a hot team.

It wasn’t. It was interpreted as further proof that Karl was not a coach for the postseason. But the question remained: Did the Nuggets overachieve in the regular season or underachieve in the postseason?

When Shaw arrived, he talked about playing inside-out — a more traditional half-court game in which the point guard’s first and preferred option is to toss the ball inside to a big man in or around the low post. He can shoot it or pass to an open man, depending on how the defense reacts. Shaw also talked about making defense the team’s signature.

After leading the association in scoring a year ago at 106 points per game, the Nuggets under Shaw are 22nd through two games at 93 per, consistent with their scoring average during the preseason. They have lost to a pair of teams in Sacramento and Portland that are not expected to make the playoffs this year. And they seem to have lost the high-flying athleticism that made them so entertaining under Karl.

More to the point, a large part of the basis both for firing Karl and Shaw’s new offense — the talented, enigmatic McGee — has so far been pretty much the guy Karl thought he was — not ready for prime time.

Starting at center, he played 10 minutes in the opener, getting in early foul trouble, and 13 on Friday night, finishing with six points, three rebounds and one blocked shot. All six players who came off the bench, in addition to the other four starters, played more minutes than he did.

Why?

“His physicality,” Shaw said. “And part of that is his wind as well. He was one of the guys that at the beginning of the game just looked gassed out there on the floor. We talked about, when the shots go up, he can’t just turn around and go follow the flight of the ball. He’s got to put a body on somebody. The guys that he plays at the center position usually outweigh him. He thinks that with his length he can just go and get the ball, but they just kind of wedge him underneath the basket. We’ll look at film and show him and just keep working with him on it, but his stamina has to get better and his physicality has to raise up a few notches.”

As Karl often pointed out, deploying McGee and power forward Kenneth Faried at the same time is a prescription for defensive chaos, and not necessarily in a good way. So Shaw began the season with Faried coming off the bench as he recovered from a strained hamstring.

“He played with the kind of energy that people around here are accustomed to him playing with,” Shaw said after Faried collected 11 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench against the Blazers. “He always plays with a lot of heart. That’s what I wanted to see out of him. I talked about before the game, if it looked like he was getting that bounce back into game shape that I would take a look at putting him back in the starting lineup.”

The Nuggets abandoned the inside-out thing early Friday night, in part because McGee was seldom available — although he did hit a sweet left-handed baseline hook shot in one of those flashes that make you yearn for more — and in part because they were behind early. In the fourth quarter, as part of a spirited but futile comeback attempt, Shaw did what Karl did so often: He went small. With guards Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson and Randy Foye on the floor together, his team made a run. Suffice it to say that’s not a lineup that’s going to make defense your team signature.

“You can’t even blame the system, because he’s stepping away from it,” Lawson said afterward. “We’re not going into the post as much as he’s talking about or doing the elbow catch. So it’s all on us. Today we played like we did last year — pick-and-rolls, drags, into the basket. We weren’t hitting shots. It was a tough night for us.”

“We knew this was going to be a process,” Shaw said. “The way we’re playing isn’t the problem, I don’t think. Tonight, defense was the problem. Sixty-four points in the first half. They finished 14 for 22 from the three-point line and I would say probably 16 or 18 of those three-point shots were uncontested. So it’s more a problem of that than I think the style of play that we’re trying to play.”

In fairness, Iguodala, Gallinari and Wilson Chandler were important pieces of last year’s success. Iguodala is gone and neither Gallo nor Chandler has played yet.

“I’m searching for answers,” Shaw said. “I’m trying to patch, mix and match and patch lineups together to try to see who’s going to bring it for us. . . . But together as a team we’ve just got to find a way. We’ve just got to keep plugging away at it. It’s not the way we wanted to start out the season at 0-2, but it’s where we are right now. We’ve just got to continue to work.”

Implementing a new system with four new players would take some time under the best of circumstances. But the impression the Nuggets have left through their first two games is their talent level isn’t particularly high and their style isn’t particularly interesting — at least until they fall way behind.

This is pretty much the worst of both worlds — becoming less competitive and less entertaining at the same time. Fans don’t seem thrilled with the off-season changes. Although the opener was announced as a sellout, there were plenty of empty seats.

The returns of Gallo and Chandler should help, but it will take all of Shaw’s considerable resourcefulness to get this bunch into the playoffs.


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.


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.

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.


Mark Jackson’s fine whine

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was playing to the three guys who will suit up as referees for Game 6 in Oakland on Thursday night. Otherwise, Mark Jackson’s whine about the dirty, dastardly Nuggets following the Warriors’ 107-100 loss in Game 5 sounded like the indignation of a schoolyard bully who finally got his.

For their part, the Nuggets should take it as a compliment. It’s the first time in history they’ve been mistaken for the Bad Boys.

“They were the more physical team,” Jackson said. “They were the aggressor. They hurt us in the first half scoring the basketball, points in the paint. Made us pay for our turnovers. They tried to send hit men on Steph. But give them credit. It wasn’t cocky basketball. They outplayed us. It wasn’t magic. They outplayed us.”

Uh, hold on, you sort of buried the lead there, Mark. Hit men?

“You know, some dirty plays early,” he said. “It’s playoff basketball. That’s all right. We own it. But make no mistake about it: We went up 3-1 playing hard, physical, clean basketball, not trying to hurt anybody.”

Self-righteousness has always been a Jackson trait , but this was a dizzying passive-aggressive two-step in which every allegation of malfeasance was accompanied by an assurance that it was fine; to be expected, in fact, in playoff basketball. Thus his assessment of Kenneth Faried’s performance:

“He set some great screens, and some great illegal ones, too. He did his job. Hey, I played with guys like that. You’re paid to do that. Dale Davis, Anthony Davis, Charles Oakley. You’re paid to do it. So give ’em credit. But, as an opposing coach, I see it, and I’m trying to protect my guys.”

It is not clear, exactly, how whining in public about one of the softer teams in the NBA protects his guys, unless it’s an attempt to influence the next officiating crew, in which case it might be delivered more effectively the day before Game 6 so it’s all over the media during the 24 hours those referees are in town preparing to do the game.

Jackson takes many things personally and this was one of them. That line about how the Nuggets’ win wasn’t magic? That had been simmering 48 hours. Nuggets coach George Karl used the word after Game 4 to describe the Warriors’ incredible shooting — .530 through the first four games, .576 in their three wins.

“The next 48 hours is going to be difficult, to say the least,” Karl said then. “They’ve found some magic and we got to somehow take it away from them.”

Apparently, this qualifies as disrespect these days. I don’t know who described the Warriors as “cocky,” but Jackson got back at him, too.

The Nuggets were by turns perplexed and amused.

“They play dirty every night,” said Faried, who was shoved to the floor beyond the baseline by Warriors center Andrew Bogut in perhaps the most replayed scene of the series so far. “And they target me. Every rebound, they try to hit me and try to hurt me. It’s basketball.”

Faried, like Steph Curry, the Warriors guard Jackson said was targeted by hit men, is recovering from a sprained ankle.

“I think I’ve taken the hardest hit throughout the series,” said Andre Iguodala, the star of the Nuggets’ Game 5 victory. “I think it was Game 1 or 2. Bogut leaned into me. Fullcourt screen. And I didn’t remember what happened the rest of the game. So I think they kind of brought the physicality to the series and we’ve just stopped being the receivers and we’re starting to hit back a little bit.”

The only specific play Jackson cited was a glancing collision between Faried and Curry at the free throw line that sent Curry sprawling. From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell if Faried tripped him or gave him a little hip or knee check on the way by. Either way, it was a message that Curry no longer had a letter of transit through Denver’s defense.

This is pretty mild stuff by NBA playoff standards, as Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith confirmed in their conversation on TNT later that night. They agreed nothing particularly heinous had occurred in the Nuggets-Warriors game and that Jackson’s remarks were ill-advised. Then they showed video of truly dirty playoff fouls.

Jackson’s fusillade did manage to divert the Game 5 storyline from the fact that his marvelous shooters did, for one night anyway, lose their magic touch. The Warriors shot a rather mortal .432 and Curry, the star of the series so far, made just one of seven three-point attempts.

Superficially, at least, the difference was that Karl went back to a standard NBA lineup. He had abandoned it first when Faried sprained his ankle just before the end of the regular season and then because center Kosta Koufos was such a stiff in the first two games of the series, especially the second, when the Warriors became just the fourth visitor all season to win on Denver’s home floor.

After Jackson lost power forward David Lee to a torn hip flexor in Game 1, he moved small forward Harrison Barnes to power forward and added guard Jarrett Jack, making it a three-guard lineup. In Games 3 and 4, Karl followed suit, keeping small forward Wilson Chandler at power forward, a position he’d assumed during Faried’s absence. Faried moved from power forward to center and Koufos moved to the bench. With Faried still hampered by the ankle, this lineup was so small that it was obliterated on the boards, usually a Nuggets strength.

Jackson got a lot of credit for this tactical move, which was shrouded in a strangely transparent ruse. In each of the Warriors’ wins, he offered for pre-game introductions a lineup in which a traditional power forward, Carl Landry, was in Lee’s place. Then, when it was time to actually start the game, he deployed the one with Jack in Lee’s place and Landry on the bench. If Karl took offense as easily as Jackson does, he might have viewed this odd gamesmanship as an attempt to deceive him.

In any case, Karl went back to a standard lineup for Game 5, but substituted JaVale McGee, his erratic but athletically sensational backup center, for Koufos. The Nuggets led 36-22 after one and 66-46 at intermission.

When I asked Jackson about this tactical move, he declared it irrelevant.

“We lost the game because they scored in the paint, we turned the basketball over, they got it going in transition and we made mistakes,” he said. “No matter who’s on the floor, when we play our brand of basketball, we’ll be just fine. We put together a run with small guys on the floor, so it has nothing to do with size. We have to stay true to who we are.”

When Jackson went small in the second half, Karl matched up and the Nuggets’ big lead — 22 at its height — melted away. The Warriors got within five three times in the final minutes. I asked Karl why he thought that happened.

“We can go to switching more of their pick-and-rolls and play smaller or we can go bigger and try to rotate,” he said. “That’s a game-time decision for us most of the time. I think we actually slowed down more in the second half. We only scored 41 points in the second half. We somehow got to get enough energy on the court to keep the tempo and pace fast.”

As if anticipating Jackson’s allegations, which came minutes later, Karl closed his interview session with a joke, an unprompted rhetorical question:

“Did Draymond Green play football or basketball at Michigan State?”

Green is the Warriors’ 6-foot-7, 230-pound, rookie defensive specialist. He managed four personal fouls in 14 minutes of action.

The Nuggets desperately needed a big game from somebody other than Ty Lawson and they got it from Iguodala, who put up 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. The last Nugget to post 25 and 12 in a playoff game was LaPhonso Ellis. Throw in the assists and you have to go back to Fat Lever.

“Honestly, I didn’t really change anything from the last two or three games,” Iguodala said. “I felt like Game 2, the shot felt really well. Same with the two games in Oakland. I feel really good in that arena. So I didn’t change too much. I just tried to be a little more assertive once I got the ball because either I’m going to make a play for someone else or I can make a play for myself. So the guys relied on me to do that tonight.”

In fact, Iguodala has been shooting well in the series — he was at .512 from the field and .400 from long distance going into Game 5; those numbers are .534 and .429 now — but not to nearly as much effect. He was averaging 14.8 points a game before his 25-point explosion.

The Nuggets also got a big first half from Chandler, who struggled through the first four games, shooting .356. Chandler’s splits alone may account for the big first half lead and the disappearing second half lead. He had 16 before halftime, three after.

Still, the big story heading into Game 6 will be the allegations of dirty play, even if Jackson’s coach on the floor, Jack, didn’t seem to share the perception.

“It was good defense and we welcome good defense,” he said of the Nuggets. “It felt like good defense. We liked it. There is nothing further to it. We’re a close-knit bunch, a battle-tested bunch; nothing can get us out of our character. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

Iguodala knew, and he was pretty sure it went both ways.

“Are the Warriors taking cheap shots?” he asked, repeating a question. “I think it’s just part of the big game of basketball. I’ve been hit a few times and I’ve wondered who it was or how they caught me. I had to go back on tape because I’ve been hit with some shots and it wasn’t a ghost hitting me.”