Tag Archives: Andre Iguodala

Descending into the bizarre

Part of the charm of the Denver Nuggets throughout their history has been their fondness for departing the mundane world and exploring the strange and bizarre. Even the truly cuckoo at times.

Whether it was Paul Westhead encouraging opponents to score, LaPhonso Ellis inexplicably developing holes in his kneecaps or Bill Hanzlik’s team threatening to put up the worst win-loss record of all time, the Nuggets have found ways to mesmerize even when they were terrible, in the manner of a train wreck.

This year, they are back at it. In what is shaping up to be one of the most disappointing seasons in their history, going from a franchise NBA-record 57 wins last year to missing the playoffs this year, at least two developments qualify as bizarre.

The first was the decision to perform reconstructive surgery on forward Danilo Gallinari’s torn anterior cruciate knee ligament 10 months after he suffered the injury, which I wrote about here.

The second is ongoing. It began with point guard Andre Miller calling out first-year coach Brian Shaw in front of the bench nearly a month and a half ago in what turned into the first “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” of the 15-year veteran’s NBA career. It continued when the team suspended Miller for two games without pay, rescinded the suspension the next day and turned it into a personal leave with pay, which has dragged on ever since.

Set aside for the moment that this conversion turned punishment into reward, allowing Miller to continue receiving his $5 million salary for doing nothing as a consequence of acting out.

It went from strange to inexplicable when the other two point guards on the roster — first Nate Robinson, then Ty Lawson — went out with injuries. This series of events left the Nuggets with three point guards on the 15-man roster, none of them available for duty. Playing without a quarterback — shooting guard Randy Foye filled in, putting up 14 assists, 11 turnovers and a horrific plus/minus of minus 58 in two games as the starter at the point — the Nuggets were blown out by Indiana and Minnesota to close out a dreadful 0-4 road trip that brought a merciful end to the pre-All-Star break portion of their schedule.

On the bright side, no member of the organization was invited to take part in any of the five events scheduled in New Orleans this weekend, so they should have time to rest up.

With 31 games remaining in the season, the Nuggets are 24-27, six games out of the Western Conference playoff bracket. Earlier in the season, the club’s new brain trust, particularly Shaw, liked to mention how similar the record was to last year’s team at the same point because last year’s team started slowly owing to a heavy dose of early road games. They don’t talk about that so much anymore. Last year’s team was 33-18 at this point.

Of course, that was a very different group. It included Gallinari and Andre Iguodala, for example. It did not include Foye, Robinson, Darrell Arthur or J.J. Hickson. George Karl was the coach and Masai Ujiri the GM.

So we asked Ujiri’s replacement in the front office, Tim Connelly, to join me and Tom Green on the radio show to explain what he’s doing about all this. Connelly was good enough to call in from New Orleans yesterday. Here’s that conversation:

Me: Let’s start with the question that fans are asking, I think, mostly, which is: You’re out of point guards on your team and you’ve got a point guard under contract who’s been away from the team for about a month. What is the impediment to the logical solution to that problem, which would be to bring Andre Miller back to run the point for you for a little while?

Tim Connelly: Sure. Well, we’re still looking at all options. Certainly, what happened, there were no winners. Andre’s a pro and a great guy. I think emotions got the best of him. Having a first-year head coach, as an organization we thought it was important that our guys knew in the locker room that we would deal with it internally. And certainly, that’s an option. We’ve looked at a couple different things and that’s one of them.

Tom Green: That is a consideration, though? Is anyone with the organization talking with Andre about that?

Connelly: Yeah, I was with Andre yesterday in the gym. We worked out yesterday. Two days ago, I’m sorry. I talk to Andre all the time.

Me: So Tim, overall, there’s a sort of an inflection point here where the first half of the season or so your team looked to be at least in range of a playoff berth. As time goes on now, since you’ve lost both of your point guards, it just doesn’t seem like that’s in the cards, at least at the moment. You’re six games out of the playoff bracket. So how do you look at that? Are you rebuilding, are you looking for a good draft pick at this point? Are you still competing for the playoffs? What’s your view of that?

Connelly: Certainly, we’re disappointed. I don’t think any of us expected to be here. And it’s easy to blame injuries, but in this league there’s no one to blame but yourselves, obviously. So every day I think we have to be realistic with where we are, and right now we’re not where we want to be. We’re too late in the season to talk about posturing for draft picks. I think what we have to do now is determine of the guys who are healthy who can we rely upon moving forward, both this season and next.

Green: So when you guys hit the road, before the All-Star break, you’re above .500, but this road trip obviously has been a terrible one. It’s been four games when you guys have really been blown out.

Connelly: It’s been awful. Awful.

Green: Yeah, so how do you look at that as a GM? Obviously, you’re taking a big-picture look at things as a general manager, but do those games reflect on the organization, the players, the coaches, in a way that you need to be concerned about?

Connelly: Well, certainly, like I mentioned earlier, no one’s feeling sorry for us. A lot of teams deal with injuries, maybe not to the extent that we are, but it is what it is. And I can take losses. What I struggle with is a lack of effort. Moving forward, I think it’s important for any guy that’s going to wear the Nuggets uniform, we’re going to make sure that he’s a guy that’s going to leave it on the court. With all the injuries, I understand we’re kind of behind the 8-ball a bit, and I think the coaching staff’s done a great job. But I think as a front office guy and as fans, we all expect more.

Me: Let me get back, Tim, if I can, to the point guard question, because, putting Andre Miller and that situation aside, it would seem that when you run out of point guards, you’d go get one, even if it’s just a D-league guy, if it’s a street free agent, you know, somebody who could run the point. Instead, you’re playing these games with non-point guards running the point, whether it’s Randy Foye or one of your wing guys, and I just wonder why haven’t you brought in at least somebody who fits the job description.

Connelly: Well, we have 15 roster spots. You can’t just call somebody up. The only way we could bring someone in would be a trade or release a player. If we had an empty roster spot, that would be an easy answer and a short-term solution, but we don’t have a roster spot right now.

Me: So have you considered making a transaction in order to create room for a point guard?

Connelly: At the end of the game last night [Wednesday night’s 117-90 loss at Minnesota], I considered everything, including walking down to the corner bar.

Green: What about fans? Obviously, the fans are watching and you know what it feels like as a fan to watch your team play like that. So what is your message right now to your fans? Hang in there, the second half’s going to get better? What can you tell people to give them something to hold onto?

Connelly: Well, I think certainly, first of all, apologies over this last road trip. I mean, it’s unacceptable. I like our team when healthy. I don’t know how we would look, but theoretically I think we have a lot of good pieces. We’re not where we want to be. We need to add another piece here or there to be a team that’s going to win meaningful games in the playoffs. But at this moment, apologies, stick with us. Certainly, we’re not happy and we’re not going to stand pat and let this thing devolve any further.

Me: So we’re about a week away from the trade deadline. When you say you’re not going to stand pat, is that a pretty clear signal that you do intend to make a move, or more than one move, between now and a week from now?

Connelly: Sure, I’m certainly hopeful. We’ve been trying for weeks and months. I think we’ll be as aggressive as anybody and certainly we’re aware of the needs that we have. We’re trying to address them prior to the deadline and then after that, through free agency and the draft.

Me: What do you see the needs as being?

Connelly: Clearly, we need to improve our team defense. Certainly, right now, it’s tough playing all these young guys in the sense that deficiencies are expected, not to the degree that we’ve seen recently, I don’t think that’s something that we want to accept and act like it’s the norm. And I think we need one more impact player, regardless of position. Another guy we can count on on a night-to-night basis like we can right now with a guy like Ty or Wilson [Chandler].

Green: The NBA all-star game can be a convention for the league, a chance for GMs, coaches, at times, to get together, or many, just take a break. What’s going to happen for you and what’s going to happen for this team over the next few days? What are you guys going to be doing? Is there going to be some management activities?

Connelly: Well, you know, not specifically. I’m in New Orleans right now. I spent the last three and a half years here. I’m partially down here to check on a condo. But I’m going to meet with several of my buddies and colleagues who hold similar jobs with different teams, but the conversations are always ongoing. It’s good sometimes, though, to be able to look a guy in the eye and see where their interest is and hold their feet to the fire. So I’ll certainly do that over the next couple days prior to coming back to Denver on Saturday.

Me: Obviously, this is a more difficult subject for a general manager to talk about than for fans to talk about, but as fans of the Nuggets look at the 2014 NBA draft, it looks to have a number of at least potential impact players at the top. And you mentioned the need for an impact player, another impact player. You’re in this strange situation where one of the two picks that you’re going to have, yours or the Knicks’, is going to go to Orlando, and even though the Knicks have the worse record, they may have a better chance to end up in the playoffs because of the weakness of the Eastern Conference. So is there any part of you that you permit to consider that from a strategic standpoint — how you get into the lottery and give yourself a chance at one of those impact players?

Connelly: You know, I think if you’re going to take that approach, that’s an approach that probably has to be initiated on draft night. I think when we were somewhat healthy, missing JaVale [McGee] and Gallo, we proved to be a decent team, probably a playoff team. So I think we’re too advanced into the season to really look at that with any chance of it coming to fruition. Despite our recent struggles, we’re still only a couple games under .500. It doesn’t seem sensible at this point. The numbers that you have to get to reach that top six — I think there’s probably a drop-off in the draft — it would be very difficult to get to, so internally it’s not a discussion that makes much sense for us.

Green: I think a lot of people feel bad for coach Shaw. And you say nobody feels sorry for anybody, and I understand that, but Brian Shaw has come in here and it’s been a bit of a mix as far as how this roster has worked out and who’s healthy and who can play in his first year as a head coach. What are the conversations like between you and Brian going forward as far as what he needs for this second part of the season?

Connelly: Sure. Well, we actually laughed about it the other night. We’ve seen everything that you’re going to see in the first five, six months on the job — injuries, the in-house issues we’ve had. I think what he’s going to do is the same thing as we’re going to do, is see who we can rely upon. Out of the players that are healthy presently, and if we make any additions, who are guys that we can count on to kind of get it to where we want to go? Certainly, when he got here, he was very outspoken, as was I. This team has a really proud history of regular season success. For whatever reason, we’ve had trouble once we get to the playoffs. We’d like to be a team that not only gets to the playoffs but is a tough out in the playoffs once we’re there.

Me: Tim, before we let you go, I’ve got to ask you the Gallo question, because I’ve never seen a situation like that, where a guy tore his ACL and had reconstructive surgery 10 months later and starts the clock all over again.

Connelly: Neither have I.

Me: So can you give us any insight into the decision-making process that allowed that to happen, or did that all happen before you got here?

Connelly: It happened before I got here. Certainly, I think, the only insight I can give you is that whatever decision was made by Gallo and the doctor, Gallo’s focus was to return to the court as quickly as possible. Certainly, that didn’t happen. The most recent surgery was fantastic and we expect a fully healthy Gallo for next season. But it’s definitely bizarre, and it’s unfortunate not just for Gallo but kind of having that uncertainty surrounding his return or lack thereof this season. But I don’t know what happened at the time. It was right before I got here.

Me: What is the general rule in terms of who gets to decide that, the player or the team?

Connelly: One hundred percent the player.

Me: So if he says, ‘I’m going this way,’ you have no way to change his mind?

Connelly: No, the only real authority the team has is obviously they can choose to pay or not pay for specific operations or treatments, but ultimately it’s the guy’s body, so he’s going to have final say.

We have talked before about the big decisions that led the Nuggets to this point — the failure to compete financially to keep Ujiri, the firing of Karl, the miscalculation on Iguodala. Collectively, these represented the major fork in the road. Team president Josh Kroenke, son of owner E. Stanley Kroenke, decided to put his stamp on the team by clearing the decks and asserting his authority over the basketball operation. Over time, we will see how that works out.

The more recent issues suggest a lack of backbone in the young front office. In the case of Gallo’s surgery, I’m told the Nuggets’ medical and training staff opposed the decision to let the ACL heal itself through “healing response” therapy. I’m also told Nuggets brass — which would have been chiefly Kroenke at the time, in the transition between Ujiri and Connelly — didn’t want to alienate Gallo’s agent, the powerful Arn Tellem, by challenging him on this. The result was a disastrous 10-month delay in the surgery.

In the case of Miller, it’s hard to imagine why the Nuggets don’t put it to him very simply: “You’re under contract. We need a point guard. You come back and play, right now, or you’re suspended without pay. End of story.”

I don’t know if the impediment to Miller’s return is Miller or Miller’s agent or Shaw or Kroenke, but from an old-school perspective it’s inconceivable that a GM would work out privately with a player who is under contract and desperately needed who for one reason or another won’t play. Who’s in charge here? Trade him for another point guard, which the Nuggets have evidently been trying to do without success, or demand that he fulfill the obligations of his contract.

But hey, if it weren’t for the bizarre, these Nuggets would just be bad. For the moment, the Miller mystery is the most interesting thing about them.


The Melodrama is back

NEW YORK — Took time out from the riveting media sessions leading up to the Super Bowl — Broncos coach John Fox: “I’m happy about the Chinese new year, and I’m happy that the animal is a horse” — to check in on the latest chapter in Carmelo Anthony’s love/hate relationship with whatever team happens to be paying him gobs of cash at any given moment.

That’s right, the Melodrama is back. Did you miss it?

Stop me when this sounds familiar: Anthony can opt out of his contract with the Knicks at the end of the season and he’s trying to figure out if the hardwood would be shinier someplace else.

He engaged in a similar Hamlet-like wrestling match with himself in Denver three years ago before the Nuggets, convinced he would leave as a free agent, traded him to New York and the bright lights, big city he craved. Remember how some Nuggets fans blamed Anthony’s wife, La La, for his determination to flee Denver? Remember the theory that she needed a bigger stage for her burgeoning career as a professional celebrity?

Well, they might have had a point. Monday was release day for her literary debut, The Love Playbook, with book signings all over Manhattan, appearances on the national morning TV shows and everything. But back to our rerun.

“I definitely think he will stay,” La La said Sunday on Bravo TV’s Watch What Happens Live. “I know that he wants to stay, and I support him wherever he wants to go.”

Wait, what? I know that he wants to stay, and I support him wherever he wants to go.

Anyway, here’s the money quote:

“Listen, I used to live in Denver with him. If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere. I just want him to be happy.”

If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere.

Odd echoes of the Sinatra line about New York — If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere — but not quite the same meaning.

The backlash was swift, and so was the back-pedal.

“Let me clarify this REAL QUICK,” she tweeted the following day. “When I said last night, ‘if I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere’ I meant living in a place with no family and no friends. I meant moving my entire life to a place I had never even been to before. In no way was I trying to disrespect Denver. I enjoyed Denver tremendously & love the city. — La La”

Glad we got that straightened out.

Anthony’s problem, of course, is the usual. He’s second in the NBA in scoring at 27.1 points per game, but his team stinks. At the moment, the Knicks are 18-27. In the woeful Eastern Conference, this record puts them just a half-game out of the playoff bracket. This is not good news for the Nuggets, who are owed the Knicks’ first-round pick in the coming NBA draft as part of the trade that sent him east in 2011.

If the Knicks miss the playoffs, that pick ends up in the draft lottery and could prove invaluable in a draft with some elite talent at the top. Because the West is so much stronger than the East, the Nuggets have a better record than the Knicks (22-21) but a worse position in the standings (2 1/2 games out of the playoff bracket). The Nuggets have to send the inferior of their draft picks to Orlando as part of the trade that brought them Andre Iguodala — temporarily, as it turns out — in 2012.

It’s all rather complicated, but one lesson seems clear: The Knicks wish they had their draft pick back. The Nuggets wish they had their draft pick back. Maybe this trading future draft picks for big-name players isn’t such a hot idea. But that’s another column.

In any case, that blockbuster 2011 trade isn’t working out that well for either team. The Nuggets received Danilo Gallinari, who blew out his knee last spring; Wilson Chandler, a talent who does more tantalizing than producing; Raymond Felton, who was exchanged for Andre Miller, who is now on indefinite leave from the team; and Timofey Mozgov, a nice if uninspiring big man. Neither team looks any closer to a championship now than when they made the deal.

Anthony’s comments about his situation are similar to his comments in Denver back in 2010. All he wants to do is win. He wants to go wherever that can happen.

“Championship is the only thing that’s on my mind, is the only thing I want to accomplish, I want to achieve,” he told reporters this week. “I’m going to do what I got to do to get that.”

Actually, he’s not. To get that, he probably needs to become a better team player rather than the sensational, one-dimensional scorer he has been throughout his career. In 10 seasons before this one, he has never appeared in an NBA Finals and only one conference final. His friend and peer, LeBron James, has won two titles and has his sights set on catching Kobe Bryant (five) and Michael Jordan (six). Melo, meanwhile, seems doomed to the Dominique Wilkins career path — lots of points, zero titles — unless he can hitch his wagon to somebody else’s team of horses.

The only way to lose his tag as a scorer who doesn’t make anybody else better is to win a championship or two, a feat he seems further from today than three years ago when he fled the Nuggets.

“The important thing is winning a championship; that’s the only way to shake it,” Bryant said the other day. “That’s the only way Michael shook it. That’s the only way any top scorer will be able to shake it.”

The Lakers are one team likely to have the space under the salary cap to sign Anthony if he’s a free agent on the open market this summer, but it’s not at all clear that adding another ballhog to a team that features the aging Bryant would give Kobe his best chance at title No. 6.

This isn’t our problem in Denver anymore, except insofar as it would help the Nuggets if the Knicks stink it up as badly as possible this season.

But think of poor La La.

“I get blamed for everything,” she said on Bravo. “No matter what happens, it’s my fault . . . I’m somehow the mastermind behind if he stays or not.”

Cue the late Warren Zevon: Poor Poor Pitiful Me.

By all accounts, La La’s book publicity tour is going swimmingly. It’s all about love and sex.

“The love at my book signing in NY yesterday was amazing!” she tweeted today. “Come out today at 7pm 271 Livingston street, Northvale, NJ Can’t wait to see you!!!”


Does anybody here have a clue?

Maybe it’s a symptom of our gentle nature out here in the fly-over time zone that mainstream media seem to be giving our local pro basketball franchise a pass for its second major blunder since last spring. The net effect of these missteps has been to cost the Nuggets two of their top three players — one permanently, the other for much longer than would otherwise have been necessary.

The first, of course, was losing Andre Iguodala to free agency and getting nothing in return. This is not to disparage Randy Foye, acquired in a face-saving, after-the-fact, three-team trade, but, hey, he’s Randy Foye. No team in its right mind, even the Nuggets, would have made that trade voluntarily.

You can blame Iguodala for his decision to defect, but it is the job of the smart front office to gauge such risks and the Nuggets’ front office gauged this one poorly, as its remarks at the time demonstrate.

The second, disclosed this week, was that forward Danilo Gallinari’s new-age approach to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee — “healing response,” dude — didn’t work. I’m told the team’s medical and training staff warned management that this was the likely outcome. They were ignored.

Who pushed for it? Gallo did, through his agent, Arn Tellem. The Nuggets’ weak front office acquiesced.

So, nine and a half months after tearing his ACL in a game against Dallas on April 4, 2013, Gallinari underwent reconstructive ACL surgery, the usual treatment, earlier this week. Coincidentally, the gap between then and now is roughly how long it took Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to recover from an ACL reconstruction and return to the field.

That is not to say Gallinari would have recovered from the standard procedure that quickly — Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose took considerably longer — but certainly he would be well on his way to returning to the floor by now. Instead, the clock has started all over again and the Nuggets’ substantial regression from last season is pretty much set in stone. Starting the clock over again now, he could easily miss the beginning of next season, too.

The impetus for this “healing response” solution came from Gallinari and doctors not affiliated with the Nuggets. A minor procedure was performed last spring to repair cartilage damage, followed by new-age stimulation methods to get the ACL to repair itself. Gallinari was so excited about this that he told his fans all about it in a video he posted on Facebook in June:

“Hello everybody. I wanted to update you all about my situation of the knee and what they did on the surgery. It’s good news because I still have my ACL. My ACL wasn’t torn, it was just partially torn, and so they were able to keep my ACL doing a special treatment called the healing response, where basically you give the chance to the ACL to naturally come back and heal, and that’s what we did. So right now the scenario for the future is completely different. I will update you all about that in the future. But for now, is very good news. I’m very happy. I hope you’re happy, too, all my fans around the world, and I’ll talk to you soon.”

The suggestion of a “completely different” timetable from traditional reconstructive surgery was intended to convey that it wouldn’t take nearly as long for Gallo to return. There were giddy projections that he might be back on the court early this season. By November, Gallinari had come around to the realization that this was not going to happen and noted something Nuggets management should have had in mind last spring — that he is far from a medical expert.

“As you are able to see, it was the thought of a guy who had this injury for the first time,” he told the Denver Post’s Christopher Dempsey. “I had no experience with this injury, this rehab. That was just my prediction. But as you can see, I was completely wrong. It’s day by day, week by week. You cannot really predict. You’ve got to just listen to your knee.”

In fact, Gallinari was experiencing continuing instability in the knee, which, of course, is what happens when you tear your ACL. It would take another two months for him to come around to the need for traditional reconstructive surgery, performed, finally, by the Nuggets’ orthopedic surgeon.

So let’s review the last 10 months:

  • April 4, 2013: Gallinari tears his ACL in a game against Dallas.
  • April 17, 2013: Nuggets complete regular season with 57 wins and 25 losses, the best record in their NBA history.
  • April 30, 2013: Gallinari undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his left knee at the Steadman Clinic in Vail to repair cartilage damage. “After a short-term rehabilitation, a date will be scheduled for Gallinari to undergo surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee,” the Nuggets say in a news release. That surgery never happens, and the Nuggets never say why. Gallinari fills in the blanks with his Facebook video in June.
  • May 2, 2013: Nuggets are eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, four games to two, by the Golden State Warriors.
  • May 7, 2013: Coach George Karl is named NBA coach of the year.
  • May 9, 2013: General manager Masai Ujiri is named NBA executive of the year.
  • May 31, 2013: Toronto Raptors announce they have hired Ujiri to run their basketball operation.
  • June 6, 2013: Nuggets fire George Karl.
  • June 17, 2013: Nuggets hire Tim Connelly to replace Ujiri.
  • June 21, 2013: At press conference introducing Connelly, team president Josh Kroenke is asked if he is confident Iguodala will re-sign with the club when he becomes a free agent July 1. “One hundred percent,” he says.
  • June 25, 2013: Nuggets hire Brian Shaw to replace Karl.
  • July 7, 2013: Iguodala agrees to a four-year deal with the Warriors worth $48 million.
  • July 10, 2013: Nuggets acquire Foye as part of sign-and-trade deal sending Iguodala to Warriors.
  • July 11, 2013: Nuggets sign free agent forward J.J. Hickson.
  • July 26, 2013: Nuggets sign free agent guard Nate Robinson.
  • Sept. 30, 2013: The Nuggets’ web site publishes a story on the eve of training camp headlined, “Expectations remain high as Nuggets open new era.”
  • Oct. 1, 2013: The Nuggets’ web site publishes a story on the first day of camp headlined, “Gallinari upbeat as Nuggets go through first practice of camp.”
  • Jan. 2, 2014: Nuggets suspend guard Andre Miller for two games for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
  • Jan. 3, 2014: Nuggets rescind suspension of guard Andre Miller, saying he will take time off with pay for personal reasons.
  • Jan. 21, 2014: Gallinari undergoes reconstructive knee surgery.

The Nuggets are currently 20-20, three games out of the Western Conference playoff bracket. A year ago through 40 games they were 24-16, on their way to winning nine of their next 11. They have lost nine of 20 home games after losing three of 41 last season. The debate among the chattering class is now whether they should tank the season in hopes of getting a good draft pick to add to the pick they are due to receive from the New York Knicks in a promising 2014 draft. In other words, whether they should start over.

(Correction: The sentence about the draft picks was poorly written, as several readers have pointed out. The Nuggets must surrender the lower (worse) of their two 2014 picks to Orlando as part of the trade to acquire Iguodala in August 2012. As I understand the argument from those who advocate tanking the season, the Nuggets missing the playoffs would give them two chances at a high lottery pick, assuming the Knicks also miss. They will not end up with both picks.) 

Longtime Nuggets fans are extremely familiar with this strategy. They saw it in 1990, when Doug Moe was fired and his aging team of the 1980s dismantled. They won 20 games. They saw it in 1996 and 1997, when the team that upset the Seattle Sonics in the 1994 playoffs was dismantled. They won 21 and 11 games in consecutive seasons, missing the NBA record for fewest wins in an 82-game season by two in 1997-98. And they saw it in 2002, when Kiki Vandeweghe dismantled the team from Dan Issel’s second go-round. They won 17 games.

Arguably, it worked twice. The dismantling of 1990 delivered a series of high draft picks that turned into Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith, Rodney Rogers, Jalen Rose and Antonio McDyess. Pre-McDyess, it had its moment in the sun in the 1994 postseason, but poor decisions and devastating injuries to Ellis and McDyess short-circuited that generation of Nuggets.

The dismantling in 2002 delivered the third pick of the 2003 draft, which became Carmelo Anthony. When Karl was hired as coach in the middle of the 2004-05 season, the Nuggets began the best run in their NBA history, winning 50 or more games five times.

But tanking was hardly the plan when Kroenke blew up the management team that won all those awards last year. When I asked him last spring if he was lowering expectations for this season after making those changes, this was his reply:

“Not at all. 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 [Gallinari] 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.”

The confidence Kroenke expressed that his relationship with Iguodala would lead him to return to the Nuggets turned out to be misplaced. The confidence he placed in Gallinari, Tellem and their outside doctors, the ones who recommended the “healing response” treatment, also turned out to be misplaced. There are those around the association who believe the Nuggets’ front office was intimidated by Tellem, one of the game’s most powerful agents, and feared a confrontation over treatment of Gallinari’s injury.

As a result, Kroenke’s answer to the question about lowering expectations for this season turned out to be inaccurate. The Nuggets are nowhere near the team they were a year ago. As Kroenke pointed out, the injury to Gallinari was going to take a toll in any event, but had the standard medical response been taken at the time, he would now be in his 10th month of rehab from ACL surgery rather than his first week.

After all this, Nuggets fans can be forgiven for asking, as they have many times over the past 24 years: Do the people in charge of this boat have any idea what they’re doing?


Coffee with Josh Kroenke

Josh Kroenke is a busy guy. At 33, he’s the top executive of both the Nuggets and Avalanche and, of course, the son of their owner, E. Stanley Kroenke. He’s also coming off a year in which he put his stamp on both franchises, naming new front office executives (Tim Connelly and Joe Sakic) and new head coaches (Patrick Roy and Brian Shaw). He joined me for a cup of joe this morning at a Starbucks not far from his office at the Pepsi Center.

Q: You reset both organizations last year, front office and coaching. Let’s start with the hockey team. How do you think it’s going so far? How do you think, in particular, Joe is transitioning into his new role?

A: I think Joe’s doing a wonderful job. Joe is a great communicator. Obviously, I think that Patrick has done a very good job as well. I think everybody is doing a really good job in their new roles. It’s good to see the cohesion that the organization has. Top to bottom, there’s communication at all different levels, and if someone is doing something that someone else thinks they can do better, or they think they can do differently, no one is afraid to communicate about it. And I think that’s great.

Q: Were you surprised at how fast they got out of the gate?

A: I think we all were. I think that’s a credit to Patrick, but most important that’s a credit to the players. It’s been a rough few years, and we knew when we reset it a few years ago, going young, it was going to take a few years to kind of come together. But I think as fast as it’s come together over these past few months, it’s been great to see, because we knew we had some young talent there. It was just a matter of pointing it in the right direction.

Q: How long did you think it was going to take to be a playoff team?

A: I wasn’t sure, but I was hoping that we had the right guys in charge, and I think with Patrick and Joe, and Greg [Sherman] as well, I think we do. I think that they’re all doing a great job and I think that with the youngsters, seeing everyone buy in, and then the veterans we have on the squad as well, it’s been really rewarding for me to see how quickly they’ve turned it around. It’s a lot of fun for me to be a part of.

Q: Was the Elway model part of your thinking when you decided to go with Joe?

A: I don’t know John very well, but I’ve had the privilege to kind of talk to him here and there and pick his brain a little bit. With guys like John and Joe, guys that have competed so long in their respective sports, and with the kind of people they are, I think it lends very well to leading an organization like they do. I think Joe and John know each other a little bit. I don’t know how well they know each other. But I know that Joe respects John, obviously. As far as the John Elway model, I didn’t look into it too much. I looked at making sure we got the right guy for the job.

Q: Traditionally it sort of defies history because the history of great players as coaches or GMs isn’t great. And yet it seems as though in this town anyway there are now two models where it seems to be working pretty well. Did you go into that, in terms of the history of it?

A: You know, I didn’t go into it too much. I wanted to make sure we had the right people and the right personalities for the job. At the end of the day, you can’t be afraid to put the time in and really put the work in. I think that John and Joe are both spectacular examples of that. Knowing Joe and knowing John a little bit, I know they take what they do very seriously and they’re both winners and they want to win. And until they get to that point, I know that neither of them are happy.

Q: You came to your positions with a lot more background in basketball than hockey. How has your personal evolution gone with the game of hockey?

A: You know, it’s been a lot of fun. I really enjoy the game. To understand it on a level that I do now as opposed to where I was when I first moved to Denver is night and day. It’s a great game. I can see why so many people love it and so many guys want to get into it at a young age. It’s a true team sport. You meet a lot of great people. Throughout the league, in all these organizations that I’ve had the privilege of being around, it’s wonderful people. Very humble people and a lot of hard workers and they love the game just as much as John loves football or Brian Shaw loves basketball. It’s a great sport to be a part of. The individual stars are going to play well, but it’s all about the hockey assist — who can set up their man and who can set up their teammates. I think it’s probably my favorite sport to attend in person. Sitting down on the glass of an NHL game is an unbelievable experience.

Q: What’s been your approach to how close or distant you want to stay from the players?

A: That’s evolved over time. Particularly on the basketball side, when I moved here, I knew a lot of the guys. I played against them. I played with Linas Kleiza in college. That’s kind of evolved over time from a peer-to-peer relationship and now that I’m in kind of a supervisor role in both organizations, I’m still close with the guys, I like to have a relationship with the guys, I think that’s important that they feel that on both teams. Went on a hockey road trip earlier this year. That was so much fun. I went on the early season trip to Toronto and Boston and it was great. Great to be around the guys. At the end of the day it goes a long ways; they know that I’m behind them as well.

Q: Keeping in mind the Daniel Snyder story in Washington, where the owner’s relationship with star players has been a problem for coaches, as an owner in roughly the same age bracket as the players, is there any issue there for you?

A: The locker room is the coaches’ domain. I don’t want to interfere with that at all. Me having a relationship with some of the players on the periphery I don’t think is a problem, and if it ever was a problem I would hope that the coaches would come address it to me right away because I don’t ever want to interfere with anything that they’re trying to do.

Q: You’ve got a member of the Swedish Olympic team [Gabriel Landeskog], a member of the Russian Olympic team [Semyon Varlamov], a member of the Canadian Olympic team [Matt Duchene] and a member of the U.S. Olympic team [Paul Stastny]. Were you disappointed Erik Johnson didn’t make the U.S. team?

A: I was disappointed EJ didn’t make it. I was hoping that Jan Hejda would get a chance at the Czech Republic team. There’s so many different nationalities; it’s one of the cool things about hockey is it brings together people from all over the world. I was hoping that as many of our guys were going to get a shot as they could, but there were a few guys I was hoping were going to get included but didn’t.

Q: So let’s switch gears and talk about the Nuggets. The last time I heard you talk about the state of the team was last year when you did a series of press conferences about organizational changes and free agency, so let’s go back to that point and let me ask you first about the Andre Iguodala deal. When you look back on that, were you disappointed at the time with the outcome? Were you surprised?

A: I was more disappointed than I was surprised. We’d done our diligence throughout the year and throughout free agency. We kind of knew there was a chance that he would come back and a chance that he wouldn’t. In the transition period, Tim Connelly didn’t have to hit the ground running, he had to hit the ground in a full sprint. We were able to have good conversations with Andre and his representation. Ultimately, Andre felt it was best for him to go elsewhere. That’s really all I can say about it. He plays for another team now and we’re looking forward.

Q: So how do you feel about the moves that you made after that and the roster that you have now?

A: I feel pretty good. Andre waited several days into free agency to make his decision and he was our No. 1 priority. We didn’t have any cap space to really use. We were going to re-sign Andre with Bird rights. So there was a different evaluation of players. Looking at our current roster, even without Andre, we felt we were a playoff team. So we wanted to try and bolster our bench and also provide value signings to where we were flexible moving forward.

Q: And do you still feel that way? Do you still feel like you’re a playoff team?

A: I do. The hard part that comes with professional sports and sports in general is you can’t make an honest assessment until you’re healthy and it’s been a rough year in that regard. Obviously, without Gallo [Danilo Gallinari] and without JaVale [McGee], we don’t know really what we have. I think that our guys have done a wonderful job of stepping up to the plate without a full roster.

Q: Speaking of JaVale, I think it’s fair to say there was a widespread perception that you and the organization wanted JaVale to play more and that contributed to the trade of Kosta Koufos. Is that a fair assessment?

A: I don’t know if it’s completely a fair assessment. I think we’re always looking at ways to improve our team. Obviously, with the salary that JaVale commands you hope that you get a lot of production out of it, but we don’t ever try to dictate who plays or who doesn’t play. We want to let the coach set the rotation and if he feels that he’s going to win more games with somebody else, then by all means, we should go with somebody else. But JaVale is a talented guy and I think hopefully with more playing time he gets better, but obviously we’ll never know until he gets healthy.

Q: Do you see him as an enigma as a lot of NBA observers do?

A: He’s an interesting personality. He’s much more intelligent than a lot of people give him credit for. I’ve had the privilege of being around a lot of very intelligent people over the course of my life and sometimes the most intelligent people are the hardest ones to kind of read. And JaVale seems to be that way. I think that the next year or two or three of his career will obviously be very telling — what he wants to do and how he wants to get to the level he wants to be as a player.

Q: With respect to Gallo, there have been a lot of different estimates along the way of when he might be ready. Some of them were a lot earlier than now. Do you have any feel for when he might be back?

A: You know, obviously we want to get Gallo back as soon as we can, but with an injury like that, you never want to rush it. So Gallo is on Gallo’s time frame. He’s been working his tail off on a daily basis with [strength coach] Steve Hess, [trainer] Jim Gillen and our entire training staff. We have a physical therapist on staff now, starting this year, and I know that Gallo and some of the guys are very pleased with the exercises that he’s provided. With an ACL, you’ve just got to be careful. Derrick Rose sat out the entire year last year to make sure he was healthy. We don’t want to rush Gallo back, but obviously, he’s a huge part of our team.

Q: So no specific ETA?

A: No, I can’t give you a specific one. I would love to be able to, but I can’t because I would hate to provide the wrong information.

Q: What did you make of the last week or so, with the losing streak and the turmoil surrounding Andre Miller?

A: You know, I knew there was going to be some ups and downs, and sometimes some of that stuff just has to work itself to the surface. With ups and downs and the transition with the coaching, Andre was somebody that, he thrives in an up-and-down type of pace, but Andre is getting older and we’re kind of in a transition period where we had lost several games in a row and I think Brian was trying different things out. I respect Andre immensely and I respect Brian immensely and I think it was just one of those emotional things that gets the best of people at the time and I don’t anticipate any issues moving forward.

Q: Looking back, did you think that perhaps bringing in Nate Robinson and creating a three point guard situation might at some point have to settle out?

A: I’ll leave that up to Brian and the coaches to figure out. With Nate, I think the idea that Tim and Brian discussed was to provide some scoring punch, and obviously Nate does that here and there. It was a transition for everybody in the organization, let alone the guys that were coming in from a different team. Nate’s had his ups and downs but he’s a fiery competitor and somebody that we hope can provide some additional benefit to us down the road. One thing I thought that we lost a little bit last year was at certain times throughout the year we didn’t look as tough as we needed to be, and Nate’s a tough guy.

Q: You’re about middle of the pack offensively in terms of scoring and in terms of efficiency. Middle of the pack defensively in terms of efficiency. What do you think of the style of play at this point?

A: As far as the style’s concerned, I think we’re doing just fine. I think Brian’s going to get better over time as he continues to experiment with different things that he thinks are best for our team and best for our personnel. We started off kind of slower earlier in the year, and I think that was by design. Then I think we got into running more and more, and our pace continued to improve. With the injuries we just don’t exactly know how everything is going to shake out until we get healthy because we have some talented guys that aren’t playing right now.

I think with a new system and a fresh idea with some of the guys that are kind of entering their defining years on what’s going to happen with them and their careers, it could be all over the place. I don’t know how to exactly answer your question because we’ve done a few different things throughout the year so far. We started off slow and now we’ve kind of sped it up a little bit. We want to get out and run. We’re at the mile-high. That was one of the things that Tim and I talked about initially when I interviewed him, was we like to play fast here. We want to get out and go and take advantage of our natural resources.

Q: It looks like you’re playing about as fast as last year, but your shooting percentage is about four points below where it was last year. Do you think that’s about the people or the mix?

A: I think it’s a combination of everything. We started off 0-3. We played a really difficult game in Sacramento. It was such an emotional night for the city, that was going to be a tough one to win. And then we came back and we got thumped by Portland who, it turns out, is pretty good. And then we had to play San Antonio, who we also know is pretty good. Then we went on a little run, we won seven or eight in a row, and then we were kind of here and there, here and there, and then we lost seven or eight in a row. There’s going to be ups and downs. I think the most difficult part of sports, one is injuries and two is staying patient with the team and the people that you have. Everybody is so competitive and they want to win, but you have to have a much bigger picture in your mind over a period of years. I think we’re right about where I thought we’d be. I think we’re right where we were last year at this time, almost.

Q: I think Brian had it flipped. He said after the win over Memphis that you were right where you were a year ago after 32 games, at 15-17. I think you were 17-15 last year, and you were about to go on that run where you won 16 out of 19 or something.

A: I knew we were right around where we were. But there’s going to be ups and downs. Ultimately, I don’t look for the big swings. I look for a growth chart that has its ups and downs but is steadily improving.

Q: More than a few fans think that a bunch of these guys are pretty much your average, replacement-level NBA players. Whether it’s Hickson or Arthur or Foye or Nate — journeymen, guys who have been around. So when you talk about the people who are about to define who they’re going to be as players, who are you talking about?

A: We have several of those guys, guys in their mid-20s really starting to show if they’re going to take a leap or if they’re going to remain who they are, I think. Those are big-time growth years as a person, and you figure out who you are. I think we have several guys. You can just look at our roster and go down, look at the ages, and we have several guys that are in that time frame. And there’s a couple guys we think have a chance to be pretty doggone good and there’s a few guys we’re still waiting to see who they are and who they want to be.

Q: You don’t want to talk about specific names, I take it?

A: No, but you can look at the roster and look at the ages. We have a lot of guys that are clumped together along with one or two guys, like Randy and Nate and Andre, that are a little bit older. And then we have a couple guys that are younger. But then there’s a stack of guys that are all around the same age there, within a few years of each other.

Q: What’s fair to expect from Ty Lawson? I think there’s some frustration that he looks so good sometimes and then the rest of the time, not so good.

A: You know, Ty’s been through a lot here in Denver. He was somebody we had our sights on in the draft, we were able to get a hold of him through a trade and he’s developed here the whole way. I think Ty has unbelievable potential. I think he can be one of the best guards in the league. It’s a matter of him getting comfortable with the offense and comfortable with himself being an alpha like that. Is he a true alpha? I don’t know. Ty’s as good as he wants to be, I think. He has that type of talent.

Q: If you were talking directly to your fans and addressing the perception that you’ve taken a step back, what would you say?

A: I addressed the team earlier this year and I said, ‘Sometimes, going to a place you’re unfamiliar with can lead you to a place you’ve never been before.’ I think that’s kind of the general message that I tell myself. Sometimes you have to take a slight step back to take a bigger step forward.

With the coaching change, I’m more than happy with Brian. I think he’s doing a great job. George [Karl] did an unbelievable job when he was here. I have the utmost respect for him. I try to tell people how difficult a summer it was for me, but I don’t know if anybody really understands. I think it’s a bright future. We have a lot of very good players, we have a lot of flexibility and I’m really excited. I think it’s going to be a great thing for us moving forward. I understand the hesitation because we had such a great season last year, but I’m really excited about the future.


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.


Nuggets find life after Gallo

It is in the nature of media types to be slightly more prone to hysteria in both directions than your average fan, given the modern fact of life that hysteria gets a lot more attention than moderation.

So it was that several tweeted their condolences for the Nuggets’ marvelous season the other night, all hope clearly at an end after forward Danilo Gallinari blew out an anterior cruciate ligament.

The Nuggets responded Saturday night by declaring reports of their demise premature. Playing without Gallinari and Ty Lawson, their two leading scorers, they scored more points than they have all season, 132, in a blowout of the Houston Rockets that kept them ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers in the race for the No. 3 playoff seed in the NBA’s Western Conference.

They also extended their home winning streak to 20, tying a record set in 1985.

Most remarkable was the effect on Andre Iguodala, who dominated the game at both ends, looking like an Olympian among mortals, which, of course, he was. He suffocated Rockets star James Harden, who finished with 14 points on 2-of-10 shooting. He orchestrated the offense with a game-high 14 assists. He even made jump shots, including two from long distance, on his way to 18 points. He came out with nine minutes of garbage time remaining three rebounds shy of a triple-double.

“I’ll get one,” he promised afterward. “If not in the couple of last games, I’ll get one in the playoffs.”

Coach George Karl inserted Wilson Chandler into the starting lineup for Gallo. It took a little while for the new starting group, still adjusting to Andre Miller for Lawson, to settle in. Of the 15 shots the starters took in the first quarter, the two Andres took 10. Chandler took one and failed to score. The Nuggets trailed 35-25.

I asked Chandler afterward if he felt as though he needed to adjust his game when he moved in with the starters.

“Yeah, probably a little less shots and more defense,” he said. “That’s not a big deal.”

In fact, that’s the skill Karl cited in selecting Chandler to take Gallo’s place in the starting lineup. He said before the game that the Nuggets’ identity will have to skew further to the defensive end without Gallo.

In quarters two through four, Chandler scored 21 points, finishing second only to Corey Brewer’s 22 off the bench among seven Nuggets in double figures. Without their two leading scorers, the Nuggets set season highs in points, assists (40), fast break points (35) and made field goals (54).

I asked Iguodala the same question about adjustments to his game in the absence of Gallinari and Lawson, to whom he has largely deferred at the offensive end this season, and for apparently good reason, given his difficulty making jump shots. He’s shooting .441 from the floor this season, 18 percentage points below his career average, and .308 from three-point territory, 20 points below his average.

“I’ve tried to do that all year: How can I fit in and be the most effective I can be without taking from the other guys, really making them better?” he said.

“And I felt like I’ve been able to do that, whether it shows up on the stat sheet or not. But when we have guys go down, you change some things up to try to make up for the loss, not by myself, but by making the other guys better — getting a few extra assists, a few extra points, a few extra rebounds. So it kind of worked out tonight. Going forward, we’re going to have to continue to do that as a unit.”

It’s probably a good idea not to go from manic depression over Gallinari’s injury to manic elation over a single performance in its wake. The Rockets were playing the second night of a back-to-back coming in from the west coast, the circumstance that provoked San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s scheduling protest four years ago in which he sat his three best players in Denver (and still nearly won). It’s extremely rare that the visitor wins in that situation. Iguodala was well aware.

“They got in really late last night, so I’m pretty sure they were kind of tired, and the altitude always seems to work in our favor, so all those things kind of play a factor in the game,” he said.

In the absence of Lawson (and third-string point guard Julyan Stone), 20-year-old rookie Evan Fournier has moved into the playing rotation, nominally as Miller’s backup at point guard. He’s really more of an off guard, but he and Iguodala provide enough ball-handling to allow the 37-year-old Miller adequate rest.

In fact, Fournier provides the closest thing to Gallinari’s offensive style, bringing a similar European skill set in a smaller package. He had 17 points Saturday. After scoring no more than 10 in any of the Nuggets’ first 73 games, he is averaging 14.3 in the four games he has served as Miller’s relief. It is beginning to look as if general manager Masai Ujiri has mined the uncertain lower portion of the NBA draft’s first round for another hidden gem. Kenneth Faried was the 22nd pick in 2011. Fournier was No. 20 last year.

In the absence of Gallinari, 23-year-old Anthony Randolph moved into the playing rotation, essentially replacing Chandler in the bench crew.

“I just like his defense,” Karl explained. “The first thing I wrote in my notes this morning was, ‘We can’t be a goof-around defensive team anymore.’ I’m not saying we’re going to be worse offensively, but our defense now has got to create offense. We have too many quarters that we kind of cruise-control our defense on the court when we’re shooting well and we’re scoring well, moving it well. I don’t think we can do that.”

Randolph rewarded Karl with seven rebounds and four steals (as well as 14 points) in 22 minutes. No Nugget had more than seven boards, but eleven of them contributed to a total of 46. Iguodala and Miller combined for 26 of the 40 assists.

“Dre Miller and I, we played together in Philly, and we had a few games like that, where we both had double-figure assists,” Iguodala said. “You’ve just got two guys who know how to find the open man, know how to move the ball a little bit. We’re trying to make the passing contagious because when we’re moving that ball and it’s not sticking, we’re really a good team, and George Karl, he’ll back that up.”

Karl admits he’s nervous about losing one of the best shooters, in Gallinari, from a team for which shooting — especially from long distance and the free-throw line — is the most obvious weakness.

“There’s no question it can’t be one guy,” he said before the game. “We can’t do that. Gallo is Gallo and everybody has his personality. I think because we’ve played a lot of different rotations and a lot of different ways, the comfort zone of finding a rhythm is what we need to do in the next six games. I think it’s do-able, but, you know, there could be a game or two that it might not look very good.”

Other than the first quarter, it didn’t look bad in the first game since Gallinari’s season ended. More than ever, it will need to be an ensemble effort. But in the absence of their two leading scorers, Iguodala demonstrated he’s capable of conducting the orchestra.