Tag Archives: Masai Ujiri

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 It continued when the team suspended Miller for two games without pay, rescinded the suspension the next day and turned it into a personal leave with pay, which has dragged on ever since.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.


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?


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 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.


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.


Take their GM’s word: Nuggets not a contender

Check in anywhere they’re talking NBA and you’re likely to find the same tiresome question: Can the Nuggets contend for a championship with their current roster? For that matter, can any team contend without at least one all-star?

The latest national examination was full of numbers, which is the flavor of our time. We just can’t get enough numbers. Unfortunately, despite a plethora of advanced statistics, the verdict at the end is predictable: Not sure, but probably not.

The mystery is why no one pays any attention to what the team’s architect has to say on the subject. Masai Ujiri might be the only high-level executive of a playoff team in any sport — this would eliminate the Cubs’ Theo Epstein, who has been similarly candid — willing to answer the question in the negative.

“We’re not a contending team,” Ujiri told me recently on KOA. “We know (we’re) the third-youngest team in the NBA, so we have to give it room for growth. And you can’t continue making changes until you kind of know where you are.”

So, no, the Nuggets are not looking to acquire a veteran star at the trading deadline to improve their chances of playing for a championship this year. Rumors were plentiful as teams such as the Lakers and Celtics, loaded with such veterans, struggled early in the season. Was it time for them to rebuild? Would the Nuggets be interested in someone who could draw a double-team, a Pau Gasol or Paul Pierce perhaps?

Even then, the answer was no, but Gasol’s foot injury and the Celtics’ resurrection since Rajon Rondo went down have taken those particular options off the table anyway.

Over the past two years, Ujiri has overhauled much of the roster. There was the blockbuster trade of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks two years ago, the exchange of Nene for JaVale McGee a year later, and the four-team deal that brought Andre Iguodala to Denver last summer.

All these moves left the Nuggets with two veterans — Iguodala and Andre Miller — surrounded by a cast of young, developing players characterized by length and athleticism.

After struggling through an early schedule that saw them play 17 of their first 23 games on the road, they were rewarded with a favorable home/road split in January and responded by winning 12 of 15, putting them in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

“I don’t see any of our players getting worse; I can only see them getting better,” Ujiri said. “None of them are players that I think will lose value. So our goal here is to keep growing. We understood the schedule, we understood what it would do to make us mentally tougher. We’re still going to have some bumps. That’s just the way the NBA season is.

“But we’re happy with the growth of Ty Lawson, Gallo, Kosta (Koufos), JaVale. Iguodala is fitting in, Kenneth Faried in his second year, Wilson Chandler coming back and Corey Brewer is having a great year. The younger guys are doing well when they play and the times they’ve been in the D-league. Andre Miller is Andre Miller. He’s always going to be solid and we know who he is.

“Coach Karl has done a great job, I think. With all the changes we’ve made, I think it’s time for us to be patient a little bit. But we will listen, there’s no doubt about that.”

That, of course, is the caveat. The Nuggets have inserted themselves into multi-team swaps at the last minute under Ujiri, including the Iguodala deal, in which Dwight Howard to the Lakers was the headline. The deal was happening with or without the Nuggets, but when Ujiri saw a chance to add a premier perimeter defender to a roster that was defensively challenged, he hitched a ride.

This year, third-string center Timofey Mozgov is a hot topic around the league. Playing behind Koufos and McGee, Mozgov generally doesn’t get to play unless one of them is hurt. Ujiri isn’t looking to move him, but he will keep his phone turned on in case someone wants to make an offer he can’t refuse.

“We’re not afraid to ride it out till the end,” Ujiri said. “You never know what comes up at the draft. You never know what we could be able to do. Yes, we know there’s a logjam there a little bit because all of them are getting better and all of them want to play. But we love Timofey. We’re still looking at it like he’s on our team. McGee was hurt for a couple games and he stepped right in. He’s (a) restricted (free agent-to-be) and it’s not something we’re afraid of.

“When the trade deadline comes close, a lot of things start to fall into play and a lot of things come up. You never know where stuff will go, but he’s definitely the guy I think everybody’s looking at. Should he be playing? Yes. Is he good enough? Yes. Has he improved? Yes. I would say the majority of the calls are coming for Mozgov.”

In the never-ending debate over whether the Nuggets need a “go-to” scorer or can develop one from within, Danilo Gallinari remains the most promising candidate. In his fifth NBA season but still only 24 years old, Gallinari is averaging just more than 17 points a game, highest of his career so far. His shooting percentage remains an anemic .424, but his three-point percentage is up to .372, a key number on a team that ranks 28th in the league in three-ball accuracy. He’s also hitting just over 81 percent of his free throws, another crucial characteristic in a player who’s going to have the ball at the end of games.

“He’s stepping up,” Ujiri said. “He had a great month of January. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. I think he’s getting more comfortable. We’ve changed so much. He used to play with Nene and then we made the trade and we got JaVale. Faried did not play for the first 20 games of last season. We bring in Iguodala. Ty started the year slowly. All those things, I think that’s where we as a team, as an organization, we have to be a little bit patient, and I think it’s helped Gallo.

“The same way we are raving about him now, there were people screaming, ‘Man, what’s he doing?’ in December. That’s just the NBA. But in terms of overall growth, I think we can say since Gallinari came to the Denver Nuggets when we got him in the trade, he has gotten better and is getting better.

“He’s getting more comfortable. I think he’s becoming a more all-around player. He’s a very underrated defender. He’s doing everything for us and it’s molding him into that kind of a player. We knew that he’s young and it will take time, but he did have the potential and he does have the fire and he’s not afraid to take the big shot.

“It’s the same Gallo that shot an air ball against Miami and it’s the same Gallo that missed a layup against the Lakers last year. He could have lost confidence or been discouraged, but he’s stepped up. We’re really encouraged by all these guys and we have to be patient and let them grow.”

Maybe the biggest question mark about the Nuggets is the role of Wilson Chandler, who was obtained along with Gallinari, Mozgov and Raymond Felton in the Melo deal. Chandler is an accomplished three-point shooter, a rare trait among the Nuggets. He’s a solid free-throw shooter on a team that is still dead last in the association in that category. And he’s an above average defender and rebounder for a wing player.

Still, he’s been limited by injuries and by playing behind Iguodala and Gallinari at the swing spots. So I asked Ujiri if there’s room for Chandler to play a larger role, assuming he can stay healthy.

“There is, and I think the larger role will come as he gets to complete fitness,” the Nuggets GM said. “He’s already won us two games. I think he was the best player in Houston when we beat them over there (Jan. 23), and then we saw him against Portland, he came in and hit a couple big shots when we played them here. He helps in so many ways.

“It’s one way we want to build. We have to have those big athletic players that can play different positions because you never know. He’s fit right in. We sat him out for quite a while just because we wanted him to be completely right, to play with confidence

“People think, oh, we have Wilson Chandler because we’re holding him to trade him. We could have traded him at the draft. We could have traded him in the summer. Many times, we could have. No, that’s not what we’re looking at. We want to see him be productive and be a big part of this basketball team. He can play multiple positions — the two, the three, he could play a shooting four. He really rebounds well and he can score. I think you will see his time increase as he gets back into game shape.”

There’s plenty to like about the Nuggets’ development this year, but let’s get a timeout on the interminable debate about whether this cast can contend for a championship. When a team’s GM says it is not yet a contender, you might just want to believe him.


Nuggets’ best bet: Let Iguodala test free agency

Nuggets brass finally got a chance to introduce the team’s newest star to local media and fans Thursday, a ceremony delayed for a week by those pesky Olympics.

I showed up at Andre Iguodala’s first Denver press conference to ask the questions that arose when the trade was made:

— Do the Nuggets and Iguodala have an understanding about the parameters of a new contract?

— Will Iguodala exercise the early termination option in his current contract, which would make him a free agent following his first season in Colorado?

— Whether it happens after one season or two, will the Nuggets let him test the market, as they did with Nene, and risk losing him if another team is willing to overpay him?

— If not, are the Nuggets amenable to a max contract for Iguodala, a very good player, but a questionable value at 30-35 percent of the salary cap?

Iguodala and Nuggets general manger Masai Ujiri said all the right things in response to this line of questioning, but they also kept their remarks pretty vague.

When I asked Iguodala about the early termination option in his contract, this was his reply:

“Well, it’s funny because Masai and I spoke about we’re both looking forward and what he expected from me and things that I wanted to accomplish. We weren’t coming into this thinking this would be just a one-year deal. We were looking towards the future.

“So definitely already looking ahead and looking to see how we can go forward and this not being just a quick stop for me. Knowing this is a great organization, got a lot of feedback from a lot of different guys — former players, current players, even the trainers, about the organization and this would be a great place for me to have some great years ahead of me and possibly ending my career here.”

So, are the two sides already at work on a new deal?

“No, we haven’t spoken about the actual deal, but just how this wasn’t going to be just a one-stop,” Iguodala said. “This is definitely a place that I could see myself for more than just a year or two.”

The devil, of course, is in the details. What contract number would it take to keep Iguodala from testing the free agent market, either next summer or the summer after that? And would it be a number so big that it eliminates the financial flexibility Nuggets management has cultivated ever since it began dismantling a roster that was top-heavy with big contracts for Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin?

I reminded Ujiri of the Melodrama and his vow never to put the Nuggets in that position again.

“Before we get into stuff like this, obviously, we do our homework and we try to do our due diligence,” he said. “No, we don’t want to be in that situation again, and we’ve had good conversation with Rob Pelinka, Andre’s agent, and also Andre. And Andre has indicated that this is somewhere he would love to play.

“So negotiations and all that stuff, it’s our job and we’ll do it and we’ll figure it out. We’ll take it a step at a time and we’re just glad to have a player of his caliber in our organization.”

I followed up by asking if he has a timetable in mind.

“Timetable doesn’t matter, in our opinion,” Ujiri said. “It will come. We’ll figure it out at some point.”

To refresh your memory, Iguodala is scheduled to be one of the 25 highest-paid players in the NBA this season at $14.7 million. The final year of his current contract, 2013-14, calls for a salary of $15.9 million.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, he would be eligible for a max contract next summer starting at about $16 million with annual bumps of 7.5 percent. If he plays out the final two years on his current contract, he would be eligible for a max contract starting at $19 million in the summer of 2014.

It is difficult to imagine Pelinka, who also represents Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, forgoing free agency for Iguodala in exchange for much less than a max contract.

There’s just one problem: Iguodala is not worth that much money. He’s a very nice player, but not that nice. With the luxury tax growing increasingly punitive in the out years of the new collective bargaining agreement, a four- or five-year max contract would have a significant effect on the Nuggets’ ability to add any other pieces. It would essentially be a statement that the current cast, with Iguodala, is good enough to contend for a championship.

None of this should be interpreted as criticism of Iguodala as a player. He is one of the game’s most versatile performers. He’s a premier perimeter defender, an excellent passer and a capable scorer in the open court. He is also utterly unselfish, a rare trait in top NBA players, and should fit very nicely into George Karl’s offensive system, which depends upon both unselfishness and athleticism.

He is not, however, a great halfcourt offensive player and he does not fill the Nuggets’ most obvious offensive need — a player with the nerve and ability to take and make a contested final shot with the game on the line.

For all the skills he brings to the table, it is very rare for a player who has never averaged 20 points a game for an entire season to get a max contract.

So the questions remain: Are the Nuggets willing to give him one, or something close to it, to prevent him from testing free agency? Are Iguodala and Pelinka willing to accept anything less to forgo free agency? And if the answer to both of those questions is no, what happens then?

Here’s my theory: The Nuggets, like most of the other teams in the NBA, believe the 76ers overpaid Iguodala. He has very little motivation to opt out of the final year of his current deal because it’s highly unlikely anyone else will offer the $15.9 million he’d be opting out of.

So that gives the Nuggets two years to come up with a new deal. It also gives them the option of taking it all the way out to the end of his current contract. As they did with Nene, they could offer Iguodala the opportunity to test free agency, where they would have an advantage over any other suitor — the ability to offer a fifth year.

They would be gambling that no other team would make him a crazy offer, but that’s a gamble Ujiri took with Nene and it worked out.

It’s seems unlikely that Pelinka would approve a new contract that starts significantly below what Iguodala’s current contract pays him. It seems just as unlikely that the Nuggets would extend him at that level unless they have no choice. So the best option for both sides may well be Iguodala playing out the final two years of his current contract and then letting the market determine what happens next.