This is the fifth and final in a denverstiffs.com exclusive series reviewing past and current Nuggets front office management. Please note that all the information laid out here is available online and is therefore public knowledge.
THE WARKENTIEN / BEARUP / CHAPMAN ADMINISTRATION
(September 2005 – Present)
Background: As detailed in Part 4 in our series focusing on the Kiki Vandeweghe Administration, Vandeweghe did an admirable job as the Nuggets General Manager picking up the pieces of a tattered organization thanks to the ineptitude of Vandeweghe’s predecessors Dan Issel, Allan Bristow and Bernie Bickerstaff. Within three years of joining the organization as GM, Vandeweghe had the Nuggets on the map again and back in the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.
But somewhere along the way, Vandeweghe lost the confidence of Nuggets owner Stanley Kroenke. In late January of 2005, Kroenke allegedly forced Vandeweghe to hire George Karl as head coach. And that September, Kroenke brought in Mark Warkentien as Director of Player Personnel. In addition to Karl and Warkentien’s presence immediately undermining Vandeweghe’s authority, Kroenke wouldn’t renegotiate Vandeweghe’s contract. Two years removed from assembling the most talented Nuggets team in almost 20 years, Vandeweghe was a lame-duck GM and was officially out in May 2006. With Vandeweghe out of the picture, Kroenke promoted Warkentien to Vice President of Basketball Operations and also brought in Bret Bearup as an "adviser" to the organization and Rex Chapman as Vice President of Player Personnel.
So who are these guys and where did they come from?
Mark Warkentien: Prior to joining the Nuggets, Warkentien spent 10 years (1994-2004) with the Portland Trailblazers, first as a scout, then Director of Scouting, then Assistant General Manager and, finally, Director of Player Personnel. Working with "Trader Bob" Whitsitt, here’s a sampling of the players Warkentien was involved with in bringing to Portland during his tenure (if you have spare time after reading this article, I strongly recommend clicking on each of the links): Dontonio Wingfield, Rasheed Wallace, Isaiah Rider, Kenny Anderson, Damon Stoudamire, Bonzi Wells, Jim Jackson, Shawn Kemp, Rod Strickland, Zach Randolph, Ruben Patterson, Qyntel Woods, Jeff McInnis, Darius Miles and Sebastian Telfair. All of these players had a few things in common: bad character, disturbing personal issues, problems with coaches and teammates, ran afoul of the law, or, in most cases, all of the above. Your Portland Jailblazers, ladies and gentlemen! I'm still in shock that Warkentien didn't recommend acquiring Roy Tarpley, Stephen Jackson and Latrell Sprewell while he was in the City of Roses.
And before co-architecting that mess, Warkentien worked for 11 years in basketball operations at UNLV. That’s right, the players-in-the-hot-tub-with-a-notorious-gambler era at UNLV. While there, Warkentien was cited – along with head coach Jerry Tarkanian and current Nuggets assistant coach Tim Grgurich – for allegedly committing 29 NCAA rules violations, including the recruitment of New York playground legend Lloyd Daniels, whom Warkentien conveniently served as his "legal guardian". Daniels never actually played at UNLV because of a 1988 televised drug raid in Las Vegas. And here I thought drugs were legal in Vegas.
Bret Bearup: A former University of Kentucky basketball player, Bearup spent his post-playing, pre-Nuggets years operating as a financial adviser for athletes through his company, ProTrust Capital. By using the "adviser" designation, Bearup was able to - according to the articles I dug up online - operate outside the purview of the NCAA. From what I could read online, Bearup’s clients included Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Sebastian Telfair, Amare Stoudamire, Mike Miller, Jonathan Bender, Nick Van Exel and many more. I couldn’t find anything online detailing how and when Bearup met Kroenke, other than Kroenke regards him as "a close friend of mine for many years." At first I thought that Bearup still maintained his clientele, even in his new role as a Nuggets employee. Clearly a conflict of interest. But I've learned recently that Bearup renounced his financial services work.
Rex Chapman: I must confess that I have a soft spot for Chapman, one of my all-time favorite non-Nuggets as a player. We were born on the same day and when I attended the 1991 NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte (Chapman’s hometown at the time), I saw Chapman do what I still believe was the most underrated dunk ever seen in the dunk contest. Mind you, this was 1991, and maybe one or two white guys had ever participated in the dunk contest at that point. Anyway, coming from the right side of the rim, Chapman flipped the ball behind his back, it hit the glass well above the rim on the left side, he caught it backward, did a 180-degree turn and dunked it. Amazing. And of course we all remember his incredibly clutch game-tying shot when the Suns played George Karl’s Sonics in the 1997 playoffs. Obviously this says nothing about his skills as VP of Player Personnel, and I assume he was brought to the Nuggets by Bearup given their Kentucky ties.
And there you have it, the Nuggets’ troika of player personnel. So how has this threesome done?
Warkentien, Bearup and Chapman’s Record:
Best Draft Pick: n/a. Thanks to Kiki Vandeweghe’s parting with three first round picks for Kenyon Martin and the Allen Iverson trade which cost us two such picks, the current administration has had nothing to work with in the draft. I wish I could count Leon Powe (2006, 2nd Round 49th Pick), but he was drafted for Boston in a pre-draft trade.
Worst Draft Pick (and players passed on within a few picks): n/a.
Best Move: Trading Howard Eisley and two second round picks to the Bulls for J.R. Smith. Granted, Smith has had some problems during his stay in Denver, but we couldn’t have gotten such a talent any cheaper.
Second Best Move: Trading Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first round picks to the 76ers for Allen Iverson. Even though the Nuggets haven’t found playoff success with Iverson, anytime you have an opportunity to acquire one of the greatest players of all time at the peak of his career, you do it.
Worst Move: Re-signing Nene to a six-year, $60 million contract. Re-signing Nene was the right thing to do, but taking a page from Vandeweghe’s playbook, Warkentien overpaid for a power forward even though no one else was bidding for the player’s services.
Best Season: 2007-08 (50-32) – For only the fourth time in franchise history, the Nuggets won 50 games. Unfortunately, they did it in a season in which all eight Western Conference Playoff teams won at least 50 games, so the Nuggets ended up with the 8th seed only to get swept by the Los Angeles Lakers – the Nuggets fifth straight first round exit in as many years. As perhaps a microcosm of the disarray that the 2007-08 season was, during the Game 3 home blowout against the Lakers, All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony was caught yelling "just don’t sit there!!" at Nuggets head coach George Karl and then called out himself and his team as "quitters" in the postgame press conference. Good times. Frankly, with the talent assembled on the roster by Vandeweghe and then Warkentien, Bearup and Chapman, the team should have won more than 50 games to avoid that 8th seed and eventual sweep (ahem, Coach Karl).
Worst Season: 2006-07 (45-37) – The Nuggets got off to a good start in 2006, but all good things came to end abruptly on December 16, 2006 at Madison Square Garden. Coach Karl left his starters on the floor late in a blowout win over the Knicks, inciting Knicks head coach (and all-time worst person) Isiah Thomas to send Mardy Collins head hunting for Nuggets’ J.R. Smith. A massive brawl ensued, and Anthony sucker-punched Collins. With stiff suspensions handed down to Anthony (15 games) and Smith (10 games), Warkentien, Bearup and Chapman acted fast to salvage the season and keep asses in the Pepsi Center seats when they traded for Iverson. Thanks to the Iverson acquisition, the Nuggets stayed afloat during the suspensions, but ended up with only a 6th-seed and a first round 4-1 drubbing at the hands of the eventual champion Spurs.
Accumulative W-L Record: 95-69 (.579)
Summary: It’s not fair to grade Warkentien, Bearup and Chapman’s performance after only two seasons of being in charge. The mainstays on the current Nuggets roster – Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, Nene, Eduardo Najera and Linas Kleiza – were all brought in by Vandeweghe (and it was Vandeweghe who ridiculously traded three first round picks for Martin and then gave the cantankerous power forward with no mid-range game a maximum contract). But if the past can give us insight into the future, bringing in Warkentien really concerns me. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Warkentien puts a premium on talent over character. As if you needed further proof of this, there was the infamous Ron Artest trade that never happened because head coach George Karl allegedly shot it down. I guess Karl figured five knuckleheads on one roster was enough.
Making matters worse, rumors have swirled that whenever Karl attempts to discipline the players, the players run to Warkentien or Bearup and get a free pass. Former Denver Post journalist Thomas George’s 2006 three-part article about the Nuggets playoff implosion and Vandeweghe’s eventual ouster details a lot of this dysfunction and the power struggle between Karl, the players, Bearup and others in the front office. One recent story – referred to often on Denver sports radio – was that Karl insisted on a "no alcohol" policy on the team’s charter flights this season, but when the players protested to management, alcohol was permitted. (I hope for Carmelo’s sake it didn’t include wine, because he’d have been blitzed…hey-ohhh!).
In terms of pure basketball deals, the three "GMs" should be commended for bringing in J.R. Smith for Howard Eisley and two second round picks, trading away Ruben "the nanny raper" Patterson for Joe Smith, parting with Earl Boykins (and his bloated salary) and draft bust Julius Hodge for Steve Blake, and of course for acquiring Allen Iverson for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first round picks. I don’t care what anyone says about how well Miller has played in Philadelphia since being traded, because in Denver he was a serial over-dribbler (gee…maybe it’s the coaching?).
But if it’s true that leadership starts at the top, then Warkentien, Bearup and Chapman bear a lot of the blame for the Nuggets players’ lack of composure, off-the-court antics and the alleged circus atmosphere surrounding the team this past season. On Warkentien, Bearup and Chapman’s "watch" we’ve seen Kenyon Martin allegedly send a friend into the Pepsi Center stands to confront two fans, the Madison Square Garden Melee, J.R. Smith’s alleged assault on a girl at a Denver nightclub and his New Jersey car accident that killed his best friend, and Carmelo’s alleged DUI and his open act of insubordination against his coach during Game 3 of this year's playoffs (a la Stanley on last week's episode of "The Office").
Furthermore, in 2007-08 the Nuggets players led the NBA in technical fouls and ejections and were second in flagrant fouls (meanwhile, Coach Karl finished second-to-last among all head coaches with one technical foul…and some of you thought I was crazy for calling him out for NEVER working the refs and defending his players!).
I hope Warkentien, Bearup and Chapman prove me wrong and swing an impressive move or two this summer to improve the character, defensive intensity and outside shooting on the team. But after reviewing what has happened with the players during their tenure thus far, I think it’s safe to say that we should be wary of these guys running our Nuggets just as we should be wary of Karl coaching them.
Part IV - Breaking down the Kiki Vandeweghe Administration
Part III - Breaking down the Dan Issel Administration
Part II - Breaking down the Allan Bristow Administration
Part I - Breaking down the Bernie Bickerstaff Administration