A toxic locker room looms...

As outlandish and ridiculous as Kenyon Martin's recent comments were regarding his contract situation, they could be an ominous sign of things to come for the 2010-11 Denver Nuggets.

When Kenyon Martin stupidly said "ain’t nobody in a hurry to give me [a contract extension], so I’m not going to be in a hurry to come back [from his latest knee surgery]" apparently he forgot that he's been on the receiving end of one of the worst contracts in professional basketball history.  In fact, if you Google "worst contracts in NBA history" a number of links pop-up and the general consensus is that K-Mart's seven-year, $92.5 million contract signed in 2004 is the second worse in NBA history.  Only Stephon Marbury's four-year, $76 million deal tops it.

Whenever discussing K-Mart, you have to separate the player from the contract.  It's not K-Mart's fault that he received such a poisonous, franchise-killing contract.  That would be former GM Kiki Vandeweghe and Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke's fault.  Going back to 2004, when Vandeweghe squandered all the cap flexibility he had created and draft picks he had horded to land Martin, we must remember that it was Kroenke who wanted to make a big splash in the free agency market and Vandeweghe who was happy to oblige.  That was also an era where real estate and stock prices couldn't go down, so who cared if you lost a few million on your NBA team?  

After striking out with a number of free agent possibilities - including Manu Ginobili - in 2004, Martin was the only "big name" left available, having appeared in an all-star game and two NBA Finals as a member of the New Jersey Nets (even though K-Mart was embarrassed by Tim Duncan in the 2003 NBA Finals...an early indication that he'd struggle at power forward in the Western Conference).  And thus, Vandeweghe moronically bid against himself and got fleeced by then-Nets president Rod Thorn and K-Mart's agent into handing over three future first round picks to the Nets and committing to a max contract for Martin.  Thorn felt so bad about conning Vandeweghe into one of the worst deals in NBA history that he hired Vandeweghe as his underling after Kroenke fired Vandeweghe two years later.  Ok, I made that last part up but it's certainly plausible.

K-Mart the player is a different story.  Yet another power forward who has succumbed to the Nuggets power forward curse (which had previously befallen Calvin Natt, LaPhonso Ellis, Antonio McDyess and Nene), Martin has been unable to stay healthy throughout his entire tenure in Denver.  But when healthy, Martin has been an invaluable member of the team in terms of toughness and defense.  Had it not been for Martin's efforts on both ends of the floor last season while Carmelo Anthony was out with a sprained ankle, the Nuggets don't come anywhere near winning 50 games.  In fact, K-Mart had played so gallantly of late that we almost forgot about his run-ins with head coach George Karl and his teammates during the 2006 post-season, his constant whining on the court that has led to numerous ill-timed technical fouls and his refusal to work on his jump shot (or even layups for that matter).  K-Mart himself admitted to having had a rotten attitude prior to the 2008-09 season when his pre-season declaration to the team of a renewed effort and attitude set the tone for an amazing season that ended in the conference finals.  

Most unfortunately, it looks as though K-Mart's rotten attitude has returned and his recent comments about his contract's pending expiration are a microcosm of all that's wrong with the NBA.  The guaranteed contract is a franchise-stifling joke and the players who receive them, whether it be Martin, Latrell Sprewell or others who have made absurd comments in regards to the millions thrown their way, are comically out of touch with reality.

But while K-Mart might be the only Nugget stupid enough to say something publicly about his contract and how it has affected his rehabilitation from yet another knee surgery, don't think for a second that his teammates - and head coach - also due for contract extensions aren't thinking the along the same lines.  Briefly touched on in my recent training camp preview and discussed at length yesterday by the Post's Dave Krieger, the Nuggets enter the 2010-11 season with all their key principles - Anthony, Karl, Chauncey Billups, Martin, Nene, Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith - in some form of contract limbo.

Anthony, as has been discussed ad nauseum all summer long, is the only Nugget to have been offered a long-term extension from the organization.  Karl is coaching on a one-year contract extension that expires at season's end.  Billups has $14.2 million due to him in 2011-12, but it's a team option and only a third of it is guaranteed.  Martin and Smith are unrestricted free agents at season's end.  Nene - like Melo - has a player's option to re-up for 2011-12, but unlike Melo hasn't been offered an extension.  And Afflalo will become a restricted free agent after this season.

So while the Nuggets (behind closed doors, of course) beg Anthony to sign that extension, his teammates and head coach are collectively wondering: "what about me?"  

Whether they like it or not, Anthony's teammates' questions will go unanswered until Melo makes a decision or the Nuggets make a decision for him by trading him away.  Simply put, it makes little sense to bring back a high maintenance, oft-injured 32 year old player like Martin if the Nuggets are going to rebuild with young, cheap, yearning-to-learn talent.  Billups, having just turned 34 years old, is probably better off elsewhere in a post-Melo world, too.  But given his Denver roots, any dealings with Billups' future must be handled with a different level of sensitivity and an eye towards keeping him involved with the organization for the long run.  Karl, too, may not be the best fit for a rebuilding team.  Karl once told me that he'll coach any team, anywhere (as long as it's in the NBA) - unlike Phil Jackson who has publicly said he wouldn't be a good fit for a rebuilding, young team.  But would the Kroenkes want to pay Karl his $4 million-per-year "rate" for a team sans Melo?

All these open questions could lead to a toxic room environment that will threaten to undermine the entire 2010-11 season.  When so many players are going to be asking "what about me?" how do you make it "all about we?"  It will require the greatest of great efforts from Karl and his coaching staff to put this season together, and much will be asked of Billups as the team's voice of reason, as well.  

If K-Mart's comments are any indication of where his mental state is at, perhaps the Nuggets are better off "Tim Thomas'ing" him - i.e. send him home (with pay, unfortunately) until he gets traded.  I'd rather have a Stiff like Shelden Williams who wants to be here and will do anything for another contract than a guy like K-Mart who basically stole $90 million and thinks the Nuggets still owe him something.

For the millions of dollars we as fans bestow on these players and the Nuggets organization, we deserve a team that wants to be in Denver and, while here, play earnestly with a great effort in practice and on the court during games.  Because at the end of the day, in this economy no one knows what the future holds for any of us.  At the very least, it would be nice to have some good basketball to watch in the meantime.

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