Not one to sit on his hands, Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri shipped out Nugget stalwart Nene Hilario and re-signed Wilson Chandler just before Thursday's trade deadline. What do these dealings mean for the Nuggets today, tomorrow and into the future?
When Nene was re-signed for a five-year, $67 million contract prior to the start of the truncated 2011-12 NBA season many Nuggets fans (and pundits) cringed, believing the Nuggets were grossly overpaying for a player who would be nothing more than the third best player on a contending NBA team. Others (myself included) thought re-signing Nene was imperative as Nene was the bridge between the younger and elder players, one of the most effective power forwards in franchise history and one of the most efficient players in the NBA today. The re-signing also demonstrated that the Nuggets wanted to win now rather than rebuild.
Like many in the pro-Nene camp, the price tag scared me as it was inevitable that Nene would be grossly overpaid at some point during the life of his contract, but I thought the re-signing was worth the risk knowing we'd get two-three good seasons out of the big Brazilian.
Well after today's events - which saw Nene traded to (of all places) the Washington Wizards for young center JaVale McGee - it's clear that Ujiri and the Nuggets didn't want to wait for Nene to become an overpaid albatross down the road, so they parted ways at the peak of Nene's value. And seeing how Nene has played - and not played - these past few weeks, one can hardly blame the Nuggets. From Nene's questionable conditioning to his matador-style defense lately, I'm sure Ujiri and head coach George Karl have been steaming at the return they've been getting on their investment in the big man. But does this mean it's a good trade basketball-wise?
Before we get to that, we must address the re-signing of Wilson Chandler, which one has to assume was in the works prior to Nene being dealt. With Chandler's length, Ujiri and Karl will be counting on the 6'8" guard/forward hybrid to defend out on the perimeter where Nene once did and McGee won't. And with Chandler and McGee now on board - combined with Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Chris Andersen - the Nuggets have one of the most versatile, long and athletic front lines in the NBA.
The Nuggets are also scarily younger now, with McGee having just turned 24 ... and often behaving that way. Karl will have his hands full developing these young bigs while maintaining the Nuggets playoff positioning. Compared to last season's Melodrama and his run-ins with J.R. Smith, I'm sure Karl can handle it. But McGee will require lots of patience and seasoning before he gets into Karl's circle of trust. If he ever gets there.
On the business side, this trade makes sense. The Nuggets get out early from Nene's contract - which, in hindsight, would just have gotten uglier with each coming season - and bring in an impending restricted free agent who won't cost as much to re-sign as Nene just signed for. And one has to believe that McGee will be on his best behavior here in Denver knowing that his contract is up at season's end.
On the basketball side, the Nuggets are bringing in a seven footer who's second in the league in blocked shots, has an incredible wing span and leaping ability, rebounds pretty well and actually protects the rim. And given how inconsistently Nene had been playing (and not playing often due to minor injuries), I don't see the trade affecting the Nuggets either way in the win/loss column this season. This deal doesn't make the Nuggets better or worse right now, but rather gives them the opportunity to be much better down the road if a) McGee matures into a solid starting center, b) clears up cap space for a free agent signing next summer and c) allowed for the return of Chandler. And should McGee become the true starting center in Denver, Mozgov or Koufos become pretty damn good backup centers with one of them as trade bait in the future.
(One big negative on McGee must be mentioned and that's that he doesn't win games. If he's so good at protecting the rim, blocking shots, etc, then why have the Wizards sucked so bad in every game he has ever played there ... in the Eastern Conference, no less? Could he be a Marcus Camby type - i.e. all stats and no substance? Or were his teammates and coaching just that bad? I guess we'll find out soon enough ...)
The team that this trade doesn't make sense for is the Wizards. So far removed from even a playoff spot, why the Wizards suddenly put themselves on the hook for Nene's contract leaves me completely befuddled. And they traded the dynamic Nick Young in the process, too. I always felt that if Nene were to be traded that it would be to a contending team like Miami (for Chris Bosh?) or Orlando. It's hard to feel bad for a guy making $67 million, but I suspect Nene's heart will be broken, he will balloon up in weight (the Wizards have never been able to keep anyone healthy) and we won't see the same Nene again ... making this trade look even better for Denver into the future.
Nene probably deserved a better exit from Denver, but (and I'm sorry to say this) maybe he should have thought about that before routinely taking nights off this season.
Regarding the return of Chandler, I'm ecstatic. I've always liked Chandler's versatility on both ends and know he's a good character guy, too. And if it's true that the Nuggets re-signed Chandler for "only" $30 million over five years with the fifth year being a team option, than I'm even more ecstatic ... and never want to be in a poker game with Masai Ujiri, whose patience paid off again.
Does this mean the Nuggets will trot out a starting five of McGee at center, Gallo at power forward, Chandler at small forward, Ty Lawson at point guard and Arron Afflalo at shooting guard with (in order) Al Harrington, Kenneth Faried, Andre Miller, Mozgov, Koufos, Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer and Andersen coming off the bench? Or will Faried start at power forward with Chandler becoming our sixth man? (And supposedly Ronny Turiaf is coming to Denver along with McGee, but don't expect to see him play unless the injury bug ravages the team again.) Karl certainly can't complain about not having enough lineup options now and not having enough size to go big nightly.
With Ujiri in charge, the Nuggets' roster seems to be in constant renovation mode. But the Nuggets have been the clear winner in the two major moves made by Ujiri to date (the Melo trade followed by the draft day trade of Raymond Felton for Miller and Jordan Hamilton) and with today's activity, Ujiri has the opportunity to go three-for-three.