In his brief tenure as the Denver Nuggets general manager (well, technically vice president of basketball operations), Masai Ujiri proved to have the rare ability to evaluate talent, understand the NBA's overly complex salary cap structure, work within the limitations of a mid-market and astutely play poker against general managers from bigger markets with presumably more experience than he.
In just three years on the job, Ujiri - working closely alongside a young, hands-on owner in Josh Kroenke - made an assortment of moves that completely overhauled the Nuggets roster and yet maintained the competitiveness that he inherited. He built a roster that could conceivably compete for a championship and it's hard to pinpoint any of one of Ujiri's moves as being a "bad" one. That's exceptionally rare in a business where guesswork, gut feels and luck come into play as much as statistical analysis, research and psychological profiling of elite athletes.
Even though the Nuggets had experienced success and consistency in the win/loss column prior to Ujiri's re-arrival (he had previously been a scout with the franchise years earlier), Ujiri managed to change the culture from a collection of highly talented characters (think: Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, etc.) into a collection of high character players (think: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried, Evan Fournier, Kosta Koufos, etc.) while maintaining and then far exceeding the 50-win level set by Nuggets ownership, previous general managers and head coach George Karl. Perhaps more importantly, Ujiri was able to build a team that fit the city of Denver's culture: not the flash of Los Angeles or the arrogance of New York, but a lot of teamwork and togetherness for the common good - i.e. the "teamness" so often preached by Karl.
Which is why Nuggets Nation is collectively, and justifiably, saddened - deeply so - by the news that Ujiri, someone who perhaps should have been our general manager for 10-plus years, is moving back to Toronto (where he spent a few years as a scout and assistant general manager) to take on the challenge of building the Raptors into a winner north of the border. Ujiri seemed uniquely suited for Denver. He understood the limitations of managing a flyover-city team and yet was able to build that team into one of the NBA's most competitive without completely depleting his owner's bank account. On top of all that, he was gregarious and friendly with the media and the fans ... even making a pair of appearances at our Stiffs Night Outs!
It's no secret that I've had the privilege of getting to know Ujiri personally during his tenure in Denver, so I'm trying to write this as objectively as possible. Ujiri and I traveled to Africa together in the late summer of 2011 and have been friends ever since. The media traditionalists will tell you not to fall in love with your subjects, but the hell with that: I just really like the guy. And having seen Ujiri in action on his home continent, I've always believed that his ultimate path is much greater than basketball, be it in global business, politics, other sports or all three combined. And thus I believe that his next stop in Toronto will simply be another stepping stone to bigger things ahead.
I just wish he was staying in Denver to bring us our first NBA championship before ascending to that next stage of his life.
Before wishing my friend a fond farewell, I'd like to touch briefly on his departure and address the many questions, myths and rumors put to me in the last two weeks.
"The Nuggets are completely f****d without Masai!!"
Ujiri undoubtedly did a phenomenal job when at the helm here in Denver and will be very, very tough to replace. He had an unorthodox, almost San Antonio-esque way of building the team by making the most of late-round draft picks and not being afraid to pull the trigger on trading over-priced talent (over-priced by his own doing in the case of Nene Hilario). He was as much a gambler as a patient pragmatist, even though those two seem diametrically opposite, and it worked to the tune of 57 regular season wins last season despite a brutal early season schedule.
But even though I'm skeptical about finding a worthy replacement, we mustn't forget that the Nuggets franchise had made seven consecutive playoff appearances and a conference finals before Ujiri's arrival in 2010. Ujiri was dealt a tough hand with the looming Melodrama and he probably made the best departing superstar trade in the history of professional sports, but it's not as if the Nuggets were some destitute joke of a franchise prior to Ujiri's arrival. The Nuggets have had stability at both the ownership and coaching level, even though the GM position seems to be a game of musical chairs.
You don't have to agree with the way Ujiri's extension - or lack thereof - was handled, but the bottom line is that the Nuggets have experienced their longest running tenure of stability since the 1980s on Stan Kroenke, Josh Kroenke and George Karl's watch and they're still running the team. So let's reserve judgment unless the Nuggets fall apart under the next GM.
"The Kroenkes should have paid Ujiri whatever it took to stay."
The reported package offered by Josh Kroenke to keep Ujiri in Denver was three years, $3.6 million ($1.2 million per year). Without knowing for sure what Ujiri or his predecessors Mark Warkentien and Kiki Vandeweghe were paid, it's my understanding that $1.2 million per year is well above the previous salaries given to Nuggets general managers ... not named Dan Issel, of course.
Moreover, $1.2 million ranks about average for what an NBA general manager makes in 2013. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, by the time they offered well north of $1 million a year for a general manager, Ujiri's market value - coming off a 57-win season and an NBA Executive of the Year Award - skyrocketed into the $3 million per year range, thanks largely to an eager and aggressive Tim Leiweke (now overseeing the Raptors corporately). I suspect most reasonable Nuggets fans agree that $3 million for a GM in Denver is simply too high. So if the Nuggets are guilty of anything, it's waiting too long to offer the big dollars to their GM.
"Does this make Masai Ujiri one of the highest-paid GMs in the NBA?"
No, but it probably puts him in the top third - which is where he belongs given his accomplishments to date and undeniable basketball smarts. The highest paid GMs (again, based on my own understanding and conversations I've had with legitimate NBA folks) are Pat Riley, Danny Ainge, RC Buford, Mitch Kupchak and Donnie Walsh, in no particular order. These are guys who have delivered championships or near championships for years, and probably command north of $5 million per year. Many other notable GMs, like Billy King, Sam Presti and Glen Grunwald, are probably in the $3-plus million range. So it's not unheard of for Ujiri to net $3 million per year, but he's not in the top-five of GM salaries, either.
(This brings me to a funny side story George Karl once told me. While coaching the Milwaukee Bucks, Karl was the highest paid NBA coach, which brought upon him additional pressure and expectations. Karl later told me: "You want to be highly paid, but not the highest paid.")
"How could Masai leave the Nuggets? They gave him the opportunity to be GM when no one else did. He worked great with Josh. He built this team! How could he?!"
Remember Kiki Vandeweghe? Vandeweghe took a forgotten disaster of a Nuggets franchise and built them into a legitimate playoff contender in just two years. Now? Now Vandeweghe can't get a sniff at another job. Point being, as an NBA GM you're only as good as your last move so you must maximize your value while you can and try to buy yourself some longevity. Others like Otis Smith (Orlando) and David Griffin (Phoenix) come to mind as examples of former GMs who had very good records but didn't have their contracts extended because of a bad more or two. So if you're in Ujiri's shoes, you have to maximize your value when the opportunity to do so presents itself.
Forgetting the (sizable) gap in dollars momentarily, another huge difference between the Raptors offer to sign Ujiri and the Nuggets offer to retain him is total contract years. The Raptors reportedly offered a five-year deal while the Nuggets offered just three. In a business where there are only 30 available jobs and you're only as good as your last move or two, security may be as important as dollars. And thus, I don't blame Ujiri in the least for taking a lucrative, five-year contract.
That being said, knowing Ujiri's close relationship with Josh Kroenke I have to believe this was a gut-wrenching decision on both sides of the negotiation. Kroenke and Ujiri worked hand-in-hand since Ujiri's arrival and jointly made many good basketball decisions together. Replacing that level of camaraderie between owner and GM could be tough.
"Who the hell is this Pete D'Alessandro guy? He can't possibly be a good GM!"
Currently serving as the Nuggets vice president of basketball operations (yes, promoted to the same title as Ujiri during the season), D'Alessandro's name has popped up frequently as the likely successor to Ujiri. After all, D'Alessandro is already under contract, knows the inner-workings of the Nuggets organization and was an assistant general manager at Golden State before that. Having spent some time with D'Alessandro and having talked at length on several occasions, I can tell you for certain that he's a great guy and knows his basketball inside and out. We're about the same age, so D'Alessandro and I grew up worshiping 1980s NBA basketball - the league's Golden Era in my opinion - and D'Alessandro is as passionate as anyone about the game. Ujiri once described D'Alessandro to me as such: "Pete is the best. The best." Should D'Alessandro get the job, I fully expect him to attend a Stiffs Night Out!
Whether D'Alessandro gets the job or someone else does, it's not fair to make a call today as to whether or not they can do the job as well as Ujiri did it (although I'm sure some local columnists will write off the new hire as a disaster on day one just to boost their readership). Given that D'Alessandro worked closely with Ujiri for the last three years, one hopes that D'Alessandro learned enough about the poker-playing aspect of the job to deliver good trades and solid drafts in the Nuggets favor. But only time will tell.
"With Masai gone, there's NO way Iguodala is re-signing. No way. And there will be a player revolt!"
Ujiri had a terrific relationship with the players he brought in, as well as those he traded away, and many current Nuggets will certainly be concerned about the state of the team in Ujiri's absence. That said, Ujiri being here or not will have very little impact on whether or not Iguodala re-signs. Simply put, Iguodala will sign with whatever team pays him the most money and gives him the most years. Like all NBA players, he's loyal first and foremost to his paycheck (and so is his agent). If a bad team dramatically overpays for Iguodala, he's gone and if a championship-caliber team matches any Nuggets offer, he might be gone. And it's only in the latter scenario that I could foresee Ujiri swinging Iguodala back our way had Ujiri stayed in Denver.
Meanwhile, other key Nuggets such as Ty Lawson, Gallinari, Chandler and JaVale McGee are under contract for a while and aren't going anywhere unless they're traded. New GM or not, their paychecks aren't bouncing.
Look, there's no sugar-coating it: losing Masai Ujiri sucks. He took a dire situation in the Melodrama and turned it into the Nuggets best regular season ever just two years later, with a roster that's flexible and deep enough to build upon for a championship. As I wrote above, never in the history of professional sports has a team traded away its star player and taken back such an awesome haul of talent in return. Moreover, Ujiri possesses an engaging personality beloved by the organization, the media and fans alike - a refreshing change from his prickly, condescending predecessor in Mark Warkentien.
And yet, it was Warkentien (along with Bret Bearup, Rex Chapman and the Kroenkes themselves) who helped construct a squad that made it deeper into the post-season than any Nuggets team in the franchise's NBA history in 2009. Even though the Nuggets have been knocked out of the first round three straight times - most recently as a favored seed - the reason the Ujiri departure stings so much worse than Warkentien's is that we actually liked the guy and very much like the players he brought in. Warkentien's Nuggets may have had more post-season success, but he and they weren't exactly a lovable bunch that you felt good cheering for.
But like Warkentien before him, Ujiri's reign as the NBA's Executive of the Year while working for the Denver Nuggets proved to be brief. In the case of Ujiri, all too brief for my or any Nuggets fan's liking.
We shall wish Masai Ujiri all the best in Toronto. (Thank god he didn't jump ship to a Western Conference team!) Knowing him as I do, I believe he'll be exceptionally successful in Toronto and will create a culture around the Raptors that he was able to create here. I'll forever remember being invited by Ujiri to attend an off-season scrimmage at the Pepsi Center during the summer of 2012 and seeing virtually every Nugget (most of whom don't live in Denver) participating ... a full month before training camp began. That's a culture change that was much needed here and must be replicated by whomever takes on the GM duties next.
While in Denver, Ujiri worked tirelessly and was always honorable with those whom he did business with. I can't imagine another personality that can match Ujiri's gravitas and handle the GM job here as well as he did. But given the stability in place with the Kroenkes, Karl and a deep roster of young, talented players, by no means are our Nuggets doomed. So some perspective is in order before Nuggets Nation collectively declares that the sky is falling.
Ujiri may have represented the Nuggets best chance at getting to their first ever NBA Finals. But he left a quality roster in place that with some intelligent, forward-thinking maneuvers and continued support from ownership and the coaching staff, the Nuggets might just get there one day.