Ever since Carmelo Anthony was drafted in 2003 and Kiki Vandeweghe was fired after the loss to the Los Angeles Clippers (ugh) in 2006, the Nuggets have routinely found themselves involved in trades which shift the NBA landscape mightily. Better to be Atlas and have some power over how that landscape shifts than to be Epimetheus and look back and wonder what might have been. Sure, there have been periods of quietude in the front office, but frequently the Nuggets’ managerial fingers have been in trade pies around the league. Although there were some big trades that took place prior to VP GM Masai Ujiri’s (re)hiring – notably, acquiring Allen Iverson from the Philadelphia 76ers, and later Chauncey Billups from the Detroit Pistons – those pale in comparison to the trades that have occurred in just a few short years of Masai’s tenure.

In 2004, the Denver Nuggets hired on a young Masai Ujiri to become their paid international scout (ironically, away from an unpaid scouting position with the Orlando Magic he’d had in 2003). An excellent article on Masai’s background by Woody Paige of the Denver Post shows that Masai has always been an advocate of the “long view” in basketball, even when it came to recognizing his own strengths and weaknesses:

"After two weeks I joined Derby (in the British Basketball League). I wasn't good enough yet. But I played over there for six years (in Belgium and for BBL teams in Watford and Solent).

"I made some money, learned a lot about basketball and introduced myself to everyone" — including scouts and team officials from the NBA. His goal was to become a scout, a coach, an executive. "When my playing career ended, I got out my black book and starting making calls."

After a few seasons with the Nuggets, Masai left to become the assistant GM with the Toronto Raptors in 2008. This was a particularly difficult period in Toronto, as Masai was helping tamp down the effect of LeBron James‘ upcoming free agency period on the Raptors’ longtime star and upcoming free agent Chris Bosh (who refused to sign a contract extension) – experience that would become important later. Bosh left to join fellow Superfriends James and Dwayne Wade in Miami, and later in 2010 Masai returned to the Nuggets as executive vice president of basketball operations alongside Josh Kroenke.
Blockbuster #1
February 2, 2011: In a three-team deal Denver trades Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Shelden Williams, and Renaldo Balkman to New York; New York trades Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, cash, a 2014 first round pick, and 2012 and 2013 second-round picks (originally from Golden State) to Denver; New York trades Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph, and cash to Minnesota; Minnesota trades Corey Brewer to New York; Minnesota trades Kosta Koufos to Denver; and Denver trades their 2015 second-round pick to Minnesota. Denver also has right to swap first-round picks with New York in 2016.
In what most of us remember as the conclusion to the exhausting period of Melodrama – in which Melo did his best to force a trade to New York without directly stating so – Masai stepped into a very difficult situation and maximized the value the Nuggets franchise could receive from their itinerant superstar. Suddenly, Masai found himself in a position where he actually had some leverage (Carmelo still under contract), rather than at the mercy of a contract extension (in the case of Bosh). In hindsight, this trade is an even bigger steal than the king’s ransom it was purported to be at the time. While we can all be thankful that Carmelo Anthony provided us with some great years, lots of early playoff exits, and the leverage to consummate this trade, losing hometown hero Chauncey Billups – again – seemed to hurt the most. That said, nobody really misses Anthony “Inbounds Pass” Carter, Shelden Williams or Renaldo Balkman (do we??).
During a busy offseason, not only did the Nuggets turn a ballooning Raymond Felton into Andre Miller (via the Trailblazers) and rights to the 26th pick (Jordan Hamilton), they also drafted Kenneth Faried. Later, both Corey Brewer and (this year) Anthony Randolph would also become Nuggets. So, in just a few short months, Masai, through his wheeling and dealing, essentially traded Carmelo and Chauncey for:
– Danilo Gallinari
– Andre Miller (via trade with Portland Trailblazers)
– Wilson Chandler
– Corey Brewer (via trade; 2016 second round pick to Dallas)
– Kosta Koufos
– Anthony Randolph (via 2012 free agency)
– Kenneth Faried (via 2011 draft)
– Jordan Hamilton (via 2011 draft)
Evan Fournier (via 2012 draft)
– Quincy Miller (via 2012 draft)
– A 2014 first round pick, 2012 and 2013 second round picks, and rights to swap first rounders with NY in 2016 (by which time New York will only have Iman Shumpert and Steve Novak under contract).
The amount of talent that the Nuggets received in that trade directly or later through picking up released assets or the draft is simply staggering in retrospect. Almost all of these players look to form the core of the Nuggets for years to come while keeping the team competitive in a Western Conference that just gets tougher every year. Which brings us to…
Blockbuster #2

Compare what Denver received in the trade of their superstar to this one:

Denver receives:
Andre Iguodala, from 76ers
Lakers receives:
Dwight Howard, from Orlando
Earl Clark, from Orlando
Chris Duhon, from Orlando
76ers receives:
Andrew Bynum, from Lakers
Jason Richardson, from Orlando
Orlando receives:
Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington from Nuggets
Moe Harkless and Nikola Vucevic from 76ers
– A second round pick from Denver in 2013, a first round pick from Denver or NY in 2014, a conditional first round pick from Philadelphia in 2015, a conditional second round pick from the Lakers in 2015, and a conditional first round pick from the Lakers in 2017.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Orlando Magic fans. After losing Shaquille O’Neal in his prime years to the Lakers in free agency, the Magic again groom a dominant center…only to lose him once more to the Lakers. Not only that, but the “Dwightmare” also claimed the job of Stan Van Gundy, regarded by many as an excellent head coach and victimized by Dwight’s petulant, childlike approach to trade negotiations. We as Nuggets fans can at least be thankful that ‘Melo had some degree of self awareness to not completely throw the organization under the bus as Dwight did to Orlando. Magic GM Rob Hennigan has a lot of work to do, both in proving that this was the best option for Orlando going forward (hint: it wasn’t) and that he can capitalize on the bevy of laughably protected picks he got in return. I’m also eager to see the “Titanic looking for an iceberg” that is Andrew Bynum being coached by Doug Collins in Philadelphia. Oh boy. I hear they have a bank there.
Let’s be honest: when Brooklyn traded for Joe Johnson, there was zero chance of Dwight Howard ending up anywhere but the Lakers. GM Mitch Kupchak has some secret pixie dust that allows him to mind control other teams into giving up the likes of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash for virtually nothing, so it was an inevitability that the Lakers would be involved once Brooklyn was out – Dwight had no interest in a rapidly crumbling Dallas squad, and Dallas had even less to offer than the Lakers even so. Masai smelled an opportunity, and rather than looking back later and cursing “Those darn Lakers!” he decided to jump in and sell high on Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington.
While I’ll miss Afflalo a lot – Harrington less so, though he was a great character guy to have around – when you have an opportunity to greatly improve your team with an All-Star player, you take it. You can either get left in the dust like so many other franchises when superstars depart (Cleveland, Toronto), cross your fingers and hope to get lucky in the draft (San Antonio, Oklahoma City)…or make the right moves for your team and your franchise, as Masai has done. By all accounts, Andre Iguodala is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and plays an athletic, high-flying style perfectly suited to the Nuggets’ preferred pace. Afflalo was at or near his peak, and Harrington was already well into the decline of his career. Neither was going to provide enough punch to put the Nuggets into championship contention – but Igoudala might.
From his time as a player in the U.S to his time playing in British leagues, from scouting for the Magic to scouting for the Nuggets, and acting as a GM in Toronto to taking the reins here in Denver – Masai’s cultivated the experience and managerial chops needed to be regarded as one of the best in the league. He knows that you have to sometimes make tough decisions, like trading fan favorites Nene and Arron Afflalo, in order to stay competitive in the superteam-dominated NBA. He drafts well (Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton, Quincy Miller) and sells high.
So keep your eyes peeled, Nuggets fans.
The next blockbuster could be right around the corner.