The Denver Nuggets may still right the ship after losing General Manager Masai Ujiri to the Toronto Raptors. Fans are disgusted with President Josh Kroenke’s inability to keep the man responsible for transforming the Nuggets, but there is still time for the organization to save face. The same swell of disapproval erupted in 2010 when then Executive of the Year Mark Warkentien was expelled with the rest of the front office; a move the Denver Post’s Mark Kizsla claims drove Carmelo Anthony out of town. Is the new Nuggets’ brass capable of continuing the Nuggets renaissance?
No one is happy about Masai Ujiri’s exit as the Denver Nuggets General Manager. When Carmelo Anthony held the team hostage in the fall of 2011, Ujiri built an exciting basketball team that streaked to the playoffs out of the ashes. In the two years since, the Nuggets have improved, including two steals in the NBA draft with Kenneth Faried and the rising Evan Fornier. Ujiri also brought an Olympian to the team in Andre Iguodala, while shedding the former Thuggets from J.R. Smith to Nene.
Perhaps a parting of ways is what’s best for the Nuggets and Ujiri. Denver is close to reaching that next level and are far more likely to become the next Indiana Pacers from the roster already assembled than through bold trades with unknown payoffs. Watching a full year next season of Ty Lawson on the next level, a more comfortable Andre Iguodala and room to improve players Fornier, Javale McGee, Kosta Koufos, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried, would make anyone nervous with so many variables. And with fans clamoring for drastic changes in the days after the first round exit to the Golden State Warriors, grand moves would be welcomed rather than largely staying put.
Collecting players is Ujiri’s strength, but there has been no indication that patience is his virtue. The Nuggets are not ready to blow up the current roster, nor should they, which means that Ujiri’s excelled basketball mind would be making minor moves instead of taking on big challenges. Toronto presents those challenges for him. With no players anchored in to the Raptor’s line up, Toronto is Ujiri’s team, and he has all the power.
A finger has been turned on Ujiri’s relationship with team President Josh Kroenke. Many have deduced in the previous days that Kroenke’s oversight may have limited the freedom Ujiri felt was necessary to create a contender. With Kroenke controlling the purse strings, Masai was not a partner, but more of an employee in the Nuggets’ scheme.
If there is any truth to the theory of an overbearing Kroenke, Ujiri never let on, and Masai leaves the Nuggets with a heavy heart. However Kroenke did not offer an extension or a large enough salary increase to make Ujiri stay, opening the pathway to Toronto. However, the two executives seemed genuinely fond of each other and the team they assembled. Perhaps Ujri didn’t want to see his legacy in Denver tarnished by a success rate that had to fall with future transactions.
In February, Ujiri stated that the Denver Nuggets were not a contending team and now, under his watch, they never will be. He preached patience, but was the first piece to fall in an equation that has opened up question marks for Andre Iguodala, coach George Karl and the Nuggets supporting cast. While no one seems to blame Masai’s need to move onto the next challenge, the already critical eye of Nuggets fans is focused on the faceless management regime.
Whether Kroenke acts alone or with a new partner, it is these next few months that will set the course for the Nuggets. Will the post-Melo era of the team be bookended by the post-Ujiri era? The next few moves will be pivotal. The Nuggets are the fastest, most exciting regular season ticket around, with a group of mid-level talented players that can compete night in and night out. Kroenke must decide if he sees a future with this plan or whether it’s time to disassemble the Nuggets legion.
Irony lies in the fact that Ujiri’s exit has opened the floodgates to massive problems that he would love to fix. The Nuggets need to right the ship quickly in hopes of saving Karl, Iguodala and the third best team in the Western Conference. Can they find a shooter? Is there another draft piece to elevate this team for years to come? Is the Pepsi Center about to become the Patrick Roy show?
The stakes are high and the man with all the answers just hopped the northern border.