Despite a disappointing finish, the Denver Nuggets put together a top season last year. They won 57 games, went a more than impressive 38-3 at home and logged one of the best offenses in basketball (107.6 offensive rating, ranked fifth, per NBA.com). While putting together that offense, George Karl continued to establish himself as one of the NBA’s most revolutionary offensive thinkers. The Nuggets used every trick in the book to get to the paint, where they scored a mind-boggling 54.7 percent of their points (first in the NBA by a long shot), despite not being able to spread the floor with great shooting. They played at super-high pace — placing only behind Houston with a 97.76 pace rating; used wheel, hand-off, fake screen and screen-the-screener motion to make ball penetration and pick-and-roll action less crammed; and used smart basket cuts with their big men to make crowding the paint tough for interior defenders. This created an offense that matched San Antonio’s and Miami’s innovation, despite lacking those teams’ perimeter shooting and star power.
But the Nuggets were bitten by the untimely injury bug — losing one of their main scoring threats in Danilo Gallinari — and ran into the buzz-saw that was Golden State’s offensive potential being realized. They met yet another first-round exit and this (among other things we will touch on later) appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for this organization’s patience with George Karl as the head coach. Over the next few months George Karl was let go, Masai Ujiri (then the Nuggets’ GM) left for Toronto, their most creative big man, Kosta Koufos, was dealt for Darrell Arthur and Andre Iguodala took less money to play for the very team that ousted Denver in the first round.
Now the Nuggets are left with a roster that looks similar, but may struggle to remain competitive in the ultra-deep Western Conference without the guidance of the offensive mastermind that Karl is. Javale McGee will have to step into a more prominent role on offense and defense, something he has not proven he is capable of yet. Their defense will need to remain at least average and while new coach Brian Shaw may be better on that end than Karl, the loss of Iggy and Koufos (two of the Nuggets’ best defenders) will make things tough on Shaw going forward. And maybe most importantly, Shaw’s group will have to generate a similar level of offensive production to last year’s team in order remain competitive in the West, despite still having major floor spacing issues and no Danilo Gallinari to start the season.
It all fell apart relatively quickly and the blows were big enough to garner this response from Ty Lawson on Twitter when Iggy decided to dart for the Bay Area. A year ago, Denver was one of the best run organizations in basketball: Ujiri had just maneuvered the Nuggets into the Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum deal, picking up Iguodala, and they were being praised for adding yet another piece that helped them remain ultra-competitive following the prolonged aftermath of the Carmelo Anthony trade. Now they look similar to the rest of the NBA, making moves that will keep them relevant, but keep them out of elite tier for years to come. It is hard to place how it all happened, but I think you can trace it all back to the people at the very top.
We do not tend to think of owners when we discuss the people running an NBA franchise. They typically remain out of the public eye, at least when it comes to running their teams, and for the most part have fairly little to do with the day-to-day operations of their teams. Outside of Mark Cuban, Donald Sterling and the now-removed Maloof brothers, most would be hard pressed to name five other NBA owners. They typically are not at the forefront of relevant NBA discussion. I doubt most regular NBA fans can name the Milwaukee Bucks’ owner.
Yet, the Milwaukee Bucks owner, Herb Kohl, is a big reason why the Milwaukee Bucks are stuck in first-round exit purgatory. He wants the team to remain competitive and in a market that does not attract free agents, that means stacking up on mediocre players each summer, competing for the eight seed and falling to the Miami Heat year after year. The people making the basketball decisions have to adhere to that thinking because Kohl is the guy writing the checks; he has to approve of every transaction and he decides how much money the team is willing to spend and how that money should be spent. You cannot blame him for wanting to be competitive — tanking is seen as deplorable in most situations — but that is what keeps Milwaukee mediocre.
And the Bucks are not some random phenomenon. NBA owners are playing a huge part in their team’s success or failure across the league. The contrast of just exactly the type of effects owners can make was highlighted by three teams this summer: the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and the aforementioned Denver Nuggets.
With those aforementioned Nuggets, the offseason changes hurt the team seem to be the work of the people with the highest power. George Karl’s exit was presented to be due to Karl’s post-season failures and his desire to renegotiate the terms of his contract extension. In actuality, Karl’s playing time distribution was probably the biggest issue the Nuggets ownership had with Karl. Specifically, ownership wanted McGee, who they had recently inked to a $44 million contract, to have an elevated role within George Karl’s rotation. McGee lacked the basketball IQ to execute on offense like Kosta Koufos and was similarly lost on defense despite superior athletic ability. Despite the logic (and results) behind George Karl limiting McGee’s minutes, both George Karl and Kosta Koufos are no longer with the Denver Nuggets.
Masai Ujuri also departed, but for more justifiable reasons. Ujuri left to Toronto take a five-year, $15 million offer. Denver did offer Ujuri a raise after earning Executive of the Year honors last season, but were unwilling to match the Raptors’ lucrative offer and cannot necessarily be blamed for doing so. However Andre Iguodala, in explaining why he chose to leave Denver, mentioned that the departure of Karl and Ujuri had something to do with it.
Philly represents a more positive example. Philadelphia had the cap space to go the Bucks’ route this year. They could have brought in decent NBA talent to surround Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner and competed for the eighth seed in a top-heavy Eastern Conference this season. Instead, they chose to get significantly worse so they could get better down the line. Jrue Holiday was shipped to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel and a top-three protected pick in next year’s draft. In Noel the Sixers got a piece who will do very little to help them this year — he probably will not be suiting up on opening night — but has the potential to be the centerpiece of a championship-level defense a few years down the line. Also, they were able to lock up an extra pick in what is considered one of the deepest drafts we have had in a long time. Considering Philly will be intentionally horrible next season and the Pelicans seem short of playoff success despite their best efforts, the Sixers are projecting to have two lottery picks in a draft stock full of impact players. Voluntarily setting your team back a few years to be great in the future, while an effective strategy for small-market teams, is tough to sell an owner on. However, Philadelphia’s ownership group is showing trust in Sam Hinkie (76ers’ general manager) and should be rewarded for their trust down the line.
Another NBA exec who has that trust from his owner is the Boston Celtics’ president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge. Pre-Big Three era, the Celtics were the same type of bad the Sixers will be over the next couple of seasons. Over that time Ainge stacked up assets and eventually turned those pieces into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Now that Boston’s Big Three era has come to an end, Ainge seems to be redoing the same process. Paul Pierce and Garnett were traded to Brooklyn for players that amount to future cap space (and whatever MarShon Brooks is), and three unprotected first-round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts. While the Nets appear to a playoff lock for next season, their age makes them susceptible to injuries and a quick decline from elite level talent. It is not totally unreasonable to believe that the 2016 and the 2018 picks can be in lottery, which of course will make them great assets. Boston will also have their own lottery pick in what is, again, a very deep 2014 NBA draft. Between their own picks, the three Brooklyn picks and whatever they receive for the potential Rajon Rondo trade that can happen this winter, Ainge is projecting to have upwards of five lottery picks over the coming years. These are picks that can be used to bring in more great players down the line or perhaps will turn into great players themselves.
Either way the future looks bright for Boston and Philadelphia, while it looks unclear and muddled for Denver. The direction the ownership wants to take the team is key in every one of those situations and is important for the success of every team around the league.