Nuggets' Masai Ujiri: 'We Got Killed' on Carmelo Deal
Surprisingly, Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri doesn't look at it that way.
"We feel we got killed in the trade because we lost a couple of pretty good players,'' Ujiri said. "Obviously, Carmelo Anthony. I feel sad for the city of Denver. I feel bad that this was done on my watch. To lose a guy like that. And also Chauncey (Billups). But I think we had to do it.''
That's heavy stuff. But Ujiri (right) is well aware how important superstars are to winning in the NBA. He traded one Tuesday, knowing Anthony had asked to be dealt and he wasn't going to re-sign with the team this summer when he could have become a free agent.
So Anthony and Billups were the key pieces shipped to New York in a three-team deal. When the dust had settled, the Nuggets had ended up with guard Raymond Felton, forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, center Timofey Mozgov, a 2014 first-round pick, 2012 and 2013 second-round picks (that used to belong to Golden State) and $3 million from the Knicks. The Nuggets also sent forwards Shelden Williams and Renaldo Balkman and guard Anthony Carter to New York and also sent a 2015 second-round pick to Minnesota for center Kosta Koufos.
"When you lose star players in the history of sports, even basketball, you lose a star player like Carmelo, it's really hard to get value back,'' Ujiri, who said he tried "to be a hero'' by convincing Anthony to stay, said when asked why he believed the Nuggets "got killed'' in the deal. "There's no question about it. When I got home (Monday) night (after agreeing to deal Anthony), I was just staring and watching ESPN and they're showing all these highlights and game-winners (by Anthony). And you wonder. That's where I'm coming from.
"We believe in the young kids we got. (The Nuggets) really like Danilo, we love Chandler, we love Felton and Mozgov has great upside and so does Koufos. And we really believe in those guys. But we lost a superstar, and superstars are hard to find in this league and in any sport. Chauncey and Melo were the ultimate. They brought smiles and excitement and greatness to this basketball organization... (But) do I feel that there's a future here? Absolutely.''
But the Nuggets might not have had much of a choice when they finally pulled the trigger on a trade after the drama that has gone on since late last summer. Nuggets president Josh Kroenke confirmed what had been reported before, that Anthony had asked to be traded when he met with Kroenke last August in his hometown of Baltimore. He said then he wanted to go to either New York or Chicago.
"As much as we did try to show him there was a future here, there was never any wooing,'' Kroenke said of trying to get Anthony, who would not sign a three-year, $64.47 million contract extension to stay in Denver but signed that deal Tuesday with New York. "Carmelo made it very clear to me personally that it was probably going to be a situation where he wasn't going to be here next year. At that point in time, I think that we needed to make a decision that was the best for the franchise.
"The way it was explained to me, it was a decision he needed to make for him and his family. And whenever someone says that, there's never a need to question anybody. Because you have to respect a person's wishes.''
Kroenke said "Melo tried to get out of here before the season started,'' but no deal ever was close until the one that was made. While New Jersey tried to deal for Anthony, FanHouse had reported in December that Anthony had no interest in signing an extension with the Nets.
"I don't know if he didn't want to go there,'' Kroenke (right) said. "But it wasn't on his initial list of teams.''
In the end, Kroenke said everything was done to accommodate Anthony, who wanted to go to New York. He strongly disagreed with Anthony having said during the process one of the reasons he wanted out of Denver was because he was concerned about the Nuggets going young and trying to save money in the future.
"No. Not in my mind (are those scenarios accurate),'' said Kroenke, whose team also picked up trade exceptions in the deal of $17.149 million for Anthony, $1.675 million for Balkman and $884,293 for a minimum salary slot. "I know that Carmelo probably had to say some things at times he was uncomfortable saying. But this is a process that was started by Carmelo. Everything we did just now was at his request. ... I think the salary thing really hits hard with me because we've been in the luxury tax four of the last five seasons. We had a top-five payroll in the league this season and our market doesn't even come close with that. So the notion that this organization somehow is only concerned with cutting costs is absurd. ... (The trade) is all of a result of his request to play in a different market.''
When it comes to money, though, Kroenke did admit concern about attendance possibly falling off due to the Nuggets trading their two most popular players. While Tuesday's 120-107 win over Memphis at the Pepsi Center drew just 14,638, the Grizzlies are historically a weak draw, especially on a weekday.
"How concerned am I?'' Kroenke said about attendance. "I would say very. I would say the message I want to send to our fans is that we did our best to try and persevere.''
At least the fans could save plenty of money Tuesday at the Pepsi Center gift shop. Among the varying degrees of quality of Anthony and Billups jerseys, they were discounted from $350 to $75, $250 to $75, $90 to $40 and $60 to $25. A shop representative said they actually were selling rather well.
Anthony is a four-time All-Star and Billups a five-time All-Star who is a Denver native and hometown hero. Billups was acquired in November 2008, and helped the Nuggets later that season to the Western Conference finals. He had hoped to retire in Denver.
"I want to offer a personal apology to the Billups family,'' Kroenke said. "They mean the world to me personally and I know that Chauncey means everything to Denver. When I say Denver, I mean just Denver basketball on every level. He is Denver basketball. He was a high school star here, he was a college star here, he was a professional star here. It was an incredibly tough decision to include him in this trade.''
Kroenke said Billups was included in the deal because the Nuggets came to the realization that to order to get the maximum value in a trade for Anthony they had to expand the deal. However, Billups, 34, is due $14.2 million next season in the final year of his contract, and there have been indications he would have been bought out for $3.7 million after the season had he remained with the Nuggets.
One player the Nuggets do want to hang onto is center Nene, a nine-year veteran whom they believe can take an even bigger step now that he might be counted on to score more. Nene reiterated he wants to stay in Denver.
"This is where I want to be,'' Nene told FanHouse after Tuesday's game. "I have family here. Today, I'm here. Tomorrow, I can't control. I'm here right now.''
When it comes to a contract extension, Nene said, "I definitely hope I get one.'' Talks are expected to go on about a possible extension throughout the rest of the season and perhaps up to the June 30 deadline by which Nene can opt out and become a free agent. Nene, who is making $11.36 million this season and due to make $11.6 million next season, said it he will wait and see whether he might opt out.
"My agent (Dan Fegan) will do the best for me,'' Nene said. "My focus is on playing right and playing well.''
Also wanting to stick around is Nuggets coach George Karl. A source reiterated what FanHouse reported last month that Karl, who is in the final year of his contract, plans to stick around after the Anthony trade and the Nuggets want him back. After Thursday's trade deadline passes, the Nuggets are expected to move quickly to lock up Karl with a three-year deal.