This week, Kevin Arnovitz published a deep, well-reported piece looking at how the Denver Nuggets have fallen into mediocrity at ESPN.com. (He also talked about the story on Zach Lowe's podcast last week; really, that conversation is a companion piece to the story.) Two big storylines were teased out of the piece and shared widely: that young GM Tim Connelly has made trade pitches to other teams that would violate league salary rules and that Kenneth Faried is not exactly beloved within the organization.
(The narratives collide in a verifiable anecdote in which Yahoo! Sports behemoth Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Faried signed an extension that wasn't actually legal under the collective bargaining agreement. Smart blogger Dan Feldman noted it quickly and the and Faried shortened the deal to make it legal. Eyebrows everywhere raised at the unlikely, embarrassing mistake by Connelly.)
Arnovitz's reporting is a lot more broad and nuanced than the pull-out storylines indicate. He tells of a team culture that didn't just undergo radical, abrupt change, but one that had to rebuild from scratch when George Karl was fired and Masai Ujiri was conceded to Toronto. That's the most powerful takeaway for me: basically the entire basketball leadership infrastructure in Denver disappeared in the summer of 2013. Of course trouble ensued.
So the weight of the aftermath -- a disappointing 36-46 season in 2013-14, and a rough 3-7 start this year -- falls on Connelly and team boss Josh Kroenke. As Arnovitz notes (particularly on the podcast), the Nuggets' cap situation is problematic considering the team's (lack of) quality. Denver has $73 million on the books this season and $68 million due next season. Even more, some of the worst contracts look rather difficult to move for value. (No contract is untradeable in the NBA, but some are certainly problematic. We need a word for these contracts. I suggest "bad." We can even rely on basic superlatives like "worse" and "worst.")
Here's my issue: Four of the five largest contracts on Denver's dicey cap sheet were in place when Connelly was hired in 2013. Ujiri, perhaps the most beloved young GM in the NBA, inked those deals on his way to an Executive of the Year award and a rich contract with the Raptors. That includes one of the very worst contracts in the league and a major albatross for the Nuggets: JaVale McGee's eight-figure deal.
It is McGee's $11.2 million that takes Denver from a bad team at the salary cap level to a bad team flirting with the luxury tax line. It is McGee's $12 million next season that puts the Nuggets in a veritable no man's land heading into the 2015 offseason. And Ujiri is responsible for that contract, having traded Nene for the enigmatic center in 2012 and offering up a 4-year, $44 million deal months later. (That contract was given on the basis of big man inflation, the allure of potential and three good playoff games against the Lakers.)
McGee, by the way, played 18 minutes per game in 2012-13, the season Ujiri won his award and Karl won Coach of the Year. While he has played even less under Brian Shaw, it'd be very difficult to argue that McGee's contract looked smart at any point once he began playing under it.
It's not just McGee, though: Ujiri is also responsible for Danilo Gallinari's big contract. The scoring wing, who makes just a bit less than McGee ($10.8 million this season, $11.5 million next year) has been rendered ineffective by a torn ACL. That's not Ujiri's fault, but it's certainly not Connelly's either.
Ty Lawson, the highest-paid Nugget, is also dealing with ongoing ankle trouble that portends poorly for his ability to get to the All-Starish level at which he's paid this season. Wilson Chandler, another now-overpaid guy who has fought maladies (sensing a pattern?), signed his mid-level deal when Ujiri ran the club. Among the five biggest salaries on Denver's 2014-15 payroll, Connelly's regime is responsible only for Arron Afflalo, who was re-acquired by trade in the offseason. (Afflalo did initially sign that deal with Denver in 2011 before being shipped out for Andre Iguodala in the Dwight Howard Trade Of Doom. But Connelly is responsible for $7.5 million on the books this season and next.)
Connelly has signed a bad deal in the past 18 months: a 3-year, $16 million facepalm for J.J. Hickson. He also made an dicey trade considering Denver's roster, swapping effective back-up center Kosta Koufos for redundant reserve power forward Darrell Arthur. He may have also botched his big coach hire, given that Shaw (a system guy) looks like a horrible fit for Denver's flexible, chaotic roster. (In fairness to everyone involved, Shaw was the hottest available coaching prospect in the league in 2013.) Connelly has had two drafts, two offseasons and one trade deadline to get the ship on course, and he has failed. He has some major culpability here.
But what about Ujiri? This roster doesn't just have Masai's fingerprints on it -- it's basically his Denver roster with some minor tweaks. Isn't this situation, like so many others, a shade of gray? Arnovitz's story is nuanced and fair from my outsiders' view. The lack of discussion of Ujiri's role in the construction of the disaster, however, has made discussion of the issue more black and white than it should be. (This could also apply to praise for Ujiri's work in Toronto, given that his predecessor Bryan Colangelo acquired the entire regular starting five. That, however, is another discussion entirely.)
Ujiri deserves praise for his strong work, but he's not infallible. The story of the Nuggets' downfall can't be told without a close examination of what Ujiri left in his wake. That nuance should apply across the league. Beyond the popular narratives lies the truth, and only by embracing truth can we truly know anything.