The Denver Nuggets appeared content with their role as Western Conference upstarts after their emerging club extended the Lakers to seven games in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
After the Carmelo Anthony fiasco two seasons ago (before he was eventually traded to the Knicks), general manager Masai Ujiri decided to depend less on one superstar and more on depth and youth. The strategy has been successful since Ujiri took over two years ago, but with a chance to add an All-Star-caliber player over the summer, the young GM injected his club into the Dwight Howard trade discussions.
The Nuggets and 76ers became players in the deal between the Magic and Lakers, and Denver came away with Philadelphia’s most coveted piece, Andre Iguodala. And all it cost Ujiri was an aging Al Harrington, Arron Afflalo, and draft picks.
So the Nuggets will enter this season with hopes of being more than a second-tier contender. They are loaded with young talent, with Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari as the anchors. They have one player on the roster over 30 years old — ageless point guard Andre Miller — and Ujiri collected more pieces in the offseason with Anthony Randolph and rookie Quincy Miller.
“We just hope that these young guys continue to grow and develop, the Ty Lawsons and Gallos [Gallinari], and then our veteran guys continue to contribute at a high level,” Ujiri said last week. “We’re still a young team, a growing team, but we still feel like there’s some good hope out there.”
Ujiri said the Nuggets were interested in being part of a three-way deal that would have sent Howard to Los Angeles, but matters became more complex when the Magic did not want Andrew Bynum. The 76ers had interest in Bynum and had enough young players to interest the Magic, while the Nuggets also had Harrington’s contract and Afflalo to move and wanted Iguodala, who has been maligned over the years in Philadelphia for not filling the void left by Allen Iverson.
In Denver, Iguodala immediately becomes a leader and likely will welcome the fresh start.
“We hope our not-so-old veterans can lead the team,” Ujiri said. “We hope to make some progress with these young guys.
“We have to stick to our plan and build gradually. The Western Conference is tough. There’s tons of really, really good teams and we’re trying to keep up with all these guys, man.”
Ujiri has gained a reputation for being a risk taker, and it began with the Anthony trade when he received four players in return for the mercurial All-Star. Three of those players — Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov —
“We are trying to get to the level of those other [elite] teams, and we got through a tough two years,” said Ujiri. “Hopefully you make the right moves. All of those things really have to connect.”
Ujiri, from Nigeria, is the first African-born general manager in major professional US sports. He played professionally for six years in Europe, then lobbied then-general manager John Gabriel and coach Doc Rivers for an unpaid scouting position with the Magic in 2002.
Ujiri moved to Washington, D.C., because of its proximity to several Division 1 colleges, earning extra money through free-lance scouting work. He was hired as an international scout by the Nuggets, then was nabbed by the Raptors as director of global scouting before returning to Denver as general manager two years ago.
“It was a huge opportunity that John Gabriel and Doc Rivers gave me to start off,” said Ujiri. “And with the opportunities I’ve received from Toronto and Denver, I couldn’t ask for anything better than that and I am humbled by it.
“For me, it’s very hard to explain the last 10 years of my life. Just from growing up and watching the NBA from Africa and now being part of it, it’s amazing.”
Ujiri has maintained a close relationship with Rivers.
“From day one, he took a liking to me, it’s amazing the connection,” Ujiri said. “There was a great bond, a great understanding.
“I was in and out of Orlando because I was scouting for the team, and every time I came into town, they paid me so much attention, which meant so much to me. I was just a part-time scout.
“Every time something happens, he is the first to call me. He always encourages me. There’s always a message on my phone. To me it speaks tons about the guy.”
Ujiri’s humble beginnings have kept him a humble man, and his passion is to make the Nuggets a perennial contender.
Barnes moves down hallway
It’s not often that an NBA journeyman gets an opportunity for true comfort. Matt Barnes had already played with eight teams in his nine seasons when he changed addresses again this offseason. This time, however, the relocation costs were minuscule. Barnes left the Lakers and signed down the hall at Staples Center with the Clippers.
Barnes played well in stretches during his two years with the Lakers, averaging 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in 22.9 minutes per game last season. He has proven to be a valuable defender, an occasional scorer, and a tough guy who won’t back down from challenges.
The Clippers are loaded with veterans; they managed to acquire Barnes, Grant Hill, Ronny Turiaf,Jamal Crawford, Willie Green, and former Celtic Ryan Hollins along with Lamar Odom. Playing time will be difficult to procure on such a loaded roster, but Barnes is confident he can make an impact.
“I just really like the direction the team is going,” said Barnes. “They’ve got a great young superstar in Blake [Griffin], the best point guard in the game [Chris Paul], DeAndre Jordan is coming into his own.
“I’ve been full circle with my career. This is where I started.”
The Clippers were championship hopefuls last season with the surprising acquisition of Paul from the Hornets, but they floundered in stretches and were swept by the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. Expectations this season are even higher because Paul is settled, Griffin and Jordan are still in their early 20s, and Crawford can provide scoring off what was an offensively challenged bench.
Barnes said many of the players have been working out at the team’s Culver City practice facility in hopes of building early chemistry.
“I think there will be a small learning curve, because you can never really simulate the game, but I think we’ll pick it up faster than normal because we have such a veteran-driven team,” Barnes said.
The past two seasons were a learning experience for Barnes. The Lakers were embarrassed by the Mavericks in the second round of the playoffs in 2011 and eliminated by the favored Thunder in the second round last May.
“I think you really learn a lot about yourself, playing for the Lakers, you are on the biggest stage in the world,” he said. “All eyes are always on you. You’re never supposed to miss a shot and you’re never supposed to lose.
“You really have to control your feelings and emotions when people try to jump on you, because they expect 82-0 and they expect titles every year. It’s not a bad tradition to live up to, but you definitely find out a lot about yourself.”
Barnes, 32, has become a chameleon since signing as a free agent with the Clippers in 2003. He has spent no longer than two years with any team and has yet to receive a career-defining contract.
“It’s been frustrating to kind of see those big contracts come and go and guys in similar positions getting them,” said Barnes. “I never want to look at the next man’s pocketbook or the next man’s bank account or say anything about that.
“I think I have been truly blessed to come from where I came from, and no one thinks I had a shot and I outlast lottery picks, first picks. A lot of different people have come and gone in the league and I’m still here.
“Yeah, would I have liked to have that big contract? Who wouldn’t? But the next best thing is I’m still here.”
While Odom has become popular in mainstream culture with his reality show “Lamar and Chloe,” Barnes also participated in a reality show, with a small role in “Basketball Wives LA.” His girlfriend, Gloria Govan, is one of the show’s main characters.
“It was kind of a double-edged sword,” he said. “Reality TV is not really reality.
“At one point, I was the sole guy in the NBA in reality TV, kind of representing everybody, and I had guys looking at me like, ‘That’s not how we live.’ I kind of say, that’s not how we live, either.
“You get 10 hours of filming and you kind of take the worst out of that 10 hours. So it’s tough.
“It has opened a lot of doors for my girl. It has opened doors for me. I have a new fan base from reality TV. There were some negatives that came with it but also some positives.”
Celtic hopefuls busy at work
Dionte Christmas signed on with the Celtics summer league entry with the express purpose of increasing his NBA exposure before heading to Europe for another season. He played so passionately during games in Orlando and Las Vegas that he earned a partially guaranteed contract with hopes of making the roster as a swingman.
Christmas, along with rookie teammate Kris Joseph, has been working out with the Celtics veterans in Waltham, ecstatic about the opportunity to not only try out for an NBA team but remain in the United States. Christmas was a prolific scorer at Temple University but went undrafted in 2009 and has played the past three years in Israel, the Czech Republic, and Greece.
“Basically, this is my dream,” he said. “I played overseas for the last three years, I played real well over there last year, and this is the year I would go back over there and make a lot of money.
“But this opportunity came. I had a long talk with my dad and he basically was just saying it’s not all about the money, it’s about chasing your dream. He still wakes up with regrets because my dad was an athlete and he [did] forgo his dreams.
“He said, ‘You don’t want to wake up with regrets, saying you could have but you didn’t.’ That right there just stuck with me the whole night and the next day it was a no-brainer.”
Joseph, the team’s second-round pick, impressed the coaching staff during the summer and has a legitimate shot at making the club. A native of Montreal, he was a four-year player at Syracuse with a smooth shooting stroke and ability to slice to the basket.
“It’s definitely something you dream about,” he said. “It’s definitely surreal for me. We’re playing pickup and I’m guarding [Rajon] Rondo. It’s just amazing.”
The pickup games in Waltham have been competitive. Joseph, Christmas, and rookies JamarSmith and Jared Sullinger have been tutored by Rondo, Jeff Green, and Jason Terry.
“All the vets, they’ve really been taking us in because we’ve been putting in the work and they see that, that doesn’t go unnoticed,” Joseph said. “If you come to an organization like this, that’s all they want to see is guys work hard because we have a reputation to uphold.”
Joseph is a natural small forward but may be asked to play multiple positions. Asked to describe his position, he said, “Wing. I just call it a wing, you know what I mean? I’m sure I’ll be more looked at as a [small forward] but we all have the same assignments.”
Former Celtic Marquis Daniels agreed to a one-year contract with the Bucks, a guaranteed deal at the league minimum. The Bucks were seeking some forward help and Daniels had been working out in Milwaukee the past few days. He was a valuable bench player for the Celtics in stretches but could never consistently stay healthy and the club never seriously pushed for his return . . . The Suns will be thinner at center, as Channing Frye will likely miss the season after a physical detected an enlarged heart. Frye will not participate in basketball activities for an indefinite period and will be re-examined in December. He tweeted that he will be back when healthy but it could take a full season . . . After dealing with years of ankle issues, Stephen Curry of the Warriors has been cleared to participate in basketball activities and is expected to be healthy for the season. Curry and Andrew Bogut, who is also coming off major ankle surgery, give the Warriors a legitimate chance to make the postseason . . . It’s late September and Derek Fisher remains a free agent. Fisher wants to return for a 17th season, but the demand may not be there. He could be a consideration for the Celtics, given his leadership capabilities and positive influence last season during Oklahoma City’s run to the Finals . . . The Hawks came to a contract settlement with 2011 Nets second-round pick Jordan Williams, and the 21-year-old is an unrestricted free agent less than two years after he left Maryland two years early. Not sure why the Hawks decided to just cut him instead of waiting to offer him in a trade; 6-foot-10-inch, 260-pounders who can rebound and play center are rare, so don’t expect Williams to be unemployed for long.