Dwight Howard forced his way to the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. Chris Paul finally landed with the Clippers and the game’s best lob finisher, Blake Griffin. Deron Williams was suddenly shipped to New Jersey/Brooklyn, then threatened to bolt on the open market free agency before the talent around him was upgraded by the additions Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson. Carmelo Anthony made no secret of his desire to play in New York with Amare Stoudemire and inevitably got his wish. And it seems Chris Bosh and LeBron started it all in that now fateful summer of 2010 when they played the free agency field, eventually getting signed and traded by their original teams to Miami for pennies on the dollar to join Dwyane Wade.
The Orlando Magic, New Orleans Hornets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors, and Cleveland Cavaliers had that elusive franchise player in their grasp, drafting and developing these guys into stars they thought could eventually lead them to a championship. Those teams found out, though, just how sharp the other edge of a superstar’s sword is when it neared time to discuss a second contract extension. Unhappy with the talent or culture surrounding them or a combination of the two, James and Bosh made their intentions to feed the free agency frenzy clear from the beginning but left open the possibility of a return to their original clubs. The backlash that followed them to South Beach – James especially, of course – was so rife with fan disgust and vitriol that stars had to find a new way to take advantage of player movement, and we saw it with Anthony a few months later. Instead of leading the Nuggets on like a desperate mistress, he dumped them as soon as he could and indicated his wish to be traded, letting the public’s criticism tire throughout the process. Utah and New Orleans saw it happening and reacted accordingly to get as much value for Williams and Paul as they could, while Orlando played the hapless role of Toronto and Cleveland as long as they could before finally caving and starting anew by trading Howard to the Lakers, effectively forming another SuperTeam.
That’s where we are in the league today and the above is pretty much how we got there. James is mostly credited with starting the Superstar Movement Movement and these guys’ preference to play with someone else that could come close to matching their almost unparalleled abilities. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t really matter – and the formation of the Big Three-era Celtics suggests it isn’t – but a prevailing theme exists here: the need in today’s NBA for not just one star, but two or three. And if the players realize it, front office personnel obviously do too.
Except that of those Nuggets, it seems, the team that took the initiative and dealt their star for as close to fair value as they could. This isn’t a new thought necessarily, that Denver is going against historical league convention and building a fiscally sensible team in every sense of the word; they’ve been headed that direction since trading Anthony at the 2011 trade deadline. But shipping the recently extended, newly overpaid, and always injured Nene out at last season’s for Javale McGee? Facilitating the Howard-to-Lakers deal by trading the similarly priced Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington to Philadelphia for Andre Iguodala? That’s uncharted territory for even Denver in terms of financial forward-thinking and team-building, and it’s a model no other NBA squad is bold – or stupid, perhaps? – enough to undertake.
Acclaimed Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri has assembled the deepest roster in the league and one of its most versatile, a group that pushed the old Lakers to seven games riding the wave of those strengths and sudden and abrupt development from the ever-talented McGee. And last week Ujiri added Denver’s only All-Star, Iguodala, to that core at the expense of a similar but inferior player and the Nuggets’ only aging player whose salary could eventually become a burden.
It’s an interesting and thought-provoking way to go about winning, and this roster will no doubt do a lot of that as long as stalwarts and likely starters Ty Lawson, Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and McGee are allowed time to develop together. They’ve got talented depth like (recently re-signed) Andre Miller, Corey Brewer, Jordan Hamilton, Wilson Chandler, and Timofey Mozgov behind them, too, so this team’s only question is just how much winning it will be able to do when Spring rolls around. They’ll thrive in the regular season because of all that depth, versatility, and speed that George Karl loves to employ, but can a team full of Robins beat one like the Thunder or Lakers with multiple Batmans?
Only time will tell there, and even if Denver fails in that regard this season we still won’t know the answer. Lawson, Gallinari, McGee, and even Faried are young and maybe future All-Stars, if seeming destined to fall just below that truly elite superstar level at their realized potential. But if two years from now all these Nuggets managed was to win a playoff series or three, they can just hit the quick restart button again just the way they did by trading Anthony, Nene, and Afflalo. At the very least that’s what all these proven but potential-laden, cost-effective assets buy you, unparalleled flexibility should a move to a struggling team need to be made or the right one to a playoff team just finally come along and put them over the top.
No superstars. Young talent. Unmatched depth. Tradable assets. Managebale salaries. This is the Denver Nuggets, the NBA’s latest and most ambitious model for team-building, an organization that helped usher in and facilitate the SuperTeam movement not once but twice choosing to avoid it altogether. We won’t know if it will work for a while, but in league more title-or-tank than ever it’s certainly a refreshing approach.