Nuggets take a summer vacation; should we be worried?
Mark Warkentien is the ultimate when it comes to knowing the odds in Las Vegas. Warkentien even noted that a gambling-luring coupon given by a casino for a one-time bet is ultimately worth an average of 94 cents in the favor of each customer.
That’s the type of mentality Warkentien, the Denver Nuggets vice president of basketball operations who first made his name in Las Vegas alongside legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, brings to the NBA’s offseason poker table.
“There is a value in continuity,” Warkentien said when asked why the Nuggets haven’t made impact moves similar to those of other top NBA teams. “If you look at our marquee moves, they’ve never come in July. . . . Our marquee moves have never been in July. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a marquee move out there.”
So why would anybody now doubt the reigning NBA Executive of the Year?
Flash back to last July, when Denver’s major move during the month was unloading center Marcus Camby to the Clippers in a salary dump for the mere opportunity to swap second-round picks in 2010. The Nuggets were lambasted for the next three-plus months.
But on Nov. 3, 2008, the Nuggets swung the deal that saved their season, giving up Allen Iverson and getting point guard Chauncey Billups. That marquee move definitely was not in July, nor was Denver’s acquisition of Iverson in December 2006.
Warkentien, whose Nuggets last season advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 1985, is still sitting at the poker table. He will be there for a while even if fans are grumbling about the other conference finalists having picked up big-name players.
The Los Angeles Lakers signed Ron Artest to replace Trevor Ariza, although they certainly won’t be better if free agent Lamar Odom bolts. Orlando acquired Vince Carter, although the Magic did lose Hedo Turkoglu. And Cleveland landed Shaquille O’Neal while giving up no significant pieces.
In addition, longtime West power San Antonio showed it could be back in the title picture by acquiring Richard Jefferson from Milwaukee for next to nothing, signing free agent Antonio McDyess and having burly forward DeJuan Blair fall into the Spurs’ laps in the second round on draft night.
“I think San Antonio is really good,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “And it seems like they made decisions to be a (luxury-) tax team, which they never have before. All of the other trades to me kind of have been summertime talk.”
Karl isn’t worried too much about other moves made in the West, saying there’s a chance that, with Artest “the chemistry doesn’t work’’ on the defending champion Lakers. Karl also said he’s not too concerned about the arms race in the East, which included 2008 champion Boston adding Rasheed Wallace.
“I like the idea of keeping pat,’’ said Karl, who often has said how much he likes his team. “But I don’t think we’re going to be pat. We’re going to have new faces, they’re just not going to have big names.’’
Big name or not, forward Kenyon Martin said there’s something his Nuggets need.
“I still feel like we have the best team,” Martin said. “We didn’t win it (the championship), but in my heart (the Nuggets are the best). . . . The only thing that we could use is a drop-dead shooter. Just a drop-dead shooter. Other than that, we’ve got a great team.’’
The Nuggets did get a shooting guard last week as they seek to replace departed starter Dahntay Jones. But while Arron Afflalo, acquired from Detroit, is a solid outside shooter, he’s not exactly of the drop-dead variety.
The Nuggets also got forward Walter Sharpe in the deal for a second-round pick. However, Sharpe has what could be a serious knee injury, and Nuggets officials can’t say for sure if he’ll even be able to play next season.
With the deal being made for the Nuggets to land Afflalo and the Pistons looking to shed salary, the Nuggets, knowing about Sharpe’s knee, waived his physical. He’s due to make a guaranteed $735,420 next season.
Denver’s other moves this offseason have included trading a future first-round pick to get rookie point guard Ty Lawson, the No. 18 pick in the draft, and re-signing center Chris Andersen. Had Denver not brought back the popular “Birdman,’’ no doubt Nuggets fans would have stormed the gates of the Pepsi Center.
But the Nuggets had to use the bulk of their $5.854 midlevel exception to sign Andersen. While Andersen will make a guaranteed $3.7 million in the first year of a five-year deal worth between $21 million and $25 million, possible incentives have to be considered for next season. So the Nuggets have only about $1.25 million left on their midlevel exception.
That limits what free agents the Nuggets can go after. They also have their biannual exception worth $1.99 million. Using that, Denver did offer free-agent big man Channing Frye a two-year, $4.14 million contract, but Frye elected to sign the same deal with the Suns in his hometown of Phoenix.
Karl said he wants the Nuggets to re-sign restricted free-agent forward Linas Kleiza and unrestricted free-agent point guard Anthony Carter, with no salary-cap exceptions needed for either. But neither is a lock to return.
A report said Kleiza, who could return to Denver on a one-year, $2.7 million qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next summer, is being looked at by a Greek team. Kleiza is also continuing to draw interest from Toronto.
Carter is looking for more than the minimum deal the Nuggets have offered but also is considering Memphis, even though the Grizzlies apparently also won’t pay more than the minimum. If the Nuggets don’t re-sign Carter, another option to back up Billups is signing free-agent point guard Marcus Williams.
“That would not be my desire,’’ said Karl, whose team now has 12 players with guaranteed contracts, with 13 the NBA roster minimum. “I hope to convince Anthony to come back. That’s my desire right now.’’
How it all shakes out, though, will come down to how much money Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke wants to spend. The Nuggets are over the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax of $69.92 million, and indications are Kroenke would prefer not to spend a heck of a lot more than the approximately $76 million already on the books for next season.
But if Kroenke decides to become a wild NBA spender again, the Nuggets have a very big chip to play. They have a trade exception worth $8.7 million that expires Nov. 3 and that, in this economy, could easily land a top-notch player.
Could that end up being the “marquee move’’ Warkentien said is not out of the question?
One thing is for sure: Warkentien will be sitting at the offseason poker table well past July.