Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On Masai Ujiri and True Ubuntu in Denver

The Denver Nuggets find themselves reeling from a Game 1 encounter with Andrew Bynum in which they looked powerless to take on the Lakers star in the middle. Same old Nuggets, you might say, able to make the play-offs but unable to advance past the first round or two. It's been regretfully easy for seasoned NBA fans to patronize Denver as a good but not great team for the last few decades.

However, let me encourage you to rethink your "Same old Denver" thoughts. General Manager Masai Ujiri is attempting to create a new model for how teams sign players, and I hope is successful. Witness these words from Chris Luchey, who is the agent for Wilson Chandler:
"We're ecstatic," Luchey told SI.com. "[The Nuggets] talked about being a young, athletic team, being a team where a lot of guys make good, solid money and there's not this big gap between the minimum guy and a max player. Having guys feel like they're teammates, not the envious-type typical roster, and young guys who had experience."

Quietly, Ujiri envisions a squad where true Ubuntu (interconnectedness) can flourish and teammates aren't separated by envy and dollar signs. This is no idealism, either: with Ujiri's background and contacts in global scouting, he has the skills to consistently sign above-average overseas talent at merely average prices. It's worth noting that Ujiri is the first African-born General Manager. He seems to have a definite vision of what this team will become. Most teams seem to see the mid-priced veteran as an inconvenience or an accessory to a star. Masai instead seems to see them as valuable assets in their own right. He speaks of getting players experience and building for the future in Denver:

"...Young guys, throw them in and go out and play and maybe get your face kicked a little bit but get some experience and then we know who they are. This is a year that we can afford to do that. We didn’t do it in the intention of not making the playoffs. We did it with the intention of big picture, make the team better and that’s kind of how we feel.”"

There's a second dimension to all this that has yet to be mentioned. Denver is known for being a difficult place for away teams to win. This season that hasn't been true (merely .500-ish at home), but at times the high air of Denver has been difficult for away teams. Denver tried to capitalize on this in the past with run-and-gun offense. But now, Denver is building a roster that is nearly two deep at every position, and strong on defense. With plus defenders like Affalo and Chandler, and shot-blockers like McGee and Anderson, Denver has the possibility of creating a unique home court advantage with its deep bench and thin air. It's the equivalent of how some cold-weather football teams specialize in ball-control, and it's rarely seen in basketball. Admittedly, this may all be hoop dreams, and I'm not sure if such a strategy could make Denver a top three team in the West. But give Denver Democracy its due and notice the unique foundation quietly taking place out west.

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