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MONROE: Nuggets in for a season of transition

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Mike Monroe

 
   
 
I have friends who cover the NBA — friends whose opinions I greatly respect — who sincerely believe the Denver this season won't reach double figures in wins. Now that is out for who-knows-how-long — with his history, I'm figuring it will be later, not sooner, before he returns — they may be right. But I'm here to tell you Kiki Vandeweghe may be the slyest fox who ever slipped into the NBA's hen house. Vandeweghe is general manager of the , a job many thought he was an idiot to take. Most look at the moves he has made thus far as being pretty idiotic, too. On trade deadline day last season Vandeweghe traded , , and to the for , and . On draft day he moved and the draft rights to for Camby, and the draft rights to . Not long after taking over the ' basketball operations he traded to the for and a conditional first-round pick. Most recently he traded and and that same conditional first-round pick to the for . Oh, yeah. He also hired as his head coach an untested assistant coach who had spent most of his NBA life as a scout. I can see how any casual observer might think Vandeweghe clueless. And indeed, I too believe the will be hard pressed this season to get even to 20 wins. But there is a method to Vandeweghe's seeming madness. There"s even a model: The Dallas . And if there is a franchise worth emulating for teams that have been mired in mediocrity for years, it definitely is Dallas. Before Mark Cuban bought the Mavs and set about running a franchise with thinking that was decidedly "outside the box" the statistically were one of the worst franchises in all of pro sports. Now they are one of the NBA's elite teams, certain to be in the thick of the race for the Midwest Division title this season. Just as importantly, their fan base has been utterly renewed and revitalized. And here is a little secret about some of the creativity Cuban applied in completely changing the club's image: Much of it came straight from Vandeweghe. Cuban hired Vandeweghe to work with his players on their offensive games because there are few coaches in the game better at it than Vandeweghe, who has studied the art of scoring nearly all his life. Vandeweghe soon made himself a key player in the " front office. Cuban recognized his ingenuity and leaned on him. It was Vandeweghe who suggested the spend like lotto winners on luxuries for the players, with the specific intent of making it easier for the players to focus on basketball and with a keen eye on the word-of-mouth "recruiting effect" this could have on potential acquisitions. "The NBA is really a recruiting game now," Vandeweghe said. "Players all talk. It's a small community of players. You've got to be able to be able to attract quality free agents, and if you"re going to pay these guys you want to commit to the best guys." So Vandeweghe told Cuban all the "perks" he would have liked to have had when he was among the NBA's most prolific scorers for the , and . And Cuban went out and got them. "When Mark first bought the team," Vandeweghe said, "we sat down and he said: 'How can we do this better?' And this is what I told him, so you can raise the profile of the , so the players say, 'Oh, man, this is great. Look what they give us.'" "And it"s a marginal cost. You look at all the dollars involved, and to do that for the players the idea is two-fold: to attract free agents and make the players feel special to where they just have to focus on basketball and they just work as hard as they can." "We sat on his airplane from Dallas to Los Angeles and this is what we went over. Mark executed better than I ever could have imagined. I have a lot of respect for him, one of the smartest guys I know, so who got it from whom doesn't matter. I learned a lot from that guy." Now Vandeweghe is taking the same approach in Denver. owner Stan Kroenke gave him the same kind of open-checkbook support Cuban applied in Dallas and the spent nearly $1 million in the off-season updating player facilities at Pepsi Center, little more than two years old before the renovation began. Now there is a newer, bigger, state-of-the-art weight room and workout facility; a new player lounge with 24-hour internet connections and a live T-1 line; a massage room (with masseur); a sleeping room; a theater; a pool room; catered meals after practices and games. "Anything I can think of that I would have wanted when I was a player that would make a player's life better so all they have to do is just focus on basketball," Vandeweghe said of the improved facilities in Denver. "That's it." "It takes commitment and focus to do a good job in this league," Cuban said. "You have to have the guts to create a plan and follow through. Kiki has all of that. He understands basketball, player development and just as importantly the business side. You can't make a decision in this league without money being part of the equation. Kiki is capable of making decisions that weigh all the variables. That's pretty unique in this league." As for those trades Vandeweghe has made in his short tenure, here's all you really need to know to understand that he may be on to something: He was able to talk Doug Moe into returning to an active role in the organization (a consultant to both the coaching staff and Vandeweghe) only because those deals have given Denver a chance to be good in the future. There are no guarantees, of course, but before Vandeweghe's deals the had, in Moe's colorful words, "no (bleeping) shot." "No way I'm here if Kiki hadn't gotten rid of all the junk that was on the roster," Moe said the other night after a public scrimmage at Pepsi Center, the only chance, it likely will turn out, that Denverites were going to have to see Camby on the Pepsi Center court all season. "Now at least we've got a chance to get good again." The bottom line for the this season isn't wins and losses. It's not even this season. It's the bottom line. As in money under the salary cap. No team in the NBA is going to have more money to spend on free agents next summer, when Howard's $20 million goes away. Vandeweghe says he will spend all that money — as much as $24 million in cap space — only on "difference makers." The real test for a guy who says he doesn't mind doing things out of the NBA mainstream, will be convincing any of the difference makers available the next couple of summers that Denver is the place worth making it. The new facilities are a small part of his sales pitch. It's going to be a much tougher sell convincing "difference makers" that the team isn't going to suck swamp water for, oh, another decade or so. If that's going to happen, then really will have to turn out to be the new and will need to be the second coming of . It's going to take patience, and for at least the next season, Vandeweghe likely is going to be the architect of what looks a lot like a house of cards. But at least the are headed in a new direction. The old one certainly wasn't working. "I have to give Kiki incredible amounts of credit for having the guts to pull the trigger on a deal," Cuban said. "There are 100 deals that everyone thought was a done deal for every one that is completed. With Kiki, you know that he will not only talk the talk , but walk the walk." A lot of so-called experts think Vandeweghe is wobbling as he walks, but Vandeweghe couldn't care less what the perception of him is around the league. If you want to call him unconventional, even goofy, go right ahead. "I don't want to be known as anything but a guy who got the job done," Vandeweghe said. "However we can be successful as a team, that's what we want to be known for, and me, too." Finally, consider this: Would Vandeweghe intentionally put together a team that will be so bad this season it will have an optimal shot at LeBron James in the next draft? Now you're beginning to understand how sly he may really be. Mike Monroe can be reached at his e-mail address: mmonroe@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Mavericks, Nuggets, Pistons, Bucks, Knicks, Suns, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Jazz, Juwan Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Antonio McDyess, Raef LaFrentz, Marcus Camby, Nene Hilario

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