The Denver Nuggets have hired a man with global basketball experience to manage a team that's in a world of hurt: two big men sidelined, a player under police investigation and its superstar's signature missing from a contract extension.
Former Nuggets international scout Masai Ujiri was appointed the team's new executive vice president of basketball operations on Friday.
Ujiri (whose name is pronounced ma-SIGH u-JEER-e) served as a scout for the Nuggets from 2003-07 before joining the Toronto Raptors as director of international scouting in 2008. He most recently served as the Raptors' assistant general manager in charge of player personnel.
The Nigerian-born Ujiri played at Bismarck State College and Montana State and professionally in Europe for six seasons before beginning his NBA career as an international scout for the Orlando Magic in 2002.
Ujiri, 39, also served as director of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program the last eight years.
The Nuggets had been without a front office leader since the contracts of Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman expired earlier this month, although team adviser Bret Bearup has played a role in personnel decisions for several years.
''We are very pleased to welcome Masai back to Denver,'' Nuggets official Josh Kroenke said in a statement. ''He brings a diverse basketball background and a unique perspective that will be valuable to our organization. He is respected in basketball circles throughout the world.''
Kroenke is the 30-year-old son of owner Stan Kroenke, who agreed to turn over operational and financial control of the Nuggets and the NHL's Colorado Avalanche as a condition for taking over as majority owner of the NFL's St. Louis Rams on Wednesday.
Ujiri rejoins a team at a crossroads.
Coach George Karl hopes to return to the sideline this fall after missing the final two months last season while undergoing treatment for throat and neck cancer. In his absence, the Nuggets went from conference contender to first-round flop in the playoffs under assistant Adrian Dantley a year after taking the Los Angeles Lakers to the brink in the Western Conference finals.
All-Star Carmelo Anthony, who has guided the Nuggets to the playoffs every season since leading Syracuse to the national title as a freshman in 2003, hasn't signed a three-year, $65 million extension that's been on the table for two months, leading to alarm that his seven-year stint in Denver could be coming to a close.
Anthony can opt out of the final year of his contract after this season and become the headliner of the 2011 free agent class a year after LeBron James and Chris Bosh shook up the league's balance of power by taking their talents to South Beach to play with Dwyane Wade and the Heat.
The Nuggets aren't likely to let it go that far and would almost certainly try to trade Anthony before the February deadline so they can get players and/or picks in return for the superstar rather than risk losing him without compensation next summer.
Ujiri wasn't made available to the media on Friday but in an interview posted on the team's website, he said he was eager to meet with Anthony.
''I don't know what difference I'm going to make, but I'm excited. This has been Melo's team and Melo's city almost, basketball-wise. He's built a legacy here. The players who have played in one city and stayed in one city have done pretty well,'' Ujiri told nuggets.com.
''I know last year there was a challenge with George Karl and his illness. But I've talked to him and he's in full spirits. He's pumped up about the season. That's positive,'' Ujiri added. ''I think I can bring a general positive vibe into everything, from the front office to the team. ''
Anthony has said he wanted to see the team bolster its frontcourt, a sentiment shared by the old regime, which failed to get back into the draft in June to select a big man and was then unsuccessful in its pursuits of free agents Jermaine O'Neal and Udonis Haslem.
They ended up signing free agent Al Harrington, who is slated to start at power forward with Nene at center when the season begins because Kenyon Martin and Chris ''Birdman'' Andersen are expected to miss a chunk of the upcoming season following offseason knee surgeries.
And sixth man J.R. Smith might finally have worn out his welcome in Denver. The talented but often-troubled scorer is under police investigation for an alleged altercation he had with a person at the team's practice facility earlier this month.
Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson said Thursday that officers went to the facility Aug. 13 after a report of an altercation involving Smith and another non-NBA player in a pickup game. The district attorney previously declined to pursue the complaint against Smith, but the investigation has been reopened because another witness came forward, Jackson said.