Nuggets executive Masai Ujiri keeps focus on big picture
As the Denver Nuggets pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to the final minutes of a seven-game playoff series, they gained legions of new fans with their heart, talent and entertaining style of play.
Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri enjoyed the ride as much as anyone, but always reminded himself not to get too caught up in the moment.
There are still loftier goals to pursue.
“We’re not trying to be fun to watch. We’re trying to win,” Ujiri said Thursday. “Everybody texts and sends us messages on how fun our team is to watch, but we want to win a championship. We’re on the right path.”
In 21 months on the job, Ujiri and team president Josh Kroenke have transformed Denver’s roster through a series of trades and the NBA Draft. Now with 12 players already under contract for next season, they are hoping to enter a period of stability.
“We have to be patient at this time,” Ujiri said. “You can’t continue making changes everywhere, every day. Yeah, there will be one or two changes (this summer). Our goal here is to be patient now and let this team grow, have some continuity and see how it pans out.”
Among the offseason priorities are signing point guard Ty Lawson to a contract extension, re-signing restricted free-agent center JaVale McGee and re-signing unrestricted free-agent point guard Andre Miller.
Ujiri said he had a great conversation with Miller this week and came away optimistic that the 36-year-old would be back in Denver next season.
“He told us plain and simple that he wants to come back and he wants to play here,” Ujiri said. “Do we want Andre back? Yes. Collectively, the organization, ownership, coach (George) Karl, (his) teammates, we want Andre back. He was great for our team.”
Over the final weeks of the regular season and in the playoffs, Miller developed a strong on-the-court connection with McGee, finding the athletic 7-footer for easy lobs in transition and in half-court sets.
McGee, 24, averaged 10.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in 20 games after being acquired by the Nuggets from the Washington Wizards. He averaged 10.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in the postseason.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Ujiri said. “We feel we’re in a position where we can help the kid. He’s respectful, he’s always on time, he works … The contract, that’s our job. We have to figure out a way to do it.”
The Nuggets can match any offer McGee receives from another team. After getting his first taste of the playoffs, he didn’t sound like someone eager to leave.
“It was a great experience, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in basketball,” he said after Game 7. “It was just an honor to be part of this team … This was a great team before I came. I just tried to add to it. I’m just excited about the opportunity to be part of a great organization like this.”
While free agency is on the radar, the Nuggets are in the midst of preparation for the June 28 NBA Draft. Denver currently holds the 20th, 38th and 50th overall picks.
“We’re going in there open-minded,” Ujiri said. “Is it to move up, move back, stay with the pick? We’ll see what it brings us. The draft is a deep draft – at least that’s what the perception is – and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
The Nuggets selected Kenneth Faried with the 22nd overall pick a year ago. After limited minutes through the first two months of the season, Faried stepped into the starting lineup and averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in 46 games.
The Manimal, who finished third in the 2011-12 NBA Rookie of the Year balloting, also handled himself well in the playoffs, averaging 10.4 points and 9.8 rebounds.
“He showed us that he could play with the best of them,” Ujiri said. “He plays hard, he runs, he’s a jumper, he’s aggressive. You hit him in the face, and he comes back. That’s always going to survive in the NBA, 100 percent.”
Faried and several of his teammates will be working out at Pepsi Center this summer as they strive toward becoming an elite team in the Western Conference.
“It’s time to start looking towards the future and seeing how we can get better,” Ujiri said. “We look forward to one day competing for the championship. That’s a goal of ours. It will always be the goal of the organization.”