Trust in Nuggets, comforts of Denver lead to Nene's return
Nene strolled through the Denver Nuggets locker room Wednesday afternoon, shaking hands and exchanging hugs with coaches, teammates and other familiar faces.
Upon seeing Ty Lawson in the players’ lounge, he put the 5-foot-11 point guard in a headlock like a big brother who arrived home just in time for the holidays.
Nene never really left, but his appearance at Pepsi Center had a feeling of many happy returns.
“It’s hard to describe what I feel right now,” the Brazilian big man said shortly after signing a new five-year contract. “It’s a lot of emotion. I think about the past when I first came here. It’s almost 10 years. When I came here (in 2002), I was so young. Now I’m a grown man with a son, wife and family.”
After being courted by several teams during a whirlwind free-agent period, Nene ultimately decided to re-sign with the Nuggets. On Dec. 26, he will join Byron Beck, Alex English and Dan Issel as the only players in franchise history to play at least 10 seasons in Denver.
Though he was offered more lucrative deals elsewhere, Nene’s ties to Colorado – his wife is from Fort Collins – and his strong relationship with Nuggets president Josh Kroenke and executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri played a major role in his decision to stay in Denver.
“It was a blessing to see other offers, but I feel good in Denver,” he said. “I love to be here. I’ve said that in the past, and here I am.”
The foundation for Nene to re-sign was built several years ago when he and Ujiri – then an international scout for Denver – took a trip to Brazil for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program. Ujiri later left Denver to work for the Toronto Raptors, but he and Nene always remained close.
“You always try to keep those relationships,” Ujiri said. “He’s been good to us and good for us. It definitely helped. We all have a good relationship with him. Nene’s a good person, and he’s a great basketball player for our team and we’re really happy to have him.”
Nene, a cancer survivor who also overcame a major knee injury early in his career, couldn’t be happier as he begins the next chapter of his Nuggets career. He became a father for the first time in July and is ready to be a strong leader both at home and in the locker room.
The opportunity certainly is available.
After serving as a complementary player to All-Stars such as Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Allen Iverson, the 29-year-old Nene entered the free-agent market as a top target for teams searching for consistency in the paint. Over the past three seasons, Nene has appeared in 234 of 246 games and averaged at least 13.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. His .615 field-goal percentage was the best in the NBA last season.
“He’s one of your best players (on a team that has) won 50 games four years in a row,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “In today’s game, you can’t give those guys up. Because of trades and circumstances, he’s probably become our best player – our most-talented and skilled player. I think Masai and Josh did a great job handling this situation.”
Kroenke and Ujiri credited Nene’s team of representatives and Nene himself for getting a deal done. Things came together quickly late Tuesday night, and Nene signed his contract less than 24 hours later.
“We had our fingers and legs and toes crossed that we were going to be able to get something done,” Kroenke said. “We thought that our offer was strong. We were able to offer five years, where every other team could only offer four. We thought it was fair for both sides, and when we got the call last night, everybody was very excited.”
Nene’s teammates felt the same way. Within minutes of seeing the news on the internet, Lawson started tweeting Nene’s praises.
“He means a lot,” Lawson said. “He’s a big man you can throw it down to and you know he’s going to make a good play – either make a bucket or pass it out to the open man. He’s unselfish, so he’s a big part of this team.”
Veteran point guard Andre Miller also looked forward to throwing lobs to Nene and watching him finish in transition. Miller and Nene played together for three-plus seasons from 2003-06.
“He’s a very underrated big man,” Miller said. “He’s one of the better big-man passers in the league and his defense and his hands are probably some of the best in the league. I’m comfortable playing with him.”
While Lawson and Miller will take turns running the offense, the Nuggets have a potential starting frontcourt of Nene, 7-foot-1 center Timofey Mozgov and 6-foot-10 small forward Danilo Gallinari. Nene has been listed as a center for much of his career but is quick enough to play at power forward.
“I’ve coached 2,000 games,” Karl said. “I think there are big guys, little guys and then there are basketball players – and the great thing about Nene is that he’s a basketball player. There are probably 10-15 games a year that you need to be big. I think our best team is with him starting at power forward, but that’s yet to be determined.”
Nene’s signing came one day after the Nuggets acquired swingman Rudy Fernandez and forward Corey Brewer from the Dallas Mavericks for a future second-round draft pick. The focus now turns to re-signing restricted free-agent shooting guard Arron Afflalo.
The Nuggets are optimistic Afflalo will follow in Nene’s footsteps and return to Denver.
“There has always been two priorities,” Kroenke said. “To Nene’s credit, he realized that we’ve always been an organization that’s stood behind him through thick and thin. Arron is definitely our next priority. We hope to have Arron back in the fold very soon.
“With Masai negotiating, anything’s possible.”