In his first two seasons as Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations, Masai Ujiri constructed a roster loaded with youth, talent and athleticism.
He did it through headline-making trades that brought players such as Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala and JaVale McGee to Denver, and he shrewdly drafted rising star Kenneth Faried with the 22nd overall pick in 2011.
As the NBA trade deadline arrived Thursday, Ujiri and team president Josh Kroenke took a different approach. They opted to be patient with a group that has showed plenty of promise through the first two-thirds of the season.
“We like our young team,” Ujiri said. “We feel we're at a stage where we will leave them to grow. If you bring something in here that's not making a big difference, then you're messing with a couple of guys and their growth.”
After keeping their heads above water during a road-heavy early season schedule, the Nuggets (34-21) are fifth in the Western Conference and boast one of the NBA’s best records (17-6) since Jan. 1.
Gallinari and point guard Ty Lawson have played at an All-Star-caliber level during that stretch, while Iguodala has emerged as a legitimate candidate for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Combine that with the continue improvement of double-double machine Faried and a deep bench, and the Nuggets didn’t feel compelled to make a deal just for the sake of making a deal.
“Since I've been here in Denver, we've kind of made trades around the deadline, sometimes to fix some things, sometimes to help the team,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “Our team (now) has earned the respect of the coaches and the organization. We're ready to play 27 games to see how good we can be.”
Entering play Thursday, the Nuggets ranked first in the NBA in points in the paint and second-chance points. They were second in rebounding, third in scoring, fourth in blocks and steals, and fifth in field-goal percentage.
Denver’s two areas of weakness have been free-throw shooting and 3-point shooting.
“I don't think there's any question that shooting the ball is something that we have to examine somewhere along the way,” Karl said. “A lot of the formulas we study say if we shot the ball better, we'd be tremendously efficient.”
In taking phone calls from around the league, Ujiri said the Nuggets were never really close to making a move. Considering that Lawson is the lone player remaining from Denver’s 2010-11 opening night roster, the front office embraced the idea of stability.
“I know last two years, we've been accustomed to being the team that's always in there (making deals),” Ujiri said. “We're the third-youngest team in the NBA. We feel like these guys are growing. We feel like from the beginning of the season to now, we've made some progress.
“We're excited for this last part of the season. We'll go from there and deal with other issues in the summer.”
The Nuggets were en route to Washington, D.C., as the trade deadline passed. They will face the Washington Wizards on Friday as part of a back-to-back set that concludes Saturday against the Charlotte Bobcats.
Before the quick two-game trip, Iguodala gave his teammates an endorsement for sticking together.
“I honestly think we have a pretty good team,” he said. “Going forward, if we improve and continue to be on the incline as far as our basketball IQ and continue to grow with one another, we’re going to be a really good team and we’ll be scary. We’ll continue to fly under the radar, but it’s really up to us to believe in each other and keep playing.”