In a two part interview this summer with Ben Couch, Kiki Vandeweghe talked about the process of rebuilding…not that he or anyone else on the Nets would call it that back then.
He recounted his own experience as the GM in Denver: "Just from personal experience, my last job was Denver, and we won 17 games one year. But we made the playoffs the next year, winning 43 games, and they’ve been good, winning close 50 games ever since -- the team was built to last. Whether you make it to the Conference Finals or not, you know you’re going to be in the playoffs and be competitive every night, maybe one good player away, but you’re there."
Of course, Nuggets ownership didn’t think he was doing such a bang-up job by the end of his fourth year and let him go.
Putting that aside for now--a lot of guys get dumped unfairly, just what was Kiki’s experience in Denver and how does it relate to the Nets? A review of his four-year tenure in Denver shows that in his first two years, he did a lot of what he and Rod Thorn are doing with the Nets now: stockpiling draft picks and expiring contracts while making a lot of unpopular decisions. There are differences in degree. In those two years, none of Vandeweghe’s trades yielded really young players with the potential of Devin Harris (24 at the time the Nets acquired him) or Courtney Lee (22), even Yi Jianlian (20). The closest he came was with 22-year-old Rodney White who turned into a bust and not a very nice one. He did grab 28-year-old but often-injured Marcus Camby, Mark Jackson and the #7 pick from the Knicks for soon-to-be-injured Antonio McDyess. Camby turned into the Defensive Player of the Year. He also signed 27-year-old Andre Miller.
He focused instead on stockpiling picks then mainly used them to help sweeten trades. He picked up four first rounders and two second rounders in his first two years. Problem is he didn’t get a lot of value for them in the long run…and that was one of the main criticisms leveled at him on his departure from Denver in May 2006.
Among the players he took with those picks were Nene, who’s now a top flight power forward but whose first several years in the league were fraught with one injury or illness after another; Frank Williams, who he pawned off on the Knicks in the Camby trade, and Julius Hodge, projected as a second round pick and rightly so. Vandeweghe used two others he acquired along the way (plus one of his own) to facilitate the sign-and-trade of Kenyon Martin, which seemed like a good idea at the time but turned into a cap space time bomb…and ultimately his undoing as GM.
He also made some very bad decisions with his own picks in the draft. There was Nikoloz Tskitishvili at #5 in 2002, a mega-bust the same night he conned the Knicks into giving up Camby, and Jameer Nelson at #20 in 2004, who he quickly trading for a future first round pick that became part of the KMart trade. In between, of course, he hit the jackpot when he picked Carmelo Anthony at #3 in 2003. Of course, he admitted if Darko Milicic had been available, he would have taken the Serb big man instead. He also picked Jarrett Jack on Draft Day 2005, then traded him for Linas Kleiza and a second round pick.
His biggest error may very well have been the Kmart trade, not so much because he overpaid him (he did), or overlooked his then minor but nagging knee injuries (he did) but because in a game of general manager poker, he got taken by Thorn (he did indeed). Vandeweghe blinked and agreed to give the Nets those three picks when he didn’t have to.
Chris Tomasson, then of the Rocky Mountain News, laid it out in his blog when Thorn hired Vandeweghe 18 months ago, opening with the line, "No wonder Rod Thorn likes Kiki Vandeweghe so much. He once handed him three first-round draft picks."
Tomasson started by detailing the frantic early days of July 2004 from a Denver perspective:
The Nuggets had unexpectedly made the playoffs in Carmelo Anthony's first season, and there was talk they were one player away from moving into the NBA's elite. Plus, they had nearly enough salary-cap room to hand out a maximum contract.
The Nuggets, though, really needed a shooting guard. Voshon Lenard was nothing more than a stop-gap starter.
The Nuggets wasted valuable time in courting Lakers free agent Kobe Bryant, who no way was going to sign with Denver while sexual assault chargers still were pending against him in Colorado. Then they turned their attention to Manu Ginobili, a restricted free agent with San Antonio. But no way would the Spurs not match anoffer sheet on the rising star.
The Nuggets also looked at Quentin Richardson. But he wasn't a guy they wanted to give huge dollars.
With Bryant and Ginobili, as expected, returning to their original teams, Martin was the only big-name free agent left and the clock was ticking. The Nuggets already had Nene at power forward, but there was a feeling the Nuggets needed to spend their money on somebody in order to build on the playoff momentum from the previous season.
So Martin became the target. He had been upset with the Nets for first dissing him the year before by offering a mere $66 million over six years, then letting it be known that they wouldn’t give him an offer til the market determined his value. The market became one Kiki Vandeweghe.
The initial thinking was the Nets wouldn't match a huge offer sheet. The Nuggets were prepared to offer Martin a six-year deal for just over $80 million. They would include a signing bonus of around $15 million in order to hamper the Nets even more from offering. [They were also prepared to include a substantial trade bonus and demand most of the first year’s salary up front.]
But at some point the Nuggets got nervous about simply extending an offer sheet. They were wondering if Nets might reverse course and match the offer while Thorn put on a brilliant poker face.
So who would blink first?
It turned out to be the Nuggets.
The Nuggets feared there was a chance the Nets might match. And with NBA rules then allowing a 15-day waiting period (it's now seven days), the Nuggets figured every reputable free agent would be gone if the Nets matched, leaving Denver with nobody to spend its money on.
It’s nice having a multi-billionaire owner. They can be so accommodating.
The Nuggets agreed to a sign-and-trade deal with the Nets. Thorn wanted four picks. Vandeweghe wanted to send him Tskitishvili and two picks. The final deal sent the Nets three first-round selections: a 2005 pick once belonging to Philadelphia, the Nuggets’ own 2006 pick and a 2006 selection that once belonged to the Clippers. [The Nets also came away with a $10 million trade exception.]
The deal also meant Martin could sign a seven-year, rather than a six-year deal (annual raises also would be higher). KMart wound up with a seven-year, $92.5 million deal, including a signing bonus of $1.5 million.
Of course, the Nets had no intention of matching back then. It was a bluff. It would have meant giving Martin a check for $23 million a week after the deal was done: the first year salary and the huge signing bonus, etc. rolled into one. No way new owner Bruce Ratner was going to be signing THAT check. The Nuggets could have walked away with Martin and those three picks.
Worse yet, Leonard blew out his knee the first game of the season. Martin has missed 150 games since the trade and Thorn used the Sixers’ pick and the Nuggets’ pick to acquire Vince Carter five months later. Ugh.
Beyond the Kmart fiasco, there have long been grumblings of overpaying not just Kmart but Nene, although we usually assign joint responsibility on those decisions. The owners write the checks, after all.
So where did Vandeweghe succeed?
He did very well with role players, free agents. In the first few weeks after the 2003 draft, following that 17-win season, Vandeweghe used his cap space to sign Andre Miller, Earl Boykins, Jon Barry, Francisco Elson, Chris Anderson, and Leonard, all serviceable players who helped the Nuggets go from 17 to 43 wins. Anderson also showed that Vandeweghe does have an eye for those "fallen angels" Camby is another example. (So is Jarvis Hayes).
He also brought in tough veteran leadership to mix with the kids, trading for Mark Jackson and Eduardo Najera, who he liked so much he signed with the Nets last season.
Did we mention Carmelo Anthony?
The Nuggets didn’t renew Vandeweghe after the 2006 season. As Tomasson wrote, Vandeweghe left the Nuggets with structural problems, most of them related to the Kmart deal: "Those picks could have provided much youthful invigoration for a Nuggets team that is now aging and has a bloated payroll." It's not for nothing his successor won Executive of the Year last season.
Certainly, Vandeweghe had some horrible luck. Losing Leonard on the first day of the 2004-05 season hurt, and losing Nene on the first day of the next season made it seem like the basketball gods were out to destroy him. And although Martin had had his share of knee problems in New Jersey, no one could have predicted two microfracture surgeries, one on each knee.
Still, he was also blessed with one of the richest owners in the NBA, Stan Kroenke who is one of the league’s few billionaires. That is a huge advantage. Ask Thorn whose never had anyone of the mega rich on the floor above him.
Thorn of course still calls the shots although Vandeweghe carries the cell phone other GM’s call first. When and whether he succeeds Thorn is anyone's guess...particularly with a new owner about to arrive.
Bottom line: Vandeweghe proved in Denver that he could tear down a team, stockpile picks, secure expiring contracts…and he did have some immediate success in building the Nuggets back up. But the question remains: did he squander a lot in the rebuilding?