Have Denver Nuggets Replaced Los Angeles Clippers as NBA's Cheapest Team?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJune 8, 2013

Look out, Los Angeles Clippers. There may be a new sheriff in Tightfist Town: the Denver Nuggets.

The Nuggets stunned the NBA on June 6 when they fired head coach George Karl, just 29 days after being named the league's Coach of the Year for the 2012-13 season. For his part, Karl all but predicted the potential for such a shocking demise back in April, when it appeared he might win the when he told Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post:

"Coach of the year? I'm not sure I want that legacy," George Karl said in April when it appeared he might win the NBA award. "Have you seen what happens to guys who win coach of the year?"

If we hadn't before, we certainly have now.

Per Benjamin Hochman, Nuggets president Josh Kroenke indicated that Karl's ouster came about after the coach, who'd guided Denver to the playoffs in each of the last nine years, pushed hard for an extension.

Karl, 62, allegedly demanded a degree of long-term security that the Nuggets weren't willing to offer, especially after the Nuggets failed to parlay their NBA franchise-best 57-25 regular season into playoff success. Thus, Kroenke thought it best to part ways with Karl now rather than wade through a contentious campaign in 2013-14.

Kroenke addressed the change further at a press conference in Denver on June 7 (again, via Benjamin Hochman, aka the go-to guy for Nuggets news):

We talked about our future, we talked about our different desires for the organization. We both sat down and tried to figure out the best ways for both of us moving forward. My worst-case scenario that I kept coming back to was we're obviously going to start next season without (injured forward Danilo) Gallinari, and it would be a tough situation to put George in knowing that he might want to restructure his contract already.

If he was in the final year of his contract and we start off slow, that would be an impossible situation to put a coach of that stature in. I have the utmost respect for George Karl as a coach and as a person, and I did not want to put him in that situation. I felt that although it was a tough decision, I felt it was the right one to make at this point in time for us all to get a fresh start moving forward.

In a vacuum, then, Karl's departure does make some sense, though firing a coach now because you think you might be forced to fire him later seems a bit premature. Still, if the Nuggets didn't think George Karl was the right coach to take them to the next level, then they could certainly do worse than change things up.

Karl's canning becomes a bit more curious when considering that the Nuggets allowed their general manager, Masai Ujiri, to leave for the same gig with the Toronto Raptors just a few days earlier—and shortly after Ujiri took home Executive of the Year honors.

In three years at the helm, Ujiri had done a masterful job of turning the supremely sour lemons of the Carmelo Anthony "Melodrama" into the bittersweet lemonade of a dark-horse Western Conference contender that, alas, couldn't keep pace with the Golden State Warriors in the first round of this year's playoffs.

The Raptors enticed Ujiri to return to Toronto, where he'd served as an assistant GM under current team president Bryan Colangelo, by way of a five-year, $15 million pact. At the same press conference during which he discussed Karl's departure, Kroenke claimed that the change in the front office was not, in any way, financially motivated via Benjamin Hochman:

It wasn't a black-and-white situation, which a lot of people tried to make it. I don't think it was a situation regarding money at all. I know people say that all the time, because of the dollars that are thrown around in this league, but there are a lot of close relationships involved as well.

It was a tough decision for him, but to be named the head of basketball to back to the team that gave him the first real shot in the front office, I think it was a tremendous opportunity for him and I wish him the best.

That, too, would make sense, if not for the fact that, per Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post, the Nuggets declined to so much as match the Raps' offer to Ujiri. In their defense, Ujiri reportedly told Kroenke that his heart was already set on a Toronto reunion, and that any attempt to convince him to stay put would've ultimately been futile, according to a tweet by Benjamin Hochman.

To be sure, the Nuggets have cause for being careful about their finances. For all the talk about the team's mile-high home-court advantage and extended run of success, Denver has struggled to fill the Pepsi Center at times. According to ESPN, Denver has ranked no better than 13th in the league in home attendance percentage since at least 2009.

The Nuggets' own franchise history has done plenty to encourage the Kroenkes to tighten their purse strings. Like the other three teams (i.e. the San Antonio Spurs, the Indiana Pacers, and the then-New York Nets) that crossed over from the ABA to the NBA in 1976, the Nuggets are annually forced to fork over one-seventh of their TV revenue.

The reason? In its efforts to finalize the merger, the NBA cut a deal with the Silna brothers, the co-owners of the Spirits of St. Louis, to fold their franchise and allow the ABA teams safe passage into The Association.

That deal saw the Silna brothers net $3 million and the aforementioned cut of the ABA teams' TV rights in perpetuity. As such, Denver will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to generating revenue from basketball's ever-more-lucrative relationship with TV.

That is, unless the team's lawyers can somehow find a way to excise the Nuggets from their pact with the Silnas find a workaround for their media rights.

In this regard, it certainly doesn't help Denver's case that the Kroenkes are in charge. Stan Kroenke, the family's billionaire patriarch and owner of Kroenke Sports Enterprises, is known to many (and despised by some) for his frugality.

One need only turn to the nearest bitter fan of Arsenal FC, the famed English Premier League club of which Kroenke is the majority owner, to grasp the shrewd stance that "Silent Stan" has so often taken when at the intersection of winning in the arena of competition and succeeding from a financial standpoint.

Which is to say, he's never been one to spend freely in pursuit of victory, like, say, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks or even the Buss family of Los Angeles Lakers lore.

If anything, the Kroenkes may well belong in a closer league with notorious Los Angeles Clippers overlord Donald Sterling.

He's long been the scapegoat for the Clippers' miserable history, and his own track record of shady business practices (i.e. discrimination, false advertisement, breaking promises, etc.) hasn't helped matters any. For years, Sterling has skimped on the salaries of his organization's employees, from front office executives to coaches all the way down to the 12-man roster.

To his credit, Sterling has relaxed his grip on his pocketbook somewhat in recent years.

This past season saw the Clips' payroll exceed the NBA's salary cap threshold for the first time in years. The front office has been granted plenty of leeway to re-sign (DeAndre Jordan) and extend (Blake Griffin) its own players and bring in new ones (Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford) at rates that would've likely nauseated Sterling once upon a time.

The Clips figure to extend Sterling's streak of generosity this summer, when they offer Chris Paul a five-year deal worth approximately $108 million to stay in L.A.

To be sure, the NBA's latest collective bargaining agreement has already done plenty to alleviate the concerns of the league's more miserly owners by shortening player contracts, depressing salaries, instituting harsher luxury tax penalties, and expanding revenue sharing as a means of improving profit margins for many of the league's 30 franchises.

Hence, Sterling's new behavior probably isn't the result of some epiphany related to fan satisfaction or personal legacy.

The Nuggets haven't exactly skimped on salaries themselves. In January 2012, they extended Danilo Gallinari for four years and $42 million. Last summer, Denver re-signed JaVale McGee for four years and $44 million and followed that up with a four-year, $48-million extension for Ty Lawson.

But the man who arranged those deals (Ujiri) is gone. Likewise, Neil Olshey, who was responsible for many of the Clips' current contracts and who was instrumental in bringing Chris Paul to L.A., fled town for the same job with the Portland Trail Blazers following the 2011-12 season.

And though it's largely unfair to compare George Karl's situation to Vinny Del Negro's, there are some parallels that are difficult to ignore.

Both coaches guided their respective squads to historic seasons and would've been owed raises of some sort for doing so had they stayed. Both also struggled to parlay those regular-season results into postseason success and drew heavy criticism for their inability to adjust and adapt from game to game in the playoffs.

But the end of Karl's tenure had nothing to do with the rumored wishes of a star player, as Del Negro's nixing was said to be. Nor was Karl brought in back in 2004-05 because the Nuggets weren't willing to pay a good coach.

As veteran reporter David Aldridge noted, when VDN was first hired by the Clippers back in 2010, L.A.'s recently deposed coach came equipped with an "offset" that would apply to his subsequent contract as a result of the Chicago Bulls booting him before his deal was done.

Meaning, Chicago would have to supplement Del Negro's salary if the Clippers opted to pay him less than the $2 million he would've otherwise earned in the Windy City.

More importantly, Del Negro's resume paled in comparison to Karl's.

The former has only been a head coach for five years, with 210 wins, three first-round playoff exits and a second-round sweep-out to his name.

As for the latter, Karl has 25 years as an NBA head coach under his belt, during which time he's amassed 1,131 regular season wins (sixth all-time), 80 playoff victories (tied for eighth all-time), 22 playoff appearances, and a trip to the 1996 NBA Finals with the Seattle SuperSonics.

But the issue here isn't with what Karl accomplished or even with what Ujiri managed to put together before he took his talents to Toronto. Rather, it's with the ownership and its apparent unwillingness to pony up to maintain the status quo.

Then again, if that status quo hadn't earned the Nuggets anything more than two playoff-series victories since 2005, then was it really worth preserving?

The real test of whether or not the Kroenkes deserve to mentioned alongside as the NBA's biggest cheapskates will come in the next few weeks. If they splurge a bit to lure a top-notch coach to the Mile High City and either keep assistant GM Pete D'Alessandro around or hire another bright personnel mind from elsewhere.

But if they skimp in their pursuit of a summer makeover, then the Nuggets may well find themselves in a metaphorical standoff with the Clippers for outright control of the NBA's Tightfist Town.



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