If you went to the Hallmark store to buy a card for Masai Ujiri and Dell Demps, you wouldn't know whether to look in the congratulations or condolences section.
The good news is they've landed two of the scarce general manager jobs in the NBA. Ujiri went from assistant general manager in Toronto to become the Denver Nuggets' executive vice president of basketball operations. Demps left his job as the director of pro player personnel for the San Antonio Spurs to become the senior vice president and general manager of the New Orleans Hornets.
The down side is they expected giant clocks to be in their offices when they arrived for their first days of work, counting down the days until their best players are free agents. Carmelo Anthony's contract expires next year and he wants out of Denver (he reiterated to Yahoo! Sports this week that "it's time for a change"), while Chris Paul has let it be known he would be receptive to a trade if the Hornets don't improve by the time he's eligible for free agency in 2012.
Have at it, Masai and Dell.
As one sympathetic general manager said, "They really walked into it."
Bryan Colangelo, who was Ujiri's superior in Toronto, called it "baptism by fire."
Ujiri doesn't seem fazed.
"It's part of the job," he said. "It's part of what we do. There will be problems on any NBA team, whether it's now, whether it's a year from now, a couple years from now. I feel that's the way the league is. I walked into it, but for me it's a great job, a great organization."
Anthony isn't making it easier. On Friday he slightly backed off his "time for a change" remarks from earlier in the week, but he has yet to say that remaining in Denver carries any significance for him. In relationship terms, he keeps talking about seeing other people instead of settling down.
There will be problems on any NBA team, whether it's now, whether it's a year from now, a couple years from now. I feel that's the way the league is. I walked into it, but for me it's a great job, a great organization.
”-- Nuggets executive VP Masai Ujiri
"By me just saying I'm keeping my options open, [people] are just taking that and giving it arms and legs and just running with it," Anthony said. "When I say that I just want to keep my options open, it doesn't mean I want to go [or] I want to stay. I want to keep my options open.
"I know this, at this time, this is the only time that I will ever have a chance to be a free agent. I just want to play this year, keep my options open; we'll see what happen at the end."
The popular belief is that Ujiri will be shaded by his experience in Toronto last season. The Raptors did not move Chris Bosh before the trading deadline, and were left with intangible assets such as draft picks and a trade exception when Bosh decided to sign with the Miami Heat in July. But Ujiri doesn't feel trapped in "Groundhog Day." There's a small portion of him that believes a successful season would be enough to change Anthony's mind, despite all indications otherwise.
He won't discuss the Bosh experience in detail, saying simply, "You learn from it." But Colangelo shed some light on Toronto's approach.
"What you learn is players ultimately decide what they want to do based on a whole lot of circumstances," Colangelo said. "Things that appear to be on track can derail quickly. At the end of the day, you have to make decisions that are best for the franchise. When there was a moment to make a deal with Bosh, the deals that were on the table weren't enough to justify trading away our best player, who was averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds a game. At the All-Star break, on Feb. 15, sitting on 29 wins, tying a franchise record, we made a conscious decision that we were going to do our best and compete that season."
Bosh sprained his ankle in the first game after the break, the Raptors lost four of the next seven games they played without him, and they started their slide to a losing record and ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Bosh missed the final five games with a broken nose; then he was off to his free-agency tour, culminating in the festivities in Miami. Toronto wound up with two first-round picks and a $16 million trade exception in the sign-and-trade deal with the Heat.
If the Nuggets are going to move Anthony, they want a greater variety of assets. They want young talent, draft picks and no bad contracts coming in. They appeared to have those in place with a complicated, multiteam deal that would have brought in Nets rookie Derrick Favors, among other pieces, but the Nuggets didn't pull the trigger. I've heard the Nets would be reluctant to recreate the same terms if trade talks are resurrected, although one Nets source said they would still be willing to include Favors if they could land Anthony. The Clippers play in Los Angeles and have an acute need for a star small forward. But if Ujiri and Clippers GM Neil Olshey held a Facebook chat, it probably would go like this:
"What's up, Masai? What would it take for us to get Melo?"
Neil is offline
Ujiri is in no rush. Nor is he under any false pretense that Anthony truly wants to stay in Denver no matter what. But he is optimistic. Ujiri and team president Josh Kroenke met with Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak to learn how Kupchak handled the crisis when Kobe Bryant wanted out of Lakerland three years ago. Ujiri also keeps a notebook in which he writes down key points from conversations he has with team personnel, other general managers around the league and media members, just so he can keep track of what was said, and when.
The thing you have to be careful about are short-term fixes. You don't want to make decisions that are short-term-based that will hurt you in the long term.
”-- Hornets GM Dell Demps
"He's got a really unique ability to cut through a lot of the things that stop you from getting fair valuation on a player," Colangelo said. "He was exceptional in the player valuation area. For the job, people skills, being personable with your colleagues you've got to have the right approach. Masai's got an unassuming way about him. At the same time, he can be tough and make hard decisions."
Demps got to know Ujiri through Basketball Without Borders trips to hold clinics in Senegal, and they've spoken since they each got their new jobs.
"He's up for it," Demps said. "Masai's a smart guy."
Demps also acknowledged: "His situation is a little different than mine."
The Hornets have a little more leeway because Paul has an additional year remaining on his contract. The trade chatter hasn't been as furious as about the Nuggets, who seemingly have another rumor to address on a daily basis.
Demps says Paul has "never been on the market since I've been on the job."
"We're in a situation where we have a lot of flexibility going forward," Demps said. "Our flexibility is great.
"I feel the pressure because we want to win. I'm with [Paul]. We didn't get in this to be just OK. I look at it as the challenge of putting together a team that can play at the highest level. The thing you have to be careful about are short-term fixes. You don't want to make decisions that are short-term-based that will hurt you in the long term."
Demps comes from the Spurs' factory, which usually has churned out general managers who build for the long term (think Sam Presti in Oklahoma City and ex-Portland boss Kevin Pritchard). But the Spurs had the luxury of Tim Duncan signed to long-term contracts. Paul's game is nasty, and the moves of LeBron James and Bosh this summer changed the landscape. It sounds as if Demps is hoping to catch a superstar-in-distress sale.
"If you've got a chance to pick up a guy that wants to leave, there have been some teams that benefited from that," Demps said. "Especially the last two champions."
Maybe Demps should try to get Carmelo from Ujiri.