Denver Nugget general manager Masai Ujiri has won the 2012-13 Executive of the Year award, the rare NBA honor that is actually voted on by colleagues and front office peers. NBA observers may never have quaked in fear in anticipation of the presence of the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets, and the team may have bowed out of the first round in a one-sided defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, but these Nuggies did do incredible work during the regular season. The Nuggets won 57 out of 82 games despite starting the season with what could have been a destructive road-heavy schedule, all while playing without a single starter that even sniffed the midseason NBA All-Star Game.
The Denver Post’s Benjamin Hochman was the first to report the news late Wednesday night, handing the first African-born GM in major North American sports a deserved award that will stand along Nuggets coach George Karl’s Coach of the Year award as some consolation for an injury-plagued early end to Denver’s season. Ujiri has quite a bit of work ahead of him as the Nuggets attempt to overcome that first round hurdle for the third time in the franchise’s last quarter-century, but for now the award stands as a tangible tribute to Ujiri and Karl’s vision for a transition-based team featuring a different hero every night.
There is a line of thinking that tends to flatten out awards like these, handing Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, and Pat Riley the respective Coach, MVP, and Executive awards because they’re the best in the game. Some will argue that, as long as LeBron James (a 2010 free agent acquisition by Riley) plays in Miami, Riley should win the Executive of the Year award; an idea buttressed by the seemingly inevitable second straight NBA championship for the Heat. And even in that one-year vacuum, just counting the 2012-13 campaign on Ujiri’s behalf, it’s possible to pick apart the GM’s most recent moves.
Ujiri dove into the Dwight Howard vs. Orlando Magic mess for long enough to pluck Andre Iguodala from the Philadelphia 76ers in a four-team trade. And though Iguodala’s defense was a huge part of Denver’s attempt to stay amongst the middle of the pack on that end, his offense fell off a cliff this year. JaVale McGee was signed to a four-year, $44 million contract in the offseason, and his overall game did not progress much in 2012-13. And though we respect Ty Lawson’s game, is he going to be worth over $13 million at age 30 in 2017?
On top of that, Ujiri’s biggest move (the deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York for a litany of depth providing team helpers and draft picks) hit the airwaves in 2011. If this award is for 2012-13 and 2012-13 only, there are a lot of mitigating worries to consider.
The team won, though, utilizing a “young and energetic” roster that gave teams fits as it attempted to win in Denver during the regular season’s dog days of late winter and early spring. The Nuggets have been dismissed by many as a team that couldn’t cut it in the postseason due to its defensive issues and lack of a go-to star, a squad that could not adjust when faced with suiting up for one opponent at a time, but there is credit to be given for creating the ultimate regular season team, malleable and talented enough to take down four different opponents in six different nights. The Nuggets won 40 of its last 50 games, and there has to be some sort of slow clap for that sort of accomplishment.
Both Karl and Ujiri earned these impressive awards, and they’ve earned that slow clap from our end. And in a few weeks, they’ll step back from the mantle and start to figure out a way to give their fans Denver Nugget basketball well into the month of May.