DENVER – The NBA's Executive of the Year is the frumpy 56-year-old wearing a Cal State Fullerton sweatshirt at a table inside a downtown P.F. Chang's. The Denver Nuggets fans march past his table for hours, but no one connects the man most responsible for the best season in franchise history. Mark Warkentien comes out of the old Vegas, the old strip, a survivor of Tark's glory days at UNLV.
He's always been the guy behind the guy.
No one will see him for Game 6 of the Western Conference finals because he prefers to hunker down in the video room. This way, no one can ever charge him with what he's grown to disdain on the job: the burgeoning generation of look-at-me smarty pants.
He finally grabs a reporter's notebook and pen and draws three columns: principal, teachers and students.
"Here are schools in America," Warkentien said, "and it ain't about the principals."
He pokes the pen toward the teachers and students, his coaches and players. "It's about these guys, and these guys.
"If you've got them going good, good stuff is going to happen. Then you've done your [bleeping] job. If the teachers are digging the principals too much, if the students are digging the principal, you're probably screwed up.
"You've got that starting to go on in the front office now in the NBA: 'It's all about me.' It's about the players. You can make that better, and that's your job, but you had better not get out front too much.
"Yeah, you have them rocking and rolling, good [bleep] happens.
"But it ain't about you."
This gets him going, and that's part of the reason Warkentien is so popular with his peers: He is a throwback, a grinder, a road warrior who has spent too many Marriott nights wandering hotel corridors, trying to remember his room number.
Denver has had a strange and combustible front office mix, with Warkentien, Rex Chapman and Brett Bearup. At times, rival GMs and player agents never know which executive has owner Stan Kroenke's ear.
Since Warkentien was hired three years ago, he made the trades for Allen Iverson(notes) and Billups that transformed these Nuggets from a 45- to 50- to 54-victory team. Yes, the Billups deal won him Executive of the Year, but Warkentien also slashed a potential $20 million in salary and incentives off the Nuggets' payroll and still upgraded the roster.
After the Marcus Camby(notes) salary dump to the Los Angeles Clippers, Warkentien brought back Chris Andersen(notes), "The Birdman," to take that shot-blocking and rebounding role on a veteran's minimum contract. When everyone else was scouting the NCAA tournament a year ago, Warkentien was driving the old highways of his childhood state, Indiana, chasing something unheard of an old Vegas recruiter: a Duke player, Dahntay Jones(notes) of the NBA's D-League Fort Wayne Ants.
"He wanted to show Dahntay and I how serious he was about signing him," agent Mark Bartelstein said. "He kept showing up everywhere. He had to work really hard for months to get a minimum contract done with him."
As much as anything, Warkentien survived the power play with leverage and possibility. He has one year left on his contract, and his agent, Steve Kauffman, plans to start negotiations on an extension at season's end. The Nuggets gave Warkentien permission to talk with the New York Knicks president Donnie Walsh about his GM job, which is an option should he be unable to work out a deal with Denver.
"I want this to be my forever and ever," he said. "For me, this has a little more of a collegiate flavor than other places. I'm with my guys here."
The old UNLV guard, including assistants Tim Grgurich, Stacey Augmon(notes) and John Welch, speak to the counterculture nature of these Nuggets. What's more, Warkentien is closely aligned with coach George Karl. "George is a Vegas guy," Warkentien says. "He just went to Carolina." Together, they embrace the black hats, the idea that they can obliterate the NBA's grand designs of the Lakers in the Finals.
"We're the shot-and-beer guys. You ain't getting chardonnay and cheese in our locker room."
His peers marvel over his ability to thrive in the chaos of the Nuggets' front office, but that's part of what he's always been able to do. They won 310 games in his decade at Vegas, including three Final Fours and a national title. As an executive and scout for the Seattle Sonics and Portland Trail Blazers, Warkentien has a history of gathering winning players and making playoff runs deep into the spring.
After all these years, Warkentien still holds onto this idea of, "putting together an NCAA and an NBA champion," he said. "Not many people have been part of putting together both." He'll be back in the video room of the Pepsi Center for Game 6 on Friday, back watching in the shadows. The Nuggets' guy behind the guy.