June 28, 2011
Nene is not a $50 million man.
Don’t get me wrong. Nene is a solid citizen. You can count on him for a quality, if not overwhelming, performance every night. He’s steady. He’s solid.
But that’s all. He’s played nine seasons for the Denver Nuggets and never competed in an All-Star Game. He’s a prime reason the Nuggets never stepped from good to great while taking seven first-round playoff exits from the playoffs in the past eight years.
Nene is not worth $13 million per season, give or take a few hundred thousand, over the next four years. He’s grumbling about not being appreciated while threatening to opt out of the final year of his contract.
He should be examining why he’s not fully embraced.
He’s not assertive enough. He’s content to stand around, waiting for his chance to take point-blank shots. He shot 61.5 percent from the field this season because he took nearly all his shots within five feet of the basket.
When Carmelo Anthony departed Colorado in February, it finally was time for Nene to emerge as the Nuggets' prime player. For nearly eight seasons, he watched Carmelo launch most of the shots and grab nearly all of the glory.
Nene could have seized the chance. He could have gathered his new teammates around him and carried them into the second round of the playoffs.
He was the same old Nene as he tangled with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He refused to become the snarling, intimidating presence in the lane the Nuggets required. He declined to become more fiery while chasing his points.
He did nothing to indicate he’s worth a massive salary.
Yes, waving goodbye to Nene will be painful, but pain is required if the Nuggets want to improve.
Nuggets leaders Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke face a decision. Do they continue flying below the best of the West or do they want to take the required risks to travel to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history?
If owner E. Stanley Kroenke opens the team vault and signs Nene, the Nuggets could flirt with 50 wins next season before taking their traditional first-round exit.
If Kroenke declines to open the vault, the Nuggets could win, say, 44 games, sneak into the playoffs and, yes, lose in the first round.
But without Nene on board, there will plentiful cash to chase a free agent. This chase could prove catastrophic. In 2004, the Nuggets unloaded $92.5 million to sign Kenyon Martin for seven seasons despite his volcanic temper and gimpy knees. They received 35 cents on the dollar for their investment, and that’s a generous estimate.
Still, it’s time for Nuggets leaders to quit kidding themselves. After nine seasons, it’s time to quit talking about Nene’s potential. He has fully revealed himself as an NBA player.
He’s good. He never will be great. He’s at his best in the regular season but fades, along with his teammates, in the playoffs. These are the games that truly matter, the games where you earn your paycheck.
Nene has overcome cancer and a severe knee injury. He’s been a steady presence in the midst of a circus filled with such weird, me-first characters as Anthony, Martin, Allen Iverson, Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith.
He has a lot of strong basketball left in him.
But he’s not a $50 million man.