Klee: Fixing the Denver Nuggets means starting in the penthouse suite

Josh Kroenke of the Denver Nuggets. (AP file)

DENVER β€” It starts at the top, because success or failure always starts at the top, and Josh Kroenke so far has shown nothing that proves he should be at the top of the Nuggets.

Brian Shaw is the easy fall guy. The coach is forever the lowest-hanging fruit. Shaw deserves a share of the blame for the franchise's historic collapse into dysfunction, but he is merely a deckhand on a ship gushing water over the bow.

Why is Kroenke, who lit the match on this dumpster fire, treated with kid gloves around here? Because he fist bumps the right knuckles and texts the right people? He's president and governor of the franchise. He's the guy who fires and hires and green lights transactions, whether it's canningΒ George KarlΒ or signing Nate Robinson.

When Kroenke transitioned the Nuggets into a new era in June 2013, the Nuggets became his responsibility. To this point he's been Dick Monfort, a CEO with more pull than know-how. The results so far suggest Kroenke has overstepped his bounds.

Boosters are quick to say Karl's Nuggets weren't going anywhere, anyway. Where are Kroenke's Nuggets going?

They've gone from winning 59 games during the 2012-13 season to winning 55 games in the season and a half since then. And they're not tanking. They're trying to win. That might be the most damning part.

The Philadelphia 76ers are tanking. They are cool with sacrificing wins now to build a future later. It was on Tuesday when the 76ers, who don't mind if they lose, opened a 79-51 lead on the Nuggets, who are trying to win. At that moment the Nuggets officially pounded their head against rock bottom. It was Denver's third straight loss and 10th in 11 games. It was unsettling to watch; more so when you consider where they were.

Tuesday was Feb. 3. Two years ago on Feb. 3, the Nuggets were in the middle of a nine-game win streak that included wins against Oklahoma City, Houston (twice), Chicago and, yes, Indiana. By win totals or the simple eye test, the Nuggets were better than the Pacers in 2012-13. They swept the Pacers that season. And Nuggets leadership responded by trying to be more like the Pacers. Figure that one out.

How did the Nuggets go from there to here in such a short time? It starts at the top, always. Colorado offers the finest examples of that, perhaps the most irrefutable fact in professional sports. The Broncos are always in the NFL conversation because the people who work for Pat Bowlen operate under his singular vision: To win a world championship. I still maintain Monfort wants the same for the Rockies, but he doesn't know how to get there.

You tell me: Which organization does this Nuggets operation more closely resemble?

The Nuggets were the Hawks before the Hawks, a dazzling brand of action ball. Now this season they've lost to the four worst teams in the NBA: T-Wolves (8-40, entering games on Wednesday), Knicks (10-39), Sixers (11-39) and Lakers (13-35).

Most troubling is a clear lack of respect. Shaw's comments suggest he doesn't respect the players, the players' effort suggests they don't respect the coach, Kroenke's brazen departure from a winning formula suggests he didn't respect the process.

Who at Pepsi Center has carved out a reputation that commands respect? The first-time head coach or general manager? The 34-year-old president and governor? Those guys should be respected, simply on title alone. They're in charge.

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But it doesn't work like that. From grassroots AAU ball to the NBA Finals, respect in basketball is earned, maybe more than in any other sport. The game is territorial that way.

Does the Nuggets leader have a plan? I couldn't tell you. Twice this year I've requested an interview with Kroenke β€” not a vetted statement that reads like a press release β€” without a response. Hey, I get it. I've been tougher than anyone on these Nuggets.

But meanwhile, an overwhelmed coach and roster dangle from a 10-foot rim as a piΓ±ata for criticism. The finger-pointing around the Nuggets isn't aimed high enough.

Age and wealth aren't fair criticisms of Kroenke. He's 34, I'm 35, both of us have had our age used against us, and that's a cop-out. The same goes for the money thing (for him, not me). His family is rich; good for him. Neither is the problem here.

The problem is that the Nuggets dealt their fans a raw deal by handing over the keys to a beloved franchise before he had the chops to run one. Now it's past time to find help.

Here's a tip from the cheap seats: Bring in an influential basketball figure who commands respect simply by strolling in the locker room. Maybe that's luring Chauncey Billups into the front office. Maybe it's hiring an established winner into a key position.

Maybe Kroenke buries his pride and finds the basketball support he needs and makes the Nuggets respectable again. If that happens, you should join me as the first ones in line at Pepsi Center to offer a fist bump.

But this collapse didn't start with the coach, the GM, or the players. The recovery won't, either. It's about the leadership at the top, always. Wear the title, wear the results.

Twitter: @bypaulklee




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