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Nuggets president Josh Kroenke and executive vice president for basketball operations Masai Ujiri sit in a windowless conference room on the second floor of the Pepsi Center, staring at a white grease board that is now filled with names of potential draft choices. Kroenke's English bulldogs, Fletcher and Lucy, lie on a carpet at their feet. Fletcher licks Kroenke's ankle. Lucy growls and then falls asleep. For most of the season they have been sequestered in this room—Kroenke and Ujiri, Fletcher and Lucy, plus salary-cap guru Pete D'Alesandro. The grease board became so crowded with trade proposals that Kroenke photographed them with his iPhone before erasing any.
Kroenke is 30 and has been a team president only since last August, when his father, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, gave him control of the franchise. Ujiri is 40 and has been a G.M. only since last September, when Josh hired him from Toronto, where he was an assistant G.M. Their first order of business as top NBA executives would be to put together one of the most scrutinized trades in the history of the league. "Thanks for hiring me, Josh," Ujiri says with a weary smile.
By the time they joined forces, Kroenke had already been to Anthony's wedding in New York, where he endured the toasts from Melo's friends and family about a future away from Denver. He had also been to Anthony's home in Baltimore, where he was presented with an ultimatum from his star's handlers: "New York or Chicago." Kroenke did not see a fit with either team. When Ujiri interviewed with Kroenke for the executive V.P. job, Ujiri told him not to worry about Chicago. "It's going to come down to New York and New Jersey," he said.
At that point the Knicks did not have nearly enough to offer, but owner James Dolan flew to Denver last September and asked Kroenke for time. "My basketball people tell me that some of our young players are pretty good," Dolan said. "Give them a chance." Kroenke and Ujiri were negotiating with some teams and seeking advice from others. They asked Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak how he persuaded Kobe Bryant to back off trade demands three years earlier. (Pau Gasol helped matters then, but he was not on the trading block.) They called Heat president Pat Riley and asked how he would proceed. (He recommended swapping star for star, but Dwyane Wade was not available either.)
Kroenke and Ujiri believed they might be headed for a deal before Christmas, but then Anthony's sister died on Dec. 21, and out of respect they backed off. Less than a month later Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov announced that his team was pulling out of the sweepstakes, and then the Knicks, whose young players had indeed blossomed, refused to sweeten their existing offer: Chandler, point guard Raymond Felton and a first-round draft pick.
Kroenke and Ujiri are former college basketball players and still carry themselves like athletes, able to remain in close quarters for extended periods of time but willing to get in each other's face. "We'd yell, 'I don't want to talk to you until tomorrow,'" Kroenke says. But they were right back in the conference room the next morning, poring over scouting reports. "They'd be packing up to go home," D'Alesandro says, "and then one would make another point, and they'd stay until three." Kroenke and Ujiri never spoke publicly, but a lot of people spoke publicly about them. One G.M. admitted to Ujiri that he tried to pressure them because of their inexperience. Another asked him, "Are you guys going to get this done so the rest of the league can move on?" Even Anthony told an executive with another team, "Masai is like Obama. Really good but got thrown into the fire."
Ujiri grew up in Nigeria playing on dirt courts before moving to Seattle and attending Montana State Billings. Kroenke grew up in Columbia, Mo., hearing catcalls of "rich kid." At Missouri, fans wrote on message boards that he made the team only because his parents were university donors, even though he was a top 50 recruit. Kroenke and Ujiri were tougher than expected, prepared to hold out until the trading deadline, when the pressure on New York and New Jersey would be as great as it was on Denver. In early February they finally felt the momentum shift. Some new teams called. The Knicks slumped and added the versatile 6'10" Danilo Gallinari to their offer. The Nets reengaged, and Anthony looked likely to sign their extension. After All-Star weekend Kroenke and Ujiri scrawled two final proposals on the grease board, under "NJ" and "NY." Kroenke took one last picture on his iPhone as a keepsake.
The Nets offered an intriguing mix of the proven and the unknown: The list reportedly included veteran point guard Devin Harris, veteran forward Troy Murphy, rookie forward Derrick Favors, rookie point guard Ben Uzoh and four first-round picks. The Knicks offered young players with room to grow: Chandler, Felton, Gallinari, centers Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos (who came from the Timberwolves), and three draft picks. The Knicks' deal allowed the Nuggets to skip over the rebuilding process, remain in the playoff race and set the benchmark for every other small market taken hostage. The trade they rejected, with the Nets, was attractive enough that the Jazz accepted a variation of it for All-Star point guard Deron Williams. Ujiri celebrated the deal by going home, watching highlights of Anthony's game-winners and asking himself, What did I just do? He came to one conclusion: "We got killed."
In the NFL and Major League Baseball, teams that trade superstars often recoup more value in the long run. The Cowboys built a dynasty in part by dealing running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings. The Mariners built a 116-win juggernaut in part by sending ace Randy Johnson to the Astros. But the NBA is different. "In baseball, a superstar hitter is only up four times, and you can take the bat out of his hands by intentionally walking him," says Billy Beane, general manager of the small-market A's. "In basketball, stars have a bigger impact than any other sport. Teams don't win without them."
In the grand scheme, then, Kroenke and Ujiri seemed doomed whether they took the Knicks' package or the Nets'. But by bringing in five players who are able to contribute yet are open to instruction, they energized the one person in their organization who has always bucked the longest odds: their coach.