<
>

Nuggets take step in right direction

No one wanted to believe it. No one wanted to believe Masai Ujiri had anything more than a title in Denver.

Ever since the Nuggets named Ujiri their Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations on August 27, the NBA grapevine has been buzzing about Ujiri's lack of power, about how he's little more than a glorified scout.

Now we know the truth: Ujiri's voice in Denver is strong, his influence sizeable.

Last Friday, he and Josh Kroenke, the Nuggets' president, did what few in the NBA thought possible. They pushed the club's longtime advisor Bret Bearup out of the organization. Yahoo! first reported the story.

Just a few days ago, an executive with another team told me this: "Bret's been around and he's going to be around. As long as Stan Kroenke's around, Bret's going to be around the Nuggets.''

Indeed, Bearup will continue to advise Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke on non-basketball matters. But he no longer has any say with the Nuggets. Ujiri and Kroenke called Commissioner David Stern and the league's other teams on Monday to inform them of their decision. Privately, league officials had been advising the Nuggets to get rid of Bearup, according to sources.

Bearup's name is not household, but in basketball circles - from AAU to NBA - he's well-known. Since 2000, he's been arguably the most powerful voice in Nuggets basketball, serving as Stan Kroenke's most trusted advisor. Kroenke gave Bearup the power to make or break deals, the power to override the club's more qualified men who had been hired to run the club.

Bearup had no official position with the Nuggets, but he had an office at the team's headquarters and the power to make phone calls and propose trades on the club's behalf, just like the hired (and eventually departed) decision-makers Dan Issel, Kiki Vandeweghe, Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman. It was confusing to opposing clubs because no one knew who was running the team, who had the final say, whom to believe. Sources say Bearup regularly leaked stories to the media and that many of the Nuggets

players - Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin - despised him.

"This was a good move for them,'' an Eastern Conference executive said. "Ever since Bearup got there, Denver's had a reputation as being dysfunctional. So from a respectability standpoint, it helps. Teams were afraid to call the Nuggets because Bearup was always spilling stuff to the media.''

Bearup was the strongest anti-Carmelo voice in Denver, pushing the club to trade him more than once. His departure will certainly sit well with Anthony, but Nuggets officials aren't naive enough to believe it'll help them keep the superstar forward who's representatives have been pushing Denver to trade him.

Ujiri, a native of Nigeria who worked for the Nuggets as an international scout before joining Toronto's front office in 2007, has a strong relationship with Anthony and a unique perspective on the situation. Ujiri worked side-by-side with Toronto president Bryan Colangelo during the "Chris Bosh Sweepstakes'' this past summer.

The Raptors, who refused to trade Bosh before the trade deadline despite rumblings that he would not re-sign with them, botched that situation badly. That's why, no matter how well Anthony and the Nuggets play over the first few months of the season, Ujiri's unlikely to keep Anthony past the February deadline.

Anthony's desire is to play in either New York or Chicago, but New Jersey has the best deal to offer Denver and could be his landing spot. Houston would like to get involved, and some executives say Atlanta's a team to watch in the push for Melo.

Even if (when) the Nuggets take a step backwards by losing Anthony, many believe they took a step forward by getting rid of Bearup.