George Karl was sad to see his big man traded away for more reasons than just his contribution on the court. Nene also helped the Denver Nuggets’ coach through his battle with cancer two years ago.
“There’s a connection there that I hope I will always have with him,” Karl said.
The Nuggets sent the talented yet often-injured Nene to Washington in a three-team deal Thursday, with the Wizards shipping JaVale McGee and Ronny Turiaf to Denver and Nick Young to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Washington also picked up forward Brian Cook in the deal along with a second-round pick in 2015 from the Clippers, the Wizards and Nuggets both announced.
The Nuggets signed Nene to a new five-year, $67 million contract in December. He was averaging 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in an injury-plagued season. But the recent play of rookie forward Kenneth Faried made Nene expendable.
Still, Karl will always hold a soft spot for Nene, who fought back from a serious knee injury in 2005 and overcame a bout of testicular cancer in 2007-08.
When Karl disclosed he was battling neck and throat cancer in February 2010, Nene was someone to lean on.
“His family was good to me through my cancer situation,” Karl said. “There’s more than just a basketball friendship there; there’s a humanist, a mindfulness and soulfulness.”
It’s the second straight season the Nuggets have orchestrated a deal at the deadline. They sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in a blockbuster deal in February 2011. That move fired up the Nuggets, who went 18-7 down the stretch before falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.
The Nuggets, who are in the thick of the playoff chase once again this season, are without a superstar. Instead, Karl relies on his superior depth to wear teams down and McGee figures to help in that regard.
Turiaf is on the mend after breaking his left hand on Jan. 1, though Nuggets executive Masai Ujiri said Thursday night the plan is to waive Turiaf.
Denver remains hopeful of working out a long-term deal with Wilson Chandler, who played for Zhejiang Guangsha of the Chinese Basketball Association during the lockout.
“We did (this trade) with the intention of the big picture. Make the team better,” Ujiri said. “We felt that the direction of the organization at this time was we wanted to go a little bit younger.”
The deal ends up costing the Clippers virtually nothing. Cook hasn’t cracked their rotation since signing with the club before last season.
This also will be a homecoming for Young, a Los Angeles native and a two-time all-conference standout at Southern California before becoming a consistent NBA scorer in five seasons with Washington, averaging 17.4 points per game last season and 16.6 this year. The versatile swingman seems to be an ideal fit for the Clippers, who have been eager to add perimeter scoring to their talented lineup after losing veteran guard Chauncey Billups to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury last month.
Although Young is notorious for his reluctance to pass, the Clippers have plenty of playmakers with Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe and even Blake Griffin. Young, a free agent after the season, will be asked to provide some added offense as the Clippers move toward their second playoff berth in 15 years and just their second winning season in two decades.
“Just to get a player of his caliber on the roster is very, very positive,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “I’m looking forward to working with him, and I think he’ll give us some help. Obviously, he’s got to learn our plays. That takes a while, and there’s not much practice time, so we’ll have to do that between games and just make it work as quick as possible.”
This represents Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld’s latest — and perhaps last — attempt to reconfigure the roster of a team that used to be built around All-Stars Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.
The Wizards are pretty much starting over again, constructing a team around point guard John Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Having already fired coach Flip Saunders this season, Washington is 10-32 and four games up on last-place Charlotte in the Eastern Conference. Young was their second-leading scorer, and McGee was their leading rebounder, averaging 8.8, along with 11.9 points.
At one point, Young and McGee were considered potential building blocks for Washington. But their play often has been selfish or undisciplined.
And their behavior off the court had the Wizards wary as well.
During last offseason, a video circulated on the Internet showing Young and McGee engaging in something called the “Cinnamon Challenge,” in which they swallowed spoonfuls of the spice.
As Saunders put it after the lockout ended: “The biggest thing is they’re not young players anymore. So they have to show the discipline, maturity, not only on the floor, but off the floor.”
And then Saunders added: “The cinnamon — that thing doesn’t cut it.”
Asked about whether the maturity levels of Young and McGee contributed to the decision to part ways now, Grunfeld said in a telephone interview: “Nick and JaVale did good things for us … but (the trade) probably will change the makeup of our locker room.”
Grunfeld dismissed concerns about injury problems for Nene, who missed more than a third of Denver’s games so far this season.
“We feel good about his situation,” Grunfeld said. “What we really like about him is his attitude, his toughness, his ability to defend the post.”
Adding Nene gives Washington more experience, too, but Grunfeld noted: “We’re still keeping with the rebuild. … We’ll have good salary-cap flexibility.”
Referring to Nene and Wall, Grunfeld said: “The toughest positions to fill are the front-court big man and the back-court guard, and we have those two positions. So now we can put some more players around them.”
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