DENVER -- Long-term commitment means a lot to Nuggets power forward Nene, who got married in his native Brazil two weeks ago and signed a six-year, $60 million contract to stay in Denver on Thursday.
"I want to be like [Karl] Malone," Nene said of the consummate power forward who played 18 of his 19 NBA seasons in Utah.
"We want you to be like Malone, also," interjected Mark Warkentien, the Nuggets' director of player personnel.
Nene, a 23-year-old center with career averages of 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds, played just three minutes last year before blowing out a knee in the season opener.
With Nene signed, the Nuggets had little reason to keep restricted free-agent center Francisco Elson. Denver was expected to let the deadline pass at midnight Thursday without matching San Antonio's two-year, $6 million offer to Elson, who proved invaluable when Nene was sidelined last season.
Also Thursday, the Nuggets sent Howard Eisley and two 2007 second-round draft picks to the Chicago Bulls in a trade for J.R. Smith, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who is entering his third season in the NBA. Smith passed his physical with the Bulls after his swap for New Orleans.
Eisley, scheduled to make $1.2 million next season, would then be cut by Chicago, which is clearing salary after signing Ben Wallace.
Smith, 20, is a bargain for the Nuggets, providing them with the athletic shooter they desire at the relatively low price of $1.4 million next season. Smith also has an option of $2.1 million for 2007-08.
Nene was set for a breakout season last year when he blew out his knee on opening night, dooming the Nuggets to another season of not-good-enough basketball that ended with another first-round playoff exit.
"When Nene got hurt ... it was just one of the worst-feeling days of my life because I thought he was ready to have a great year. I thought he had worked very hard," coach George Karl said. "It was a tough year for everybody.
"I think today is a day where we can kind of push everything in the past behind us," he said.
Nene is still recovering from surgery to repair his torn right anterior cruciate ligament and isn't expected to do fullcourt work until next month. Warkentien said Nene is about 80 percent healthy and isn't the least bit worried if he's not 100 percent by the start of the season.
"Geez, if you're not 100 percent opening night, I mean this is a six-year program," Warkentien said. "Getting right physically is the paramount issue."
Nene also missed 27 games in 2004-05 because of injuries, but the restricted free agent was one of the most prized players on the market because of his youth and rare mix of brawn and athleticism for a man who packs 260 pounds on a 6-11 frame, allowing him to play both the high and low posts.
Nene said he feels great physically and is mentally prepared to face the pressure of his huge contract.
"I believe in myself," he said. "I believe I can be what I want to be."
And that's an All-Star and a champion.
Nene is the second Nuggets player to sign a colossal contract this summer, joining Carmelo Anthony, who got a five-year, $80 million extension from owner Stan Kroenke.
"I don't ever want to ever be Mark Warkentien or a general manager because I think it's scary the money you have to put out for a player," Karl said. "But I also think the commitments that we have made, even though they're large, I think they're solid and sound professionally. And I'm excited about having two young players that probably will outlast me as coach."
Nene agreed to his deal while honeymooning in his native Brazil the first weekend in July. He returned to Denver on Sunday.
"I have a lot of things to be happy about," he said. "I'm married. I found a perfect woman. I get well. And now I'm signed."