DENVER -- Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien has been named the NBA's executive of the year after Denver pulled off the unimaginable feat of getting better while shedding millions of dollars in salary and luxury tax.
Warkentien was the architect of the biggest deal in the NBA this season, trading Allen Iverson and his big contract for Chauncey Billups. The move sparked Denver's franchise-tying 54-win regular season and the Nuggets' first playoff series win in 15 years.
"It's really a team honor," Warkentien said, praising Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke. "Stan's leadership and vision for this season, the front office, our coaching staff and players, the video guys that were here, the ones who stayed here all night every night for the past couple of weeks, we've got a ton of tremendous people helping. It's a team honor."
He received nine of 30 votes from a panel of NBA executives in results announced Sunday, the same day the Nuggets began their second-round series against the Dallas Mavericks.
Cleveland's Danny Ferry finished second with seven votes, Orlando's Otis Smith finished third with six votes, the Los Angeles Lakers' Mitch Kupchak and Chicago's John Paxson were tied for fourth with two votes apiece, and Denver's Rex Chapman, Houston's Darryl Morey, Utah's Kevin O'Connor, Oklahoma City's Sam Presti each received one vote.
The only person at the Pepsi Center who has a bigger smile than coach George Karl these days is Kroenke, whose front office has turned the team from an afterthought into the West's second seed -- and they've done it on the cheap, relatively speaking.
After trading Iverson and his $20.8 million salary to Detroit and buying out Antonio McDyess, who re-signed with the Pistons, Denver saved $6 million in salary and another $6 million in luxury tax in the Billups trade.
Combined with the $20 million they saved in dumping center Marcus Camby's contract on the Clippers in the summer and the trade of point guard Chucky Atkins to Oklahoma City for center Johan Petro earlier this year, the Nuggets got under the $71.15 million luxury tax ceiling.
That's quite a feat for a team that began the year with more than $90 million in payroll.
Warkentien, the team's vice president of basketball operations, fashioned a roster that includes three minimum salary players making major contributions: Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Dahntay Jones and Anthony Carter, and two more making near the minimum amounts in Renaldo Balkman and Petro.
"I think there's always a value in going against the grain," Warkentien said. "When the masses are going one way you're a little better off not totally rejecting where they're going, but if they're going there you need to look at the other things that are out there. We managed to do that this time around."
Warkentien, who arrived in Denver in 2005 as director of player personnel, has orchestrated several big moves during his tenure, including the acquisition of Iverson in 2006 and the re-signings of star Carmelo Anthony, Nene and J.R. Smith.
The jewel is Billups, the floor leader they had long been missing.
"He just put our whole team in balance," Warkentien said. "Now you post up 'Melo on the block, who's just a load, you put Chauncey on one side and J.R. on the other and pick your poison. You want to double? Go ahead."
Warkentien has spent 18 years working in various NBA front office roles, and he called this his favorite team of them all.
"I love this team. How many good stories are there? Nene beat cancer, Kenyon [Martin] is the only guy on the planet playing with two microfracture [knee operations], Chauncey's leadership, Mile High return, 'Melo and Linas [Kleiza] represent Denver in the Olympics proudly. Birdman. Birdman beat the worst of human demons (drugs). How can you not cheer for this guy?" Warkentien said. "Twelve months ago Dahntay Jones was playing for the Fort Worth Mad Ants. Now his defense is driving playoff foes crazy."
Warkentien is the first Nuggets executive to win the award since Vince Boryla in 1985.