By Ian Thomsen
July 10, 2009

While his rivals were preparing for the draft last month, Denver Nuggets VP of basketball operations Mark Warkentien was spending a week at Harvard Law School. Here is a little of what he was taught.

5. Keep trying to improve. "We're always on the players to take the time to get better," the 56-year-old Warkentien said, and so he applied the same dictate to himself. Early last month, he enrolled in a prestigious five-day workshop at the Harvard Negotiation Institute on the law campus at Cambridge, Mass.

"I wanted to look at the other guys' playbook,'' Warkentien said. "Often in my chair you have to joust with attorneys and agents that have negotiation training, and they're professionally educated. I don't think a whole lot of us sitting in NBA front offices have that kind of training in negotiations. You have experience but you don't have training."

Enrolled with him were judges and attorneys from around the world who had come to Harvard to sharpen their oratorical knives. They must have been surprised to meet Warkentien, a former UNLV assistant to Jerry Tarkanian, a self-made executive who last November packaged Allen Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups in the trade that drove Denver to the conference finals. That move, along with the minimum-salary contributions of Chris Andersen, Anthony Carter and Dahntay Jones, earned Warkentien his award as executive of the year.

Without a first-round pick to prepare for, he could afford to spend a few days in early June away from the Nuggets offices. (Though on draft-day the Nuggets acquired the No. 18 pick, which they spent on North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson.) At Harvard he was in class with lawyers and judges from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by a night of reading to prepare for the next day's arguments. "That was the hard part for me," he said. "I had to read it all twice. If everyone else had an hour of reading, I had two hours. I had to really concentrate and read it again to understand it.

"The conversations weren't about side pick-and-rolls. If I was daydreaming for five minutes and I would try to pick it up in the middle of the conversation, I was lost.

"What did I get out of it? For every four things they presented, three of them were things you already knew from experience. You'd hear a guy say something and you'd think, I get that -- I can use that in the future. Then there were the other things where I would be thinking, wow, I never thought about that. I'd say 25 percent of the material was new for a layman like myself.''

4. Prepare. Before a GM sits down at the negotiating table, he needs to understand what the player's agent is going to say. That understanding is crucial to negotiation.

"I got this from [Bob] Whitsitt," Warkentien said of his former boss when Whitsitt was GM of the SuperSonics and later president of the Trail Blazers. `"What are they thinking at the other guy's breakfast table? You sit there and spend all day thinking about why you're right, why your position is just."

The experts at Harvard crystallized that point of view. Instead of fine-tuning your own argument, predict the reasoning of your opponent. "And then find all of the commonalities," Warkentien said. Because if you can find points of agreement, then you have a chance of pulling the opponent to your side of the table.

"They talked a lot about this," he said. "They tell you to find the 'predictable surprises' -- that was something new for me. Like when you're in the negotiations and the other guy says something you never thought of and you don't know how to respond."

The best advocates hijack the opponent's argument. "You've got to find out what the other guy's interests are," Warkentien said. "They teach you to ask a lot of questions. 'I understand why you might want that, but I don't understand why you would deserve it.' Make him explain where he's coming from and that may give you stuff to build your own argument."

How does this apply to the NBA? "More and more so now you have multi-party negotiations," he said. "On your end it's yourself, the coach, the owner, so right there you have people with multiple interests in the negotiation. And then on the other side it's the player, his agent, his wife, perhaps somebody from his entourage and on down the line. You've got to somehow bring everybody into the ballpark."

3. Get out of the office. Put away the Blackberry and the cell phone and get on an airplane. "Whenever you can, you need to close the personal distance," Warkentien said. "Sending an e-mail is probably better than a fax. A phone call is better than an e-mail. And face-to-face beats a phone call. In this electronic era we're so busy texting and e-mailing and all that stuff, and it was a reminder to hear them say you need to get face-to-face. Think about something as simple as an argument with the wife -- it's a lot easier to blast her over the phone than it is when you're talking face-to-face. It's a lot easier to hang up the phone and be mad all day, but when you're in the same room it's a different kind of argument."

The workshop students were divided into teams. Warkentien's team had to argue its side of the case, and then it had to argue on behalf of the opponent's side. "And then you had to turn your back to each other and argue it as if you were on the phone," he said. "It's a lot harder and slower over the phone, which is why whenever you can you have to get face-to-face."

By spending a week in a foreign environment, he realized that the best professionals in all fields are forever working to improve themselves. "You'd have a negotiating partner, and the guy I was with was a judge from Thailand," he said. "That was no fun. He was smart. He had experience and training. But how do you get better in tennis? You play against better players. That's the only way.

"A lot of them were attorneys from big corporations, and 60 percent of the class was internationally-based. These governments of Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, the Netherlands -- they were sending their negotiators over here to learn. I'm not ashamed to say I got tattooed a few times. But I liked being the UNLV guy at Harvard. I brought them some diversity.

"Our sports world has some macho and bravado to it, and that's probably not helpful in a negotiation. It's like playing hard at golf. Having that bravado and coming in with great passion and emotion isn't going to do it, and emotion isn't helpful. Think about when you were having that argument with the wife and you got all angry: How helpful was the emotion?"

2. Learn from your own lessons. Warkentien remains proud of his UNLV association, regardless of the NCAA investigations and penalties that eventually chased Tarkanian out of the program. "People can make light of this, but you had to be creative there," he said. "If your kids have 1,200 scores in the SAT, you're probably not sending them off to Las Vegas. So you couldn't do [basketball] conventionally there -- you had to do it with transfers and JC guys who were overlooked and undervalued. In 11 years (1980-91) I think we had four or maybe only three McDonalds All-Americans, and one of them -- Anthony Jones -- was a transfer from Georgetown.''

And yet in those 11 years they won 84 percent of their games as well as the 1990 national championship.

While his basketball role models -- Tarkanian and Whitsitt -- were controversial figures, Warkentien was struck by their versatility. "Jerry, when he was the coach at Long Beach State (1968-73), he played slow with a tight 1-2-2 zone," Warkentien said. "When he got to Vegas, that wasn't going to work. He went to pressing and running and trying score 100. He did what he had to do.

"Then you look at Bob, who had a totally different situation in Seattle with (owner) Barry Ackerley than in Portland with Paul [Allen]. You were on tight dollars in Seattle and he took a bunch of character guys, and he was executive of the year doing that.

"One thing that's lost on everybody is what Bob did in Portland -- he had a completely different set of marching orders than anybody ever gets. The window on the Clyde [Drexler] and Terry Porter era was closing, and Bob's mandate was to get back into the championship window without going to the lottery and without becoming a bad team. Detroit, Boston, Chicago -- even the Lakers -- they all went to the lottery before they became good again. But when Bob was in Portland we went four or five years staying in the playoffs and then we became conference finalists twice in a row. That takes different thinking. You've got to get unconventional to do that."

The lesson here is to take what the game gives you.

"There's only a handful of places that can be like Duke, and everybody else has to scramble," he said. "Think about the very best coaches in college or the pros: They don't have just one way of doing things. If you come in with one way of defending the post -- defending behind, three-quarter, or fronting -- sooner or later the good coach will beat you if you only have that one way. They'll figure it out. You've got to have different ways to do it."

Which comes back around to the need for flexibility in negotiations, based on an understanding of the opponent and his arguments.

1. Turn adversaries into partners. For starters, don't speak like you're the boss.

"If two guys are talking, and then the one guy stands up on the chair and looks down on the other guy, guess what? The other guy doesn't like it," Warkentien said. "They talked about the chair a lot. Often we (GMs) speak with such authority that it's like we're standing up on a chair. You need to get down off the chair. You could be up there telling the player, 'I'm going to give you an extra $1 million,' and he won't care. He won't hear what you're saying because all he notices is that you're up on the chair looking down on him."

And whatever you do, don't say 'but.'

"They taught us you should try to eliminate the word 'but' from your argument,' he said. "When you say, 'I hear what you're telling me, but ...' what you're really saying is, 'Go to hell.' That word -- 'but' -- comes across as if everything the other guy has just said doesn't matter."

As Warkentien looks back on this highly successful year, he sees situations he might have handled better based on the newfound perspective of his week at Harvard. And he also sees results that make him proud, like the improvement of J.R. Smith, who finished No. 2 in the voting for the sixth man award. Before the season Warkentien signed Smith to an incentive-laden three-year contract listed at $16.5 million.

"J.R. and George weren't the best," he said of the young guard's relationship with coach George Karl. "So we said, 'J.R., if you want this much money, then we want you to become business partners with George.' We put it in there that for J.R. to get his big bonus, we would have to win 42 games and he would have to play 2,000 minutes. This was a tough negotiation and we worked on it all summer. For him to play 2,000 minutes, it would mean that George has to put him in the game. For J.R., that means you've got to figure out how to convince George to play you. If you want the money, you're got to figure out George and how to make George happy.

"Then when George was getting frustrated with J.R. and he would complain to me about it, I could say: 'George, you and J.R. have a common goal. You have bonuses in your contract, too. You have the hammer on J.R. You and J.R. need to be business partners.'"

Smith played a career-best 2,245 minutes and averaged 15.2 points. He helped Karl win 54 games and advance through two rounds after going 3-16 over the previous four postseasons.

4. Antonio McDyess signs with the Spurs. San Antonio continues to fortify its position as the main Western Conference rival to the champion Lakers. Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, Euroleague veteran Marcus Haislip and now the 35-year-old McDyess will join with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan -- pending the return to health of the latter two -- to rejuvenate the franchise. McDyess isn't the leaper he used to be, but he still does all of the hard work inside and retains the skills to make jumpers as a complement with Duncan. By launching themselves over the luxury-tax threshold, the Spurs are making one last great leap at a championship around Duncan. McDyess clearly believes they have a chance.

3. Rasheed Wallace signs with the Celtics. If healthy -- a crucial "if" given the ages of Kevin Garnett (33), Ray Allen (33), Paul Pierce (31) and now Wallace (34) -- the Celtics now have a stronger presence off the bench than provided by James Posey during the '07-08 championship season. Wallace can defend power forwards or centers and he'll be on the court in the final minutes of tight games as a scoring threat in the post or from the three-point line. He is one of the league's smartest players and the move to sixth man should fit with his age and skills nicely. (Remember when Bill Walton came to Boston?) When Wallace and Garnett are on the floor together, who will Shaquille O'Neal guard?

2. Shawn Marion is traded to the Mavericks. With Houston self-destructing, New Orleans not improving and Portland unable (so far) to fill its cap space, Dallas is hoping to reclaim home-court advantage in the first round by adding another scorer to play with Jason Kidd. This isn't the kind of firepower they used to display when Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley were up and coming, but the Mavs will command respect with Jason Terry coming off the bench in support of Nowitzki, Marion and Josh Howard. Throw in the expected addition of center Marcin Gortat and newly signed shooting guard Quinton Ross, and the Mavericks are deeper than last year.

1. Anderson Varejao re-signs with the Cavaliers. His blue-collar energy will be needed alongside Shaq, and his lack of scoring will become less burdensome with O'Neal averaging close to 20 points per game. Varejao took a lot of grief for his defense against Dwight Howard in the playoffs, but Cleveland's offer of six years for up to $50 million shows that he is valued dearly as a potential championship frontliner. Don't ignore the Cavs' other pending signing, guard Anthony Parker, who will pay off in the playoffs by making big shots and handling a variety of assignments.

3. Ian, I'm really confused as to what makes you think that Washington is among the top four teams in the East. What about Chicago? Atlanta? Washington finished dead last in the East last year. I have to admit, acquiring Mike Miller and Randy Foye was a nice move, and Flip Saunders is a good coach, but really? Top four? You have to be kidding me.-- Kevin Houf, Sarnia, Ontario

They're essentially adding Gilbert Arenas, Brendan Haywood, Miller and Foye to an existing group that includes two All-Stars in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler along with second-year big man JaVale McGee and third-year swingman Nick Young. They also have one of the league's most proficient coaches in Saunders to pull it together. If Arenas isn't healthy, I'll have shown too much faith. But I'm guessing that President Obama will be interested in attending a few more Wizards games next season.

2. Not sure I agree with the idea of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva being first steps to taking the Pistons back to the elite status. They gave a combined $90 million over the next five years for two players who haven't sniffed the All-Star Game. Seems like a lot of money for two guys who didn't always start on their former teams.-- Matt, Cleveland

Villanueva is a 24-year-old forward who averaged 16.2 points in 26.9 minutes last season. If he builds on that performance, he'll be a good value. Gordon hasn't peaked, and if he builds on his five years with Chicago, he'll be worth his money. Consider this the beginning of a roster turnover. Will the Pistons return to the elite? It depends on the deals to come. All I know is that over the previous decade the Pistons made several moves similar to these two and what followed was six consecutive trips to the conference finals.

1. What moves should Larry Bird make to put the Pacers back on track? Danny Granger is emerging as their next superstar, but I don't see the leadership that was lost when Reggie Miller retired. Can Larry and Jim O'Brien survive another year as mediocre as 2008-09 after all the changes that were made last year? Those changes failed to live up to the hype.-- John Schubert, Indianapolis

Maybe I wasn't listening closely enough, but I didn't hear much hype for the Pacers last year. And then when a rebuilding team loses a 19-point scorer in Mike Dunleavy, I don't know how much can be expected. There is no easy answer, but let's be fair: Bird took full control of a franchise that was last in attendance and in need of a personality overhaul. Neither Dunleavy (acquired in a trade) nor Granger (No. 17 pick in 2005) was loved by the rest of the league before the Pacers took them in and helped them become impressive producers. Now that Granger is an All-Star, I'd like to see what he and Dunleavy could do together in O'Brien's offense.

2. The rosters are stacked. By summer league standards, that is. Nine of the top 10 draft picks (minus Ricky Rubio, of course) will be playing in Las Vegas from July 10-19. The player I'm most interested in seeing is Jonny Flynn, the second point guard taken by Minnesota. Can he score enough to play alongside Rubio in Minnesota? Is he so good at the point that the Timberwolves can afford to deal Rubio and leave Flynn in charge?

Then there are a number of young NBA veterans, including Adam Morrison, Joe Alexander, Corey Brewer, Shaun Livingston, Robin Lopez and Ian Mahinmi, who have something to prove for a variety of reasons.

1. The games are available online. It costs $14.99 to watch all 55 games either live or archived on demand. Summer league director Warren LeGarie refers to this as an experiment in self-sufficiency. "If you go to one day of games it will cost you $25, so for $10 less you get to see the entire 10 days of games,'' he said. "If we're able to do things like this to absorb the cost of summer league, it becomes easier for the NBA to get behind the league too.''

The NBA continues to support the venture, holding its owners meeting in Vegas in conjunction with summer league. "It's turned into the NBA's version of the winter meetings,'' LeGarie said. "Now the issue for us is to make sure we have enough seating for the owners.'' Courtside seating, he means.

1. To John Kuester, new coach of the Pistons. When Rick Pitino left Boston University in 1983, his assistant Kuester took over to become, at 28, the youngest head coach in Division 1. I was even younger (thank goodness) when I used to cover Kuester's BU teams for the Boston Globe, and he struck me as a soft-spoken gentleman with a quiet demeanor more suited to the NBA than to college basketball. Kuester has been one of the league's top assistants for the last decade, and in his new role I have little doubt he'll emerge as one of those coaches who is highly prepared for every game.

In one sense, the Pistons became an easier team to coach when Rasheed Wallace left. But there will be many nights when Kuester will struggle to paste over the defensive void created by Wallace's departure. Kuester has inherited a perimeter team lacking size up front, and he knows better than anyone that there aren't many gimmicky schemes that will provide results consistently against the likes of Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett.

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