Nene has played for the Denver Nuggets all nine seasons of his NBA career and plans to make Colorado his home when he retires. His wife, Lauren, is a Colorado native and gave birth to the couple’s first child earlier this year. The Nuggets also have the ability to offer their starting center a longer, more lucrative contract than any other NBA team.
And yet that still might not be enough to entice Nene to re-sign with the Nuggets when the NBA’s free-agent market opens Dec. 9.
“I learned last season that this was a business,” Nene told Yahoo! Sports. “No matter how nice you are to people, no matter how nice people are to you, this is a business. I did my best for the team and they waited and waited to extend me. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, all these years playing good, doing your best and they still test you.’ That’s not about family, love and somebody liking you. It’s a business.
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Nene was offered a four-year, $50 million extension by the Nuggets before the lockout.
“So how do I think about [free agency]? I want to be happy. I want to improve my game. I want to enjoy it. It was very stressful for me and I don’t want to go through this in my career anymore.”
Nene made $11.3 million in the final year of his contract. He entered last season hoping for an extension, but didn’t push too hard while Denver was trying to trade Carmelo Anthony(notes). But after Anthony was sent to the New York Knicks in February, Nene expected an offer from the Nuggets. They instead waited until just before the July 1 start of the lockout, proposing a four-year, $50 million deal, sources said.
Nene says he likely would have taken that offer during the season, but felt disrespected because the Nuggets waited so long. So he opted to join this year’s limited free-agent market at the urging of his agency, Lagardčre Unlimited.
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“When the season was over they didn’t offer me nothing good,” said Nene, who averaged 14.5 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting a league-best 61.5 percent. “It’s hard. When my option came, it was good for my side and I to seize the opportunity of free agency. I tried to make a deal before that. Yes, I would have signed before the end of the season. But after the season was done, after going into the summer and waiting a little more in the summer, they ask me to sign?
“There was so much pressure on my shoulders. It was hard for me and I still did my job.”
Not only are the Nuggets in danger of losing Nene, but free agents J.R. Smith(notes), Wilson Chandler(notes) and Kenyon Martin(notes) signed contracts to play in China. Guard Arron Afflalo(notes) also is a restricted free agent, and could draw significant interest from other teams.
Nene hasn’t been able to talk to anyone from the Nuggets since the lockout. Asked about his relationship with the franchise now, he said: “I like the organization. I do need to be professional just like they were with me. They did what was best for them, and now I need to do what is best for me.”
Nene won’t lack for suitors. The Golden State Warriors, New Jersey Nets, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers are among the teams that figure to have interest.
Nene, 29, says he wants to play for a contender – perhaps at the expense of a more lucrative contract elsewhere. The Heat and Mavericks, who will both be over the salary cap, should be happy to hear that.
“It’s not about the money,” Nene said. “If I wanted to retire today I could retire because I saved my money. So right now I want to be happy and improve. That’s what I want. That’s what everybody wants. I need help. I need good players around. People say, ‘Nene, the last six years you averaged 14 points and eight or seven rebounds.’ OK, but they don’t say why.
“Right now I want to happy first. Two, I want to win. Money? Money, I am going to have because I worked and busted my butt. Money will come.”
Nene is arguably the top free agent in a thin group that also includes Mavericks center Tyson Chandler(notes), New Orleans Hornets forward David West(notes) and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol(notes), who is a restricted free agent.
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“I’m a big man who can defend different positions and do different things,” Nene said. “You can’t find that so easily in the league. I don’t like talking about my game, but you know what I can do and what I’m capable of doing. [Other teams] know, too.”
Nene began working out six days after the Nuggets were eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. He worked out five days per week, playing five-on-five and three-on-three regularly. He also spent a week in San Antonio working out with several NBA players, including San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan(notes).
He stopped participating in contact workouts and scrimmages last month, however, after watching his personal manager, Alex Santos, break his leg during a pickup game. Since then, Nene has worked out alone to ensure he doesn’t get hurt before the start of free agency.
“God put me in this opportunity to be one of the top players in free agency, and I’m going to take advantage of it because it’s never going to come back again,” Nene said. “It’s one opportunity I have in my life.”