NUGGETS

With Connelly, will Kroenke prioritize money over winning once again?

May 19, 2022, 6:00 AM | Updated: 8:21 am
Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly speaks to the media on Tuesday, May ...
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

On Wednesday afternoon, Nuggets Nation was rocked with a bombshell. It didn’t come via Woj, instead, it was a “Shams Nuke” that sent shockwaves through the fan base.

The collective reaction in Denver was a giant, “Ugh.” This was not the news that team was hoping for heading into what their head coach calls the “biggest offseason” since he’s been on the job. It was a proverbial kick in the gut, something that derails the best-laid plans.

The Nuggets have waited years to get to this position. They boast the NBA’s back-to-back MVP in Nikola Jokic, a fact that puts them squarely in perennial championship contention for perhaps the first time in franchise history.

And they know it. After seeing their last two playoff appearances go up in smoke due to injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the pressure to not miss any more opportunities is looming in Denver.

“We have a window,” Michael Malone said in his end-of-the-season press conference. “Windows are only open so long.”

In other words, the Nuggets know they need to win now. Nikola Jokic is in his prime, giving them a “27-year-old phenom” to build around.

It was supposed to be Connelly that would put the finishing touches on what he’s built. The team’s president of basketball operations was primed to put all of the pieces together.

But now, it looks as though that won’t happen. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, Connelly is headed to Minnesota, leaving the incomplete project to others.

Calvin Booth is the Nuggets general manager. He’ll be tasked with taking over. Malone is highly thought of within the organization. Don’t be surprised if his role expands. And Josh Kroenke, the alleged owner of the franchise, has long been deemed a “basketball guy.” He’ll be involved, without a doubt.

Can they get the Nuggets to the next level? Can they keep Jokic happy and get him to agree to a super-max contract? Can they add the pieces that were clearly missing during Denver’s last two postseason appearances?

Maybe. Anything is possible.

But it would be silly to count on it. In fact, it would be naive.

The reality of the situation is that Connelly’s departure serves as a red flag. It’s a warning that Denver’s priorities are in the wrong place.

If the Nuggets were really “in it to win it,” the executive wouldn’t bail at the 11th hour. If he really believed Kroenke would do whatever it took to finally bring a basketball championship to the Mile High City, Connelly would stick around to reap the rewards of his efforts.

Instead, he’s going to leave for Minnesota. That’s alarming.

This isn’t the Lakers or Celtics, NBA royalty that always have an advantage in recruiting talent at every level. It’s not the Bulls or Knicks, big-market franchises with nearly unlimited resources. It’s not the Heat or Nets, teams with hip and cool fan bases.

It’s the Timberwolves, a perennial doormat. It’s Minnesota, one of the NBA destinations that is actually less desirable than Denver.

Clearly, money is one of the things that would attract Connelly to the job. It’s been reported that the T-Wolves are even offering the executive an ownership stake in the franchise.

But if Kroenke was only interested in winning, he wouldn’t let this become a financial decision. He’d do whatever it took to keep the architect of his current roster happy.

He isn’t going to do that. History has shown that Kroenke doesn’t value people. He’s more interested in turning a profit, which means getting people to fill a role at the right price.

That’s why the Nuggets have had to endure one departure after another in the during the Kroenke era. As soon as they reach any level of success, which causes other franchises to be interested in the people who helped create the winning ways, Denver isn’t willing to step up to keep their team in place.

It’s happened over and over again. And the spin quickly ensues.

In 2011, Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks. At the time, the superstar forward said that he wanted to move on because he didn’t believe that the Nuggets were committed to winning. The spin became that his wife, LaLa, wanted to live in New York. With no other choice, Denver was forced to make a blockbuster trade.

At the end of the 2012-13 season, Masai Ujiri was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year. Weeks after the season ended, he was lured away by the Raptors, who offered him a five-year, $15-million deal to take over their basketball operations. The spin quickly became that Ujiri’s wife, fashion model Ramatu Ujiri, wanted to be in a more “cosmopolitan” locale.

In 2020, Artūras Karnišovas was lured away to become the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Bulls. After seven years in Denver, a key piece of Connelly’s staff left. The spin became that he had more power in Chicago, although there are just as many people above him on the organizational chart in the Windy City as there were with the Nuggets.

Months later, Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee signed free-agent contracts with the Pistons. Two key members of a Nuggets team that reached the Western Conference Finals in the bubble left to join an Eastern Conference bottom feeder. The spin quickly emerged that both left for “bigger roles” in Detroit, even though neither player has ever stated that publicly.

The Nuggets have also seen a revolving door of assistant coaches. Chris Fleming left in 2016 for a job with the Nets. Two years later, Micah Nori left for the Pistons. Last offseason, Wes Unseld Jr. departed to become the head coach of the Wizards. And yesterday, it was announced that Jordi Fernandez was leaving to become an assistant with the Kings. The spin has always been that they were leaving for “promotions,” even though only one left for a head-coaching position.

That’s a pattern. Talented people, both players and coaches, are departing for better opportunities.

In part, that’s to be expected. Bad teams raid good teams in every sport, at every level.

But it’s not as though the Nuggets have been a perennial contender. In the last four years, they’ve been a playoff team. They’ve been bounced in the second round twice, eliminated in the first round this season and advanced to one conference final.

Bill Belichick’s staff gets raided because the Patriots have won multiple championships. Anyone who has a cup of coffee with Sean McVay becomes a head-coach candidate because the wunderkind has led the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances and one title.

The Nuggets aren’t that type of an organization. To suggest they are is silly, nonsensical and ridiculous.

So why have they lost so many talented people? Because they don’t value them.

Denver is notorious for being cheap with assistant coaches. That causes people to look for better opportunities. And when they arise, the Nuggets aren’t willing to match the offers.

Why would a team do such a thing? Why wouldn’t they want to keep a successful group in place? Why wouldn’t they want to build upon success?

Because every Kroenke team has two goals – to win and to make money. Unfortunately for the fans, the priorities aren’t in that order.

The Avalanche and Nuggets want to win, but only at the right price. They aren’t going to overpay in order to remain competitive.

Tim Connelly leaving would be the latest example of this fact. It’s been readily apparent for more than a decade, but the franchises have gotten away with it.

Eventually, however, a money-first approach will catch up with a team. They can’t continue to replace good players and coaches.

The Nuggets might find that out sooner rather than later. Their “window” may close if their lead exec departs for Minnesota.

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With Connelly, will Kroenke prioritize money over winning once again?