NUGGETS

10 times former Denver Nuggets boss Tim Connelly massively messed up

May 24, 2022, 4:59 PM | Updated: 5:04 pm
Tim Connelly...
Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Tim Connelly had a great 10 years in Denver running player operations for the Nuggets.

Connelly led the Nuggets as far as they’ve ever gone in nearly 50 years of NBA hoops—a conference final. Connelly drafted, acquired, or signed every player on the roster—ushering in a golden era of hoops around Nikola Jokic. While Connelly gets praise and should, maybe his massive mistakes should give Nuggets fans hope that Calvin Booth can be even better.

What fans will say Connelly’s biggest miss is probably a draft-night trade that sent Donovan Mitchell to Utah. But there’s more to that miss than just Mitchell.

1: The 2017 NBA Draft

Mitchell wore a Nuggets hat on stage, and on paper was a Denver draft pick. But Mitchell wouldn’t have been who the Nuggets picked had they not already arranged a trade with the Jazz. While this is a miss in itself, it’s only made worse by what was after their pick. All-Star Bam Adebayo went a selection later, and then outstanding player John Collins and All-Star Jarrett Allen went. While the Nuggets no doubt didn’t need a big at this point with the emergence of Nikola Jokic, a power forward could’ve been helpful. They weren’t in the market for guards either, given Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay were already in the pickaxes.

The second and worst part of this draft miss was what the Nuggets wanted to do. They swapped picks with Utah in hopes of getting both Trey Lyles from their roster and OG Anunoby in the draft. Anunoby went one selection before Utah’s pick came up, and Denver instructed the Jazz to take Tyler Lydon. Neither Lyles nor Lydon lasted three years in Denver nor solved the issue at the four. All the while, starters Kyle Kuzma, Derrick White and Josh Hart were still available.

Connelly did hit on Monte Morris late in the second round. But no doubt Connelly missed on several key players that’d be essential for the team right now. Ultimately, Connelly got way too cute and missed on his guy—a guy who ended up being very good in Toronto—for two players that were worth very little.

2: Jusuf Nurkic Trade

The Nuggets got a starting big in the 2014 NBA Draft, trading down for Jusuf Nurkić and Gary Harris. They didn’t know then that they drafted a future two-time MVP in the second round. Nurkić got off to an okay start in his career, showing flashes of being a good NBA player. But the Nuggets struck gold in Jokic and realized they would need to move off of Nurkić. They did so in February of 2017, getting Mason Plumlee, back. He was a solid backup for the Nuggets over several years but never was pegged to be a starter. Attached in the trade was a first-round pick that Denver sent out, which ended up being No. 20 in that year’s draft. In a prime spot to pick Anunoby, who went No. 23, ahead of the No. 24 pick they traded for that represents the first mistake we covered. So what the Nuggets did in the Nurkić trade was not only set up a division rival who’d beat them in the playoffs a few years later with a very good big but also ruined that year’s draft. What they got back was a backup center.

3: 2020 trade deadline

The Denver Nuggets wound up in the Western Conference Final in 2020, and if they had nailed a few of the moves we’ve already discussed, they probably would’ve gone deeper. This move also falls into that category and what makes it frustrating is the player they should’ve gotten was actually moved in the deal.

As part of a 4-team trade, Jarrd Vanderbilt was traded by the Denver Nuggets with Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez to the Minnesota Timberwolves; the Atlanta Hawks traded a 2026 2nd round draft pick to the Houston Rockets; the Atlanta Hawks traded Evan Turner and a 2020 1st round draft pick (Aleksej Pokusevski was later selected) to the Minnesota Timberwolves; the Houston Rockets traded Clint Capela and Nene to the Atlanta Hawks; the Houston Rockets traded Gerald Green and a 2020 1st round draft pick (Zeke Nnaji was later selected) to the Denver Nuggets; the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Keita Bates-Diop, Shabazz Napier and Noah Vonleh to the Denver Nuggets; and the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Jordan Bell and Robert Covington to the Houston Rockets. (Pick is GSW’s 2026 second-round pick)

So the Nuggets shipped out two guys that are a key part of the very Minnesota team Connelly now works for. What they got back was Gerald Green and a 2020 1st round draft pick that turned into Zeke Nnaji, as well as Keita Bates-Diop, Shabazz Napier and Noah Vonleh. Out of the four guys already in the NBA, only one is still in the league, and the Nuggets got a total of 14 games played. Nnaji was the hit and could turn into something, but Vanderbilt is already a good NBA player at the same position Nnaji plays. It felt like the Nuggets gave up both Vanderbilt and Beasley. And if they were going to do that, why didn’t they go for Covington?

4: 2016 NBA Draft

Both Beasley and Hernangomez were taken in the 2016 Draft. This mess-up isn’t as bad as the first few but thematically flows based on the result of these picks. There were a few good options from Pascal Siakam to Dejounte Murray to Malcolm Brogdon. The Nuggets could’ve maybe even traded up using those No. 15 and No. 19 picks to get Domantas Sabonis or Jakob Poeltl. But in truth, the 2016 draft was a solid one; the Nuggets got Jamal Murray.

5: 2015 NBA Draft

Murray was the No. 7 pick in 2016, and the year before the Nuggets had the No. 7 pick and went with another guard, Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay was a total bust, playing 165 games in Denver. Denver could’ve had a star like Devin Booker, or even role players like Josh Richardson or Delon Wright would’ve been clutch. This class wasn’t very deep after Karl-Anthony Towns at No. 1, but it’s certainly a miss that could be helping the Nuggets seven years later.

6: Wilson Chandler extension

This was another mid-era Connelly mess up. The Nuggets forward signed a four-year, $46 million in the summer of 2015. The veteran would play just 145 more games for the Nuggets after missing the 2015-16 season with a hip injury. He never was quite the same player, and eventually, Denver was forced to move off his contract using two seconds, sending him to the 76ers. Chandler was a very good Nuggets player but stayed around too long. This was a classic Connelly move, being too loyal to a player while limiting future cap space.

7: Letting Danilo Gallinari walk

Connelly chose wrong in handing the money to Chandler when he could’ve given it to a fellow piece from the Carmelo Anthony trade, Gallinari. Gallinari was signed and traded to the Clippers in the summer of 2017 on a three-year, $65 million deal. Not surprisingly, the Nuggets didn’t get much back in the trade, but Gallo went on to have a few excellent years in L.A. and later OKC, averaging a career-best 18.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game over those three seasons. Gallo had a lot left to give and would’ve been a valued wingman to Jokic and Murray, with or without Michael Porter Jr.

8: Keeping Will Barton around

One of the most frustrating players in Denver sports history, Barton, has averaged 14 points per night in eight seasons with the Nuggets. Denver got him from Portland in 2015 for a steal. Since then he’s been signed to two extensions in 2018 and another in 2021. The latter actually made more sense given how the Nuggets could either go over the salary cap for him or get nothing for him walking, not even cap space. 2018 wasn’t exactly the time to get rid of him either, but there have been many times Barton could’ve been dealt in trade, with a good contract to move. Instead, the Nuggets have sat with Barton for years while he doesn’t really fit in to the team at all. Maybe the change into Booth with give the Nuggets a reason to acquire a different shooting guard. No matter the situation—injury to Barton, others or just play—it never really works out with Barton, especially in the playoffs. In postseason play for the Nuggets, he’s been held to about 10 points per game on under 40% shooting from the field.

9: Signing Facu Campazzo to a bi-annual exception

Campazzo’s Nuggets tenure is about to end this summer, and it’s been an up-and-down one. Campazzo is leaving on a sour note but without him, the Nuggets probably don’t beat the Blazers in the 2021 postseason. Still, the bi-annual exception was a big missed opportunity for the Nuggets.

Now the Nuggets will let Campazzo walk and miss an opportunity to balloon their tax bill. Denver will no longer have this tool to skate around the salary cap as it hard caps teams at the luxury tax apron and the Nuggets are a luxury tax team. However, if Campazzo had worked out, the Nuggets could’ve paid him up to $10.5 million this season as an early-Bird, and the extension would not have hard-capped them. Meaning if the Nuggets nailed this free agency signing they could’ve had not only a better piece for this past season but in the future and a very trade-able contract. Bobby Portis and Wesley Matthews were signed using the same exception in the summer of 2020. And other players that could still be of value to the Nuggets signed for less.

10: Not skipping steps

The Denver Nuggets have missed on their fair share of trade targets. Derrick White this season would’ve been a huge add; Jrue Holliday was in a different ballpark of cost but would’ve no doubt been awesome. There’s Bradley Beal and others, everyone has a favorite. The Nuggets never went swinging for the fences, instead insisting they would not skip steps as a point of pride. Denver finally swung for Aaron Gordon and that’s worked out pretty well, but there are definitely other, splashier moves the Nuggets could’ve made too.
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