The Denver Nuggets have finished 2018 achieving a remarkable feat few would have imagined possible prior to the start of the season by closing out the year at the top of the Western Conference with a 23-11 record.
Not only that, but they did it with what according to @ManGamesLostNBA on Twitter has been the NBA’s most injured roster this season, taking into consideration both games and win shares lost. This includes a total of 53 games missed (or on average 52% of their seasons) by starters Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton.
Denver’s expectation-surpassing success through their first 34 games of the season has largely been built on commendably strong performances from formerly obscure diamond-in-the-rough players who were scouted and acquired by president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and his front office, and who in nearly every case have far exceeded their projected value in the draft or on the trade or free agency market.
The literal centerpiece among them is Nuggets franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokic, drafted in the second round with the 41st pick as a relatively unknown Serbian big man whose skill set was, to many scouts, eclipsed by the pudgy, unathletic package it came in. Now, not only is Jokic more than earning the maximum contract extended to him last summer with his continued superlative play, he has worked his way into the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award conversation by carrying his team through this injury-ravaged stretch.
Additional impressive Connelly finds include Monte Morris, another second-round gem, and the undrafted Torrey Craig, both of whom Denver signed to two-way developmental contracts last season before promoting them to fully-guaranteed regular rotation roles, where they have thrived as integral contributors to Denver’s winning ways.
That Denver’s POBO and the staff he has assembled have unearthed the true value of all these players and more, including mid to late first round picks Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley, is one of many reasons why the Nuggets should secure Tim Connelly’s future with the organization by extending his tenure with a long-term contract.
As I wrote for Forbes last September, Connelly completely reconstructed the Nuggets roster in just the latter four years of his then five seasons at the front office helm. In this short time frame he transformed the team according to the vision he shared with team President & Governor Josh Kroenke, who hired him as general manager in 2013, and together with his father Stan owns the Nuggets organization.
When the Kroenkes last extended Connelly in January of 2016 to what was described in the press release as a “multi-year” deal, they did the same for then assistant general manager Arturas Karnisovas and the rest of the front office staff in a show of faith in the competence and talent of their management team and confidence in their ability to continue executing their design for the team’s future.
Given this show of solidarity and the fact that in 2017 the Kroenkes promoted both Connelly and Karnisovas (with the bump of the latter up to general manager designed at least in part to prevent the Milwaukee Bucks from luring him away from Denver) to their current positions, it seems unlikely that the Nuggets would repeat the same mistake which lost them Connelly’s predecessor Masai Ujiri.
In late May 2013, despite the Nuggets achieving a 57-win 2012-13 season which matched the best in franchise history, and earning Denver’s then general manager Ujiri the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award, the Toronto Raptors successfully convinced him to jump ship with a reported five-year, $15 million deal which would at least triple his salary and offer him fuller control of management decisions.
While Connelly may have no intention of abandoning the roster cultivation project he has worked so hard on before at least seeing it through to whatever ceiling it finally reaches, in today’s NBA nothing is guaranteed which isn’t in ink.
Add they did with the 2026 contract extensions and 2017 promotions, the Nuggets now need to both reward Connelly and secure the organization’s future by extending him with the long-term contract – and the accompanying salary matching his worth – that he has rightfully earned.
This should be a no-brainer for both parties, as Connelly and his front office staff have proven themselves to be among the league’s best at both identifying talent where others overlook it, and acquiring and retaining the young players whose untapped potential will ultimately translate not only to Nuggets wins on the court, but a larger winning culture grown and cultivated predominantly in house – an aspect of Denver’s roster building which, as a small-market team that traditionally struggles to attract top free agents is exceedingly important.
One of the Nuggets’ greatest current strengths, and one which should continue into and well beyond 2019, is the continuity and stability of not only their roster, but the personnel at all levels of the organization, including the front office. This is one advantage Denver has control of in a cutthroat Western Conference, and to retain a competitive edge both this season and long term, one which they can ill afford to squander.
Connelly by this point has more than earned a deal akin to the one that the Raptors used to lure Ujiri away from the Nuggets in 2013. Hopefully this time the Kroenkes will recognize and reward his success, and not let another good one get away.