Connelly Sees Growth in Nuggets, Wants Team to Take Next Step
By Christopher Dempsey, Altitude Sports
OKLAHOMA CITY – As the dust settled on the Nuggets 2016-17 season, general manager Tim Connelly took a few moments to reflect on all that has taken place. The team’s 40 wins was its most in four years, the most in his tenure, and a seven-game improvement from a season ago.
“I think it’s been a season of growth,” Connelly told Altitude Sports. “Certainly, we’re better now than we were last year at this time. As competitors, we’re all disappointed in not getting a postseason berth. We thought we were right there.
“What’s been great is all of these games have been meaningful, so we’ve got not just our vets, but our young players experience. The intensity of a playoff chase. It’s been several years since our games meant something in April. So, pretty excited that these guys can learn from this experience and grow from it. Next year, we’re not talking about the offseason apart from the playoffs; we are in the playoffs.”
This season brought a lot more clarity to what the Nuggets are building. The entered the year without a clear centerpiece to build around and without a clear identity, but gained both over the course of the season.
Second-year center Nikola Jokic had a breakout season. He not only produced from a statistical standpoint, he cemented himself as the player the team will now build around. And, in large part due to Jokic, the Nuggets quickly carved out an offensive system to which they can now acquire talent to.
“You don’t want to put too much pressure on him,” Connelly said. “He’s only 22. But you also can’t bury your head in the sand and relative to the productivity. I think he’s earned that title. But it’s not about one guy. He’d be the first one to tell you it’s a team game. He’s probably the least stat-aware guy on the team. But certainly we’re playing a certain way now and having success playing that way primarily because of his unique skill set and the coaches confidence in him.”
Connelly acknowledged that there were more questions still to be answered.
“Until you’re winning a championship there’s countless ones,” he said. “We don’t want to pat ourselves on the back. We expected to make the playoffs and we didn’t.”
But the franchise did identify players that they want attached to the Nuggets for the long-term.
“Some of these guys have cemented their place in next year’s role already,” Connelly said. “There’s a handful of guys that you know what you’re going to get, and I think coach trusts them and those are guys we are going to take a long-term approach with and feel good about growing with. So, in that regard, sitting here 12 months ago there were more questions about specific players and/or roles than we have today.”
The Nuggets plan on opening contract negotiations with shooting guard Gary Harris, Connelly said. The Nuggets cannot extend Jokic’s contract until after next season, so there won’t be movement on that front this summer.
Meanwhile, veteran forward Danilo Gallinari can opt out of his contract this summer. If he does, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. If that’s the case, Connelly said retaining Gallo’s services vaults to the top of the organization’s list of personnel priorities.
“If he chooses to opt out,” Connelly said, “he’s certainly going to be one of our primary focuses.”
Also, the plan is to sign center Mason Plumlee to a new contract. Plumlee came to the Nuggets in a trade deadline deal with Portland.
“Mase brought a lot of what we thought he would bring – intensity, a vertical threat at the rim,” Connelly said. “An athletic big. A very good passer. It’s not an easy transition going from a starter to the third or fourth big. … When we traded for him, we traded for him for the purpose of bringing him back. Barring something unforeseen or some dramatic shift, we’re pretty excited to talk to his representatives this summer and figure something out.”
Center Roy Hibbert’s contract expires as well. Veteran Mike Miller’s contract for next season becomes fully guaranteed in July. Other than those situations, the Nuggets have a team full of players already under contract for next season. It means any moves made would come via trade.
“We are always trying to make big trades,” Connelly said. “We have yet to see any of those things come to fruition, but I think what’s interesting about our team is we have a lot of good players. And I think relative to their contracts, most of our guys outperformed their contracts, which is a testament to our coaching and player development. They’ve all improved, even the older guys.”
The sum of it all is a team he sees headed in the right direction, though Connelly remains not fully satisfied until the Nuggets are back in the postseason.
“It’s not for lack of effort, but we need to do better,” he said. “Before I got here, it was playoffs for a long time; now we haven’t been to playoffs for four years. That’s unacceptable. I think we’ve been very fortunate to have added a bunch of really talented young pieces -- guys who are as good as any other young players in the NBA. So, I like where we are in terms of our foundation.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and Twitter: @chrisadempsey