What was once a portrait of mid-market success has become one of the NBA's biggest lemons.
In 2011, the Denver Nuggets showed the league how to extract maximum value when a superstar ransoms a franchise. Though stars have come and gone, the Nuggets maintained stability with a Hall of Fame head coach who presided over the team for nearly nine seasons, during every one of which the team qualified for the postseason. With George Karl's brand of organized chaos -- referred to inside the Nuggets proudly as "random basketball" -- Denver established itself as one of the league's toughest road dates, a high-altitude fire drill for teams traversing the West.
Above the court, the franchise's ownership and brain trust were well respected. During their respective tenures, Mark Warkentien and Masai Ujiri each won an executive of the year award.
Stan Kroenke is a fair -- if frugal -- owner with a wide net in professional sports and an obsessive commitment to finishing each season in the black, though the Nuggets often don't. His son, Josh Kroenke, is heir to the Kroenke Sports empire, which includes the Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Rams, Colorado Rapids of the MLS and the largest single holding of Arsenal of the English Premier League. He's also a descendent of the Wal-Mart Walton family fortune and has been a little brother to dozens in the NBA family, a young mensch who insisted on starting with an internship with the league, then at the bottom of basketball operations, writing thorough player reports as effectively as an entry-level scout before graduating to the highest ranks of the franchise: team president and governor.
Long before the analytics became a staple for NBA teams, the Nuggets had advanced stats godfather Dean Oliver in the fold.
Today, Denver is getting smoked nightly. It's a 2-7 team with no discernible identity, redundancies all over its roster and a morose, first-time coach who has expressed frustration with the fortitude of his team. Several sources around the league, a few close to the Nuggets, say the organization is "rudderless" under the controls of a young front office, led by general manager Tim Connelly, that has neither the experience nor the savvy to survive in a league whose executive ranks are teeming with predators.
"I'm not sure Tim can do the job," a league power broker, who has known Connelly for years, said. "He's the nicest guy you'll meet, but he's out of his depths, and you saw it with the [Kenneth] Faried mess."
The mess in question refers to the odd sequence of events during the finalization of Faried's four-year, $50 million extension completed in early October, a deal that was initially leaked by Denver, according to several sources, at five years and $60 million, only the terms of that deal didn't conform to the current collective bargaining agreement, which stipulates a team's "designated player" for a five-year extension must receive the maximum money. Connelly and Ben Tenzer, the Nuggets' young director of team operations and de facto salary-cap guy, jumped the gun while the rest of the NBA, including the league office, scratched their heads at the report.
In the final analysis, the whoops factor of the episode exceeded any substantive damage, of which there was none. The parties completed the deal, and the Nuggets had protected their asset. Around the league, though, there was a collective WTF?! More than one source close to the league's infrastructure has confirmed Faried wasn't the only proposed transaction by Denver that violated CBA 101 basics. One rival team executive said the Nuggets called to propose a trade that was obviously unkosher under league rules, something that rarely, if ever, happens because no general manager wants to betray ignorance of such a rudimentary part of the gig. Most have the good sense to call the league to fact-check potential acquisitions.
General managers are engaged in a 12-month game of poker. They read each other for tells and vulnerabilities and prey on weaknesses. Projecting a lack of confidence or expertise can mark you as the fish at the table.
"There's definitely a lack of confidence when Tim calls," a different exec said. "You can hear it, and it's not even his fault because this wasn't a job he sought out. The s--- hit the fan [in late spring 2013], and he was needed in triage right away. How do you not take the job if it's offered?"
For Connelly, it was an easy call. He had the iron-clad endorsement of the man he'd be succeeding in Denver, over a decade in basketball operations and a lot of goodwill around the league. Although it was a sudden hire, Connelly felt ready.
"I feel like my experiences at every level have prepared me for this job," Connelly said. "I don't think there have been any overwhelming moments. When an organization is in transition -- and we were when Brian and I jumped aboard -- there are going to be unexpected growing pains, especially taking over a team that's had so much success over the past decade. But I think our processes are sound."
The circumstances surrounding Connelly's battlefield promotion to general manager in June 2013 stemmed from a confluence of events that gutted the Nuggets' steady leadership. On May 31 of that spring, the Toronto Raptors lured Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri away from Denver with an offer of $3 million per year, a robust figure considerably above the league average, that doesn't compute with Stan Kroenke's philosophy of low overhead, especially for those who don't suit up on a basketball court.
A week later, the Nuggets ended contentious negotiations with Karl by firing him after nine seasons. The next week, assistant general manager and cap guru Pete D'Alessandro, the presumptive successor to Ujiri, departed for Sacramento.
Josh Kroenke was in a spot. With 10 days to go until the 2013 NBA draft, tumbleweeds blowing through the executive offices and no time to perform a comprehensive search for a new top basketball operations executive, the Nuggets installed Connelly at the strong urging of Ujiri, according to multiple sources. Connelly had served as the assistant general manager with the New Orleans Pelicans and before that in the Washington Wizards organization as a jack-of-all-trades, with scouting as his major.
"Based on some of the guys who had been hired, whether Rob Hennigan [Orlando Magic], Sam Hinkie [Philadelphia 76ers], Ryan McDonough [Phoenix Suns], there were a younger group of guys I'd gotten to know directly or indirectly, and Tim is part of that group," Josh Kroenke said. "I thought about other candidates, different personalities, but what I wanted was someone I could believe in, just like I did in Masai, and just like Masai and I did in Pete."
The interview and information-gathering process was swift. Armed with Ujiri's seal of approval, Kroenke made a battery of quick calls around the league to those he trusted, including principals in New Orleans and Washington, then sat down with Connelly over dinner. Connelly is universally regarded in the NBA as one of the league's most amiable young execs, a hard-working scout who respects colleagues and honors his mentors. After years of being patronized at times by a procession of older, strong, whip-smart personalities in Denver, ranging from Warkentien to Karl, Kroenke loved that Connelly was a calming force to have around, a thirtysomething contemporary of Kroenke who seemed devoid of ego, was trustworthy and was somebody he might actually want to spend time with in casual company.
"[Josh Kroenke] wanted someone he could get along with the way he got along with Masai and the younger guys in the organization," a source with knowledge of the Nuggets said. "Josh thought he'd be able to continue working as de facto GM. All he needed was someone like Tim -- a good guy who would be grateful to be there and probably knew less about basketball than Josh."
The issue of money takes on relevance when discussing a Nuggets managerial hire. The Nuggets' front-office jobs have long come with some of the smaller compensation packages in the league, as Denver has traditionally subscribed to the idea that young executives at lesser salaries offer a sound value. Call it the Kroenke-Walton Family Law. It's not inconceivable that assistant general managers for other NBA teams have interviewed in Denver expecting to take a pay cut to land the Nuggets' head job. Matching the $3 million per season Toronto offered Ujiri was a nonstarter in Denver. Even if there had been time in June 2013 to make a splashy hire to replace Ujiri, it simply isn't in the Nuggets' nature to pay top dollar for managerial talent, especially if Josh Kroenke anticipated maintaining an active role in basketball operations.
But as more of Kroenke Sports' Denver-based enterprise landed on his plate, the day-to-day basketball operations have slid to Connelly. To replace Karl on the sidelines, Kroenke opted for another first-timer in Brian Shaw, albeit one who served as an assistant for eight seasons under Phil Jackson and Frank Vogel.
The honeymoon for Shaw was quick. While Karl preached a frenetic, guerrilla offense as a virtue, Shaw grew up in the orderly triangle offense in Los Angeles. It was apparent early on that the Nuggets weren't constructed for system-oriented basketball. The negotiations between coach and team were a struggle, and a bevy of injuries followed, including those to Danilo Gallinari (for a full season), Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson. Some still aren't fully healthy.
But even a healthy version of the Nuggets looks like a menagerie of mismatched parts, and that's true whether one wants to install a color-by-numbers offense or run the floor with abandon. There are redundancies all over the roster, as the Nuggets are committed to more than $70 million over the next two seasons to McGee, Faried, Gallinari and Hickson in the frontcourt and still have Chandler and Timofey Mozgov on the books. The deals the Nuggets haven't made to correct this might be more fruitless than any they have.
"Given our lack of [a] superstar or top-30 player, we feel our best chance to be relevant in the Western Conference is with a team that boasts experienced depth, a team that can really make hay with positions 5 through 10," Connelly said.
This isn't just an issue of overlapping skill sets. There's no perceptible pecking order here, not one guy whose production and presence stands decidedly above the others. Unless there's a coyote in a spur-adorned jersey running around the building or Larry Brown has caught lightning in a bottle in suburban Detroit, this dynamic tends to create internal conflict, with each player feeling as if he's the guy. Case in point: Faried, who, while he gets bludgeoned defensively against elite power forwards, has flourished as the consummate gamer and ferocious hustle guy.
Several sources around the league insist the Nuggets' hand was forced with regard to Faried. After the signing of Hickson to a three-year, approximately $16 million contract soon after Connelly's arrival, the sense was the bouncy big man was insurance against Faried's departure in free agency in 2014. Faried was a fan favorite in Denver, but multiple sources with knowledge of the Nuggets' thinking maintain the team "isn't crazy about him," particularly Shaw. But with Faried's boffo showing last summer with Team USA and a loyal following in Denver, the media-conscious Nuggets caved, adding yet another imperfect 4-man to their lot.
"[Faried] is a helluva player and plays hard, but he isn't well liked [in the organization]," a league source said. "That gets glossed over. He says crazy s---. He thinks he's the guy, and other guys take exception to his contract."
In a mid-market city that's unlikely to attract a marquee free agent, Denver has historically followed the asset-play model -- lock up the player and, if need be, you can always deal him later, but under no circumstances lose him for nothing. The prime example here is Nene, who was signed to a five-year, $67 million deal in December 2011 but shipped to Washington three months later for a package highlighted by McGee, who was still on his rookie contract at the time. The Nuggets have a committed payroll close to $70 million for 2015-16 -- behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors for next season. With diminishing hope they can achieve the relevance Connelly aspires to, the Nuggets will soon need to consider unburdening themselves of some of those hefty paychecks.
"Every player on our roster is a movable asset," Connelly said. "Certainly you don't want to view players as assets, but there's a part of you in the front office that has to be brutally honest with how these guys are viewed leaguewide. We don't have a guy on the roster we'd have to heavily incentivize to move."
The current composition of the locker room, along with the MASH unit, has been challenging for Shaw. Responding to a question last February by The Denver Post's Chris Dempsey about whether Shaw would've accepted the head job the previous summer had he known about the condition of the team, Shaw responded, "Yeah, I most likely would have taken it. ... So, no, I don't hate the roster. What I hate is having to beg guys to play. That simple. That shouldn't be a part of what coaching should be."
Those are hardly the verbal cues one wants in a first-year head coach, and, in his second season now, Shaw continues to struggle to make the pieces fit and to answer the question, "Do you want to play fast or do you want to big?" Early on, Shaw seems determined to have it both ways. The Nuggets are tied for the second-highest pace in the league but in the bottom 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
"If we don't have that kind of effort from everybody, then we're not going to ever get out of this situation, and I won't survive it, and it's that simple," Shaw told the Denver Post on Thursday, one day after the Nuggets gave up 84 points in the first half to Portland.
Shaw is in the second of a three-year contract (with a team option for the fourth), and Kroenke insists he has confidence and reasonable expectations for his head coach, though Shaw minced no words about his long-term prospects, adding that "my head is going to be the one that's on the guillotine" should the Nuggets continue to reel.
"It's a detriment and unfair to compare Brian to George," Kroenke said. "It's an insult to George Karl, who won over 1,000 games. From the same standpoint, it's impossible for Brian, who has coached only 88 games in his entire career as a head coach."
There's plenty of precedent in recent seasons for NBA teams to usher in a new era with first-time, often very young executives and coaches. Yet there's a material difference between the blueprint in Orlando, Philadelphia and Phoenix and the strategy in Denver. The Sixers are flirting with the salary floor, while Orlando and Phoenix have committed well short of $60 million this season. In contrast, the Nuggets' payroll ranks squarely in the top 10, and the team has a corporate imperative to win basketball games. The Suns have managed to straddle the line between frugality and success, but they've simply been far more resourceful, more faithful to an organizational vision and have better taste in basketball players. What we call an embarrassment of riches in Phoenix's backcourt we call a logjam in Denver's frontcourt. The difference is method versus madness.
Kroenke conveys an awareness of all this but dismisses any suggestion that the Nuggets would be better off holding a fire sale. Quite the contrary, the Nuggets have pledged to their fans they're in it to win. And if they circle the drain this season, the NBA draft is always there as salvation for wreckage. In the meantime, he remains devoted to the notion that in the process of anybody mastering anything, there's a point at the beginning when that person is merely proficient. He says that learning the ropes is a natural part of professional maturation, whether that job is the president and governor of the team, its neophyte general manager or its embattled head coach.
But the cruel truth is that patience is a virtue in the NBA, until the day it isn't.