On July 1st, the opening day of the NBA free agency period, Paul George was traded for comparatively little to one of the Denver Nuggets’ division rivals, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just a week prior to that on draft night, The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to another Northwest Division team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, in an arguably even more lopsided deal.
Building upon what many considered to be an extremely disappointing draft for Denver, the growing frustration among Nuggets fans on that first day of July was palpable, especially on Twitter, where grievances were reaching full throttle.
Nuggets fan blues at the dawn of free agency
I confess that I was not immune to that angst, as I played my part in being a pessimistic buzzkill regarding the Nuggets front office. Case in point, in my irksome mood I snarled out my impression that the year had not gone well to that point for Tim Connelly and his crew:
…that events for Denver’s front office leading up to the trade deadline and through the beginning of free agency had basically been flagged by a series of blunders:
…and that not getting better while at the same time other teams improved markedly would amount to getting worse:
Cooler heads, such as fellow Nuggets and Broncos fan Daniel Winston, urged patience (and some may argue that they have been vindicated, but we’ll get to that shortly):
But I remained stubbornly firm in not buying into that line of thinking, though I wished to ultimately be mistaken:
In which I eat some crow
So as promised, I write this in part to first eat a little crow, at least as much as I deserve, and to happily proclaim without reservation that the day in which Tim Connelly, Arturas Karnisovas, and the Nuggets front office successfully signed, sealed, and delivered Paul Millsap to Denver is, in fact, the day when they at least partially restored my trust in their competence, and confidence in their ability to make the moves necessary to build a better future for the Nuggets.
And before I get to why I must qualify that trust with “at least partially,” let me be explicitly clear:
Connelly & Co. deserve huge, heaping truckloads of unqualified praise for recruiting Millsap to the Denver Nuggets. It is arguably Denver’s most significant free agent signing in ten years (since Kenyon Martin), twenty years (since Antonio McDyess), or perhaps even longer. For a team which, based in a small-market “flyover” city lacking glitz, glamour, and a championship pedigree, has had notorious difficulty attracting top free agents, landing a player of Millsap’s caliber – with his on-court abilities and achievements, his defensive proficiency, the quality of his character and leadership, his stature in the league, and his fit with the current roster – is a veritable coup.
So while not everything I have to say here will be complimentary of every decision Connelly’s front office has made, let me be on the record as being unequivocal in my respect and appreciation for what they accomplished in bringing Millsap to Denver. It is probably the second-most important move (only to drafting Nikola Jokic) that the current regime has made, one of historical significance to the Nuggets franchise, and unlikely to be surpassed in the near future. On the final balance sheet, inking Millsap will have most likely transformed a 2017 Nuggets offseason which appeared to be headed for failure into an overall (if not unqualified) success.
But alas, one single great move does not a front office make.
In Connelly we trust?
While my doom-and-gloom tweet rant may have sold Connelly short in light of subsequently landing Millsap, beyond signing the four-time All-Star, many of the decisions the Nuggets front office has made over the past year currently appear likely to have bleak outcomes. And as such, while I happily admit to needing to slow my roll on the pessimism train, reasonable doubt stemming from a series of seemingly bad moves is not only warranted, but – if we are trying to be impartial – practically inescapable.
“In Connelly We Trust” has been the mantra of many a Nuggets fan, and at least where it came to the draft I know I have said it myself on more than one occasion.
Trust, however, must not only be earned, but also sustained. And despite the large deposit of trust Connelly banked through his draft prowess, from Denver’s last indisputably successful draft night on June 23, 2016 to the announcement of the news of the Millsap acquisition on July 2, 2017, the Nuggets front office did much more to undermine confidence in their decision making than to build it up and maintain it.
So while I readily concede that my initial take was excessively and prematurely grim, I have to stand my ground in contending that a strong dose of healthy skepticism is still warranted regarding Connelly and the Nuggets front office.
But first, in fairness, as Daniel quite sensibly pointed out above on Twitter, many of these situations are still unfolding, and so the possibility exists that at least some of them will turn out better than I am prognosticating (and again, hoping to be proven wrong about). So before evaluating the moves, or in some cases lack of moves made by Connelly’s front office in that intervening year, let’s first review the factual record of what did and did not happen during that time frame.
Nuggets front office actions (and inactions) from the 2016 draft to the Millsap signing
July 9, 2016: After Darrell Arthur had declined his $2.94 million option for 2016-17, the Nuggets re-signed him to a three-year, $23 million contract.
July 21, 2016: After Mike Miller had completed his first one-year contract with the Nuggets, they re-signed him to a two-year, $5 million deal.
August 30, 2016: Denver traded Joffrey Lauvergne to Oklahoma City for two 2017 second-round draft picks.
November 16, 2016: The Nuggets brought back former player Alonzo Gee on a non-guaranteed one-year, $1.15 million contract. They went on to waive him on January 6, 2017 to prevent his contract from becoming fully guaranteed. They subsequently re-signed him two days later to a 10-day contract, which they then allowed to expire without bringing him back.
February 13, 2017: Denver acquired Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round draft pick, trading Jusuf Nurkic and the 20th pick in the 2017 draft (which would be used to select Harry Giles) to the Portland Trail Blazers.
February 23, 2017: The Nuggets traded a protected second-round draft pick to Milwaukee for Roy Hibbert.
2016 off-season through 2017 trade deadline: The Nuggets did not trade Danilo Gallinari, foregoing the opportunity to prevent losing him without retrieving any assets in return.
June 22, 2017: With the 13th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Nuggets selected Donovan Mitchell and traded him to Utah for Trey Lyles and the 24th pick, which they used to draft Tyler Lydon. Denver also drafted Vlatko Cancar (49th) and .Monte Morris (51st) in the second round.
2016 off-season through the 2017 draft (and, so far, the free agency period): Denver has not made any moves to consolidate their roster, which is particularly crowded at the power forward and shooting guard positions, instead adding to the congestion by drafting two additional power forwards.
Cracks in the foundation of trust: A year of missteps and missed opportunities overshadowing the hits
In appraising the Nuggets front office over the last year, a general pattern emerges in which while not all the moves it made were bad – and some were genuinely good – the positives tend to be clustered among the least significant moves, while the more important and impacting unfortunately are also the more problematic. We can, however, at least begin with a few minor pluses before going down the more difficult road.
The Arthur and Miller re-signings: Bringing back Arthur and Miller on deals which were quite reasonable, especially in light of how far under the salary cap the Nuggets were at the time, was essentially a no-brainer solid move. While the sole downside of retaining D.A. was to keep the log jam firmly in place at power forward (more on that later), he brought a defensive skill set to the table which was unique on Denver’s roster. And while he was ultimately underutilized (partly due to coaching decisions, partly due to injury), his continued locker room presence – like that of Miller – as a veteran leader and team player was eminently welcome. He could also have been a useful trade piece, but as we now know, that would not come to pass.
The Joffrey trade: This was a solid, if fairly minor move, and the only one in the course of this year which genuinely worked toward roster consolidation. Let’s face it: Lauvergne just is not that good of a player, and if one of the two second-rounders the Nuggets got for him turns into a serviceable backup point guard in Monte Morris, that is about as good as Denver could have realistically hoped to get for the big man.
The Gee signing and waiver: No beef here, in this relatively insignificant move which was merely a stopgap measure to temporarily patch the hole in the roster left by injuries to Gary Harris and Will Barton at minimal cost.
The Nurkic Nightmare: It is important to preface this section by first making it clear that the primary impetus behind the Nurkic situation becoming as problematic as it did was the fact that Nurkic himself behaved in a whiny, immature, unprofessional manner, going on to confirm this quality of character after the trade by continually trolling the team which rewarded the big crybaby for his bad behavior. But be that as it may, it remains the responsibility of an NBA team’s front office and coaching staff to manage difficult personalities and egos, including the custodianship of their value to the franchise as assets. True, Nurkic did a great deal of damage to his own trade value by utterly quitting on the team when things didn’t go his way. And this created the impression for some – admittedly, myself included – when the trade for Mason Plumlee came around that it may have been about as good as the Nuggets could have gotten for Nurkic.
Clearly, however, that turned out to be a massive mistake. On how many fronts did Connelly lose that trade? By not only swapping Nurkic for Plumlee, who may not be bad but is plainly not on the same level as the big Bosnian, but also exchanging their 2017 20th pick (more on this below) for a future second rounder, and also getting bested in the process by a division rival who Denver would, and foreseeably will be battling for playoff positioning, ultimately losing the race for the 8th seed in April, the Nuggets were at a minimum three-time losers in this deal.
The Hibbert trade: This was fine, if almost entirely insignificant. For the proverbial bag of peanuts, they got a great teammate and cheerleader off the bench, and a bit closer to the salary floor.
The decision to not trade Gallinari: If I should feel chastened for erroneously resigning myself at first to accepting the Nurkic trade as being as decent as Denver could have gotten, I will likewise allow myself to feel somewhat vindicated in calling for the Nuggets to trade Gallo for any assets at all rather than lose him for nothing:
As we now know, after Connelly and the gang opted not to trade the Rooster, he did indeed walk for nothing at all. Now, the pros and cons of this decision are not entirely agreed upon, and the two main arguments I have seen in support of the worthiness of keeping him around a few weeks longer are first that as a flight risk he wouldn’t have fetched much value anyhow, and second – and perhaps more importantly – that making that season-ending playoff push, fail or succeed, was in itself worth the learning experience for Denver’s young players, and in any event that the potential benefits of reaching the postseason made the risk acceptable.
The first point is difficult to speculate about since we don’t really know what teams were or were not offering for Gallo, but I for one have a hard time believing that there were not at least a few options available that could have retrieved some assets which would come in handy for Denver’s future. Perhaps in time more details will be leaked on this matter, but for now, especially given the interest shown in Gallinari by numerous teams around the league in free agency, I remain skeptical of the no value back hypothesis.
The second point is much more subjective, as it is impossible to empirically appraise the value of learning and experience. But it seems fair to say that gambling on making the playoffs entails the belief that there is a reasonable probability of actually making the playoffs. And if we can take that much as given, then the two moves taken together, with Denver at the same time choosing not to trade Gallinari for the purpose of making the playoffs, and trading Nurkic to Portland thus giving the Blazers the key to knock the Nuggets out of playoff contention, makes the whole package worse as a whole than either part would be on its own. What otherwise might be two separate stumbles becomes a full-on trip into a face plant. So if those of us who contend Gallinari should have been traded are being asked to consider the value of the playoff push in growth and education for the Nuggets youngsters, it is just as pertinent to ponder what lesson those players gleaned from the fact that the front office’s Nurkic misstep directly undermined their postseason prospects. At the very least, it seems unlikely to inspire much confidence.
The disastrous draft: Is it too harsh to call it a disaster? Go back and watch the Nuggets’ post-draft press conference. Connelly practically admitted as much himself, and the body language of all the Nuggets brass spoke volumes. And that was all before we saw Donovan Mitchell looking amazing and Tyler Lydon looking lost in Summer League, where everyone will tell you nothing matters, but it sure did not feel that way. And while in fairness it really is too early to tell how things will look retrospectively in two or three years on the Mitchell versus Lydon (and Lyles) front, what does seem very clear is that Connelly and Karnisovas had a plan, and that plan went all kinds of wrong. By most accounts they traded down to gamble on nabbing OG Anunoby with the 24th pick, but snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory by overextending their hand and allowing Masai Ujiri to slip in at 23 to steal him away for Toronto.
Once again, it is the combination of multiple blunders which compounds the damage, as had Denver waited out Nurkic and retained their 20th pick, Anunoby would have been theirs for the taking. So instead of landing either Donovan or OG, the two defensive-minded high-upside prospects within their grasp, they ended up with two who seem unlikely to amount to a whole lot, or at least not to provide what the Nuggets most need. And I will once again acknowledge that yes, it is too soon to know for sure how this all will shake out, and also repeat what now seems to be my mantra that I hope to be proven wrong and will happily eat more crow if so. But I am not holding my breath.
The never-ending avoidance of roster consolidation: As mentioned above, when the Nuggets had a chance to make moves to consolidate the roster on draft night, they instead doubled down on overloading what already was their most crowded position of power forward. (The Millsap signing added yet another four, but the good very much outweighs the bad on that front.) Here is a look at the Nuggets’ depth chart as things currently stand:
What Connelly and the Nuggets front office were thinking in drafting two additional power forwards – neither of whom met Denver’s primary need and expressly stated goal of adding capable defenders – is entirely incomprehensible to me. The much more sensible recent addition of Torrey Craig on a two-way contract does nothing to relieve the congestion, but at least he both brings a defensive acumen to the table and fits a position of need, and as such is a small step in the right direction. But nothing has been done to alleviate the roster cluster-f-bomb that fueled Nurkic’s ire and also appeared to feed into Wilson Chandler’s dissatisfaction.
If there is any silver lining here it is that there is plenty of offseason left to address this problem. But the larger dark cloud that continues to loom is that this has been going on literally for years without the front office doing much, if anything about it. And as genuinely fantastic as recruiting Millsap was, his addition does exacerbate the issue. If Juancho Hernangomez is to get any significant playing time, it will almost have to be at small forward, which is arguably out of position for him. And with Millsap presumably playing 30 or more minutes a game, Kenneth Faried will have to accept a dramatically reduced role, while Darrell Arthur will likely be squandered on the bench, if all of these players are still on the roster at the start of the season.
The recent news that Kyrie Irving wants out of Cleveland and that Denver is among his pursuers provides on prospective window as to how the Nuggets log jam might be cleared, as the contracts of Faried or Arthur would almost necessarily have to be included in a trade for the Cavaliers All-Star just to make salaries match. But if Connelly can’t get a deal worked out for Irving, or the Phoenix Suns’ Eric Bledsoe who the Nuggets had reportedly been working on a trade for, then the list of potential trade targets could start dwindling, and Denver could once again be stuck in nearly the exact same jam they were in at the beginning of the 2016-17 season. And if they are, we should expect to see more of the resulting complications that brought, such as convoluted rotations and discontent among the players who inevitably will get the short shrift or be stuck in unclear roles.
Getting back on track
“At least Connelly hasn’t made any terrible trades,” or “fortunately the Nuggets didn’t make any stupid free agent signings,” or other similar positions represent a defense of this front office which is not indefinitely sustainable. For one thing, there’s Nurkic, which pokes at least one 7-foot hole in that sort of contention. But even if the Nuggets had avoided making mistakes (though as I’ve argued here I don’t believe this to be the case), as true as it may be that sometimes the best move is no move, there are no highly successful teams in the NBA, let alone legitimate championship contenders, which are built upon merely not screwing up.
Signing Paul Millsap is a truly great move in just about every conceivable way, and one which Connelly desperately needed to make not only for how much it will help the franchise but also to put the brakes on what really had been a mostly rough year for Denver’s front office, which culminated in a highly discouraging draft night of lost opportunities. Hopefully this will represent the turning point that gets the Nuggets brain trust’s mojo back on track, and sets the stage for improved decision making and more effective execution of better conceived strategies in both the short- and long-term future.
This is truly a critical and pivotal juncture in Denver Nuggets history, and the Millsap acquisition only raises the stakes on how important it will be to get the next moves right. Connelly and the front office in their best moments have certainly demonstrated the ability to do some things exceptionally well, especially when it has come to scouting young talent. And despite some recent blunders, landing Millsap will hopefully be just the first of many steps they can take to demonstrate a similar competence in other aspects of team building.
And as ever, if and when they make their next great moves – as many Nuggets fans are currently hoping will happen by trading for Kyrie Irving without paying too high a price – I will be first in line to cheerfully revel in having my doubts put to rest, eat a big fat helping of humble pie, and say without reservation that once again, “In Connelly we trust.”