On June 17 last year, the Nuggets announced that Tim Connelly had been tapped to take the helm of Denver’s front office. In the month preceding his hiring, owner Josh Kroenke had overseen a turbulent start to Denver’s offseason, and Connelly joined a Nuggets organization reckoning with the startling departure of Masai Ujiri for Toronto and the firing of Coach of the Year George Karl. Exacerbating the chaotic atmosphere, Andre Iguodala – who the Nuggets clearly had expected to return – opted out to become an unrestricted free agent just eleven days after Connelly’s arrival, and it quickly became clear that he did not intend to re-sign with Denver.
From day one, Connelly’s rookie year as general manager has been a trial by fire, albeit a fire he enthusiastically jumped into.
To many, including a fair share of the writers here at Roundball Mining Company, it seemed unrealistic that the Nuggets would be able to replicate (let alone surpass) the previous season’s success in the cutthroat Western Conference, and that therefore their best course of action would be to take the plunge into at least a partial rebuilding process, focusing on the development of their youth and the accumulation of assets which would become the building blocks of the team’s future.
But Kroenke and Connelly had a different plan in mind. They were clearly intent on getting the Nuggets back into the playoffs. This was evidenced by a series of offseason signings favoring the acquisition of veterans who in the short term might help the team win more games, but likely at the cost of limiting the minutes of younger players in need of development. The use of payroll and roster spots on players of considerable experience but dubious trade value also seemed to hamper the organization’s flexibility and leave few resources available for bringing in projects and draft picks.
Conelly himself has attested to Denver’s goal to remain competitive in the short term. In a recent interview on Altitude TV, Scott Hastings asked him whether the Nuggets ever thought they would “have to take a step back before [they went] forward to where [they] wanted to get to.” Connelly’s reply:
“Not really. We kind of came here and collectively sat down and said this is a great foundation team that’s proven it can win a lot in the regular season, and for whatever reasons has some trouble in the postseason. So, how do we progress without taking a step back? I think that was our intention with some of the things we did [last] offseason. But our whole goal is really – we’re going to push all the chips in the middle of the table and try to make the next step and hope that it works.”
The passage of nearly a year since Connelly became general manager allows for a more panoramic perspective to evaluate his first season’s body of work. And while the upcoming offseason may prove more revealing as to how competent Connelly’s chops are as GM, reviewing his first act may help to provide some insight as to what to expect as the Nuggets approach the draft and free agency.
It’s impossible to divorce individuals trades and signings from the context of the roster and the trajectory of the team, but here I will evaluate each of Connelly’s most important moves in relative isolation before moving on to grading his first year as a whole.
Grading Connelly’s main roster moves
● June 27, 2013 – Traded Kosta Koufos to the Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur and the rights to Joffrey Lauvergne
● July 26, 2013 – Re-signed restricted free agent Timofey Mozgov to a 3-year, $14 million contract
I’m combining these two moves because they’re essentially flip sides of the same coin. Let’s start with Arthur for Koufos. Had I graded this draft day trade at the time it went down, I would have given it something between a C and a sad trombone. Koufos had been the closest thing to a stalwart frontcourt defender on the Nuggets roster last season. And the prospect of losing not only his offensive rebounding, but also giving JaVale McGee the (ostensibly unchallenged) keys to the starting center job was a somewhat troubling prospect. The passage of time, however, has polished much of the tarnish off that initially dour impression. Offensively, Arthur didn’t contribute as much as hoped for, but assuming he exercises his player option for 2014-15, the potential remains for him to be an important contributor as Denver’s only power forward with legitimate range. This will especially be true if the development of his recently emerged 3-pointer ends up being for real rather than a fluke. Darrell is a player who on paper should be an excellent fit with Shaw, who wants to run some of his sets through the elbow where Arthur dwells, and his late season improvement points to that coming to fruition, at least to some extent. As Denver’s roster stands right now, he’s the closest thing they have to a stretch four who can space the floor. He’s also their best defending big, especially when playing alongside Mozgov.
As head-scratching as trading Koufos seemed to be at the time, doubling down on Mozgov – who had been such a disappointment in 2012-13 that he hardly got off the bench – only made Connelly’s approach seem even more questionable. Taken together, both of these moves pretty much flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day. Fortunately, however, the move looks much better in retrospect. It should first be pointed out that Koufos took a significant step back in 2013-14, building nothing on his previous season’s success. Perhaps Kosta was merely a product of Karl’s system, or just had a flukey good year, but whatever caused his regression is far less important than the fact that Mozgov’s development really took off in the opposite direction. (In our recent RMC Five-on-Five, Timo received three out of five votes for the Nuggets’ most improved player in 2013-14). That conventional wisdom from last summer has by now been turned on its head, and Mozgov has emerged as the superior player to Koufos – pending, of course, his continued development and no further script flipping. Excluding Andre Miller, Mozgov’s offensive rating of 111 was the team’s third best, and he made big strides in improving his post play. Not only did Timofey improbably find his way to being more effective and efficient in Shaw’s offense, but as mentioned above, Denver’s best defensive frontcourt duo was Mozgov and Arthur by a significant margin. And while it may be a bridge too far to presume that Connelly could have foreseen how fortuitous the shuffling of these three players would end up being for Denver, it’s only fair at this point to say that he put his eggs in the right basket.
It should additionally be noted that the rights to the 6’11” French power forward Joffrey Lauvergne were also acquired in the trade for Arthur. It remains to be seen whether he can truly compete at the NBA level or even if he’ll ever don more than a Nuggets Summer League uniform, but if he ever becomes a viable asset for the Nuggets, it will make that trade look all the better.
● July 10, 2013 – Signed and traded Andre Iguodala to the Warriors and sent a 2018 second round draft pick to the Jazz, acquiring Randy Foye and a $9.87 million TPE in a three-way trade
Given the circumstances, this one’s tough to grade. Once Iguodala cut bait with the Nuggets, Connelly was left with little else to do but either let him walk for nothing, or try to salvage something, anything of value in return for one of the team’s most valuable assets. And while many were underwhelmed by the prospect of a multidimensional All-Star being replaced by an apparently one-dimensional 3-point specialist, Foye ultimately proved to be much more than that. I have to fess up to being irked by the Foye acquisition at first. I was concerned about a veteran with little prospect of being part of the team’s future taking minutes away from the development of Fournier and Hamilton. And Foye’s apparent lack of an all-around game made him look like some weak sauce compensation for Iggy, one of the better two-way players in the game. These initial impressions, combined with Randy’s mid-season slump, led me to call for his being yanked from the starting lineup last December. (The fact the Shaw did indeed proceed to bring him off the bench in the following three games may be entirely coincidental, but the timing sure is suspicious).
Yet as uninspiring as things looked at that time, in RMC’s aforementioned Five-on-Five review of the players, four out of five of our writers ended up selecting Foye as Denver’s Most Unappreciated Player. At the end of the day, he made the second-most 3-pointers in a season in Nuggets franchise history, and the floor spacing created by his shooting (much improved from January onward) was a tremendous help to Lawson in opening up lanes to the basket and the bigs in operating in the post. Mid-season slump aside, Randy was durable, reliable and consistent through the larger part of the season. He provided a voice of veteran leadership in the locker room, and proved to be one of the team’s hardest workers. He remains a somewhat limited player, and the Nuggets may well get better if they get the guard depth to limit Foye to 20-25 minutes. But given his reasonable price tag of about $3 million per season through 2015-16, and the fact that Denver could have lost Iggy for nothing, Connelly could have done much worse.
All of that said, even though the Foye acquisition worked out better in the short term than many (including yours truly) had expected, the fact that he is 30 years old and thus almost certainly doesn’t figure into the team’s longer-term future puts a prerequisite cap on the grade for this trade. At least up to this point, it was a move to stop the bleeding more than to move the team forward. However, considering the traded player exception worth about $9.87 million that came back in the deal – which must be used by July 10 this summer if it’s to be used at all – Connelly still has the opportunity to bump the grade up on this one and redeem better – and hopefully lasting – value for the departure of The Mole.
Grade: C+ (Tentative, pending good use or not of the Iguodala TPE)
● Feb. 20, 2014 – Traded Jordan Hamilton to the Rockets for Aaron Brooks, and traded Andre Miller to the Wizards and a 2016 second round draft pick to the 76ers for Jan Vesely
These two get lumped together because they were both deadline trades, and both made of necessity. In all likelihood, neither will prove to be of much long-term consequence. The main play here was getting minimal salary relief in a couple of expiring contracts for players who were out the door anyhow. But in the short term these moves did a tremendous amount of good for the Nuggets. Dre had to go, and Denver did well to get a big in exchange who, even if he ends up merely being a salary dump (which would still be helpful) was an energetic spark off the bench who have Shaw additional depth to work with, especially after Hickson went down. And Aaron Brooks, who helped the team win at least a few games in his own right, was more importantly merciful relief for Lawson, who desperately needed a backup not only to replace Miller, but to step in for Nate Robinson after he too was lost for the season. Under the circumstances, these trades both worked out as good as reasonably could have been expected, accomplishing what needed to be done with the additional feel-good storyline that J-Ham got a second chance in Houston and Miller was able to be a contributor on a playoff team.
And while we’re on the trade deadline, it bears pointing out that perhaps Connelly’s best move of his first year was not trading Faried for what surely would in any event have been a bad deal for Denver, and a big step in the wrong direction for the organization.
● July 22, 2013 – Signed unrestricted free agent Nate Robinson to a 2-year, $4 million contract (player option for 2014-15)
Robinson gets a lot of heat around the league for being a chucker. NBA commentators have dropped “He’s never met a shot he didn’t like” and every other “volume shooter” cliché on Nate a gajillion times. And to be sure, at times that reputation truly is warranted. But to the surprise of many, Robinson also ended up arguably being the Nuggets’ best defending guard. He was also by all accounts a leader and motivational inspiration to his teammates, and often it seemed, the very heart and soul of the team – never ready to give up, and always up for the fight. As melodramatic as that may sound (and it does), don’t forget how dark the darker stretches of the season got. When it’s hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel, teams sometimes really do need guys like that.
And while Lawson, who will be entering his sixth season in the NBA, should be entering the stage of his career in which he’s transitioning from getting schooled to doing the schooling, he has struggled to develop his leadership skills. Although when he turns it on he can really turn it on, that take-charge mentality just doesn’t seem to come easily or naturally for him. I for one would much rather see Ty as leader-in-training under Robinson – whose passion and dedication (even to a new team) practically burst through the screen – than Miller, who backs his way into the title of “Floor General” much in the same slow, dispassionate way he backs down smaller guards in the low post.
The writing was on the wall that Miller would not be with the Nuggets much longer. Point guard was a position of need, and for the caliber of player Robinson is, Connelly signed him for a bargain basement price. The Nuggets should be (and presumably are) hopeful that he exercises his player option to stay with the team for the final year of his contract. The grade rests on the assumption that that will, in fact, be the case.
● July 11, 2013 – Signed unrestricted free agent J.J. Hickson to a 3-year, $15 million contract
There really are no two ways around it: The Hickson signing was Connelly’s big goose egg. From the beginning, the signing made little sense on multiple levels. Firstly, Hickson’s strengths (especially rebounding and scoring at the rim) and weaknesses (defense foremost among them) largely duplicated those of Faried. It was like watching a slow motion train wreck to see Denver sink the entire MLE into a player who wouldn’t really add a new dimension to Denver’s offense and, more importantly, would not only completely fail to address their vital frontcourt need of post defense, but worse, would compound the problem by adding another horrid defender to the already frightening Faried/McGee conundrum. The move also seemed to directly contradict what Shaw was saying at the time about the kind of team he wanted to cultivate, one that would rely heavily on running the offense through the post and would play hard-nosed defense. And the situation played out pretty much exactly as everyone expected, with Denver’s frontcourt being an absolute sieve when Hickson and Faried were both on he court.
The only real saving grace was the fairly solid chemistry Lawson and Hickson developed on pick-and-rolls, which were effective on nights when they had them going. But that hardly made up for the damage done on the other end. Hickson finished the season with a net rating of -5.5, the worst among all regular rotation players. Even without his torn ACL (which in fairness is obviously not Connelly’s fault) it would have been difficult to move him this offseason, but now it may be close to impossible. As such, his salary may well be a costly impediment to the Nuggets accomplishing goals like extending Faried and signing free agents without going over the luxury threshold. J.J. had his moments, and was actually more effective coming off the bench after Shaw gave the starting nod to Mozgov. Still, that’s small consolation for a signing that ultimately does more harm than good, and gets in the way of the Nuggets getting better moving forward. If Connelly pulls off the unlikely and finds a way to trade Hickson this offseason, that will go very far towards rectifying what thus far has been his biggest mistake. Until then, it unfortunately will remain a stain that will be hard to wash off.
Grading Connelly’s first year as a whole
In observing Connelly’s first actions as GM, one of the most frustrating things from the very start was the apparent disconnect between Shaw’s stated designs on the system he intended to implement, and the actual personnel the front office was filling the roster with. Taken in isolation, most of the individual moves Connelly made could be seen as being sound, practical, reasonable deals. But taken as a collective suite, a set of pieces with an internally consistent logic in the context of Shaw’s new direction for the team they didn’t mesh together in a cohesive whole that made much (if any) sense. Granted, the Foye and Robinson acquisitions, for example, ended up working up pretty well for the team last season. But how do those contribute to a better future for the Nuggets organization, one which sets the team on a path toward being a legitimate championship contender?
It seems clear in retrospect that Iguodala bailing on the Nuggets really threw them for a loop. This is purely speculation on my part, but the way things played out following his Warriors signing at the very least creates the appearance that Connelly and Kroenke had committed to a stay-competitive strategy operating on the assumption they’d have Iggy in tow – but then refused to adjust their expectations or adapt to the reality of a weakened roster after he walked. Regardless of the reasons, we do know they intended to get Denver back into the playoffs. And prioritizing short-term, short-lasting gain over long-term success was shortsighted at best, and a questionable use of team resources.
Had the team stayed healthy, could they have made the postseason cut? Possibly, but it seems unlikely that even in the best of circumstances in the stacked West they’d have gotten higher than the seventh or eighth seed. But that would have accomplished no more than what actually happened in terms of where the team will be at two or four or six years down the road. Realistically, the prospect that the 2013-14 Nuggets could have been in serious championship contention is laughable. And in the long run, half measures taken with no higher purpose than being mediocre rather than bad for a season or two may have cost the Nuggets opportunities to utilize their assets in ways more constructive towards building a better future for the team. In particular, it seems now that Denver’s front office worked hard to keep the roster just competitive enough to stave off getting a higher pick in one of the best drafts in a long time.
But with all of that said, Connelly deserves to be cut a good deal of slack. He had to contend with some extremely difficult circumstances right out of the gate, and things got no easier as the season progressed and the injuries (and Dre drama) kept piling on. It will be hard to ever see the Hickson signing as anything other than a stopgap panic move, but as stated above, other moves have come to look better over time, and his work at the trade deadline in particular is especially encouraging as a sign Connelly’s bag of tricks may be deeper than what we’ve seen from him thus far might lead us to believe.
Instinctively I want to give Connelly an “incomplete” grade for his rookie season. He hasn’t yet had the time (or at least what he deemed to be the opportunity) to make the big moves that will more distinctively put his stamp on the Nuggets. It’s the upcoming year or two which will really define him and better inform us of just how competently he’ll run Denver’s front office. And although I won’t use the “incomplete” to cop out on the grade, I will say that there’s no reason to give up hope that Connelly can’t become a great GM, and make the necessary moves this summer and over the next season which will not only rectify some earlier missteps but get the team on the right track towards becoming a contender. In Connelly’s many recent interviews, the one word he’s been throwing out there most often about how the Nuggets will approach this offseason is “aggressive.” And while limited options may make that aim challenging, the draft and free agency will be an excellent opportunity for him to show Nuggets fans what he’s got.
You can follow me on Twitter here: @denbutsu
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