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The Nuggets’ To-do List Is Growing a Mile High

With Tim Connelly leaving Denver’s front office to go run Minnesota’s, the Nuggets’ future feels more uncertain than ever. That’s a strange place to be for a franchise with the league’s back-to-back MVP.

Back in 2013, Masai Ujiri was running the Nuggets front office and had just won Executive of the Year when the Raptors offered him a huge raise. Denver ownership didn’t even compete to retain him, instead hiring Tim Connelly, then a young assistant general manager with the Pelicans, to take over. Now, history is repeating itself, with the Timberwolves poaching Connelly and signing him to a five-year, $40 million deal with ownership equity, while reportedly elevating assistant GM Calvin Booth into the head honcho role.

Denver’s decision with Ujiri ended up working out. Connelly and his right-hand man, Arturas Karnisovas, built some great Nuggets teams, including the current core that has made four consecutive postseasons. But Karnisovas left for Chicago in 2020 and now Connelly is gone. Past success doesn’t guarantee the same for the future. Denver’s ownership, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, has a long history of pinching pennies for coaches and executives. The Nuggets have one of the league’s smallest front offices. And they were also one of the last franchises to acquire a G League affiliate. The team still trains in one of the league’s oldest practice facilities, while others work out in state-of-the-art buildings. What kind of president walks away from a franchise player who just won back-to-back MVPs? One that works for an organization not making the necessary investment in itself to be on par with other franchises.

To make matters worse, the 2021-22 season was the third in a row in which fans were unable to watch Nuggets games locally on Comcast, the most popular cable provider in Colorado. The greatest years in the history of Nuggets basketball, led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, have been unseen by many people in the area who need to resort to finding streams online or catching glimpses on national TV.

Jokic is eligible for a five-year contract extension this summer that will be worth around $250 million, the largest supermax extension in league history. He’s already said he’ll take it. “If offer’s on the table of course I’m gonna accept it because I really like the organization,” Jokic said after the Nuggets lost in the first round. “I really like the people who work here.”

Michael Malone has been Denver’s head coach since 2015 and just signed a new contract through the 2024-25 season, which would be the second of a potential Jokic extension. But many of the other people around Jokic could change if he signs another deal. By all accounts, Jokic loves Denver. It’s one of the best cities in America in one of the country’s most beautiful states. I would be surprised if he didn’t sign his extension. Despite the team’s problems, the Nuggets still have a playoff roster when healthy.

But there are big questions ahead for Denver, ones it’ll now have to answer without Connelly. Will Jamal Murray return to form next season following his torn ACL? What can Michael Porter Jr. offer following another back surgery? How can they improve the roster with limited cap space for free agents and assets for trades?

Connelly’s exit isn’t a death sentence for the organization. Almost everyone is replaceable, and sometimes a fresh perspective is beneficial. Connelly did a fine job stepping in for Ujiri, just as his successor could for him. Booth will likely be tabbed to take over the lead role, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Booth played 10 years in the NBA and just finished his 10th as a front office executive. Now he gets his chance—and he’ll have work to do. The Nuggets have key players with uncertain futures taking up a ton of cap space, and the rest of the roster needs tweaking too. Both Jeff Green and JaMychal Green have player options for next season. Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo will both be free agents. There’s much work to do if the Nuggets are going to surround Jokic with better shooters and perimeter defenders.

The Nuggets will pay the luxury tax, which means they have a $6.4 million taxpayer extension to utilize in free agency. They have the 21st pick in the draft, but not much else in the future. Denver owes Oklahoma City a top-14-protected first in 2023, 2024, or 2025, and another top-five-protected first two years after the pick to OKC is conveyed. Signing players and trading picks will complicate building a team.

It’s easy for me to say that Jokic should decline signing the largest supermax contract extension ever and instead wait until 2023 to test his options. But that’s exactly what I think when I put myself in the future Hall of Famer’s shoes. Jokic is 27, in his prime, and has more than $100 million in career earnings. Watching the four remaining teams left in the conference finals defend at such a high level while also having so many shot creators makes it obvious just how far away Denver was compared to the best teams this season. The gap could only grow wider in the years to come.

The Timberwolves could be one of those teams atop the conference soon. Connelly reunites with former Nuggets assistant Chris Finch, who has unlocked new dimensions for Karl-Anthony Towns on offense while constructing a better defensive system around him. (Much like Denver once did with Jokic.) Connelly has long been a creative, daring decision-maker, so Minnesota fans should be prepared for him to make some moves. D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley are solid pieces but Minnesota should look to upgrade. If KAT, Anthony Edwards, and Jaden McDaniels get even better while the rest of the roster improves, it may not be long before they surpass an aging Nuggets team with potential cap issues. It should come as no surprise to Nuggets fans if Jokic decides to hold off on signing a big extension to find out how the roster will evolve when he knows other teams will make strides.

Having Jokic guarantees the Nuggets will be competitive. But reaching the Finals is a whole different challenge. If ownership isn’t willing to spend and the supporting cast doesn’t get any better, things could go south for the Nuggets quickly. Connelly might be cashing in and jumping ship at the right moment.