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Grading Tim Connelly's first two years as Nuggets GM: Part 1

Kalen Deremo Avatar
May 8, 2015

 

In less than two months, just days before the 2015 NBA Draft, Tim Connelly will reach his two-year anniversary as Denver Nuggets general manager. Under his watch the Nuggets have gone from a franchise-record 57 wins in the regular season to 30 this year and are consequently making their highest draft selection in over a decade.

Marked with several bad player contracts and an equally disappointing coaching hire, Connelly has undoubtedly played a role in the Nuggets’ current decline, yet he’s also made numerous acquisitions even Masai Ujiri would applaud.

To put it bluntly, Tim Connelly is an absolute enigma. In trying to appraise his overall worth I’ve often ended up doing circles in my mind, concluding on one hand he’s an admirable GM while moments later surmising he’s mediocre at best. So to celebrate his upcoming two-year anniversary with the Nuggets I’ve decided to go through each of his major roster transactions since the day he was hired and grade them to gain a better understanding of just how talented Connelly is after all. In the end I’ll compile all the grades to create a cumulative GPA, a tangible number, to finally assess Connelly’s true value as a NBA GM.

In Part 1 of this series we’ll take a look at Connelly’s first full year as GM and asses how he handled the challenges of fine tuning a roster bequeathed to him by former NBA Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri…

June 25, 2013 — Named Brian Shaw head coach

Hiring Brian Shaw cannot be seen as anything other than a completely failure. After inheriting one of the league’s brightest young rosters Shaw attempted to convince the masses that his team wasn’t built for his style, that playing at a snail’s pace (while shunning defense) was the key to success and that his players were just too young to understand what he was talking about. The previous nine head-coaching interviews he had where he didn’t get hired should have been a red flag. Starting Anthony Randolph in his first game as head coach of an NBA franchise should have been another. And breaking Andre Miller’s consecutive games-played record in favor of Nate Robinson — that was just wrong. The only reason Connelly doesn’t get an F here is because Josh Kroenke likely had the biggest say in hiring Shaw considering it happened just days after Connelly signed on the dotted line to join the Nuggets organization.

Grade: D-

June 27, 2013 — Drafted Rudy Gobert 27th overall then traded him to Utah for cash considerations and a second-round draft pick that turned into Erick Green

Every GM has a few inexplicable moves that will haunt them forever. Masai Ujiri’s was signing JaVale McGee to a ridiculous $44 million contract; Connelly’s was trading away his 2013 first-round draft selection with Gobert right in his lap. Again, this move was likely influenced by Josh Kroenke considering the extreme rarity that is trading away your first-round draft pick to save a few bucks. Erick Green has turned out to be a marginal NBA player while Rudy Gobert averaged 11 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, three blocks and one steal after the All-Star break this year in addition to finishing fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting and third in the Most Improved Player category. Pairing him alongside Nurkic would have given the Nuggets the best young frontcourt duo the NBA has seen in years.

Grade: F

June 27, 2013 — Traded Kosta Koufos to the Memphis Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur and the draft rights to Joffrey Lauvergne

On the same night he traded away the Future Best Center in the League, Connelly atoned mildly for his blunder by capitalizing on Koufos’ all-time-high trade value and obtaining Arthur and Lauvergne in return. While Arthur has been serviceable since joining the Nuggets, Lauvergne looks to have been a steal considering where he was selected. After signing with the Nuggets this past February he struggled to log consistent playing time, yet in games where he received at least 20 minutes (and never more than 26) he averaged 10 points, eight boards, an assist and a block per contest — not too shabby for a rookie signing midway through the season. Lauvergne could be a source of strong man-defense, hustle and IQ off the Nuggets’ bench for years.

Grade: B+

July 9, 2013 — Acquired Randy Foye in a three-year $9 million sign-and-trade deal with the Utah Jazz while sending Andre Iguodala to the Golden State Warriors

Rather than lose his best player for nothing Connelly managed to secure one of the more prolific 3-point shooters in the league on a fairly scrupulous contract to help facilitate Iguodala to the Warriors. Of all his signings over the last two years Foye might actually be his best. Let that sink in as you contemplate why the Nuggets are where they are right now.

Grade: C+

July 11, 2013 — Signed J.J. Hickson to a three-year $16 million contract

The thinking behind the Hickson signing was that he was a replacement for Faried should the Nuggets shop him while his value was high. That was the thinking, of course. Whether it actually made sense is an entirely different story — and that story can be summarized as so: It didn’t. It didn’t make sense from a structural standpoint, nor from a financial standpoint nor any point in which one stands. Hickson was and still is a near facsimile of Faried only without the potential. It’s been signings like these (and the one below) that have prevented fans from fully embracing Connelly during his tenure in Denver.

Grade: D

July 26, 2013 — Signed Nate Robinson to a two-year $4 million contract

Take note of the date above. Keep in mind free agency starts July 1. Now, do the math and voila! It doesn’t take an international chess champion to realize nobody else really wanted Nate Robinson. His previous team made no attempt to re-sign him after his contract expired and after he was traded this year the Celtics immediately dumped him upon arrival. Now Nate Robinson, at age 30, is out of an NBA job and doing shoddy “analysis” for TNT during the playoffs. This is all you need to know about the caliber of player Robinson is. He’s a dunk-contest winner who nobody wants to pay when it comes to playing high-stakes NBA basketball. And still Connelly was willing to sign him to a multiyear deal when the Nuggets already had Lawson and Foye to play point guard. Similar to Hickson, it was signings like these that led me to proclaim Connelly was building a fantasy basketball roster rather than an actual professional basketball team the summer he was hired.

Grade: F

July 27, 2013 — Re-signed Timofey Mozgov to a three-year $14 million contract

At the time this signing was universally viewed as a conundrum as Mozgov had been the Nuggets’ third-string center for three seasons and was never once able to overcome Kosta Koufos or JaVale McGee to challenge for minutes in the rotation. Yet within a little over a month after his arrival Connelly had traded the Nuggets’ former starting center and invested $14 million into a fairly unknown commodity. After digesting the results of his prized free-agent class that summer most fans were ready to write off Connelly as certifiably insane, yet in the end he outsmarted everyone. This is perhaps his most valuable signing to date and one that will reward the Nuggets for years to come in the form of first-round draft picks.

Grade: A

February 14, 2014 — Traded Andre Miller to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Jan Vesely and a future second-round draft pick

Connelly didn’t so much choose to trade Miller as he was forced to. By this time in the season Miller had become a locker-room distraction after Shaw broke his consecutive games-played streak for no reason other than he was a bad coach and had no idea what he was doing. That said, Miller had been a thorn in the Nuggets’ side for years, virtually giving up on playing defense in the playoffs all while maintaining a pompous attitude throughout his career in Denver. Connelly might have been able to get better value for Miller but seeing him depart abruptly was what mattered most.

Grade: C+

February 14, 2014 — Traded Jordan Hamilton to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Aaron Brooks

Had Connelly made the effort to re-sign Aaron Brooks this deal would have been much more productive. Brooks brought a defensive energy to the Nuggets’ point-guard position they hadn’t seen since Anthony Carter. He was exactly what the Nuggets needed to counter Lawson’s focus on offense. And yet, Brooks signed with the Bulls for less than $1 million while the Nuggets paid Nate Robinson twice that to hoist up ill-advised 3-pointers for another entire year. Hamilton, meanwhile, has played with six different basketball teams since Connelly sent him packing so credit him for having foresight on this front.

Grade: C

Conclusion:

Connelly’s first calendar year as Nuggets’ GM was rough. There’s no stating otherwise. He helped hire a coach who’s already been dismissed, helped trade Rudy Gobert on the principal of frugality, oversaw the departure of Iguodala and invested over $30 million into Nate Robinson, Randy Foye and J.J. Hickson. In the realm of NBA GMs it really doesn’t get much worse than that.

But before dismissing Connelly as in over his head it’s paramount to put his first year on the job in context…

Most importantly, Connelly was hired out of nowhere with less than a week before the NBA Draft. That in itself is absolutely absurd and speaks volumes about the irresponsibility and reckless procrastination on behalf of Josh Kroenke. Remember, Kroenke had years — yes, literally years — to re-sign Ujiri to an extension yet he coyly played off the significance of this opportunity time after time when interviewed by the press. By early May — nearly two months before the draft! — Ujiri was already entertaining the idea of signing with the Toronto Raptors and by the last day of that month he had struck a deal. Kroenke therefore had an entire month to research potential GM replacements before eventually low-balling Ujiri and yet it wasn’t for another three weeks after Ujiri left that Kroenke made a hire.

Though I can’t say exactly what happened on draft night 2013, from a distance there’s absolutely zero reason to believe Kroenke let the newly hired Connelly tackle the draft on his lonesome. It just doesn’t make sense. As I’ve said before, why in the world would a GM trade away his first-round draft pick for cash when he’s not the one paying the bills, when he knows rookie contracts are the most valued in the NBA and when he’s well aware that at the time the Nuggets were a middle-of-the-road franchise in terms of team salary? The pieces simply don’t fit.

No matter the case, Connelly deserves the benefit of the doubt in his first year as Nuggets GM. While his free-agent signings remain a bit worrisome (to say the least) there’s no denying the magnitude of elements that were outside his control. Blindsided by the hire, he was likely unprepared for the draft, free agency and a coaching search, all which took place within the span of a few months. Failure to re-sign Iguodala should rest solely on Kroenke’s shoulders given he was the one who dismissed the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year just prior to free agency — moves that any high-profile free agent would frown upon — and how much more control he had over the aforementioned nascent moves on Connelly’s record will remain a mystery.

All we know — or at least all I know, given I’m the one writing this — is that the first year of Connelly’s reign differs vastly from the second. The more time he’s been afforded to evaluated his roster the better he seems to have performed. And this all coincides, oddly enough, with a steadily decreasing number of public appearances on the part of Josh Kroenke.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of BSN’s series analyzing Tim Connelly’s first two years as Nuggets GM and in the meantime be sure to leave your thoughts on the subject at hand in the comments section below.

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