“I was like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?'” Wes Unseld Jr. thought to himself as he watched the Washington Bullets’ newly-minted intern input personnel and scouting reports into the team’s computer. Tim Connelly didn’t play college basketball, worked odd hours and sat at a desk facing the wall in an alcove of the Bullets’ scouting office. He was far from the typical NBA front office hire.
Connelly bused tables at ESPN Zone, worked at Dicks Sporting Goods and delivered papers during the day but would then make the hour drive to Landover, Maryland where the Bullets were headquartered at night for his internship with his hometown team which he scored in 1996 while still in college. Because of the way Connelly’s desk was positioned in the office that the two shared at the now-demolished Capital Centre, Unseld rarely saw his face.
“He would come in at 9 or 10 o’clock at night and all I saw was the back of his head,” said Unseld, who was already working under his father, Wes Unseld. Sr., the Bullets’ general manager at the time Connelly was hired. “It took probably a couple of weeks before I realized it was him. But that was his routine.”
Connelly, now the Nuggets president of basketball operations, and Unseld, who’s Michael Malone’s top assistant coach in Denver, were familiar with one another from their prep days. Connelly played high school basketball at Towson Catholic in Baltimore while Unseld suited up for Loyola, located just a few minutes down the road. The two schools enjoyed a fierce rivalry at the time and Connelly and Unseld faced off while in high school on more than one occasion. They got to know each other better while working with the Bullets/Wizards (the Washington franchise changed their name in 1997), where the two shared an office that Connelly compared to “a cell.” Unseld likened it to a “shoebox.”
Connelly had landed an internship with Washington after writing to the Bullets, Nets, Knicks, and 76ers during his junior year of college asking for a job. Chuck Douglas, who at the time was the Bullets assistant general manager, was the only one to write back. In the pre-internet days, the Bullets would get box scores from around the country mailed to them daily and one of Connelly’s first tasks with the team was to input those stats and personnel reports to a computer.
As he spent more time with the team, his responsibilities grew. Occasionally he’d draft and then email potential trade proposals in the middle of the night to Unseld Sr. from down the hall.
“Sometimes I would scout the local games on my own, help out the video guys, but that first four months a lot of it was just inputting reports,” Connelly said. “It was a great way to learn.”
Connelly was a quick study and tireless worker despite getting paid out of the Bullets’ fine fund which the team hoped supplied him with enough gas money to get home. But in the early years, Unseld was always struck by Connelly’s passion, not only the game but for the grind that comes with working in an NBA front office.
“You knew there was something special there early on,” Unseld said. “He had such a desire to carve out his own niche and really make his way in the business. He was willing to do absolutely anything.”
Connelly and Unseld climbed their way up the NBA front office ladder together. The two grew close while both working on projects for the Washington Mystics, who joined the WNBA in 1998. At every turn, Connelly’s basketball wisdom stood out. From his familiarity with the CBA to the ins and outs of NBA contracts. Connelly is “one of those guys” that can regurgitate stats about every player in the league on command, according to Unseld.
“You could always tell that there was something there,” Unseld said. “Even in his early 20’s his basketball acumen and understanding of players was impressive. I told him very early on, ‘One day you’ll be a GM in this league. Trust me on that.’ He thought I was crazy but now here we are.”
“Working for my dad was an afterthought”
Growing up as the son of a Hall-of-Famer, a five-time All-Star and someone who was named one of the NBA’s Top-50 Greatest Players of All-Time in 1996, a one-way ticket towards working in basketball would typically be a given. However, Unseld never thought he’d chart his own career on the sidelines.
Unseld played three seasons at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore after enrolling at the top-notch academic college with plans to go on to graduate school following his undergrad education. Unseld Sr. came to him at the last minute just as he was set to graduate and offered him a position working for him with no strings attached.
Unseld, who already had a season of interning with Washington under his belt, would work for a year after graduation and if he enjoyed the day-to-day he would stay on with the team. If not, he’d go back to school and get his graduate degree.
“I had no intentions of making this a career. None at all,” Unseld said. “Working for my dad was a complete afterthought.”
The rest is history. Unseld began in personnel scouting. He traveled to high schools, college games and evaluated talent in Europe as well. After years on the scouting circuit, Mike Brown, the fourth assistant on Bernie Bickerstaff’s coaching staff in the late-90’s “suckered” Unseld into doing advanced scouting for some of the Wizards’ upcoming opponents. After eight years of advanced scouting, Unseld parlayed his experience into an assistant coaching role on Washington’s bench.
“It’s hard to find a nicer person than Wes,” Connelly said. “He’s got an unbelievable work ethic. He’s got an unbelievable family and he’s completely ego-less, which I think fits in well with what we do. And he’s a grinder. I mean, anybody who spent eight years as an advanced scout, that’s really hard. So you’re always certain that when he speaks there’s knowledge behind it. He’s always a guy that you can trust is going to steer you in the right direction.”
Thirteen years after he joined his father’s staff in Washington, Unseld took an assistant coaching job with the Golden State Warriors in 2011 under Mark Jackson, where Malone was also an assistant. He then went to Orlando where he helped fill out head coach Jacque Vaughn’s coaching staff in 2012. Unseld still remembers in 2013 when a giddy Connelly, who in 2010 left the Wizards for the assistant general manager post with the New Orleans Pelicans, phoned him with the news that he might have an opportunity to interview for Denver’s general manager job.
Shortly thereafter, the Nuggets made the 36-year-old Connelly their GM.
A reunion 20-years in the making
After Connelly hired Unseld in 2015 to join Malone’s first coaching staff with the Nuggets, he took on the role of the team’s de facto defensive coordinator, a title Unseld never held before arriving in Denver.
His task was simple: turn around a defense that finished as the 22nd and 26th-worst defenses in the league in two-straight seasons under outgoing head coach Brian Shaw.
“I looked at it like it’s a great challenge and obviously Mo has a lot of faith in me to assign me to that role,” Unseld said. “And we’ve progressively gotten better. So it’s worked out but I can’t say that by any means it’s been easy. I just took it and said, ‘Hey, this is a hell of a challenge. And let’s try to turn this thing around.'”
The Nuggets didn’t see immediate results on the defensive end of the floor, but Denver is currently trending towards its second-straight season as a top-10 defense. Unseld has found success by crafting a defensive game plan around his player’s strengths.
“The worst thing you can do defensively is to ask guys to do something they can’t do,” Unseld said. “And we’ve got guys who have enough credibility to where you can ask them, ‘Well how do you want to handle this situation?’ Get some feedback, put the onus on them and the more ownership they take is great for all of us.”
Paul Millsap’s arrival in Denver certainly aided the Nuggets’ defensive renaissance as well. Millsap signed as a free agent with the Nuggets prior to the 2017-18 season and Denver’s defense climbed from 23rd in his first season with the team to 10th during the 2018-19 campaign and through 58 games this year rank 11th in Defensive Efficiency. When Millsap arrived in Denver Unseld sat him down and showed the four-time All-Star film of where he could still improve on the defensive end of the floor.
“That established our relationship, established our trust,” Millsap said. “Which is important because if he tells us to do something on the defensive end, we need to trust that it’s going to work out.”
Although it’s been his focus during his Nuggets tenure, Unseld shouldn’t be painted strictly as a defensive coordinator. While on staff with the Wizards throughout the 2000’s Unseld played a key role in orchestrating an offensive game plan which helped lead Washington to a top-10 offense in three consecutive seasons under head coach Eddie Jordan from 2004-07.
“He’s a basketball coach,” Connelly said. “He’s certainly a guy you wouldn’t typecast. Here, Mo gives him a lot of responsibility. On the defensive side of the ball, he has done a great job but he’s just a basketball coach and a very good one. He’ll make a heck of a head coach.”
While Unseld has made his mark in Denver by overseeing the Nuggets’ defense and helping a young core turn the corner from the lottery to the playoffs, Connelly has put the pieces carefully in place from above.
The Nuggets’ rise started when Connelly made one of the best draft picks in NBA history, selecting Nikola Jokic 41st overall in 2014. Connelly has built much of the rest of Denver’s core through the draft too, nabbing Gary Harris in a draft-day trade with Chicago, selecting point guard Jamal Murray seventh in 2017, and potentially securing another franchise cornerstone in Michael Porter Jr. at No. 14 overall in 2018. Connelly also selected Monte Morris, who’s gone on to become one of the better backup point guards in the league over the last two seasons, 51st overall in 2017.
In a 2015 trade, Connelly acquired Will Barton from the Trail Blazers, who at the time was an afterthought on Portland’s bench but became the Nuggets’ sixth man and over the last two seasons their starter at small forward.
“He has a way of finding guys that go under the radar,” Unseld said. “I’m not gonna say he knew Nikola was gonna be Nikola but that’s case and point. He saw something. And we’re all glad Nikola turned into what he’s become but it started with Tim. Tim knew there was something about him. He finds talent it’s unique. For a guy who never really played at a high level. He really knows the game.”
Maybe it’s Connelly and Unseld’s Baltimore connection that has led to a life-long friendship, one that started in a shared office at the Capital Centre and has since journeyed to Denver. It’s a partnership that was initially formed on trust, hard work, and authenticity, all key tenets that the Nuggets’ organization itself is built upon.
“The best thing about him is his ability to build relationships,” Unseld said. “Even to this day, I find it unique that he can maneuver amongst so many different circles, from dealing with athletes to coaches to ownership. He has a great ability to relate to you and be open and honest with people and just be genuine. I think that’s unique in this business a lot of times. He’s one of the few that I think he’s learned to do it the right way. That’s why it’s worked between us.”