It turns out Stan Kroenke didn’t learn anything from 2019.
Three years ago, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis made an aggressive pitch to Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly in an attempt to lure him back to Washington D.C. and run his hometown team. Leonsis came at Connelly hard with money, the opportunity to build out a deeper staff, and more resources than he could have ever imagined having in Denver. Connelly would have a bigger analytics department in D.C. He’d have an actual practice facility. Overseeing the Wizards’ NBA 2K team even made it into Leonsis’ pitch.
Connelly ended up turning down the Wizards’ overture even though there were personal and family matters at the time that were pulling him back home. What he had in Denver was just too good to leave. Connelly had transformed the Nuggets from lottery dweller into NBA championship contender his way, with his superstar and surrounded by his staff. He flirted with Washington, but deep down knew he wanted to remain in Denver.
Three years later, the Minnesota Timberwolves did what the Wizards couldn’t. News broke Monday afternoon that Connelly was taking the Timberwolves’ President of Basketball Operations job and had agreed to a 5-year, $40 million deal with ownership equity. It was an enticing enough package to make Connelly leave a job that he didn’t want to, a superstar that he was tied at the hip with, and an organization that he had built from the ground up.
The result is a sad, sad day in Nuggets history. Not because Denver all of a sudden isn’t a contender next season. The Nuggets most certainly are. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Will Barton, Bones Hyland, is enough talent under contract next year that the Nuggets could completely screw up their offseason and still field a team capable of making a deep Western Conference playoff run.
It’s a sad day because Nuggets ownership didn’t learn anything from nearly losing Connelly to the Wizards in 2019. Stan Kroenke still doesn’t value his executives. He’s still cheap. He still thinks he knows better. He still operates the Nuggets like a second-rate franchise that cuts corners, skimps on line items that rival organizations would deem as necessities, and believes Denver can win a championship by doing the bare minimum around the edges.
Some owners would have looked at how they nearly lost Connelly once and done everything in their power to not let that happen again. They would have already been paying him a salary that made him one of the highest-earning executives in the league. The Timberwolves obviously think he’s in that category. The rest of the NBA does as well. They would have extended his contract and given him a significant raise months ago.
Connelly was looked at as gettable — at least that was the thought throughout the league over the last several weeks — because of his salary and because another team could offer him so much more than he’d ever get in Denver.
Maybe Connelly never even calls the Timberwolves back if he’s already getting paid what he’s worth in Denver. He’s not the least bit motivated by money. If Stan Kroenke didn’t run the Nuggets like an absentee landlord who only shows up around the team when the rent’s due or come playoff time and gave him the resources that all top-flight franchises have — an actual stand-alone practice facility, which every other Northwest Division team and most of the NBA already has would be a place to start — maybe Connelly wouldn’t seriously entertain Minnesota’s offer. The Wolves paid $25 million for their state-of-the-art practice facility in 2015. That’s spare change for a billionaire like Kroenke, the fifth-richest owner in the NBA who just privately financed a $5+ billion NFL stadium himself.
An owner with some foresight would have taken even a single step necessary to try and make sure another team didn’t nab their president. Kroenke didn’t. He sat on his hands, played defense, and reacted late, just like he did when Altitude and Comcast’s 15-year contract agreement expired in August 2019. Today, Kroenke took Connelly for granted, and everyone around the NBA will notice that.
Think about the situation that Connelly’s leaving. He’s saying goodbye to the Nuggets, a top-3 seed in the West three out of the last four years with a two-time MVP who wants to play in Denver for the rest of his career and a top-tier running mate in Jamal Murray. Sure, Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. They’ve also won two playoff games since 2018. In that same time frame, the Nuggets have won 21.
This is a step down for Connelly. The Wolves aren’t a contender next season. The Nuggets are. He’s not returning the Lakers to glory or the Knicks to relevancy. Connelly’s leaving Denver for Minnesota. A division rival. A team and organization that’s been laced with disfunction for decades, but one that’s now been injected with life and enthusiasm by owners who want to be involved, hands-on, and throw everything at Connelly that he needs to succeed. I wonder if the difference between that and what Connelly has been used to in Denver stood out to him. It must have.
The Nuggets tried to keep Connelly with a counteroffer of their own, but if it’s actually an ownership stake that Connelly’s getting in Minnesota, Denver was never going to keep him. That’s not just life-changing money. It can be generational wealth.
“A deal he couldn’t refuse,” one source within the Nuggets front office told DNVR.
Still, a progressive ownership group that valued its executive would have stepped in after Connelly flirted with Washington in 2019 and made sure that didn’t happen again. Connelly was gettable back in 2018 and he still was in 2022.
In the end, Connelly’s departure wasn’t really a surprise. Those following the chain of events over the last week could see this coming. Those with a sense of how desperate Mark Lore and Alex Rodriguez, the Timberwolves’ new owners, were to make a big splash read the writing on the wall. And those who know the philosophy that Nuggets ownership has, always has had, and always will have when it comes to its executives predicted how this would end.
Losing Connelly marks the end of the ‘We Don’t Skip Steps’ era of Nuggets basketball. We don’t know for sure how general manager Calvin Booth will operate now that he’s in charge, but I have the feeling he’ll look to take more risks than his predecessor. Will that be a good or bad thing? We’ll find out soon.
Either way, he and the Nuggets will likely roll into next season as a contender but surely not as a respected top-level franchise.
They never will be under this ownership.