Tim Connelly was a member of the Denver Nuggets for a long time, holding the title of General Manager (or higher) for nearly a decade. However, he left the franchise this past offseason for a division rival, the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves made an offer that he couldn’t refuse, and the Nuggets didn’t feel like matching it would be worth it.
This led to Calvin Booth taking over as the leading man in Denver’s front office, and has since made many moves considered to be some of the best seen in the organization’s recent history. Trading Will Barton and Monte Morris for sharpshooter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, signing Bruce Brown, and drafting Christian Braun all in one offseason.
The two seem to have had far different points of view for what a roster should look like around generational big man Nikola Jokic, with Connelly targeting more talent on the offensive end of the court and Booth addressing defensive holes in the roster that he inherited. Booth worked closely with Connelly during Tim’s tenure with the franchise, and many people have had only good things to say about Connelly.
However, was he really the great general manager that he was perceived as during his time in Denver? Or were his shortcomings masked by the star talent that Nikola Jokic possessed?
Tim Connelly overtook the Nuggets’ front office on June 17th, 2013 and would make his first move on June 25th of that same year. He hired Brian Shaw as the head coach, and Shaw would see little success in his tenure with the Nuggets. He ran the team in a way that didn’t get young players the playing time they needed, and it resulted in a disgruntled locker room.
When he took over the general manager position, the Nuggets were in the midst of a lot of inner turmoil. Longtime executive Masai Ujiri left the team for the Toronto Raptors, and George Karl was fired as well. The team had just set a record for the most wins in franchise history with 57, but were upset by an up and coming Golden State Warriors team in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.
The 2013 draft also wouldn’t turn out in Connelly’s favor. He had a first round pick and selected Rudy Gobert, a future multiple time winner of the defensive player of the year, with the 27th overall pick. However, Gobert was traded to the Utah Jazz for the 46th overall pick (which Erick Green would be selected with) and cash considerations.
While being known for making good draft decisions, Connelly had a lot of moves on draft night that would result in other teams swindling the Nuggets. The Jazz would have their two future stars given to them by the Nuggets, and Tim Connelly would produce a pattern of losing trades that were made within his own division.
After a super successful 2013 season, the Nuggets saw a lot of the talent that made the team great leave. Andre Iguodala would go to the Warriors in the offseason, and Denver would see the effects immediately. They saw a decrease of 21 wins, and would go 36-46. The season was far from the worst that they could’ve been, but the middle of the pack is the last place a team ever wants to find themselves.
The 2014 draft would mark the first real victory for Connelly though, as he would acquire a couple of talented young players in Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic in a trade with the Chicago Bulls for Denver’s original draft pick Doug McDermott. Of course, future two-time (and counting) MVP Nikola Jokic would be selected with the 41st pick as well.
This draft alone was the reason for the Nuggets’ success in coming years, but even Tim has admitted that drafting a future MVP in the second round was fairly lucky. He didn’t see Jokic becoming the dominant force that he is now, but he still does get credit for making that pick. Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic were also good picks that helped the Nuggets become what they are today.
It would take another season for Nikola Jokic to come over from Serbia due to a contract already having been in place when he was drafted. In the 2014-15 season, the Nuggets would continue to struggle under Brian Shaw. The locker room was unhappy with Shaw as a coach, and his on-court performance as a coach wouldn’t prove any better. The team went 20-39 under him that season before Connelly fired Shaw on March 3rd, 2015.
Another notable move that was made in the 2014-15 season was the acquisition of Will Barton at the trade deadline. Connelly traded Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee for Will Barton, some other players, and a 2016 first round pick. This got Denver a player who would be on their roster for the rest of Connelly’s tenure, and the first round pick would later turn into Malik Beasley.
Nikola Jokic and Michael Malone Era
The 2015 offseason would mark the start of the Nuggets team that became a contender down the line. It would lay the foundation that Denver would build their roster around for years to come with Nikola Jokic signing his rookie contract in that offseason, as well as Michael Malone being brought on as the head coach for the franchise.
However, the entire offseason wouldn’t be a success. The draft came and went with Tim Connelly and the Nuggets having a top 10 pick. Typically, these are the picks that will build a franchise up – get their franchise cornerstones. However, the Denver Nuggets would pick Emmanuel Mudiay with the 7th overall pick. This would come before the likes of Devin Booker, Terry Rozier, and Delon Wright.
Obviously, Devin Booker is the player that really stands out in hindsight, but there were a few role players that could’ve been productive for the Nuggets too. Instead of Booker, Rozier, Wright, or even Kelly Oubre Jr., Trey Lyles, or Cameron Payne, Tim Connelly picked a point guard who didn’t make it past his rookie contract with the team.
Mudiay only played two and a half seasons with the Nuggets before getting flipped for Devin Harris in the 2017-18 regular season. That would mark another miss in the draft for Connelly, but the 2015-16 season was an improvement for the Nuggets. Nikola Jokic made his talent obvious and made an All-Rookie team, and Gary Harris saw an increase in both playing time and quality. The team’s record was only 33-49, but that was 3 more wins than the season before.
The 2016 offseason would see that addition of the Nuggets’ second star, and the guard of Denver’s dynamic duo. Tim Connelly would draft Jamal Murray with the 7th overall pick, and that would be his second best pick overall. The 2016 draft saw two other productive players chosen too in Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. All three of Connelly’s first round picks would be rotation players on the Nuggets’ first playoff team under him, and it would be one of his best drafts overall.
The next few seasons would all see improvement in record and play from the Denver Nuggets. Going from 33 in 2015-16 to 40 the next season, and 46 after that. The biggest addition during that span of time was the signing of Paul Millsap in the 2017 offseason. If it weren’t for that signing the offseason as a whole would be remembered for the Nuggets trading away Donovan Mitchell for Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon.
The 2017 draft was a debacle that has been dissected time and time again, but it was likely the worst of Connelly’s tenure. Not only did the Jazz get another franchise star from the Nuggets, but the Nuggets wouldn’t hit on their original target of OG Anunoby either. Instead, the Raptors would jump the Nuggets and leave the Nuggets scrambling. In the chaos that ensued, Tyler Lydon ended up in Denver. Two second round picks did result in two good players though in Monte Morris and Vlatko Cancar. So, every cloud has a silver lining.
After barely missing the playoffs the season prior, the Nuggets had the 14th pick in the 2018 draft and picked their last foundational piece in Michael Porter Jr. out of Missouri. He was seen as the best prospect in that class just a couple years prior, but due to back surgery and concerns with his long term health, he fell to the Nuggets. Porter was the obvious pick to be made there, but Connelly still gets credit for making it. Jarred Vanderbilt was also picked in the second round.
In the following season, the Nuggets made the jump that had been brewing for years. The 2018-19 season saw the most wins in Connelly’s tenure, and the Nuggets got the second seed in the Western Conference after missing the season prior. MPJ didn’t make his debut yet due to back surgery, but Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic really came into their own. The two of them led the Nuggets to their first playoff series win since 2009. They would lose in the second round, but lost in a hard fought series to Portland in 7 games.
The following offseason saw the acquisition of Jerami Grant for a first round pick. This move got the Nuggets someone they hoped would be their power forward of the future, and a switchy defender who could shoot. Another trade would see Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jarred Vanderbilt all sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves for just a first round pick, and Noah Vonleh. Vanderbilt and Beasley are still productive rotation pieces, and they were offloaded for the pick that would turn into Zeke Nnaji.
However, the bubble would be the best season that the Nuggets have had under the Jokic era. They made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals behind Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic yet again. Obviously the two series against the Jazz and Clippers also saw the Nuggets come back from a 3-1 deficit. They would lose to the Lakers, but the hopes for the future were high.
Jerami Grant’s departure was due to him wanting a bigger role. He came off the bench for most of the season, and wasn’t happy with the role he had in Denver. So he left for Detroit and that left the Nuggets with a hole at the power forward spot. Gary Harris’ peak had also come and gone, and it was clear the Nuggets needed an upgrade to multiple spots in their starting unit.
The 2020 draft saw the Nuggets draft Zeke Nnaji, who is still on the roster but has struggled to gain footing in the rotation during his tenure, and RJ Hampton (who was waived by Orlando earlier this week). The Nuggets would continue to be good despite losing Grant, but at the trade deadline made the biggest splash on the trade market during Connelly’s tenure. Aaron Gordon would be acquired for RJ Hampton, Gary Harris, and a 2025 first round pick.
During the next handful of games, the Nuggets looked unstoppable. The starting unit of Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokic lit every opponent they faced on fire. It was starting to look like the Nuggets had the best chance at a title that they had up until that point. Unfortunately though, Jamal Murray would tear his ACL and that would be all she wrote for the Nuggets’ title chances.
Nikola Jokic still willed the Nuggets past the Trail Blazers, but the Nuggets were swept in the second round by the Phoenix Suns. The roster construction was clearly skewed towards small guards, an odd choice to build around Jokic, and the cracks started to show. Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. were still good, but things needed to change around Jokic.
That didn’t really happen though, as Tim Connelly doubled down on having a large guard room and little depth at the forward positions. Facu Campazzo, Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Bryn Forbes, Bones Hyland, and Markus Howard all got playing time. He didn’t do the best job of minimizing Nikola Jokic’s weaknesses, and it showed in the playoffs both in the Suns series and in the Warriors series that would end the 2021-22 season for the Nuggets.
After that season, Tim Connelly would depart from Denver. He was heralded as a top executive in the league during his time with the Nuggets, but in retrospect there was a lot of luck involved in the Nuggets’ success. Drafting Nikola Jokic was never supposed to result in a multi-time MVP, and outside of that there were very few home run picks. Jamal Murray and MPJ were obvious picks where they were picked, and for every hit Tim had there was a miss.
Even on a lot of the hits he had, the end result would be them being traded for pennies on the dollar. Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt were shipped off when they had very little value, Bones Hyland was traded for two seconds (though that wasn’t under Connelly), and Jusuf Nurkic was traded with a first round pick for Mason Plumlee. Connelly never was a good trader with the Nuggets, but did have his hits and misses.
Overall, Tim Connelly was certainly a good general manager for the Nuggets, but didn’t commit to a formula that would maximize Jokic. He never went all in on defense around Jokic, Murray, and MPJ. Calvin Booth did though, and the results have spoken for themselves. He had too many misses in both the draft and trades though to be an elite executive in the league. His time in Minnesota has tracked with that so far too.