More than a week has passed now since the dismal draft lottery and the hangover of realizing that the Nuggets won't be landing Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram in the upcoming NBA draft. Instead, Denver will make do with the seventh overall pick for the second year in a row, followed by the 15th and 19th selections in the first round.
The day following the lottery, fellow Stiff Jeff Morton penned an article calling for Nuggets fans to let go of their angst and disappointment and hope for the best. If anything, this is my attempt to instill hope that despite not moving up in the lottery for the 14th time, the Nuggets will still be in a great position at the draft one month from now. And it all starts with general manager Tim Connelly.
Connelly is the man behind the Nuggets' rebuild since his hiring in June 2013. He hasn't had a perfect tenure and it's taken a few years, but the Nuggets are on the verge of something special and at the very least will be relevant again. Connelly has helped shape Denver's course in free agency and by trade, but it's what he's done on draft day during his first three years that has revolutionized the Nuggets and put them in a position to succeed sooner rather than later.
Let's take a look at Connelly's draft day history as Denver's GM and see how he might tackle 2016:
Trade: No. 27 pick to Utah for No. 46 pick and cash
No. 46 Pick: Erick Green, PG, Virginia Tech
Trade: Kosta Koufos to Memphis for Darrell Arthur and No. 55 pick
No. 55 Pick: Joffrey Lauvergne, PF/C, France
Trade: Evan Fournier and No. 56 pick to Orlando for Arron Afflalo
Trade: No. 11 pick and Anthony Randolph to Chicago for No. 16 pick and No. 19 pick
No. 16 Pick: Jusuf Nurkic, C, Bosnia
No. 19 Pick: Gary Harris, SG, Michigan State
No. 41 Pick: Nikola Jokic, PF/C, Serbia
No. 7 Pick: Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, Democratic Republic of Congo
No. 57 Pick: Nikola Radicevic, PG, Serbia
When Connelly was first brought on, Denver was fresh off a 57-win season and its tenth consecutive playoff appearance. Today only three players from that 57-win team remain: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried. In addition to these veterans is what's considered the Nuggets future core of Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jusuf Nurkic.
These players all represent hope for a future basketball dynasty in Denver. What do they have in common? All are draft picks made by Tim Connelly.
In his three years I'd argue that Connelly has nailed each draft pick he's made except maybe Erick Green. At the time, nabbing the NCAA's leading scorer at 46 seemed like a steal but just three years later Green isn't even in the league and Rudy Gobert, who Utah drafted instead at 27, is looking like an elite defender.
The obvious argument in Connelly's favor however is Jokic, who after being taken in the second round at 41 turned into a first team All-Rookie player and might be the Nugget with the highest ceiling. This season Jokic was expected to get a few backup minutes to ease his way into the league. Due to injury, though, he stepped in and became the Nuggets' starting center for most of the year, finishing the season with an insane 21.58 PER and third in rookie of the year scoring. He is one of the very few "untouchables" on the roster and could go down as one of the best draft steals in Nuggets' history.
Emmanuel Mudiay also comes to mind when thinking about Connelly's draft picks. It's easy to say that Denver was gifted Mudiay when he fell to seven, but the way Connelly handled that draft gives me confidence in his abilities. Everyone knew that Ty Lawson was on his way out last summer and that the Nuggets were going to be aggressive in targeting a point guard. Instead of overpaying to move up, Connelly tactfully let the board play out and ended up with the best pick the Nuggets could have asked for.
Connelly's draft day success hasn't just been a matter of picking the right player at Denver's draft position, but has also hinged on his aggression in making trades and otherwise manipulating the draft to work in Denver's favor. One of Connelly's draft highlights came in 2014 when he flipped the 11 pick to Chicago for what would end up being Nurkic and Harris.
Harris of course is Denver's starting shooting guard and is developing into a solid two-way player. Nurkic was thought to be the center of the future after dominating the first half of his rookie season, but a knee injury and the emergence of Jokic has slowed him down quite a bit. Some fans are ready to give up on Nurkic already, but I think he can still be a game-changing player, particularly on defense, and hope he's given more opportunities to get back in the right direction.
Another draft day trade that Connelly nailed in retrospect was the 2013 deal that sent Kosta Koufous to Memphis for Darrell Arthur and the 55th pick. With that pick came Joffrey Lauvergne, who has turned into a very serviceable backup that has shown a lot of promise. Arthur had a few mediocre seasons in Denver before having a breakout year in 2015-16 where he solidified his role as a stretch-four that can shoot and play defense. If Arthur remains in Denver (he has a player option) he will remain an important cog off the bench.
Connelly's lone trade faux pas came in exchanging of then 21 year-old Evan Fournier for Arron Afflalo on draft day 2014. Fournier has blossomed into an excellent shooting guard for the Magic, but Afflalo's second stint as a Nugget was a huge disappointment. If anything, Connelly gets a pass for eventually turning Afflalo into Will Barton but having Fournier right now would be nice, too.
What does Connelly's history mean for 2016?
For this particular draft where there is a drop off in talent after Simmons and Ingram, Connelly's track record is a good sign for Denver. He has excelled most at scouting talent down the pipeline and has built the foundation for the Nuggets' future off of his ability to do so. With the three first-round selections next month this draft fits right up Connelly's alley.
The problem is that the Nuggets need a star a lot more than they need quality rotational players. In that regard this draft doesn't necessarily give Denver the best option to fill that need, but rather gives an opportunity to add to already existing depth. If Connelly decides that the best option is to stay the course and keep the bench stocked, this draft might be the perfect opportunity to do so. He can still draft a decent player at seven while stashing or developing some other guys for later on.
However, the more likely approach is to make a move for that coveted star player. With the number of assets at Connelly's disposal it makes sense to explore other options that could give these picks more value than if Denver just held onto them.
The best case scenario would be to package some of the picks with some veteran players and move up in the draft. Ideally a move like this would land Denver in the top two, but the Nuggets could also benefit from moving into the top five if they have a specific player they are targeting. A package deal could potentially land Denver a veteran player in return, as well.
Regardless of what direction the Nuggets are headed, they are in good hands with Tim Connelly running the show. Connelly has shown that on draft day he is more than capable of not only picking good basketball players but also at crafting trades and creating other opportunities. Most importantly he has shown the discipline to not make unnecessary moves. With so many options this summer, strong discipline will be needed this offseason more than ever.
Of course, each draft is different and the past will not always determine the future, but given Connelly's history as the Nuggets' GM I'm confident that he will make the right moves June 23.