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The Nuggets are finally Tim Connelly’s team

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Five years after he was hired as the executive vice president of basketball operations, the Nuggets finally reflect what Connelly wants in a basketball team.

Indiana Pacers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The summer of 2013 was a big summer in my life.

I graduated from university in the spring, accepted a job in New York City, and moved across the country.

While these good things were happening in my life, as a Nuggets fan, I got to watch them fire George Karl, who had just won Coach of the Year, while Masai Ujiri signed an agreement with the Toronto Raptors, fresh off winning Executive of the Year. Three staples of my Nuggets fandom - Carmelo Anthony, George Karl, and Masai Ujiri - poof, all gone.

In their place were a collection of goofy players, with guys like Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Ty Lawson. They hired a sharp looking kid that grew up in Baltimore in Tim Connelly a few days before the NBA Draft, and brought on a head coach that was well regarded across the league.

The Nuggets tried to compete for a couple years, but inexperience reared it’s head and things didn’t work out very well. The Brian Shaw era was not a good two year span for the Nuggets - they played terrible basketball, the team quit on the coaching staff, and eventually they wound up being one of the bottom ten teams in the league. It was a far cry from their past era under Karl and Anthony, where the team was making the playoffs every single year.

Connelly and Nuggets president Josh Kroenke fired Shaw, and eventually they announced the hire of a basketball coach that looked like he would be more comfortable telling stories about the USS Indianapolis and hunting sharks in the waters near Amity than he would be on the streets of Denver, Colorado in Michael Malone. Malone had gotten a raw deal in Sacramento, but had a good resume when he joined the Nuggets. With the seventh pick in the draft, they selected Emmanuel Mudiay, and it was a new day in Denver.

Coincidentally, the Nuggets real new day dawned with the selection of Nikola Jokic the year before. The Serbian big man was selected in the second round, but you wouldn’t have known that if you were watching the draft on television, because ESPN was showing a commercial for Taco Bell. Jokic was asleep when the Nuggets called. But the Nuggets had found a generational talent, a franchise player, and the player that they would begin crafting an identity around.

Here at Denver Stiffs, we got on the Jokic bandwagon early — like really early, first game at Summer League his rookie season early. Jokic brought point guard skills to the game in a 7-foot body. He has developed into one of the best offensive talents in the league, and is single-handedly capable of turning a team into a top-10 offense. When the Nuggets are playing “Jokic-ball” and the ball is popping, no one can defend them. Add four players with high basketball-IQ that can also shoot and pass, and the Nuggets have the best offense in the league.

Once Tim Connelly realized what he had in Jokic, he was able to formulate a plan on what he wanted to create in Denver that would develop into a contender for championships. Thankfully Gary Harris was a piece that fit alongside Jokic, with his defensive chops on the perimeter, cutting, and perimeter shooting. Jamal Murray fell to the seventh pick in the draft in 2016, and the Nuggets gleefully selected the sweet-shooting guard out of Kentucky.

After a season where the offense began to shine, the Nuggets went into the 2017 offseason ready to add more pieces. They traded for a stretch four in Trey Lyles, and drafted a player with one of the best shots I’ve ever seen in Tyler Lydon. They signed Paul Millsap, one of the best power forwards in the league, and Mason Plumlee, a sturdy backup center. The 2017-18 season was going well until Millsap suffered an injury, and the young players weren’t experienced enough to pick up the yoke.

Now it’s the 2018 offseason, and Connelly was able to put the final touches on the team he imagined from the moment Nikola Jokic put on a Nuggets jersey. Michael Porter Jr., one of the best young prospects in the country, fell to the No. 14 pick in the draft. Connelly signed Will Barton to a four-year contract, retaining one of the players that broke out in the Mile High City. He traded the last three veterans to Philadelphia and Brooklyn, moving off nearly $80 million in salary for one protected first round pick in 2019 and two second round picks. Those trades opened up a roster spot for Isaiah Thomas, giving the former MVP candidate a chance to rehabilitate his image in the league on a team that needs his offense.

What is the theme of the Nuggets best team in years? Offense, offense, offense. Look at the roster that Connelly has assembled — the player with the lowest 3-point percentage was 34.5 percent in Millsap. Now go to the bench, where outside of Plumlee, who is a lob threat at center and can vertically space the court, the Nuggets are going to have shooters in Thomas, Beasley, Porter Jr./Hernangomez, and Lyles, who all are skilled perimeter shooters.

You may think that the Nuggets have too many shooters on their roster — maybe you didn’t watch the Rockets miss 27 3-pointers in a row in Game 7 of the Conference Finals. Maybe you didn’t notice that the Warriors were so desperate for shooting behind Curry, Thompson, and Durant, they signed Nick Young on purpose.

The Nuggets haven’t made defense a priority — and that’s fine. The Nuggets have the potential to be so good on offense, they’re going to be setting up their halfcourt defense more than half of the time because of how often they score. You can make the playoffs as a great offensive team with a mediocre defense. It may be hard to win a championship, but no one can predict what elements will help future champions get to that level. At least the Nuggets know that they’ll have half of the equation; they are maximizing what they have the most control over.

The Nuggets have taken this approach echoed by Isaiah Thomas towards roster construction, and while you may disagree with how effective it will be, you can’t disagree that they’ve been successful in executing their plan:

Here’s why defense isn’t important for the 2018-19 Nuggets: because if other teams put defenders on the court to try to stop the Nuggets, the odds are they aren’t going to be successful because every player is a threat. There’s nowhere to hide a bad defender. If you do put a couple defenders out there, that makes the Nuggets job on defense easier, because defensive specialists struggle to shoot, pass, and dribble. The Nuggets are banking that they’re going to be able to score more points than their opponent, and get enough stops to make sure that they don’t get outscored.

Is it a risky approach? Sure is. But the front office has built a team around their best player in Jokic, an offensive juggernaut that is going to be able to score 110 points on any team, any night if everything clicks. They’ll need to make sure that the coaching staff emphasizes offense, and not just the plays they like, but the culture and mindset of Jokic-ball: cutting, passing, patiently hunting open shots, and attacking a defense relentlessly.

The 2018-19 Nuggets could have one of the best offenses of all time, and I hope Nuggets fans are excited to see the embodiment of the vision Connelly has had for this group for a few years.