Here we go again. The worst enemy of the Denver Nuggets - the biggest foe standing between them and a title - is once again proving to be their own organization. The reason isn’t incompetence, or malfeasance. Instead, Denver’s billionaire ownership is again showing they are willing to be ruinously cheap and value process over people, and it may cost Nuggets fans 50 years of dreams.
In 2013, the Nuggets were at a crossroads. They had the Coach of Year and the Executive of the Year, but the coach George Karl was expensive and Denver was getting too many first round exits. Star Carmelo Anthony already found a way out, and GM Masai Ujiri was offered a massive raise by Toronto to return to the place where he’d been the Director of Global Scouting. Denver declined to match the offer and Ujiri went to Toronto, where he would eventually create a champion.
The Nuggets then fired their expensive coach and hired Tim Connelly, who had to step into the fire just a couple weeks before the draft and free agency, and with ownership already having ideas about their next coach. That created the Brian Shaw Era in Denver, which was so bad initially it inspired the Kevin Arnovitz hit piece that lives in infamy for Nuggets fans. Connelly overcame the initial bumps, however, and built a young contender almost exclusively off his draft acumen (and the luck to have Nikola Jokic available in the second round when his pick came up).
The Nuggets had the third-worst attendance in the league in 2015 and the worst in 2016 and 2017 both, while digging out from the wreckage. With three years of no fans in the building and extremely low market presence around town, fans were screaming for lower ticket prices. The Kroenkes were charging Carmelo Anthony rates and no one was biting. But if Kroenke Sports and Entertainment has a philosophy, it might be this: we don’t change, you change.
Prices stayed high, fans stayed away even as Nikola Jokic was showing himself to be a budding star to the few people in attendance. KSE undercut their own product rather than market the young team to its Denver audience, because losing face by cutting ticket prices - even if it was better for the bottom line - was not something they could swallow.
That concept shows in everything the past few years, from refusing to pay executives and staff their market rate to stubbornly holding ground that costs customers in the short and long-term. KSE’s fight with Comcast drags on, heading for a fourth year where fans cannot watch the team play on the dominant cable provider in the state. Stan Kroenke could have settled it, could have paid to have his team shown even, to show off the contender he has poured millions upon millions into creating. He did not. He will not. It’s not in his nature.
The Nuggets let Masai Ujiri go, and what were just preliminary talks earlier in the week between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Tim Connelly have been allowed to turn into a full court press to get him to leave Denver. History is trying to repeat itself.
ESPN Sources: Denver Nuggets president Tim Connelly is traveling to meet with Minnesota owner Glen Taylor this weekend in what’s the next step in the Timberwolves’ pursuit to hire Connelly and make him one of league’s highest compensated executives.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) May 21, 2022
The talk in Denver for years has been about Kroenke’s unwillingness to pay for the ancillary things that make a team really work in the modern NBA. Whether it’s Stan, Josh, or Ann Walton Kroenke, no one in the building was willing to pull the trigger on a G League team until the Nuggets were one of the last NBA teams without one. Denver’s mid-market competitors have all built massive new training facilities to take care of their athletes. The Utah Jazz ($20 million), Milwaukee Bucks ($31 million), Phoenix Suns ($45 million) and yes the Timberwolves ($25 million) have all dropped money on amenities as well as vital priorities for keeping their athletes better prepared and healthier in recent years.
The Nuggets don’t even have an announced plan and are once again trying to be the last to accept doing what it takes to win. Their current gym would embarrass several high schools in the region. They have to travel every summer for training camp because their practice facilities cannot accommodate their needs. Denver always struggles to get free agents, but it gets harder by the year when you’re walking them by the locked fridge with the sodas in it while other teams are showing off multi-million dollar jewels stocked with private chefs and every amenity that can be provided.
The Nuggets played the Trail Blazers in the playoffs a few years ago. The picture on this article is from that series. The spread that Portland put out just for media members made Denver’s home offerings look like dry Saltines and stale juice. It’s not as if Portland was trying to woo media members from another market - this was just their organizational philosophy, to make the experience memorable.
But memorable experiences and amenities aside, the true test of an organization is whether it can find and keep talent. Finding talent hasn’t seemed to be a problem. Maybe that’s a skill Kroenke is counting on, but that too will get harder as that talent doesn’t seem to be valued by the organization enough to retain it. Denver has lost coaches every year to other organizations. Some of them were promotions — no one is expecting Wes Unseld, Jr to turn down a head coaching gig — but some were lateral moves, and almost certainly money-related. KSE has paid on the low end for coaches ever since George Karl left, and that apparent “we don’t change, you change” philosophy has meant a lot of coaching change for Denver.
The Nuggets operate like a college basketball team in a smaller conference, poached for talent that they will not pay every year, and at some point that organizational drain will catch up. The Nuggets hit the jackpot with Masai, then gave him away for nothing. They hit the jackpot again with Connelly, and are looking at letting him go as well. Arturas Karnisovas already left for his own team to run, so the Nuggets don’t have what was their best internal answer available. At some point, and with no offense intended to Calvin Booth, the next executive will not be a top-5 one. The next cheap coach will be a bad one. Luck will run out. The entire reason that the Minnesota Timberwolves are looking to poach Connelly from the Nuggets is that he is the best option available.
The question is why he is available at all. Why was Connelly not compensated to a point that going elsewhere wasn’t even an option? He was courted not long ago by the Washington Wizards, but still this door was left open. Not valuing the people that work for you has consequences. “Market rate” only matters if the replacement level doesn’t vary much and no one is willing to go beyond market rate, but as the Timberwolves are showing there are teams willing to pay big for front office talent, and as many teams around the league continually demonstrate there is a large variance in the replacement level of front office personnel. Good ones aren’t available on demand.
A lack of loyalty and reward from bosses creates a much different atmosphere. Connelly has been a buffer between the chronic Kroenke cheapness and the rest of the organization. Will a different person be able to do the same? Will Nikola Jokic, who values personal relationships very highly and calls trainer Felipe Eichenberger “family” be fine with a revolving door of personnel that affects him? Commitment matters, to personnel on and off the court. An ownership group that considers everyone expendable running into a star that does not is a conflict Denver can do without.
None of this conflict is needed. This summer is vital to shaping the roster around Jokic, as well as lynchpins Jamal Murray and potentially Michael Porter Jr, into one that can compete for a title. Being a title contender usually provides ring-chasing vets and role players on the cheap to deepen a roster. Can Denver get those with a front office change this close to the finish line? The Nuggets have no facilities to woo them with, a rotating door of assistant coaches with Jordi Fernandez the latest to leave, and now potentially a new president of basketball operations to start the offseason. They cannot overbid due to their cap situation. The person making that offer is crucial for getting buy-in, and right now we have no idea who that is.
Stan Kroenke just won a title with the Los Angeles Rams. He leveraged a ton of assets to make the moves necessary, considering the real estate involved with that stadium build. Keeping his Denver teams on the back burner - because whether you believe the paperwork or not, he’s still involved with the Nuggets and Avalanche - may be the prudent move for him. It is not the prudent move for the Nuggets, and if he is intent on not prioritizing the Nuggets while also not paying to keep their continuity, then what does that say about Denver’s championship viability?
Jokic hasn’t signed an extension, and providing a quarter-billion dollar piece of paper for Nikola to sign is not a guarantee. Kroenke once traded Marcus Camby for nothing to get out of the tax, a simple money deal for a member of one of the richest families in America. The timeline where Connelly leaves, Jokic doesn’t sign an extension, and Denver’s title hopes implode is no longer a hilariously implausible nightmare. There is somehow a looming cliff right ahead of everything the Nuggets have built, threatening the joy of the upcoming season and perhaps this entire era.
Denver’s current struggle is not against the Golden State Warriors or the Memphis Grizzlies. The Nuggets and their future are right now locked in furious battle with Stan Kroenke’s penny pinching ways. The legacy he is trying to create in Los Angeles may be the death of his legacy here, and right now there’s no clear answer on what will emerge victorious. All we can do is watch the fight play out publicly and hope the future, and fandom, are not lost along the way.