Nuggets GM Tim Connelly planning 'aggressive' offseason

Denver executive still feeling disappointment of injury-marred season
by Aaron Lopez
Nuggets.com

It’s been less than 11 months since Tim Connelly arrived in Denver as the new general manager/executive vice president of basketball operations for the Nuggets.

Within a week of joining the front office last June 17, he hired Brian Shaw as the team’s new coach and then jumped right into the NBA Draft and free agency. The pace hasn’t slowed much since.

“It seems longer (than 11 months), in a good way, because the comfort level has been easy to establish here,” Connelly said. “The organization’s been great, my colleagues are great and the city’s awesome. It certainly has been a whirlwind, but its pretty cool to feel so settled in a brief amount of time.”

In no way should “settled” be mistaken for “satisfied” or “content.”

Depleted by major injuries to forwards Danilo Gallinari and J.J. Hickson, center JaVale McGee and guard Nate Robinson, the Nuggets went 36-46 in 2013-14, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

Starting point guard Ty Lawson and forwards Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur also missed significant time with injuries, preventing the Nuggets’ coaching staff and front office from getting a true evaluation on the team’s potential as contenders in the Western Conference.

The injuries, however, created opportunities for young players such as Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller, and they allowed Lawson and forward Kenneth Faried to take more responsibility as a leaders on the court.

Connelly discussed Faried, Lawson, Shaw and several other topics this week in an interview with Nuggets.com.

Q: Now that you’ve had three weeks to get away from the emotion of the season, how do you evaluate it?
A: “Incomplete is the word I’ve used quite a bit. It’s disappointing we never saw anywhere near our full complement of players. Injuries are going to happen and you have to be good enough to overcome them, so we’re not going to use that as an excuse.

“But our injuries got to the point where we weren’t missing one guy; we were missing four guys. We weren’t missing a guy for a month; we were missing him for the whole year. I’ve never dealt with anything like that. It’s frustrating to still be sitting here and not say for sure the team as constructed last October would’ve done well if we were even close to healthy.”

Q: The early reports on Gallinari, Hickson, McGee and Robinson have been encouraging. If they can come back healthy, will it be like signing multiple free agents?
A: “You add a guy like Gallo, who’s so important on both ends of the court, and JaVale, a guy whose development is key to our development. It’s exciting. I think when it got to the point where we lost Nate and J.J., it was almost laughable. It was like, ‘You can’t be serious.’ If we do absolutely nothing – which is not our goal or our plan – I feel good about our team because I think they started to understand what Brian was asking from them. The comfort level of players and staff increased as the year progressed and I was proud of how a decimated core of guys closed the season. It gave me reason for optimism as we go into the offseason.”

Q: Where did you miss Gallinari most?
A: “Basketball IQ. He was a calming influence and a secondary playmaker. Gallo’s above-average in every basketball skill and he’s such a natural in how he approaches the game because he’s grown up around it. His father was a great player. He’s been playing professionally since a young age. He has a certain calming influence and an overall intelligence that at times was lacking this year.”

Q: How do you evaluate Brian Shaw’s first season as a head coach?
A: “He was the best. At times, it was difficult on our end (in the front office). I can’t imagine what Brian was going through as a rookie head coach. He faced 10 years of issues in one year. At every turn, he handled the situation correctly. He’s been great and we’re fortunate to have him.”

Q: How much would you talk to Brian during the season?
A: “We talk all the time. It’s the most communicative staff I’ve ever been around. There’s no division. We’re all in it together and I think we have similar approaches – not just to basketball, but to life. It’s invaluable to have a guy like that going through the process with you.”

Q: Where do you start when making a priority list for the offseason?
A: “We started that a long time ago. We have bi-monthly meetings for draft prep. We’ve had monthly meetings for free-agent prep. I just got back from three weeks in Europe to see that group of guys – both the guys we own the rights to in Joffrey and Erick and then the draft guys. things really heat up after the draft lottery, so most of the planning is tentative until you know where that draft pick is. you don’t want to overplan prior to knowing where you’ll be. I think May 21 will be the first concrete day of the offseason where you can start to be specific about your strategy and know what’s feasible and what’s not.”

Q: Given your Irish background, do you bring any luck to the draft lottery?
A: "I hope so. We have a small chance of being in the top three. That would be fantastic. If we end up where we’re supposed to be at 11 or 12, it’s still a great asset to have either to pick a really good player or use that pick as part of something bigger. It’s the best day of the year to improve your team. Historically, it’s where you get better – draft night."

Q: Speaking of young guys getting better, who caught your attention this season and made you realize he’s a big part of the future?
A: "Chronologically he’s not young, but basketball-wise Timo (center Timofey Mozgov) is very young. He had a very small role in Europe until his last couple years. He’s a guy who hadn’t spent much time on the court in the NBA. I was really impressed with his development and consistency. I think Evan showed flashes. I love his attacking style. I think he’s going to be a really good player. Quincy had his moments. He’s got things you can’t teach in terms of his length and athleticism, and he started to make shots.

“Those young guys, we’re going to hold them to a pretty high standard. You’re either getting better or worse in the NBA, so this summer we need to see them take another jump so we can trust them in meaningful games.”

Q: Kenneth Faried was one of the guys who made a nice jump. After slow start, he played at an All-Star level over the final two months of the season. Why do you think things started to click?
A: "It was underrated how much transition this whole organization saw with myself, Brian and a bunch of new faces on the court. Change isn’t always seamless. I think it took a while for all of us to get comfortable with each other. As the season progressed, Kenneth got more and more comfortable and embraced what the coaching staff was trying to instill in him. With that, you saw a meteoric rise the last few months. It was something you saw building and I think it’s a testament, not only to Kenneth, but to Brian. The last couple months, he was great.”

Q: Kenneth is entering the final year of his contract. How do you approach extension talks this summer?
A: “I tell guys all the time, ‘We want to pay you. Give us a reason to pay you.’ Certainly Kenneth’s energy and toughness is something our team feeds off of. It embodies who we’re trying to be. We’re in a great spot. He has another year on his rookie-scale contract. We’ll try to come to some agreement this offseason. Hopefully we do. If not, he’s still on our team and we have restricted rights the following year. It’s certainly a good spot to be in. We have to be an organization – and we have been – that will reward good play. And Kenneth’s played well – really well.”

Q: Along with Kenneth, Ty Lawson has become what the coaches consider a “cornerstone” of the franchise. He ran into some injury problems late in the season but still set career highs in scoring and assists. How do you assess his year?
A: “We think he can be even better. With Ty, we’re probably as hard on him as anybody because we know how good he can be. We also know that for us to play basketball in late-May, he’s got to be that guy. I was happy that he took to the bigger role, but I don’t think he’s anywhere close to where he should be. I think he’s still scratching the surface. Ty was really good, but he can be great. We all know that and he knows it. We don’t want to allow anything less.”

Q: As you sit here today, what are your overall expectations for next season?
A: “We’re aware of where we need to get better, and we’ll address those needs, whether it’s on draft night, whether it’s through free agency, whether it’s through trades. We’re not content. Our goal’s not to be a bubble playoff team. Our goal is to be a team that’s playing for the Western Conference finals and then you have a puncher’s chance at winning a championship. We’re going to be very aggressive on our end. It takes two to make a deal, so who knows if we’ll find willing suitors, but we’re going to be really aggressive trying to improve this team and use every tool at our disposal.”

Q: As you know, fans aren’t always patient.
A: “I’m not patient either.”

Q: When you see fans, do you tell them that you expect the team to be back in the playoffs again next season?
A: “For sure. Absolutely. I’m beyond disappointed right now. If there’s any solace, it’s the litany of injuries, but it’s not an excuse league. Our success is based on wins and losses, and we should be a playoff team.”

Q: In recent radio interviews, you’ve said that missing the playoffs again would be a failure. That’s a pretty strong statement.
A: “That’s 100 percent accurate, especially considering where this organization has been for the last decade. Josh (team President and Governor Josh Kroenke) didn’t instill faith in myself and Brian to rebuild this team. This team’s ready to win. We have to ensure that’s going to happen next year. The health’s already on its way. Now we have to be creative and add a little more to the mix.”

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