Josh Kroenke Sits Down with Nuggets Insider Christopher Dempsey to Discuss State of Nuggets Team and More

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

Josh Kroenke, Nuggets president and governor, is bullish on his team’s future. On Wednesday morning a day before the 2017 NBA Draft, Kroenke sat down to explain why. He gave a wide-ranging interview, his first extensive comments in over a year to Altitude Sports and Nuggets.com.

Q: What have you liked most about the front office core you put together in 2013?

A: The cohesion in which decisions are made. No decision is easy. If an easy decision is presented to you, you almost have to kind of think, ‘Why is this so easy, what are we missing here?’ It’s a group of guys – (president of basketball operations) Tim (Connelly) and (general manager) Arturas (Karnisovas) at the top of it – but all the way down to our scouting department as well, it’s very cohesive group. They work very well together. They are all focused, not only on the task at hand but also building the organization over a period of years. And those guys have worked their tails off since the summer of 2013, scouring the globe for talent, getting our roster back to where it is, to compete at a very high level in the NBA. And, from what we saw in the second half of this season, especially a lot of our younger guys, Nikola in particular, there’s a chance to be really good here in the next few years. And that starts and ends with Tim and Arturas, and their efforts that they’ve done through the draft and through the savvy acquisitions of a couple of players in trades in the last few years. Will Barton, in particular. But those guys work really well together. No idea is a bad one, which having been around different sports and different front offices, sometimes you get groups of people that are scared to share ideas just simply based on they don’t want to look dumb. Well, there are no dumb ideas. There are no dumb questions. Tim and Arturas, they work very well together. I love working with them as well. I also think that Arturas choosing to stay with us – even though he was promoted and Tim was promoted as well – speaks volumes for what we’re trying to do here in Denver, and also the lure of Denver as well. Arturas and his family love it here, and I think the promotion made it an easier decision. But they love Denver and want to be here for a while.

Q: Talk more about the front office culture.

A: You never know exactly what’s going to stick until you talk about it. Our organization is in a situation right now where we can pivot and go in a lot of different directions. We’ve built up our stable of assets through the draft, through trades and through internal development as well. So, this summer is a big one for us. But at the end of the day, we have good young players, so as long as we’re patient about our process there’s going to be some good basketball ahead for the Denver Nuggets.

Q: What made Arturas an indispensable executive?

A: Arturas brings a different perspective to our organization that is unique in a lot of ways. I think that his background of growing up in Lithuania…coming over here to play college first, and then playing for their national team and then playing in Europe as well, I think has been an understated aspect of what his strengths are as an executive. I think if you look at our roster anyone can figure out we’ve had an emphasis on European scouting. …. Arturas, he brings a level of seriousness. I’m pretty lighthearted. I can be serious and am definitely serious when the time calls for it. I think Tim (Connelly) is the same way. And then Arturas is the exact opposite. He’s very serious in his daily approach, but he also has a humorous touch at different times that honestly, Tim and I need at certain points when we’re feeling down about something that’s gone on. So, Tim and Arturas work well together. I enjoy working with him, and I think that their strengths and weaknesses play off of each other very well.

Q: Did you know going in how good an international asset Arturas would be?

A: I think that it’s natural to assume that just based on his life story. His life story is very unique to the world of basketball as well. But, yeah, just because we have a strong European prospect pipeline, I don’t want to take away from anything else the rest of our organization has done. And I think Arturas will tell you that as well. We have a great group of scouts that not only scout here in North America but also are going to Europe a couple of times. We have a permanent European scout over there. But Arturas, in a day-to-day setting… he and Tim’s strengths and weaknesses play off of one another very well. He brings a certain discipline to our day-to-day approach that I find very valuable.

Q: What’s do you like most about the current state of the team?

A: Just the overall development – internally, externally, front office, coaching staff, roster. I think everybody is getting better across the board, which is really what your organization wants at the end of the day. Yeah, we had a couple of tough years. But my message to Tim and Arturas through those times was make the most of those opportunities. And with a subpar record comes a high draft pick, and I think that our guys have done basically as well as anyone else in the NBA in drafting, particularly in the last three years. I think you’ll see a lot of our own draft picks dotted throughout our roster, and some of those guys are contributing heavily. As long as we’re drafting well you put yourself in a position to succeed because you’re creating valuable assets out of thin air. And I think that’s what our guys have done.

Our coaching staff has put an emphasis on moving the ball, being unselfish. That’s what we want our culture organizationally, which is simply a selfless organization. I think you saw that, particularly on the offensive end over the second half of the season. I think that playing through Nikola was something that we thought might be good. I don’t think anyone would tell you we would have a top-five offense in the NBA. And now we know where our focus needs to be, on the defensive end. What’s exciting for us in this offseason in particular compared to the last few seasons is we now have a clear path. We’re not trying to find the best players available. We want to find the best players that we can obviously, but trying to find the best players to compliment what we’re trying to do. And that’s passing, that’s cutting, that’s 3-point shooting, it’s running the floor. And now we’ve got to figure out how to address the defensive issues. I think some of that is going to come with experience as well.

Q: Nikola Jokic is the player the team is building around, right?

A: It’s interesting. We went through a million trade scenarios (Monday) up in the war room, and guys are walking me through everything that they are thinking. And, it’s interest when you start to compare different deals that are proposed by other teams, how we would tweak them, what we think was actual fair value for us going back to them. And then you start to compare statistics of the players involved, and Nikola’s numbers are truly unique and something that this franchise hasn’t had in quite some time. The trajectory of a player like that is difficult to truly project, but we think that his basketball IQ is something that’s going to attract players as well. We play an attractive style, a fun style. We know our issues need to be addressed defensively, but for the first time since I’ve been in the role that I’ve been in – thinking back to my first meeting as president of the Nuggets was for Carmelo (Anthony) to ask to be traded. So, we have a player that we can really identify a style with, and not only that but we have a player that other players think might be fun to play with as well.

Q: How much are other players across the league talking up potentially playing alongside Nikola Jokic?

A: We didn’t make the playoffs, but we turned some heads. Especially our younger group and Nikola in particular. I would put Jamal (Murray) on that list as well. Emmanuel (Mudiay), Gary Harris, Will Barton, Juancho Hernangomez; he didn’t get to play may minutes last year, but when you look at what he did when he was given minutes, he’s got a chance to be very good as well. And there’s several other guys. There’s names throughout our roster, and that’s not even including the Kenneth Farieds the Danilo Gallinaris the Wilson Chandlers, the Darrell Arthurs, guys that have given us really good minutes for a number of years and have really helped our locker room culture throughout the process. We’re excited about both groups of players, but I think our young players, the ceiling for them is still a moving target. But we like the fact that they are all hard workers, they are all very good kids, they represent the city in a great way outside of basketball. And we think as long as they keep working hard and are good people they are going to keep raising our collective ceiling.

Q: How do you balance being bullish on the young players, yet still make moves to keep team trending up?

A: It’s a very delicate balance. We’ve tried to walk the tightrope a little bit for a couple of years. I think one of the strengths of our 57-win team is that we were deep in 2012-13. We might have had a deeper team this past season than we did in that season. Our record, we were 17 games below the 57 wins, but the collective youth is something that we’re obviously excited about. Balancing that…is a very difficult thing. And there have been times where we’ve skewed too far towards…it’s an interesting conversation because I think any professional team in any sport wants to have as much talent as possible, but we almost had too many players at different points in time. And it was costing guys development minutes. … At some point, we do need to commit to either the younger players, let them grow and make sure we’re not cannibalizing their own development. So, it’s going to be a big summer for us in that aspect as well. I think tomorrow’s draft is going to be the first domino to fall. We’ve got a couple of different scenarios in play, moving up, moving down, moving sideways. Sometimes what you want to do is 90 percent in your control, but there’s certain pieces you don’t want to give up in order to push the chips all in. We have a good young team, we don’t want to lose sight of that, but we also want to make sure that we’re getting better for ourselves and for our city to see as well.

Q: But you don’t want to compromise young players growth with new additions?

A: We have a lot of guys that can play a lot of minutes and be very effective in those minutes. But basketball… it’s very difficult to play intermittently. Come in for three minutes, go sit back down for 10 minutes, come back in for two. Basketball is a game of flow and so you have to develop a rotation where guys can go out there, get comfortable and do their thing. … We definitely have to get some guys extended minutes to show what they can do for us going forward.

Q: Is improving defensively about adding players or changing schemes?

A: There’s no specific answer unfortunately. It’s all of the above. One of those pieces of all of the above is our young guys have to go through it. Nikola a lot of times is behind the defense and he’s looking, he’s seeing what’s happening. He needs to get beat a few times to understand where those actions are coming from, how he needs to communicate out to the guards. Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay are both first and second-year guys. They’ve got to get better. There’s no way around it, we’ve got to get better defensively and it starts with our guards on the ball. So, while there might be pieces we would go target, defense, outside of a one-on-one matchup is truly a team thing.

Q: Do you think simply waiting out the Golden State Warriors is a good theory?

A: No. You don’t want to give them easy street by any means. They’ve put together a historically great team and kudos to them. A lot of that was done through patience and drafting on their part. What is their window? I’m not 100 percent sure. What happens if one of them gets hurt? Then all of a sudden, the window kind of changes. So, I think you want to be as competitive as you can all of the time.

Q: Is it playoffs or bust next season?

A: It’s an interesting question. Even on the eve of training camp I’m hesitant to put win-loss expectations or playoffs or bust expectations. Just because of the ebbs and flows of different seasons. But we want to get better, there’s no way around it. We were 40-42 last year. We were in the playoffs until the last weekend of the season, and while I think that that stung immensely for the organization and the city to miss out on the playoffs, our players left here after the season was over with a pretty big chip on their shoulders. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for them to have at this point, especially for some of the younger group in their careers, to go into the offseason with a sizeable chip on your shoulder, knowing that you just missed out on the playoffs and wanting to come back. Because if we play the same way that we did in the second half of the season in the first half of the season, I think we’re comfortably in the playoff mix there. So, if we can put together an 82-game season next year, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for everybody involved.

Q: Will there be a new practice facility soon?

A: Yeah, we’re in talks with a couple of different groups. A project that big we just got to make sure we do it right, because we don’t want to have to redo anything down the road. But they are fun conversations. I know it will be a great thing for not only the Nuggets, but for the city as well.

Q: Will there be ads on Nuggets jerseys soon?

A: We’ve had a couple of different conversations with a few companies. But we don’t want to sell ourselves short by any means. Coming off of a couple of tough years from a win-loss standpoint, even with a team trending in the right direction we want to make sure that we’re doing what’s right for the Denver Nuggets and also for the league as a whole. So, we’re talking to several different companies about the possibility. But if we don’t have one for next year, fans shouldn’t be surprised if we choose to sit and wait for another year.

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv or @chrisadempsey on Twitter