Tommy Balcetis wasn’t sure what exactly he was walking into when he accepted an offer to join the Denver Nuggets front office back in 2013.
After all, Balcetis had only been working in the NBA for a year, in which his main responsibility was selling media rights to various networks throughout Europe and Africa.
Denver’s new Assistant General Manager ended up in that role following a desire to work in basketball after playing competitively through his teenage years. A native of Vilnius, Lithuania, Balcetis first visited the United States when he was 13 years old, and a trip to the United Airlines Center – home of Michael Jordan’s Bulls – cemented that basketball would be in his future, in some shape or form.
That role with the league saw Balcetis work for the NBA offices in London, but it also introduced him to Tim Connelly, then the Assistant General Manager for the New Orleans Pelicans.
The first meeting between the two took place at a 2012 Basketball Without Borders event in Moscow and was the start of a fruitful working relationship and friendship. Fast forward one year later, and here was Connelly calling Balcetis about joining him in this new Nuggets front office, one that Connelly had just recently been hired to run.
“When I first joined, there wasn't an analytics department per se,” Balcetis told Nuggets.com back in 2019. “I think the NBA had just started looking into analytics more seriously. The first couple of years, it was about carving out a niche and creating some sort of analytics capability within the Nuggets.”
A role focused on analytics made sense for Balcetis, the Harvard University graduate who has a degree in economics and previously served as a business consultant at Fidelity Investments.
After continuing to work his way up through the organization over the past seven years, Balcetis is once again talking to Nuggets.com, only this time, as mentioned earlier, he’s doing so as the Assistant General Manager.
A career develops as the numbers grow
“When I joined, I was just happy to be part of a front office,” Balcetis said over a Zoom call earlier this week. “I’m incredibly lucky to be in this situation.”
Given his skill set and previous work experience, Balcetis figured that focusing on analytics would be the right approach to jumpstart his career in basketball operations.
“When I started, analytics was just becoming a thing in the league. I thought it would be a good way to jump on early,” the Harvard University alumnus said. “I didn’t quite know that it was going to be a very important decision-driving machine as it is now, but it did seem that it was probably going to become a more important piece of how front offices work.”
As Balcetis continued to focus on growing the Nuggets’ analytics capabilities in his role, advanced metrics became widely accepted as teams focused on generating modern shot charts, with an emphasis on 3-point attempts and shots at the rim.
However, there are also ways to use analytics and advanced numbers in big-picture analysis, which is exactly what Balcetis was tasked with during the early stages of his Nuggets tenure.
In fact, Balcetis remembers the exact first project he was tasked with back in 2013, which involved a statistical analysis ahead of the upcoming free agency period.
“We had a player that was potentially leaving our team, and (the question was) should we pay him a certain amount?” Balcetis revealed. “I remember thinking ‘this is going to be tough’ because I had no idea what was going on, but I’m just going to give it my best shot.”
Balcetis took all of the publicly available statistics and metrics and produced a report with a recommendation for how much to potentially pay the player based on the current numbers and a projection of the player’s statistics over the ensuing three-to-four years.
“I remember feeling pretty good about myself after that,” Balcetis explained. “That’s when I really felt that I could do this.”
Since then, the projects and software used have evolved as the Nuggets’ analytics department has grown. Layne Vashro joined the group in 2019 as a senior analyst, and the two have worked hand-in-hand in crunching the numbers and executing research projects for the front office and coaching staff. Vashro in particular has extensive experience in R&D (research and development) analytics, projects that tend to focus on building infrastructure rather than immediate relevance.
Now in the assistant general manager role, Balcetis does spend more time on other areas of front office work, including salary cap management and scouting. However, it has been a seamless transition for the Vilnius native following years of experience working under Connelly.
“Tim is really good at not siloing people into specific roles,” Balcetis said. “I’ve been able to do a little bit of everything prior to this role, as have many people in the front office.”
Balcetis later explained that perhaps the biggest change in his day-to-day as assistant general manager is his ability to dive deeper into a variety of different areas of the business, as opposed to narrowing the focus on one aspect, as he had done early on with analytics in his tenure.
While Balcetis travels more with the team now and delegates various responsibilities, one thing remains constant: his love for analytics and the value that line of work has.
“(Analytics) have served me well. It has shaped and formulated my way of looking at the game and at players, whether we’re scouting college players or NBA players. It kind of shaped my identity in the way I think about the game. I’m not planning on dropping it, although I have to do other things now in this role, analytics will still have a big part of my heart.”
It also helps when your work can be a calming presence as everyone navigates the uncertainty of these COVID-19 times. For Balcetis, that means getting in front of the computer and getting to work.
“Programming, it’s kind of like meditation sometimes,” Balcetis revealed. “It’s just you and your laptop, with numbers in front of you. It soothes me, in a way. But at the same time, it’s incredibly useful. You get big data and insights so quickly.”
Relationships evolve over time
The Nuggets front office has been a model of efficiency in recent years, despite not owning the largest staff across the league. From the success the team has had through the draft (See: Jokić, Nikola), to the various additions through free agency and trades that have yielded a young roster that has won three playoff series over the past two seasons, Denver has successfully re-tooled over the past five years to become a Western Conference contender.
A lot of that success can be placed on the versatile skillsets within the front office and the relationships that have developed during this time. With members of the staff consistently being exposed to all facets of basketball operations, seamless transitions can be made during times of change, such as this past offseason, when former General Manager Artūras Karnišovas departed the organization to become the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Chicago Bulls.
Following the departure, Calvin Booth was promoted to Karnišovas’ old role, while Balcetis took on Booth’s former role of assistant general manager. And just like that, the ship kept moving forward as Denver looks to navigate the tough Western Conference.
This transition is a result of the strong relationships formed between the front office members over the years, starting back in 2012 in Moscow and only growing since.
“Tim is one of my closest friends,” Balcetis revealed. “We basically created that relationship back in Moscow in 2012. And that relationship is still strong, to this day. It's one of those rare things where, hey, you meet somebody, you immediately get along, and that hasn't changed for so many years now.”
Connelly certainly isn’t surprised by Balcetis’ growth within the organization in recent years.
“Tommy has been an integral part of our success,” Denver’s President of Basketball Operations told Nuggets.com. “He has a fantastic work ethic, really knows the game, and is extremely forward-thinking and creative. When you combine his passion, intelligence, and selflessness it’s easy to see why he has made such a big impact on the organization.”
As the relationship between Balcetis and Connelly grew over the years, the addition of Booth to the front office in 2017 only further diversified the perspectives and approach that Denver’s front office took.
“Calvin is one of my favorite people, period. Both as a basketball executive and as a friend, he's been such an incredible boost for us,” said Balcetis. “As soon as he joined (the front office), I remember, he reached out early.”
Although Balcetis and Booth weren’t super close prior to their working relationship beginning in 2017, Balcetis knew what the Nuggets were getting in the then 41-year-old Booth, who had carved out a 10-year career in the NBA.
“When he joined, I immediately understood why. I mean, the guy is extremely smart, he's very savvy, and I think one of his best attributes is just, he is such a people's person. I don't know a single person who doesn't like Calvin Booth.”
With Connelly, Booth, and Balcetis leading the way, Denver’s front office is set up for sustained success in the years to come.
“We believe in the guys we have”
It’s no secret that the Nuggets got off to a slow start to begin the 2020-21 season. A 1-4 record was highlighted by the team’s struggles on the defensive end.
“We started the year a little slow, understandably,” Balcetis explained. “Guys are tired. It's so hard to end of the season the way we did and then two months later, you’re playing real games again.”
Balcetis was also quick to point out that the numbers paint a brighter picture than Denver’s record may suggest.
“I mean, we're 12-8, and I think we've been playing great basketball over the last 12 games. And there are a few bounces of the ball here and there and we should be like 14-6 and at 14-6, aren't we the best team in the league right now? It's very easy to kind of overreact to record. I think in terms of the net rating, and in terms of the way we're playing, we're one of the top five teams in the league, and it's where we want to be.”
Balcetis is nearly spot-on in his assessment, as Denver would be expected to have 13 wins on the season based on their +5.0 net-rating, which is tied for fifth in the league.
A lot of the growth this season has come on the defensive end. Despite the early season struggles on that end of the floor, there was never any panic from Balcetis or the front office after looking at the numbers.
“Yes, there was in fact, like a small little project that that Tim and I did, it was basically like a let's not panic, this is where we are (project),” Balcetis revealed. “And I think we did it maybe five or six games ago now. And certainly, you can see the reason why we didn't panic. It did pan out the way we thought it would.”
A big factor in Denver’s defensive struggles to being the season was improbable shooting percentages from opponents, specifically around the rim and from beyond the arc. Opponents have shot 7.6 percent higher than the league average around the basket against Denver this season and 4.1 percent higher on corner 3-pointers compared to the league average (per Cleaning the Glass).
“Defensively, as well, if something is really killing us, from one perspective, that thing is probably going to come down,” Balcetis explained. “The net rating for us was actually much better than our than our record would indicate, which is also another way of looking at it like, hey, we're actually playing well, we probably just, you know, we lost a few close games that we probably shouldn't have lost.”
Over the month of January, the Nuggets went 11-5 and ranked 13th in defensive rating as the offense continued to produce at a high level.
With the season in full swing now, fans have shifted their focus to the upcoming trade deadline. However, given the big-picture mindset and the approach of Denver’s front office over the years, there’s no reason to expect fireworks from the Nuggets' end during this season.
“Whether we're in the midst of a losing streak or a winning streak, we always try to make our team better,” Balcetis said.
“We love the guys that we have, we really absolutely do,” he continued. “I mean, you know, we are one of the better teams in the league, I think, for a reason. And sometimes, the itchy finger in terms of (making) deals is not always the best thing. I think we've had some success growing with the guys that we've had.”
Speaking of additions, JaMychal Green’s fit in the rotation has been nearly seamless, which is exactly what Balcetis and the front office expected upon signing him in free agency.
“We thought he would complement the team very well, with his kind of defensive tenacity with his ability to rebound and stretch the floor,” Balcetis explained. “I mean, that's, that's the type of player that works with Nikola and other guys very well. And yes, he was a target for a little while, and we were very happy that we ended up finally getting him.”
Green’s +7.6 net-rating this season ranks third on the team, and the veteran forward is one of only two players on the team in which both the offense and defense have improved when he has been on the court this season (the other being Monte Morris).
The old saying is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and while Denver’s front office will always be on the lookout for the next move to increase the team’s championship odds, the current group brings satisfaction to Balcetis and the front office when reflecting on the work that was put in to create the team’s core and overall roster.
“It is really, really rewarding and satisfying to see the guys that you drafted or you acquired in a way, or somebody who signed with you, and those guys actually ending up jelling and performing. We're very happy because the team that is succeeding is the team that we grew with.”