Baltimore native and Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly has the franchise headed for its first postseason appearance since 2013, all while building a team with several local connections.
The Nuggets (49-23) are a half-game behind the Golden State Warriors for first place in the Western Conference and have battled the defending champs for the top spot throughout the season. Denver is one of three teams in the West to have clinched a playoff berth, along with Golden State and the Houston Rockets.
The Nuggets are led by head coach Michael Malone, who graduated from Loyola in 1994 and played for the Greyhounds from 1989-1993. He's assisted by coach Wes Unseld Jr., son of the Baltimore and Washington Bullets legend. The team's rotation features Baltimore native Will Barton on the wing.
"A familiarity with a lot of those guys helps," Connelly said on
Glenn Clark Radio
March 21. "It makes it easier when you're trying to trust guys to help build a culture and build a team."
Connelly was promoted to his current role in 2017 after four years as the team's vice president. After four sub-.500 seasons, the Nuggets barely missed the playoffs in 2018, and are now poised for a deep playoff run this year.
Connelly, a graduate of Towson Catholic High School, sought to change the losing atmosphere in Denver, and adding some locals was a big part of the transition.
"The culture of Baltimore basketball is so proud and so unique," Connelly said. "…There's certainly a chip on all of our shoulders. It's primarily positive; at times you carry the chip a bit too far."
Connelly said it'd be disingenuous to say the turnaround went exactly how the front office had envisioned, and he admitted the team is a bit ahead of schedule in terms of the development it projected. He knew the franchise had a future star early in center Nikola Jokic's tenure, and that Barton and guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris would mature into solid players. All it took was getting everyone on the same page.
Jokic is averaging 20.2 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game and was named an All-Star this season, while Murray (17.9 points), Harris (13.5) and Barton (12.6) are key contributors. The quartet has played together the past three years.
"The continuity is probably the most underrated aspect of our success right now," Connelly said. "From the coaching staff to the front office to players, we've got a lot of guys here that have bought into the program."
The team is atypical given the current NBA landscape. The Nuggets are middle of the pack in 3-point attempts and running its offense through Jokic, a slick-passing big man. Connelly wanted to embrace this unique style, adding versatile players around his young star to build a team that stayed ahead of the game.
"While you want to learn from other teams, you can't get caught chasing trends because the trends are constantly evolving and changing," Connelly said. "We're doing it our own way."
Denver's sustained success has surprised much of the league, and Connelly said it's understandable that the team hasn't gotten much national attention throughout the season. The roster is young and untested in the postseason, and there's no way to know how the playoffs will shake out even after a stellar regular season.
With the postseason mere weeks away, Denver will soon find out whether it belongs among the league's elite.
"It's been fascinating to see the last month, as we've sustained this level of play, we're not sneaking up on teams anymore," Connelly said. "The really good teams have come to play and it's been a great litmus test."
For more from Connelly, listen to the full interview here:
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