Where do Tim Connelly and the Denver Nuggets go from here?

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets future is defined by easy to identify problems that will prove difficult to solve.

It was great to hear from Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray, and Tim Connelly yesterday.

Perhaps the three individuals in the Denver Nuggets organization with the largest question marks, all three of Porter, Murray, and Connelly spoke to Denver Nuggets media in an end-of-season press conference. Connelly, the Nuggets president of basketball operations, had spoken after the NBA trade deadline in February, but this was the first time Porter had spoken on the record to media since October. For Murray, it was last season before his franchise-altering injury.

All three had important things to say.

Let’s start with Porter, who shared some insight on why he and the Nuggets were in agreement on him not returning too quickly at the end of this season:

“I probably could have played…I probably could play on one leg, stand in the corner and shoot threes. Would I have been at my best? No, I definitely wouldn’t have been at my best, and at that point it’s just…thinking long term versus short term, and if I came back, would I really help the team at that point or could they kind of find a groove on their own?”

Porter shared an anecdote about coming back too soon from injury while he was playing college basketball at Missouri, trying to come back for the NCAA tournament “at like 40 to 50 percent. I don’t think that was the smartest thing looking back.”

“To not play was really hard on me mentally,” Porter said. “Even more because I felt like I was letting teammates down.”

Jamal Murray was also peppered with questions on how close he was to returning and shared some insight too:

“I have to feel good to play. I don’t know how much [more] I can say…I have some really great days where there’s no soreness, and I feel like I can go, and then you have the days right after that where it puts things in perspective that I’m just not there yet.”

Murray also opened up on how he knew he wasn’t ready to contribute in the playoffs:

“The hardest part is managing all of the parts of the game, not just having the ball in [my hands] to go and score. That’s the easy part, because I know where to go. I know what to do with the ball…but on defense, that was the toughest part. Reacting, getting screened, moving around screens, rebounding, loose balls, all that stuff. That was an eye opener for me where I realized I couldn’t do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.”

The end of a long rehab period is always the most difficult for everyone involved, including the player, the teammates, the coaches, the organization, and even the fans. The anticipation is often the enemy of those last few steps, because rushing the process of coming back, for either Murray OR Porter, would have come with other risks and pressures that run counter to Denver’s team wide mentality.

“I said at the beginning of my rehab that I wanted to come back at 100 percent, not when I’m 85, Murray said. “And I don’t think I’m 85 now.”

Denver Nuggets...

It’s pretty clear that neither Murray nor Porter were close to being ready for the playoffs physically or mentally. Despite the fact that both were nearing returns, neither really got to that point, and there was no use rushing it this season anyway. The Nuggets did well to give them their space, and both players were thankful to the organization for that publicly.

There were a number of reasons why the Nuggets didn’t feel as much pressure to win this year as other teams. For one, Nikola Jokić isn’t holding their feet to the fire. He shared his willingness to sign a supermax extension if it were offered in his final interview of the season on Wednesday night. The Nuggets knew they had that level of buy-in from Jokić and that it wasn’t a “Win or I will leave” situation that other superstars around the league have leveraged.

But the other reason was simply the circumstances. No team in the NBA had a more difficult three years than Denver from an energy and fatigue standpoint. With several key pieces injured, others were forced to step up and were exhausted themselves. The injuries to the back half of the roster though, from PJ Dozier to Zeke Nnaji to Vlatko Cancar to Markus Howard, provided a cascading effect of exertion and exhaustion. By the end, it became clear the Nuggets just didn’t have the talent or the energy to make a deep playoff run (which was why it was so commendable that they fought as hard as they did at the end of the series against the Golden State Warriors).

Now though, heading into the off-season, the Nuggets are officially back on the clock.

Nikola Jokić is about to win his second straight MVP award. He is playing at an absolutely unbelievable level. When Murray and Porter return healthy next year, there’s no doubt that they can return to playing at a high level.

Tim Connelly also clearly understands the gravity of the situation and the importance of capitalizing on this championship window:

“It’s an unbelievable blessing, and with that comes a lot of responsibility. You want to do every and anything to ensure you’re putting the best team around him, to give him a chance to be at the highest level. So, I’m both blessed and certainly aware of with a player of that magnitude what it means to ensure that he’s got a real chance.”

It will be up to Connelly and the front office to bolster the roster and give Michael Malone and the coaching staff enough weapons to make it happen.

Of course, there’s a difference between understanding the magnitude of the situation and being able to find the right mix.

“It’s hard, but it’s supposed to be hard.” Connelly said. “It’s challenging because things are constantly changing. Not just internally but your opponents. The landscape of the Western Conference, if healthy, should be as strong as it’s ever been, maybe ever historically. Maybe the best conference we’ve ever seen.”

That evolution of the Western Conference involves teams like the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, who became stronger title contenders than the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers in the last 12 months, basically ever since the Nuggets traded for Aaron Gordon and lost Jamal Murray. Denver’s dedication to adding an athletic, big wing defender came at exactly the wrong time, even if the process was correct. The Nuggets sacrificed perimeter defense for more defensive versatility, and that proved to be Denver’s second biggest downfall (beyond health) in each of their last two playoff runs.

“Whenever you lose, you have to be extremely self-critical and analyze areas where we’re not where we need to be. I think losing [Michael Porter] was really big, but…losing [PJ] Dozier, that was really our two guys, all our depth at the small forward position.”

“I think it’s pretty evident where we need to get better, and we’ll be aggressive trying to address those needs.”

The Nuggets have long been a team overstocked with smaller guards and bigger forwards. Adding Gordon was Denver’s next evolution of what Paul Millsap offered as a defender next to Jokić, a bit more perimeter oriented but still a versatile, high quality interior defender. As it turns out, the Nuggets still need even more perimeter defense than they thought. Gordon was the piece necessary to match up with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. The Nuggets now need pieces capable of matching up with Stephen Curry, Devin Booker, and Ja Morant, among others.

The newest evolution of the NBA involves high level, high IQ defensive pieces surrounding superstars. Curry has Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Gary Payton II as high quality defensive options. Booker has Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Deandre Ayton supporting him. In the East, Giannis Antetokounmpo has Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, while Jayson Tatum has Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, and a whole slew of defensive options beyond that.

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

For the Nuggets right now, they certainly have the offensive talent to enter the title race without changing anything. If they’re healthy when it matters most, they will have a chance against anybody. To actually win a title though, the Nuggets will have to improve defensively, both internally and externally. Jokić made several strides to become better. Murray and Porter will have to continue to do the same in addition to their rehab and reentry into the starting unit. Adding Gordon to the final form of this roster was a really shrewd move at the the time that will hopefully pay more dividends when the stars are all on the court.

But Connelly will have the hardest job: improving the roster and filling in the gaps.

There are several ways that Denver can get better. Connelly referenced four pathways: health, the draft, free agency, and trades. The Nuggets have the 21st pick in the NBA Draft, and they will also likely have the taxpayer mid-level exception to utilize in free agency, given that they are over both the salary cap and luxury tax.

Finishing the roster with the right mix of pieces on a luxury tax team is both really simple and really difficult. On the one hand, it’s fairly easy to identify what the Nuggets need: a perimeter defender or two, a ball handler or two to complement Murray, a healthy supplement at forward for Porter, and a backup big man to rest Jokić. Denver’s well on its way in a number of those categories, from Monte Morris and Bones Hyland to Jeff Green and DeMarcus Cousins.

The perimeter defender is where they struggle most though, and adding a defender with enough offensive talent to keep opposing teams honest is something that 29 other teams are looking for, not just the Nuggets. Austin Rivers filled that role this year, and while he was good, he probably wasn’t potent enough on either end to move the needle. PJ Dozier had a chance prior to his ACL tear. Will Barton, more skewed to the offensive end, doesn’t really fit as much more than a floor spacer and occasional ball handler at this point.

It’s on the front office to find creative ways with limited resources to satisfy those needs. It might come at a higher cost than one would hope for too. Denver’s options are limited, which is why this step of the process can often break championship caliber teams. Making the right choice often comes with an overpay, or taking a leap of faith on an unproven player. The Lob City Clippers come to mind, cycling through 3&D wings around Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. They never got it right, and it led to their downfall.

The Nuggets have to get it right. They just have to.

A good sign for fans hoping the Nuggets push their chips all in: Connelly affirmed the franchise’s understanding that the team will have to pay the tax to field a contender.

“I think ownership has been consistent. If the team is good enough, they’ll pay accordingly. So, I don’t think that will be any sort of issue moving forward. I mean, we’’re getting really, really expensive. It’s a blessing and a curse, and you’re getting expensive because you’re paying really good players. But these numbers, they elevate really quickly, and they’re only going to elevate more as we go forward.

“So, I think ownership is firmly aware of financially, where we might be and how that could impact our team.”

With ownership on board and an off-season to tinker, the Nuggets are in a good place. As long as Jokić signs the supermax and both Murray and Porter get healthy, the hardest parts are over. Denver has a championship caliber core led by the best player in the world.

“I think everybody knows, you know, about how good this team can be,” said Porter at the presser. “In my opinion, we can be the best team in the NBA when we have everybody healthy.”

Agreed Mike. Agreed. But let’s see if the organization can put the finishing touches on that dream first.

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