Hollinger: Nuggets have shown they won’t pay for execs… but will they pay for this roster?

Uncompensated.

That’s the keyword that has been lost in the departure of former Denver Nuggets president Tim Connelly to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

He was under contract with the Nuggets, and now he isn’t, and it didn’t cost Minnesota jack. Denver walked away uncompensated. Normally a move like this would cost a team a first-round pick as compensation; At the very least, the two owners would end up haggling over such.

In this case, alas, Connelly had a contract with the Nuggets that basically allowed him to be a free agent even when he wasn’t, permitting him to entertain offers from other teams without the Nuggets getting in the way. Kudos to him for writing his contract this favorably, but this was also a giant own goal for the Nuggets, especially since the Washington Wizards nearly poached Connelly three years ago. (I’ve also been told the Wizards might have succeeded had they pursued this a bit more earnestly.)

Of course, Nuggets fans have seen this movie before. Nine years ago, they let Masai Ujiri walk and take over the Toronto Raptors, another uncompensated loss. Ujiri was at least a true “free agent” so to speak; his contract was expiring at the time. Still, the Raptors offered Ujiri roughly triple what he was making at the time, and Denver barely flinched in response.

I suppose one can spin this positively by saying the Nuggets under the ownership of Stan Kroenke have an organizational philosophy of not paying executives, and one can argue that individual point. As a former executive, I might be slightly biased toward overstating the value of these positions, but I can’t help but notice that none of us played in the games.

The Nuggets, after all, survived the departure of Ujiri by tapping Connelly from New Orleans; It’s quite possible they can do the same with Calvin Booth, a well-liked and respected Connelly lieutenant who is expected to assume the helm in Denver. (Booth, incidentally, would also add to the league’s still-too-puny list of minority top executives, one that also includes Ujiri. Denver gave them both their first chance.)

That line of chatter would be more believable if it was the exception to the rule of how the Nuggets operate, but that’s not the case. It’s more accurate to say there is an organizational philosophy of not paying, period. From the practice facility (if such a thing were to exist) to the staffing and infrastructure, the Nuggets invest as little in their basketball operations as any team in the league, a complaint that goes back at least a decade.

One can argue the reasons for this. I’ve been told at various times over the last decade that Denver doesn’t exactly do gangbusters financially, playing in a mid-sized market where each of the big four leagues operate and the mountains always beckon. They also haven’t been on local TV for three years, a staggering state of affairs that likely isn’t helping their bottom line.

On the other hand, they just got blown out of the water financially by a rival offer, not from New York or LA but from Minnesota a mid-sized market where each of the big four leagues operate.

This takes us back to Connelly, somebody who liked Denver and wanted to stay but also read his situation well enough to read the handwriting on the wall. He knew any blockbuster deal for him was coming from someplace else and was unlikely to be matched by the Nuggets.

On the day he left, his salary still placed him in the bottom half of league execs, according to sources, even after a nearly decade-long run in which he made arguably the greatest draft pick in NBA history (selecting two-time MVP Nikola Jokić at No. 41 in 2014) and won four playoff series in three years without Denver paying a cent in luxury tax.

He may also have seen the writing on the wall in another sense: Just because the Nuggets are set up to be a luxury-tax player in 2022-23 doesn’t mean they’ll end up there. In particular, the Michael Porter Jr. The situation hangs over this team’s future in a way that could force some decisions.

Next season, Porter begins the first year of a five-year, 173 million extension that is guaranteed for 146 million. The timing of this is unfortunate, as almost immediately after inking this deal, Porter started having back issues; After nine pedestrian games, Porter underwent back surgery that knocked him out for the season. He had already missed the entire 2018-19 season due to back surgery and most of his freshman season at Missouri due to the same.

Even in 2018, you’ll recall Porter’s health outlook was grim enough that multiple teams red-flagged him in the draft despite obvious lottery talent. (Porter’s draft workout in 2018 remains the greatest one-on-zero shooting exhibition I’ve ever seen; if he missed a shot, I can’t recall it.) At least one league insider wondered if Porter’s grim outlook played a role in Connelly’s decision, although all indications are that he wasn’t in rush to leave and that the giant bag of money from Minnesota was the deciding factor.

The Nuggets are now slated to be $ 15 million into the luxury tax in 2022-23, with max contracts for Jokić, Porter and Jamal Murray and a sizable extension for Aaron Gordon on the books. Jokić’s inevitable supermax extension (five years, $ 254 million) is a no-brainer piece of business, but one that will make Denver a tax team in 2023-24 and further without other compensating moves as well.

Yes, the Nuggets stated they aren’t afraid to pay the luxury tax when they signed Porter’s extension, but that’s what every team says. (NBA Executive 101: Even if you have no intention of paying luxury tax, front like you will, or risk getting put over a barrel in trade talks.)

Ironically, it’s Jokić’s awesomeness that also gives the Nuggets an out to sidestep the tax. With Murray and Porter out for the year, he still dragged them to the 2022 playoffs. The Nuggets won’t be as bad as long as No. 15 is suiting up. But can they be any better than middling good without Porter producing?

Would it really hurt them that much if they dropped off Will Barton (due 14.4 million in 2022-23), Monte Morris ($ 9.6 million) or both of them onto somebody else’s roster? Morris in particular would seem fungible with Murray set to return and the development of rookie Bones Hyland. Moving off him and limiting their free-agent appetite to minimum-ish deals would leave them close enough to the tax line to get under it in-season without too much trouble, even if both Jeff Green and JaMychal Green opt into their deals.

Longtime Denver fans will draw another parallel here to a deal much earlier in Kroenke’s ownership tenure: the 2008 deal that dropped off Marcus Camby on the Clippers’ roster when the Nuggets were facing a sizable tax bill for the coming season. The deal was wildly unpopular at the time (and, um, uncompensated), but the Nuggets made the conference finals for only the third time in franchise history the next season… the franchise’s high-water mark until Jokić brought them back there in the 2020 bubble.

In the big picture, one could argue there’s nothing wrong with this. This has largely been a successful franchise; Pro-rated, it had eight 50-win seasons since 2007-08, 14 playoff appearances in 19 years and a low ebb of 30 wins. The Nuggets win games and scrape out a profit in a tough market and can make a deep playoff run if everything breaks right.

From a fan’s perspective, however, there’s a level of disappointment in knowing a team will only go so far financially and cut every cuttable corner along the way. The Nuggets aren’t going to keep top executives or pay top dollar for new ones or go into the payroll stratosphere of Western Conference competitors in Golden State or LA Connelly’s departure was the latest sign of that and an omen for what might happen to the team’s payroll in the near future.

(Photo: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

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