DENVER • The scale is never level, sometimes slipping too far to one end. But at the center of this Nuggets revival there rests a balancing act.
Short-term gains or long-term goals?
The Nuggets have lost three straight and seriously could use the defense of injured guard Gary Harris on Monday against the Miami Heat at Pepsi Center. Then again, “I think with all our players we’re taking a big-picture, long-term approach,” coach Michael Malone said Sunday, so it’s a good bet that Harris doesn’t play again until after the All-Star break next weekend.
Likewise, the Nuggets are 37-18 and trail only the juggernaut-ing Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. Then again, who couldn’t use a 6-foot-10 scorer like Michael Porter Jr., who has dazzled the front office with a sopping wet jumper while recovering from back surgery?
(The Nuggets should continue to redshirt Porter. And pray he turns out as good as he looks.)
What should not be in question is the future of Tim Connelly. The 41-year-old president of basketball operations is as much a part of this franchise revival as anyone.
“He’s the biggest part of it, honestly,” veteran guard Will Barton told me on Sunday.
While unicorn center Nikola Jokic is gone to the All-Star Game, a first trip that signals his arrival as a franchise player and his franchise as a player, Nuggets ownership should be busy drafting a contract extension for Connelly. His contract expires after this season, and a long-term deal is way overdue.
The Nuggets have been down this road before, and last time it didn’t end well. It happened with Masai Ujiri, whom they didn’t think would leave until he actually left. Ujiri promptly won NBA executive of the year with the Toronto Raptors. Both Ujiri and Connelly should be considered leading contenders for the award this season, a sign the Nuggets have gotten pretty good about choosing talent evaluators.
But they already have an exceptional one at the top, and it would be a shame to lose Connelly. There are a bunch of bad teams in the NBA who have witnessed what Connelly’s done with the Nuggets and might just throw a bunch of money his direction to do the same thing all over again.
Losing streak or not, the Nuggets are barreling toward their first playoff appearance in six years. So they are better equipped to recognize how success can be fleeting. I’d prefer to keep the guy who drafted the team’s first All-Star in eight years, stood on the table for coach of the year candidate Michael Malone and cultivated a workplace where millionaires love going to work.
“I’ve seen it with other teams. It’s not always like this,” Barton said. “We all like playing with each other. We like the direction we’re going. Good place to be.”
“I think we’re going to win a championship here,” Barton added.
The Nuggets are not of that caliber yet, as this losing streak shows. It has exposed their defense as moody and selective, in a way that had Malone simmering after Sunday’s practice.
“It starts in transition. We don’t get back with any sense of urgency. We don’t talk. Our lack of communication is comical at times. How hard is it to say ‘switch, screen?’ But we don’t do that for some reason,” Malone said.
“Right now our bigs are being lazy. They’re down the floor,” he added. “Our smalls are being soft. They’re not into the ball.”
Anyone else think the Heat will get a motivated Nuggets team on Monday? Still, Denver is trending in a favorable and fun direction for the first time in a long time. And they’ve gotten there on a balance of short-term gains and long-term goals. Denver is second in the West with a payroll that ranks 17th in the NBA, a stark contrast to first-place Golden (No. 1 payroll), third-place Oklahoma City (No. 2 payroll) and fourth-place Portland (No. 4 payroll), according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
Ask any Nugget for the secret to their success and the answer is bound to include some combination of continuity, selflessness and “Joker.” Doesn’t it make sense to keep the same things in place for the front office that brought the All-Star center to Colorado?
(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)