DENVER • Let the Nuggets’ sales pitches begin.
“When people say it’s about winning, I don’t know how we’re not 1, 2 or 3 — with a bullet,” Nuggets president of basketball operations and Colorado pitchman Tim Connelly said Tuesday.
Boom. Take that, skeptics. With free agency on the horizon and ready to shed the label of NBA flyover country, these Nuggets are in it to win it.
“I think it will be fascinating when we make those calls,” Connelly said. “If the answer is, ‘It’s about winning,’ and they don’t want to talk to us, I think it’s a disingenuous answer.”
With a Game 7 loss to the Trail Blazers, the Nuggets wasted a choice chance to advance to the Western Conference finals. They should not waste another moment of the Nikola Jokic era.
The Joker’s ceiling is higher than and just as majestic as Longs Peak after a fresh May snow. “A super superstar,” as Connelly called the Serbian unicorn. This offseason the Nuggets must raise the floor by adding a dynamic forward to pair alongside Jokic.
Whether it’s free agents Nikola Mirotic, Tobias Harris or some other shooting and rebounding star, the Nuggets know what they are missing. And they now have a couple of bullet points to pitch when free agency opens in July: Jokic, the Big ATM, making teammates rich faster than Gary Harris and Will Barton can swipe their Visa cards; and Connelly, who told me he thinks the Nuggets are on a “championship track” so he decided against joining his hometown Wizards.
“There’s 30 teams in the NBA. I can’t imagine there’s another team — from ownership to front office to coaching staff — that has the relationship and the alignment that we have,” coach Michael Malone said.
Going from 33 to 40 to 46 to 54 wins was the hard part. Now comes the harder part: luring a difference-maker while maintaining the unselfish culture that made the Nuggets a tough out on a nightly basis.
It will be tempting to believe Michael Porter Jr. is the answer. But counting on a rookie to fill the voids exposed in a series loss to the Blazers is tossing a penny into a wishing well.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was a hoopshead’s dream to have the pleasure of watching Porter bomb 3s and dunk on fools during 3-on-3 games before each of Denver’s playoff games. Porter certainly looks the part, a smooth, 6-foot-10 scorer who reminds veteran guard Isaiah Thomas of Kevin Durant.
”We’re going to make him earn his spot in the rotation,” Connelly said of Porter.
If Porter toughens up, his time will come. But the NBA postseason is a veteran’s game. More specifically, it’s a bully’s game. Look no further than Evan Turner, a Chicago tough guy who bounced the Nuggets in Game 7, and Draymond Green, who was “a wrecking ball,” Steve Kerr said, in Golden State’s series sweep of Portland.
They are not their team’s biggest stars, but they will beat the heck out of your stars.
The stench of letting one slip away against the Blazers hasn’t worn off. Still stinks, doesn’t it?
“Who’s to say we would’ve gotten swept (against the Warriors)? Who’s to say we would’ve gotten to a Game 7? I don’t have that psychic ability,” Malone said, confirming Game 7 is going to bother him for a long while. “But we felt that there was an opportunity with the injuries they were dealing with — DeMarcus Cousins, then Kevin Durant goes out, then (Andre) Iguodala goes out. But we didn’t get there. That’s where you tip your hat to Portland.”
The Nuggets will chat with power forward Paul Millsap in the coming months to iron out another deal. Here’s what will happen: the two parties come to a happy medium and bring back Millsap at a price that’s much less than $30 million and more befitting of a valuable backup forward.
”Maybe it’s me being overly optimistic that we’re going to see a better version of us next year,” Connelly said.
It’s a neat fantasy to believe winning is the No. 1 priority for NBA stars. If that’s the case, why would LeBron James join the Lakers mess, Durant consider leaving the Warriors dynasty, or Anthony Davis file a divorce from the Pelicans after they won the draft rights to Zion Williamson?
Connelly is smart enough to know D.C. is no Denver. He’s also the first guy to oversee an era in which the Nuggets are better positioned than the mighty Lakers, for one. So he appealed to the NBA’s Hollywood leanings as well.
“The ownership group is the most powerful in all of sports, from London (Arsenal) to L.A. (Rams). There’s no one who has what the Kroenkes have,” Connelly said.
“If it’s about growing your brand, (see) the unique opportunities that Denver presents right now as one of the hottest cities in the country, coupled with an ownership group that has stakes in anything and everything in entertainment,” he added.
How’s that for a sales pitch? The Nuggets franchise has never had a better one, which makes this summer a golden time to wheel and deal.
Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.