The Denver Nuggets were eliminated from the postseason by Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, ending a season that saw them win 54 games, see Nikola Jokic enter the MVP discussion, and establish their standing in the league. What’s next?
After having never lost two games at home to the same team all season, the Denver Nuggets saw that streak come to an end at the worst time, giving up a 17-point lead to the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
While the final game was disappointing, the season by all measures has to be considered a success. President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly started the season by signing Nikola Jokic to a new five-year contract, locking in the franchise cornerstone for the next half-decade, and the Serbian big man rewarded the franchise by leading them to the second-best record in the conference. With Jokic averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists per game, the young center was the best player at his position this season, firmly planting himself in the discussion for the MVP award and a first-team All-NBA selection.
With their final game of the season being played, the franchise shifts their focus to the NBA draft and free agency, the final two steps before checking out for a summer full of change. There is uncertainty swirling around the franchise for several key pieces, from the status of Connelly to finding the right players to put around Jokic to get him the help he needs to make the Nuggets title contenders.
By not only making the playoffs, but securing home-court for the first two rounds, the Nuggets have taken the first step in proving their legitimacy in the ever more difficult Western Conference. But over the next two months, the team will need to address these five needs in order to return next season ready to prove that the 2018-19 season wasn’t a fluke.
5. Keep Tim Connelly in the Mile High City
The biggest question for the Nuggets isn’t on the court, it’s in the front office. The architect of the current team is rumored to be a target of the Washington Wizards, who fired Ernie Grunfield after a disappointing season that saw the Eastern Conference team miss the playoffs.
Connelly signed an extension in February, agreeing to a deal that will reportedly pay him over $2 million per year through 2021, according to The Athletic. While it remains to be seen if the Nuggets ownership would counter any offer from the Wizards ownership to enter into a bidding war, it’s likely that Washington would need to pay top dollar to pry Connelly away from the team he’s spent the last four years molding into a contender.
The Nuggets can’t let Connelly leave without a fight. They have already seen the play where a young, talented general manager leaves for greener pastures on the East Coast with Masai Ujiri signing with the Toronto Raptors weeks after winning Executive of the Year with the Nuggets. The Raptors have become one of the best teams in their conference, and the Nuggets postseason appearance this year was their first since Ujiri left.
The draw for the Wizards job with Connelly is his connections to the area. Connelly, a Baltimore resident, has to feel like this is an opportunity to lead an exodus from mediocrity to glory. To be able to do that for the team he watched growing up has to be enticing. While every other factor — ownership, team potential, market interest — goes in favor of the Nuggets, it’s easy to understand the appeal of going home. But the Nuggets have to do everything they can to keep Connelly and not lose the guy that has lead their return to relevance.