More than 14 years ago, on March 22, 2003, a Missouri guard named Josh Kroenke scored a career-high 14 points in a second-round NCAA Tournament game against Marquette.
Kroenke had no idea at the time that he would, more than a decade later, be attempting to employ the player on the other team whose performance in that game ended Missouri’s season and Kroenke’s college basketball career. So when Kroenke, now the president of the Nuggets, made his pitch to free agent Dwyane Wade last July, he was sure to stir up the memory.
“I looked Dwyane Wade in the eye and said, ‘Dwyane, I’m probably the only person who is going to try to recruit you this summer who scored 14 points on you,’ ” Kroenke recalled Wednesday during an interview with The Denver Post. “Those types of little interactions can kind of set the tone for the rest of the meeting. So it was very serious but also very light-hearted, and that’s who we are fundamentally as an organization.”
The Nuggets missed out on Wade. The star guard chose instead to play for his hometown Chicago Bulls, but not before considering the Nuggets. Kroenke and his front-office staff emerged from that pursuit disappointed but emboldened, pointing to the summer of 2017 as a time they could really make a strong push in attracting players who could help lift a team that hasn’t had a winning season in four years.
That stage has now arrived and nothing, Kroenke said, has quelled that optimism as his organization heads into a pivotal summer, beginning with Thursday’s NBA draft and extending into the opening of free agency July 1.
“We’ve worked very hard to, I don’t want to say rehab, but when Carmelo Anthony chose to leave us six years ago now, there was definitely a rehabilitation of the image of who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Kroenke said. “That’s easier said than done, to change a narrative and a perspective. I think our guys have done an unbelievable job of that. But I think it starts and ends with our roster and our coaching staff. I think our young guys, veterans around the league are looking at that and saying, ‘That’s a start of a pretty good team there.’ Our existing players, I think a lot of players think they’d be fun to play with.
“At the end of the day, especially throughout the second half of the season, we saw the emergence of Nikola Jokic. The style of play that we implemented — especially over the second half of the season — I think a lot of guys might look at that and say that looks like a lot of fun.
“We’re in a much stronger position simply by people trying to look at who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
As recently as two months into last season, the Nuggets were still without a true identity. After a blowout loss on the road to the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 12, Kroenke summoned general manager Tim Connelly for a “real heart-to-heart.” A season that began with high expectations was cratering, mirroring the three-year stretch after the Nuggets’ last playoff appearance in 2013.
“We both needed to figure out exactly what we were trying to accomplish for the rest of the season, because it was starting to slip away,” said Kroenke, whose team fell to 9-16 after that loss.
From there, the Nuggets moved Jokic into the starting center position. Denver had the best offensive efficiency in basketball from that point forward, finishing the season on a 31-26 run and missing the playoffs by one game. It was important, Kroenke said, that the closing stretch cemented a brand of basketball, though certainly not without its faults, the Nuggets wanted to play. Behind Jokic, Kroenke said, the Nuggets now have an attractive package, coupled with plenty of salary cap space, they can use in pitches to elite players.
Still, major obstacles exist. Connelly, now the president of basketball operations, has said agents have reached out to him about interest their clients have in playing with Jokic. Whether those players are of an elite caliber is unclear, but Denver could certainly needs star power. The team has finished last in attendance in consecutive seasons.
“It’s an equation that only I have to deal with,” Kroenke said of attendance figures. “I tell our guys: ‘Focus on winning games. We’ll figure out the rest.’ For me, I don’t ever want to put those guys in a position where they’re making a basketball decision simply to try to help our business side. Because winning basketball games over the long run is going to help our business side more than any move we might make in the short term will.”
The short term in the NBA appears to belong to the Golden State Warriors, who rose from the league’s middle ground — a position roamed by the Nuggets the past half-decade — with shrewd draft moves, stellar player development and a splash of luck that allowed them to land a megastar, Kevin Durant, to win their second championship in three years.
Even for teams slightly higher in the Western Conference pecking order than the Nuggets, contending for titles could take patience. Relying on a cast of young players to provide an upward trajectory means the Nuggets can’t rightfully expect to compete for a championship next season, and Kroenke has stressed that the Nuggets are building a “program” and not just a team. But he also made it clear: The Nuggets are ready to compete — off the court this summer and on it heading into next winter.
“We want to be as good as we can as fast as we can,” Kroenke said. “We don’t want to give (the Warriors) an easy street by any means, even if they have two first-ballot Hall of Famers and two other guys who probably could get in the Hall of Fame as well. It’s an equation that we debate constantly, which is why we have to be cognizant of both the short term and the long term. I think we have a couple of pretty good young players who we want to make sure we’re giving them the best opportunity to go out there and beat those guys whenever we face them as soon as possible.”