Tim Connelly pulled a white plastic case holding wireless earphones out of his pocket as he leaned against a wall inside the Pepsi Center.
“I’ve got my AirPods ready,” the newly appointed president of basketball operations for the Nuggets said Monday. “The next part of the process is all about phone conversations, getting a gauge of what teams are going to do.”
The Nuggets wrapped up their last of more than a half-dozen workouts Monday and prepared to head to construct their final big board. For the next couple days in their offices above Chopper Circle, Connelly, new general manager Arturas Karnisovas and the rest of Denver’s front-office staff will shuffle their favorite prospects ahead of Thursday’s NBA draft while attempting to create a picture of how the draft will fall.
Nuggets chairman Josh Kroenke made an aggressive move last week to promote each member of the Connelly-Karnisovas duo. The move kept Karnisovas, who was a finalist for the open GM position in Milwaukee, from leaving Denver and keeping the front office in tact as it heads into an all-important offseason.
The Nuggets finished 40-42 last season, missing out on the postseason for the fourth year in a row, Their playoff pursuit was undone by a defense that finished only above the Los Angeles Lakers, in terms of efficiency rating. They also struggled mightily in one- and two-possession games, often failing to identify their go-to player in the clutch.
But the Nuggets also had the NBA’s most explosive offense after Nikola Jokic became the team’s starting center in the middle of December. They created an identity as a pass-happy offensive bunch with multiple weapons while establishing the vision for a young central cast of players that includes Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez.
So how would the player the Nuggets select in the first round factor into the equation?
“It’s going to be very hard to find players at (No.) 13 who help you right away because we think we have a quality roster already,” Karnisovas said. “But we don’t stop. We try to look for talent and good fit.”
The roster numbers would point toward the Nuggets targeting a frontcourt player in a draft full of big men. Denver has selected guards in the first round each of the last three years — Gary Harris (No. 19 in 2014), Emmanuel Mudiay (No. 7, 2015), Murray (No. 7, 2016) and Malik Beasley (No. 19, 2016). The Nuggets were most vulnerable defensively on the interior last season, finishing among the league’s worst teams in blocked shots and paint points allowed.
The Nuggets have worked out big men Jarrett Allen of Texas, John Collins of Wake Forest, Bam Adebayo of Kentucky, Justin Patton of Creighton and Caleb Swanigan of Purdue, T.J. Leaf of UCLA and Johnathan Motley of Baylor, all of who are projected to fall in either the first round or the early part of the second round. The number of frontcourt players available at various spots in the draft could provide options for Denver as it weighs any attempt to move up or down in the draft order.
Ideally, the player the Nuggets select will be part of the solution to their defensive conundrum, but Connelly said their selection process won’t be defined by that factor alone.
“You get yourself in trouble if you get too dimensional in your approach with any of these guys,” he said. “It’s no secret our defense was unacceptable, and we’re not going to take the next step until we become a more solid defensive team. But what we don’t want to do is become so fixated on our one weakness that we don’t sign a guy who doesn’t fit anywhere else expect the defensive end.”
Connelly addressed several other topics when meeting with the media Monday:
— On whether Jokic will play for Serbia during Eurobasket 2017 this summer: “Whatever his decision is, we’ll be fully supportive. It’s up to the player. The NBA team can’t say yes or no. We know it’s a big summer for Nikola and his body, and he’s done a great job getting off to a quick start working on some of the things he has to get better on. Whatever he decides, we’re fully supportive and we’re excited to have him back next year as a little more buffer version of Nikola.”
— On Kroenke maintaining an active role in wake of the front office restructuring: Absolutely. Having Josh is invaluable. He played basketball at a high level. You can have conversations without dumbing down the conversations. Every decision we make, Josh will be involved. And thankfully so because he’s a huge sounding board and a very knowledgeable basketball guy.”
— On what role forward Danilo Gallinari‘s free agency will play in any draft decisions: “Very little. We’re not in the place now were we can draft specific to need. Whoever we draft, whether it be No. 13 or we move up or we move down, it would be hard for them to have a significant role next season. So very little.