When Tim Connelly took his front-office talents from Denver to Minnesota this week on a five-year, $40 million deal that will eventually give him equity in the Timberwolves organization, a natural question emerged in the Mile High City: Given the relationship between Nikola Jokic and Connelly, who drafted him 41st overall back out of Serbia in 2014 and has been close with him ever since, could the two-time MVP think twice about signing the supermax extension that would make him the highest-paid player in league history later this summer?
The answer is no.
After Jokic publicly stated his desire to sign the extension late last month, sources say the 27-year-old has reiterated his long-term commitment to the franchise this week and made clear his belief in the organization’s future in the wake of Connelly’s exit. Multiple sources tell The Athletic that when the Nuggets offer Jokic the five-year, $260 million supermax deal in July, the All-NBA center plans to sign the contract.
Jokic’s brothers, Strahinja and Nemanja, met with Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth and assistant GM Tommy Balcetis in recent days to discuss the team’s future. All sides, sources say, left the meeting aligned in their vision. For the new Nuggets regime, it was important to spend time with the Jokic family in person stateside in the aftermath of Connelly’s departure. Booth and coach Michael Malone have also spoken to Nikola Jokic over the phone, as the big man remains on his annual offseason respite in Serbia. Both sides reaffirmed their long-term commitment to the partnership in that conversation.
With Connelly gone, Booth will be elevated to the lead front-office role after years of rising through the Nuggets’ ranks. Booth, the 46-year-old who played in the NBA from 1999 to 2009, was a New Orleans scout for the 2012-13 campaign before spending four seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves as Director of Player Personnel and Director of Pro Personnel.
He joined the Nuggets as an assistant general manager in the summer of 2017 and eventually became Connelly’s right-hand man after former Nuggets assistant general manager Arturas Karnisovas was hired as the Chicago Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations in April 2020. Under Connelly, who was known to empower his front-office executives, Booth was a key negotiator on multiple contracts and trades, including Monte Morris’ extension in December 2020, the Aaron Gordon trade with Orlando in March 2021 and his extension six months later.
Now, it will be Booth’s show to run – with the Nuggets widely seen as a contender around Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Those who have worked alongside Booth describe him as an organized and even-keeled person, someone who has the chops to be the No. 1 leader of a front office and can relate to players, coaches and support staff.
Balcetis, the team’s assistant manager who was featured on The Athletic’s “NBA 40 under 40” list in early March, is now elevated to the No. 2 personnel position. Both men, in addition to team president and governor Josh Kroenke and Malone, have the kind of rapport with Jokic that all involved believe will serve them well as this partnership continues.
Yet while the Nuggets are expected to move forward with their core of Jokic, Murray and Porter, sources say this Booth-led front office plans on being aggressive when it comes to improving the roster around them. The focus, sources say, is on adding the kind of long and versatile defensive-minded players who are on display in the Boston–Miami Eastern Conference finals. If that means discussing the team’s draft assets as a way of upgrading the level of win-now talent, sources say, then there will be an openness to doing just that.
The mandate will be clear under Booth’s leadership moving forward: Compete for titles and maximize Jokic’s prime years. As Connelly made clear before he left, when he addressed the topic of the Nuggets’ luxury tax bills that are looming so large, Nuggets ownership is well aware that this ambitious approach comes at a massive cost. Entering next season, Denver is on track to be $15 million into the luxury tax, in large part, because Gordon’s extension begins, as does Porter’s five-year, $172 million deal. Jokic’s supermax, of course, would kick in the following summer.
Still, the goal is nothing short of title contention. As the Nuggets see it, Jokic’s talent and continued ascension demand as much.
Murray is expected to be ready at the start of the season after missing the entire 2021-22 campaign because of his torn ACL. Porter only played nine games because of his latest back problem (and third surgery). Their health, coupled with roster improvements around them, should be enough to return the Nuggets to Western Conference elite status.
When asked about the extension after the Nuggets’ season ended against Golden State in the first round of the playoffs on April 27, Jokic made it clear he had no plans of going anywhere.
“I would like it, of course, but it’s not something that I’m deciding,” Jokic said about the extension. “I think of course if it’s offered — if (the) offer is on the table — of course I’m going to accept it because I really like the organization and really like the people who work here.
“I’m in (a) really good relationship with people who work here, and a good relationship with everybody from the owner to, let’s say, the equipment manager,” he continued. “I think we have something that we’re building. It actually feels really good.”
As for Connelly’s exit, sources say the Timberwolves’ willingness to include equity in his deal was seen by the Nuggets as the kind of negotiating hurdle they simply weren’t willing to overcome, in large part, because of the previous it would set in negotiations with team executives. Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, which is owned and managed by Stan Kroenke, his wife, Ann Walton Kroenke, and Josh Kroenke, includes the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL, the Colorado Rapids of the MLS, the Colorado Mammoth lacrosse team, the Arsenal Football Club, the Arsenal Women Football Club and two E-Sports teams based in Los Angeles.
There’s no question that the Connelly departure was disappointing for Denver. But the most important development, and the thing that has many within the organization still feeling bullish about the future, is that Jokic won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. And that gives these Nuggets the incentive they need to pursue a title.
(Photo: Ethan Mito/Clarkson Creative/Getty Images)