Nuggets' playoff exit puts Tim Connelly-to-Wizards rumors to the test

Ben Standig
NBC Sports Washington

Nuggets' playoff exit puts Tim Connelly-to-Wizards rumors to the test originally appeared on nbcsportswashington.com

The Washington Wizards' general manager search just ramped up thanks to the Portland Trail Blazers.

It's been over five weeks since Wizards owner Ted Leonsis fired team president Ernie Grunfeld. While longtime Wizards executive Tommy Sheppard took over duties on an interim basis, the front office lacks a permanent leader. 

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There's some reason for urgency with the June 20 NBA Draft looming, but Leonsis has shown patience with the introspection process after a trying 32-50 season. 

Since shortly after Grunfeld's exit, numerous sources have told NBC Sports Washington they believe the reason for the owner's methodical approach involves Denver president of basketball operations Tim Connelly.

Connelly is considered a strong if not leading candidate for the Wizards' opening. However, Connelly wasn't expected to fully explore a move until the Nuggets' playoff run ended.

That run ended Sunday with a 100-96 loss to Portland in Game 7 of the Western Conference second-round series.

Despite the exit, the Nuggets delivered one of the top seasons in franchise history with 54 wins during the regular season. The roster is loaded with young talent including MVP candidate Nikola Jokic and rising star Jamal Murray. Depending on what transpires with Kevin Durant and Golden State this off-season, Denver could be poised for a deep run in the Western Conference postseason next season.

So, why would Connelly consider leaving Denver for the Wizards?

Because the Baltimore native began his NBA front office career in Washington, and the Wizards opening, as NBC Sports Washington reported on April 30, is considered Connelly's "dream job."

Regardless, why do we think the Nuggets would consider letting a young, successful general manager get away?

Because they let another GM with a similar profile walk this decade.

Denver owner Stan Kroenke and team president Josh Kroenke faced almost the same situation in 2013 with then-general manager Masai Ujiri, who also factors into the Wizards' current front office opening. 

Ujiri worked in the Toronto Raptors front office until Denver hired him in 2010 to run its front office. The Nuggets won 57 games during the 2012-13 regular season during which ownership and Ujiri agreed in principle on an extension. 

Before any papers were signed, Ujiri returned to Toronto in June 2013 to take over as the Raptors' president of basketball operations. From the Associated Press:

Kroenke said he wasn't going to stand in the way of Masai Ujiri leaving for his dream job as GM of the Toronto Raptors last week… 

Ujiri and Kroenke had a handshake agreement on a new deal earlier this year, but Kroenke said the one team he would allow to step in and break up their partnership was the Raptors, the team that had given Ujiri his first shot at a front office job.

He said Ujiri told him not to try to match the reported five-year, $15 million offer from the Raptors because he'd already made up his mind he wanted to return to Toronto.

The Nuggets then hired a 36-year-old Connelly, who previously spent over a decade in Washington, away from New Orleans.

Connelly received an extension this season, Denver announced in February. That signed document likely plays a factor in Connelly's unwillingness to be interviewed for the Wizards opening, but an openness to consider the job if offered the position, a league source told NBC Sports Washington last month.

As long as the next hire is someone currently with an NBA front office, the Wizards will be fine entering this week's NBA Combine. That person will be in Chicago checking on Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and other 2019 prospects. Sheppard, a candidate for the Wizards' front office opening, will be at the Combine for Washington. 

Another league source floated the theory of Sheppard, the VP of Basketball Operations under Grunfeld, remaining in the front office even if Connelly arrives. The two remain good friends since their days together in Washington last decade. 

That Connelly has not entirely ruled himself a non-candidate also keeps the Wizards rumor alive. 

From the Denver Post's Mark Kiszla four days after Grunfeld's firing:

When I asked Connelly once if he was a candidate [in] Washington, then doubled back to give him a second opportunity to squash the speculation, he declined to kill the story with a simple reaffirmation of his long-term commitment to the Nuggets.

"What did I just tell you?" Connelly said. "I'm the Denver Nuggets president. Everything else is speculation."

Rather than engage in speculation, let's not stray from what we know to be true. The basketball roots of Connelly, who grew up in Baltimore and began his NBA career as an intern for the Wizards in 1996, can be traced to the Eastern seaboard, not the Rocky Mountains. 

NBC Sports Washington previously reported that personal considerations make the idea of returning to the area attractive for Connelly, according to sources.

Kiszla also reported, "The Nuggets have traditionally not paid top dollar for their basketball operations chief, which is no small reason why Masai Ujiri departed for Toronto in 2013."

The Athletic reported last week that Connelly's two-year extension would pay the executive "somewhere just north of $2 million per year through 2021" per league sources. The site also first reported the Wizards interest in Connelly.

Ujiri's Raptors play their own Game 7 Sunday night against Philadelphia. He received an extension in 2016, but NBC Sports Washington reported on April 30 that Ujiri is at least intrigued by the idea of moving to Washington

It's unclear if Leonsis would make the financial commitment or trade assets possibly required to land either Connelly or Ujiri if available. 

Much of the Wizards' future is uncertain until the owner makes a public statement for the first time since April 3. At the time, Leonsis stated a desire for a thorough review of the organization's structure and processes. He subsequently hired an outside consultant.

Sheppard, former Hawks GM Danny Ferry and Thunder VP of basketball operations Troy Weaver are among the known candidates interviewed by the Wizards. Those interviews took place two weeks ago. 

There may not be another one now that the Nuggets' season is over. 

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