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Tim Connelly eager to finish what he started with Nuggets

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DENVER (AP) The prospects of a return home to Washington were undeniably appealing to Tim Connelly.

Not nearly as alluring as this: Finishing what he’s started.

The Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations elected to stay in town even with the Wizards calling. Things are booming these days with a Nuggets team that boasts a young nucleus led by big man Nikola Jokic and that won 54 games in the regular season. They were the No. 2 seed in the West before losing to Portland in Game 7 at home during the second round of the playoffs.

There was just too much work left to be done in Denver to consider taking Washington’s front office job even if it would’ve been with the organization where Connelly got his start and in the area where he and his wife are from.

“It’s safe to assume, and maybe it’s me being overly optimistic, that we’re going to see a better version of us next year,” Connelly said Tuesday. “I don’t know if that means more wins. I don’t know if we’re going to win a playoff series and advance, but I don’t think there’s any reason to think there will be any regression next season.”

A Baltimore native, Connelly appreciated the audience with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. He said he was flattered by their recent “exchange of ideas” as the Wizards look to fill the role of team president after Ernie Grunfeld was fired in April.

“The relationships that have been built up here and the hard times we’ve been through – it was very hard to envision leaving something that has been so hard and so long coming in its build,” said Connelly, who broke into the NBA with the Wizards as an intern in the basketball operations department, then as an assistant video coordinator and as a scout.

Connelly was hired as Denver’s general manager in July 2013 and it took a while for the team to take off. Team President Josh Kroenke stayed patient with him. Connelly brought in coach Michael Malone before the 2015-16 season and they’ve steadily progressed since – from 33 wins in Malone’s first year to 40 wins in ’16-17 to 46 in ’17-18 and finally to 54 this season, including a league-leading 34-7 home mark.

“We did not get off to a good start by any stretch, and (Kroenke) doubled down on what easily could have been perceived as an initial mistake because he liked the processes and liked how we attacked our job day to day,” said Connelly, who was promoted to president of basketball operations in 2017. “Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that’s here in spades. So those things matter to me.”

Connelly and his staff have struck it rich in the draft, taking Jokic with the 41st pick of the second round in 2014. They’ve also selected Jamal Murray, along with up-and-comers Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Michael Porter Jr., who sat out this season as he recovered from back surgery.

The biggest offseason decision remains this: What to do with veteran leader Paul Millsap. The team holds a $30 million option, which could be restructured.

“I fully expect Paul to be back in a Nuggets uniform,” Connelly said.

On the free agency front, Denver hasn’t exactly been an attractive landing spot in recent summers. But Connelly sees that starting to change and believes the unselfish play of Jokic could be an enticing selling point. Denver could be in the market for another shooter and a power forward in order to take the next step.

“It will be fascinating to make those calls” in free agency, Connelly said. “If they say it’s about winning and the answer is about winning and they don’t talk to us, then I think it’s a disingenuous answer.”

The Nuggets definitely turned some heads throughout the regular season as they challenged Golden State down to the wire for the best mark in the West. They beat San Antonio in seven games in the first round before falling to the Trail Blazers.

“We sent a pretty loud message,” Malone said. “I think there were questions about our team all year long, for whatever reason: How legitimate are they? Are they really a No. 2 seed? Can they take their game into the playoffs with so many young guys that’ve never been there before?

“We answered so many questions about our team in the best way possible.”

NOTES: Malone said Jokic’s race horse, Dream Catcher, recently won a race in Serbia. “He made sure I knew about it, because the last race he won I was at,” Malone said. “I thought I was a good-luck charm but obviously I’m not.”

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Magic Johnson ready to welcome D’Angelo Russell back to Lakers

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In 2017, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to the Nets and delivered a biting sendoff: “What I needed was a leader.”

Russell wasn’t ready to run a team on the court. His work ethic and maturity off it left plenty to be desired. Most infamously, he alienated his teammates by recording and posting a video of Nick Young discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé.

But Russell went to Brooklyn and became an All-Star.

So, with rumors swirling about Russell returning to Los Angeles in free agency, Johnson is changing his tune.

Johnson, via Bill Oram of The Athletic:

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

This is peak Johnson – talking about players on other teams (no longer tampering), spinning the story to make himself look good and directing the Lakers’ roster without having to take responsibility for it.

There is truth to what Johnson is saying here. Russell is more mature now. It would have been difficult to keep him in a locker room with teammates who didn’t trust him.

But Johnson is also the one who moved Russell rather than betting on his talent. With the right nurturing, Russell could have become a star in Los Angeles in the first place. The Lakers wouldn’t have to use all their cap room to sign him now. They could have already had him.

It’s a little disingenuous for Johnson to present this as him being right all along.

Magic GM John Hammond: ‘We have no idea’ when Markelle Fultz will play

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Markelle Fultz has played just 33 games, the most recent one in November, since the 76ers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2017. Philadelphia traded him to the Magic in February, and he didn’t play at all for Orlando last season.

When will Fultz return?

Magic general manager John Hammond on 96.9 The Game:

He will not play in summer league with us. We didn’t think there was any way that he was going to do that. We didn’t plan on him doing that. So, probably not the place for him right now.

But overall, I can just say that he’s doing well.

He’s working extremely hard. He’s in good shape. His weight is good. His overall body-fat percentage is very good. So, if you look at him, you say, “Wow, he looks great.” So, it’s just a matter of him just continuing to get more comfortable, continuing for him to get himself in a position where he’s ready to step on the floor and help us.

And look, we have no idea when that’s going to be. We’re hoping much, much sooner than later. But once again, we’re trying to do this the best we can, and that’s have that word of patience.

We want to have patience with him and get him ready and put him on the court when he can be most productive.

Patience is probably the right approach, because I don’t know an alternative. But I’m also not sure where patience gets anyone.

Fultz’s issues run so deep. It doesn’t appear time is solving anything. Does Fultz have a long-term injury that’s actually healing? Does he have a mental block that’s actually being addressed? It’d be nice to see some signs of progress.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen in summer league. The next opportunity for Fultz to publicly display his ability will likely be training camp.

But the way this has gone, I have no expectations of Fultz being ready for that, either.

Bradley Beal: Wizards told me they won’t trade me

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The Wizards don’t have a long-term general manager.

They do have a plan for Bradley Beal.

Washington coach Scott Brooks, acting general manager Tommy Sheppard and owner Ted Leonsis have each conveyed it to the star guard.

Ben Golliver of The Washington Post:

Beal said that Leonsis, Sheppard and Coach Scott Brooks have each independently told him in recent weeks that he would not be moved.

“They’ve been very transparent and that’s been great,” Beal said. “They’re not keeping me in the dark about anything, even about the trade rumors. . . . It’s great having that peace of mind.”

Leonsis is the most important deliverer of that news. He’s the only one guaranteed to last into a new front-office regime.

But Leonsis also said last January the Wizards wouldn’t trade Otto Porter. They dealt him to the Bulls a week later.

These declarations are obviously non-binding, and Leonsis doesn’t have a great track record of sticking by his word. The owner might say John Wall aggravating his injury changed Washington’s outlook. But that’s the point. Situations change.

What happens if the Wizards are one of the NBA’s worst teams next season? That’s quite possible given their roster/cap outlook entering free agency. Would they keep Beal through a year of his prime even if playoff-bound teams are making lucrative trade offers?

And what if Beal reaches the final season of his contract? Would Washington keep him and just hope for the best in unrestricted free agency?

How long does this no-trade pledge last?

The Wizards reportedly plan to offer Beal the largest extension possible this summer. That’d be worth $111,786,897 over three years.

That’s also way less than he could get by playing out the final two years of his contract and hitting 2021 free agency. Especially if he makes an All-NBA team in 2020-21, which would make him super-max eligible. Or he could make an All-NBA team next season that would make him eligible for a super-max extension, which would be worth the same as a new super-max contract as a free agent.

Beal’s projected max contracts:

  • Extension in 2019: $111,786,897 over three years ($35,134,668 per year)
  • Super-max extension in 2020: $250 million over five years ($50 million per year)
  • Re-sign regular-max in 2021: $214 million over five years ($43 million per year)
  • Re-sign super-max in 2021: $250 million over five years ($50 million per year)
  • Leave in 2021: $159 million over four years ($40 million per year)

So, Beal will likely reject an extension this summer and wait until he makes an All-NBA team or his contract expires, whichever comes first. That’d at least be the financially prudent path.

In the meantime, he can know the Wizards say they won’t trade him – however far that assurance goes.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard meeting with Clippers set for July 2

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Kawhi Leonard will tip the balance of power this summer.

Whatever the Finals MVP decides with his free agency — stay with the Raptors, come to the Clippers, something else entirely — will change the landscape of the NBA. Wherever he goes that team will be an instant contender, with the Raptors and Clippers long having been the frontrunners and everyone else trying to get their foot in the door.

His decision likely will not drag out, but it’s not going to be LeBron James last summer “let’s do this so I can go on vacation” instant, either, if we believe this report from Frank Isola of The Athletic.

Of course, this report would be unofficial/off the record because teams cannot yet officially reach out to players or agents, and we know there is no tampering in the NBA. (Read that last sentence again in your best sarcastic voice to get the full impact.)

In Los Angeles, the Clipper hype has led to billboards.

If the Clipper meeting is July 2, in Los Angeles we presume, the question becomes when is the Toronto meeting? June 30/July 1 in Toronto, giving the Clippers the last shot? Or, are the first couple of days meetings with other teams that are longshots — Knicks, Lakers, Mavericks, etc. — just to get them out of the way.

It has long been rumored to be a two-team race for Leonard’s services. On the one hand is the chance to return home and become the leader of a 48-win Clippers team poised to be a threat for years to come if they land a superstar. (The Lakers have never been a serious consideration for Leonard, according to sources, for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say he’s not a superteam kind of guy.)

On the other hand is a Raptors team where he was given room to recover and be himself, and where he just won a ring. A city where he was fully embraced by the fans.

Also remember Leonard is at eight seasons of NBA service, meaning the max of this next contract is for 30 percent of the cap (a starting salary around $33 million next season). After two more seasons, he will have 10 years of service and be eligible for 35 percent of the cap (a starting salary of $38 million right now, and with the cap expected to go up the next couple of years it will be higher than that in reality). Despite the injury history, is Leonard willing to bet on himself and sign a two-year contract to get to the larger max, then re-sign?

The leading theory floating around the league now is Leonard signs a short deal in Toronto, then re-enters the market in a year or two. But it’s just a theory. Nobody really knows because Leonard does not tip his hand. About the only thing we seem to know his he will meet with the Clippers on July 2.