Storyline: Nuggets Front Office

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With the Nuggets, Karnisovas has helped construct a roster of players who combine a specific physical profile, versatile skill set and intangibles such as drive and selflessness. He continues to relish the bonds he’s built in a job he estimates is 80 percent human interaction. And, naturally, Denver’s current group is filled with international flavor. Point guard Jamal Murray and reserve forward Trey Lyles were born in Canada. Two-way wing Torrey Craig was discovered playing professionally in Australia. And the Serbian Nikola Jokic has blossomed from a relatively unknown second-round pick into one of the most versatile big men in the game. “Arturas was the one who was wanting it more for me to come here, so it’s kind of cool,” Jokic said. “He’s European, and he knows how European basketball (works). He played with some Serbian players. He knows our mentality. Of course he can help me a lot, just adapting to the basketball (in the NBA).”

These days, Connelly jokes that Karnisovas should wear a white lab coat to work because of his affinity for structure, organization and preparation. A visit to his office confirms that mentality. The wall behind his desk is filled with a color-coded grid featuring every player on every roster in the NBA, including those on two-way contracts. “We have a lot of similar friends and experiences, but I can be all over the place,” Connelly said. “I think, collectively, we do a good job of helping each other and kind of keeping each other in check and challenging each other.”

If you take Murray’s averages from Dec. 1 to the end of the season (60 games), they were All-Star worthy numbers: 17.8 points, 45.9 percent shooting, 41.3 percent from the 3-point line, 90.1 percent from the free throw line, 3.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists per game. Murray had a team-leading plus-minus of plus-9.7 in April. And to think, he began training camp in a battle for the starting point guard spot. He ended it as the unquestioned starter, a player vital to any success the Nuggets were having, and a player the Nuggets view as a core player going forward. “He is a guy that likes to be challenged,” said Nuggets president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly. “I think he is a guy that has a chance to be special.”

The tough aspect of Jokic being himself on the offensive end of the floor is that it is both necessary and a gamble. For as talented as Jokic is, his aggressiveness can waver from time to time — especially as a scorer. While no one knows exactly why Jokic’s aggressiveness can come and go, one anonymous member of the Nuggets’ front office told Mile High Sports that he thinks that maybe Jokic’s issue is that playing offense is just a bit too easy for him.

Jared Jeffries, the former Nuggets scouting director and ex-Knicks forward, told The Post that Emmanuel Mudiay desperately needed out of Denver before his entire career was shot. “I know how tough it was for [general manager] Tim [Connelly] and [owner] Josh [Kroenke] to let him go,’’ Jeffries told The Post in a phone interview. “They did the right thing for the kid. They could’ve held on to him to the point of no return and ruin his career. It’s really good the Knicks trusted what they believed at draft time and got him for a discount. If he’s on top of the world and playing great, you’re not going to get him for that.”

In an appearance on The Woj Pod, hosted by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Nuggets’ president of basketball operations Tim Connelly shed some light on his decision to trade Nurkic and why the 23-year-old wound up in Rip City. “We had well-publicized issues as Nikola started to take off. Juka (Jusuf), who’s a great kid, was struggling with his new role,” Connelly rehashed. “It was no secret league-wide. We thought a guy like Mason with his ability to play with and without Nikola with his physicality, with his team-first approach, might be a good fit.”

Connelly continued about how there was surprisingly very little interest in Nurkic across the league when he started making trade calls. Certainly its been fantastic for Juka to have that starting opportunity. He played great. I don’t think anyone ever questioned his talent or skill-set and we’re extremely happy to have Mason but there are very few calls you can make or take where it’s ‘you know we have too many small forwards and you have got a good power forward’ or ‘this guy’s a good player’ and that part’s frustrating in that regard. During the Nurkic conversations, kind of realizing a change of scenery would be good for both the player and the team, how few willing partners there were even teams on paper at least ‘hey we think this guy’s a starting center. He’s proven to be such.’

Chris Dempsey‏: #Nuggets president and governor Josh Kroenke on what he likes about the current state of his team. “Just the overall development — internally, externally, front office, coaching staff, roster. I think everybody is getting better across the board, which is really what your organization wants at the end of the day. Yeah, we had a couple of tough years. But my message to Tim and Arturas through those times was make the most of those opportunities. And with a subpar record comes a high draft pick, and I think that our guys have done basically as well as anyone else in the NBA in drafting, particularly in the last three years. I think you’ll see a lot of our own draft picks dotted throughout our roster, and some of those guys are contributing heavily. As long as we’re drafting well you put yourself in a position to succeed because you’re creating valuable assets out of thin air. And I think that’s what our guys have done.”

The NBA draft, the first for Karnisovas with the title of Nuggets general manager, was only three days away. And though he portrayed a deep sense of calm early Monday as he prepared to help put the finishing touches on Denver’s draft plan, the competitive fire of a man with a literal world of basketball experience over three decades bubbled just below the surface. “I enjoy the draft. I enjoy the adrenaline,” said the 46-year-old Karnisovas, who was promoted to general manager last week after four years as the franchise’s assistant GM. “There are some who dread that, but I enjoy it. The draft is the culmination, the end product of all you’re doing to get to know a player, his character. … My favorite part is when you pick a player and you see him have success.”

“Tim and Arturas’ incredible work ethic, eye for talent, and integrity over the past several years has done nothing but give our organization confidence in our future and these promotions are a direct reflection of that belief,” stated Kroenke. “Continuity is one of the more underappreciated traits of championship level organizations, and we couldn’t be more excited for our group to continue to work together towards the goal of bringing Denver its first NBA title. While we acknowledge we still have lots of hard work ahead, the strides we have made on and off the basketball court are starting to reflect the culture that we believe can take us to a special place. With Tim and Arturas continuing their tireless efforts, a promising young team, and plenty of salary cap flexibility, we hope our fans are as excited as we are about the future of Denver Nuggets basketball.”

Chris Dempsey‏: GM Arturas Karnisovas on being happy to stay in Denver with the #Nuggets: “I’m extremely happy. Sometimes people are like ‘(Arturas), are you happy?’ It’s just my demeanor. But I’m the kind of guy that if we start something I’d like to see it through. I’m a competitive person as well, and would like to see the Denver Nuggets being successful. A lack of success the last couple of years has been bothering all of us. But again, we need to be patient.”

GM Tim Connelly and his staff came on board in 2013, but there has to be something in the DNA of the Nuggets organization that has allowed the team to identify quality foreign players that other teams have missed. It’s even more impressive when you consider how interconnected the world of basketball has become since the turn of the century, when the Spurs drafted Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. “It’s hard to find a guy somewhere that nobody knows,” said Arturas Karnisovas, the Nuggets assistant GM. “These days, with social media, it’s hard to miss a guy.”

A general manager can have a player’s entire career on his laptop in a matter of seconds. The problems teams had with international scouting in the last generation have inverted. Instead of having too little information, now there’s too much. If the draft is all about finding needles in a haystack, there’s more hay than ever before. “Your list of contacts in each region has to be profound because players nowadays are coming from anywhere,” Karnisovas said. “You have to know people, from coaches to GMs to agents. You have to be familiar with all the layers.”

The biggest advantage the Nuggets have is the familiarity of their front office with the international game. Connelly was a longtime international scout, and Karnisovas was one of the greatest players in European history before starting a career in management. They still travel overseas regularly, but their man on the ground in Europe these days is Rafal Juc, a 24-year-old from Poland who has quickly made a name for himself in the industry. “Rafal is the most popular man in Europe. He’s really well connected around the continent,” said Elan Vinokurov, the president and owner of EV Hoops, a scouting and consulting service used by NBA teams. “He has established himself at a young age. When he talks about a player, you sit up and take notice.”

The Nuggets are likely to get back into the D-League business next season, according to league sources. But nothing has been decided or is imminent. Right now, the Nuggets are not affiliated with a team but can assign players to a D-League team connected to another NBA team. It has been seven years since the Nuggets last had a D-League team all to themselves. Those were the Colorado 14ers, a team that relocated to Frisco, Texas, in 2009 and became the Texas Legends. The Legends are affiliated with the Dallas Mavericks and are coached by former Nugget Eduardo Najera.
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July 19, 2018 | 7:03 pm EDT Update