The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Tim Connelly opts to stay in Denver, Wizards return to square one

Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly is staying in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Over the weekend, the Washington Wizards came close to finding a new president of basketball operations, one to guide the team through a challenging rebuilding phase. But after being unexpectedly turned down Monday, the franchise remains in the same position it has been for the past seven weeks: without a permanent basketball leader.

Tim Connelly, who had been the leading candidate to take over the Wizards’ job, chose to remain with the Denver Nuggets after declining a late-weekend offer from Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. Washington has no immediate plans to switch course and offer a deal to one of the three remaining candidates: Danny Ferry, Tommy Sheppard and Troy Weaver.

Since the April 2 dismissal of Ernie Grunfeld, Connelly’s name has been linked to the Wizards. After weeks of speculation, Connelly met with Leonsis on Friday.

As the president of the Nuggets’ basketball operations, Connelly did not wish to formally interview with the Wizards. He did not visit Capital One Arena or the team’s practice facility in Southeast Washington, several people with details of the meeting said, instead discussing the opening at Leonsis’s residence.

The talk Friday remained informal to the point that Leonsis did not extend a contract offer, according to three people with knowledge of the meeting, though the two sides departed with a mutual understanding that the job could be Connelly’s if he wanted it. On Sunday, the Wizards reached out with a contract offer, though the terms have not been disclosed.

Those who know Connelly said that leaving Denver would be no easy choice. Though Connelly loves his birthplace of Baltimore — a fact that many NBA insiders believed would propel the Roland Park native toward the Wizards — he has developed an affinity for his adopted hometown since he joined the Nuggets in 2013.

“Denver is great. Greatest owner in the world. Fantastic. The city, when we moved, it was starting to take off,” Connelly said in a March 29 interview with The Washington Post, days before Grunfeld was dismissed and Connelly was linked to the Wizards.

“As we started to recalibrate our roster, we thought our team could be reflective of the city as a whole, kind of quirky, open-minded, progressive,” Connelly continued. “Because of a lot of luck, as the city has grown [into a] hugely popular city, fastest-growing city in the country, our team has gotten our sea legs and drawn back in the die-hards we lost in the down years and has brought in a whole new level of transplant fans, people who moved to Denver who have bought into the team."

Connelly still had motivation to return to the franchise that gave him his professional start — he was an intern with Washington in 1996 before being hired full time in 1999. The team’s offer, however, was not tempting enough to draw Connelly from Denver. Connelly, according to one ally, would have left only for a contract of five years and an annual salary north of $4 million.

Connelly decided to finish what he started building in Denver: a team with one of the youngest rosters in the league, the second-best record in the Western Conference and an all-star in Nikola Jokic. Connelly also wished to continue his working relationship with Nuggets President Josh Kroenke, with whom he was in “constant communication” via text message and phone calls all weekend, according to a person familiar with Denver’s side.

While they have yet to formally agree to a new contract, Kroenke told Connelly that he was “willing to do what it takes to keep you,” said a person with details of the communication. If Connelly had left, the Nuggets were planning to turn over the franchise to General Manager Arturas Karnisovas and felt confident doing so, but they are “thrilled” and “breathing a sigh of relief” that it didn’t come to that, according to a person who shared details of Denver’s thinking.

By passing on the Wizards, Connelly leaves behind the looming specter of a complete rebuild and the puzzle of running a franchise with impossible-to-move salaries already on the books.

Washington has only six players signed for the 2019-20 season, including John Wall, who is expected to miss most or all of the season while rehabilitating his left Achilles’ tendon. The Wizards can add another player with the ninth overall pick in the NBA draft June 20, but they have limited financial flexibility to find impactful free agents to pair with all-star Bradley Beal. The team already has about $90 million tied up in those six players, a group that includes two traditional centers in Dwight Howard and Ian Mahinmi.

The next president also will be tasked with reshaping a team culture that lacked player accountability under Grunfeld, who was fired after 16 years in the top position.

The Wizards’ search process will continue, and the team is not expected to make an immediate decision about Ferry, Sheppard or Weaver, according to a person familiar with the team’s plans. Therefore, the candidates, who all have some connection with the city and team, remain in a holding pattern.

Weaver, the Oklahoma City Thunder vice president, and Ferry, a longtime executive whose father served as general manager of the Washington Bullets, conducted second interviews last week. Sheppard, who took over the team’s day-to-day operations on an interim basis after Grunfeld’s dismissal, was in Chicago for the NBA draft combine last week before traveling this past weekend to scout international prospects.

Ben Golliver contributed to this report.

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