WASHINGTON — 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 on Monday, the franchise remains in the same position it has been for the last 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 refusing 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 or 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. 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 Wizards’ opening at Leonsis’s residence.
The talk on 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 desired. On Sunday, the Wizards reached out with a contract offer, though terms are not yet known.
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 Maryland native toward the Wizards — he has developed an affinity for his adopted hometown since coming to 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’s dismissal or before 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 which gave him his professional start — in 1996, he was an intern in Washington 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 only left for a contract of five years and an annual salary north of $4 million.
Connelly decided to finish what he started in Denver: a team with one of the youngest rosters in the league and 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 team president and governor 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 Artūras Karnišovas 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 next year while rehabilitating his left Achilles’ tendon. The Wizards can add another player with the ninth overall pick in the June 20 NBA draft, but they have limited financial flexibility to find impactful free agents to pair with all-star Bradley Beal. The team already has approximately $90 million tied up in those six players, which includes two traditional centers in Dwight Howard and Ian Mahinmi.
Even more, the next president will be tasked in reshaping the team’s culture that had lacked player accountability under Grunfeld, who was fired after 16 years in the top position.
With Connelly off the list, the Wizards will shift to previous candidates. This return to center, however, does not mean that a hire is imminent.
The Wizards’ search process will continue and the team is not expected to make an immediate decision about Ferry, Sheppard and 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 position.
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 last weekend to scout international prospects.