Long overlooked, often doubted, the Minnesota Timberwolves made a statement Monday.
The Timberwolves signed Denver Nuggets president Tim Connelly to a major deal that will make him one of the most well-compensated executives in the league, immediately becoming a defining maneuver of the new-look ownership group†
The deal is a five-year, $40 million contract plus a kicker for equity, multiple sources told The Athletic, a rare package for an executive. Connelly met with Timberwolves minority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez in recent days and then flew to Minnesota on Saturday to meet majority owner Glen Taylor for the final step toward becoming the new president of basketball operations for the Wolves.
Connelly took almost two full days to deliberate, then accepted the offer on Monday in a landmark move for a franchise that has routinely been overlooked on the NBA landscape. Coming off its first playoff appearance in four seasons and with building blocks Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards on the roster, the Wolves made an aggressive move to lure one of the top executives in the league away from a division rival.
“My family and I couldn’t be more excited to join the Timberwolves organization,” Connelly said in a statement issued by the team. “I appreciate Glen, Becky, Marc and Alex’s confidence in me to lead this organization, and I can’t wait to get to work to build an elite franchise that our fans can continue to be proud of.”
Under Connelly’s leadership, the Nuggets have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, including the Western Conference finals in 2020. He drafted Nikola Jokić in the second round and hired coach Michael Malone in 2015, saw Jokić blossom into a two-time MVP and built a deep roster around him that included draft hits Jamal Murray, Monte Morris, Bones Hyland and Michael Porter Jr.
That eye for talent and development, coupled with a reputation as being an outgoing and gregarious leader, piqued the interest of Lore and Rodriguez. They got things started in the negotiations, showing an urgency to build on the success the Timberwolves had in their first season in the ownership group. Within 12 hours of their initial meeting with Connelly, they presented him with an offer to let him know they were serious about moving forward. The next step was getting final approval from Taylor.
Throughout the first year of Lore’s and Rodriguez’s tenure as co-owners with the Timberwolves, Taylor has shown significant desire to elevate the franchise’s stature. Taylor, Lore and Rodriguez worked hand-in-hand toward the completion of Connelly’s deal, culminating in a four-hour meeting on Saturday at Taylor’s home in Mankato, about a 90-minute drive from Minneapolis. Connelly, his wife, Negah, and two young children met with Taylor, his wife, Becky, CEO Ethan Casson and COO Ryan Tanke to get a feel for each other and get the final go-ahead, sources said.
“This is such an important hire for the organization and our fans. We are confident that Tim’s leadership will be a major part of our continued growth and future success,” Casson said in the statement.
The new contract more than doubles his salary with the Nuggets, sources said, and the equity component is a unique structure within the NBA that potentially makes the deal far more lucrative. Lore and Rodriguez, the partners who plan on succeeding Taylor as majority owners in 2023, knew the Timberwolves had to push hard to offer a compensation package that would get Connelly to leave a city he loves, an ownership group he trusts and a team he built over the last nine years into a potential Western Conference contender next season.
Lore and Rodriguez have been determined to change the narrative around the Timberwolves and inject some energy into a team that hasn’t spent much time on the national radar. One of their first initiatives, dating back to their arrival last summer, was to ensure they had a top flight lead executive for the president of basketball operations.
Taylor wants to make sure his final years in control of the team have the best chance to be successful, so he made the request with Nuggets ownership to speak to Connelly several weeks ago. Connelly traveled to Serbia to present Jokić with his MVP trophy, but once he got back and engaged with Lore and Rodriguez, things got rolling.
Connelly has a strong connection to Denver and to the organization, particularly to team president and chairman Josh Kroenke, son of owner Stan Kroenke. His fingerprints are all over the roster and the coaching staff, and that loyalty made the decision to leave an exceedingly difficult one, sources said. He spent much of Saturday and all day Sunday with his family contemplating the move before ultimately signing off on leaving a team he joined in 2013 after Masai Ujiri left for Toronto.
As the Nuggets emerged as contenders — a label that was compromised this season only by injuries to Murray and Porter — Connelly established himself as one of the most respected and well-liked front office leaders in the league. He got his start in the NBA as a basketball operations intern for the Washington Wizards in 1996 and worked his way up through the scouting ranks before joining the front office with the New Orleans Hornets in 2010.
A scout through and through, Connelly has a reputation for being a top-flight talent evaluator, having drafted Murray, Porter, Jusuf Nurkic, Malik Beasley, Gary Harris and Hyland in the first round and Jokić, Morris and Jarred Vanderbilt in the second round . There have been misses, of course, including Emmanuel Mudiay and Tyler Lydon. But he has helped build the Nuggets into a deep roster that was able to weather injuries to two of their top players and still finish with a 48-34 record, good for sixth in the West. They lost to Golden State in the first round of the playoffs.
There are reasons beyond financial for him to be optimistic about the situation in Minnesota. Connelly will be taking over a team with two stars in Towns and Edwards, promising young players in Jaden McDaniels and Vanderbilt and a top-notch coach in Chris Finch, who spent one season working with Connelly in Denver as an assistant on Malone’s staff. D’Angelo Russell had a strong season before struggling in the playoffs and Patrick Beverley asserted himself as a tough, veteran leader for a young group.
Wolves assistant coach Micah Nori also spent time in Denver, so there is some level of familiarity as Connelly prepares to move to a new organization. The Wolves also have the 19th pick in the first round and three second-round picks in the upcoming draft, giving Connelly some ammunition to select players or to use in trades.
The front office is fully stocked, including Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta, who ran the department for the last season after Gersson Rosas was fired just days before training camp in September. Gupta was in the running for the top job and sources say he remains a part of their long-term vision for the franchise.
“Connelly will work closely with Timberwolves executive vice president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta, as well as head coach Chris Finch, whom Connelly worked with in Denver during the 2016-17 season,” the team said in a statement.
Finally, and not to be undersold, Connelly is coming to a team with a fan base that is building after this season’s playoff run and an ownership group that is proving to be eager to invest and build on the success that happened at Target Center this season . In signing off on the significant package, Taylor is signaling that he wants to do whatever it takes to make his last few years steering the ship as successful as possible and Lore and Rodriguez are showing that they can deliver on promises made.
Lore and Rodriguez had a visible presence all season long, attending games, meeting with corporate sponsors and engaging with rank-and-file employees to see what areas needed to be addressed. The push to make a big hire in the front office may not seem like a novel idea on its face, but it is a guiding principle of Lore’s “Vision, Capital, People” mantra. Identify the top talent, and pay whatever it takes to make it happen. That means that, from the moment they arrived and even before Rosas was fired, Lore and Rodriguez were already starting to consider if they could find a better, more accomplished leader of their basketball operations.
Along the way, they explored many avenues, including Ujiri, Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti and Philadelphia’s Elton Brand, who declined an interview with them last fall. When Gupta was elevated to lead decision-maker after Rosas was fired, ownership said they would evaluate him throughout the season and then make a decision.
Gupta was empowered to make moves even after the season ended while the Wolves explored their options. He decided not to bring back assistant general manager Gianluca Pascucci, who ran the draft and the Iowa G League team, and hired Memphis Grizzlies executive Steve Senior as a new assistant GM in charge of player development.
Through the process, there was some curiosity as to whether the Wolves could really pull this off. Lore and Rodriguez were out front early, but they still only own 20 percent of the team. Would Taylor, who has a history of sticking with the people he likes and developed a strong working relationship with Gupta over the past year, indulge their preferences?
Taylor does have a history of paying executives, and structuring deals in a unique manner, when he believes it will make a difference. He gave the late Flip Saunders a small slice of ownership stake when he returned as the team’s top executive in 2013. He paid Tom Thibodeau roughly $7 million per year starting in 2016 to be the coach and president of basketball operations, an ill-fated marriage that lasted just two and a half seasons.
Now he’s stepping up again. He has grown fond of Lore and Rodriguez for their ambition and their energy and trusted their recommendation when they made it, even though he never had met Connelly before Saturday. The face-to-face at his home is an important part of the Taylor process when making big decisions. Meeting the whole Connelly family helped the Taylors to establish a connection, sources said. For four hours they discussed the fit, the vision and just life in general, building on the conversations Connelly had with Lore and Rodriguez.
Hiring Connelly can be characterized as one of the biggest, most aggressive moves this franchise has made in a long time. Throughout the last season, as word spread of Lore and Rodriguez’s desire to hire a star, it was met with broad skepticism. Who would want to come to Minnesota? Are they really going to be willing to pay up? Will Taylor really sign off on it?
Closing the deal on Monday, luring a rival executive who is in charge of a Western Conference power with a superstar player, serves as an emphatic yes to all three questions. Lore and Rodriguez have not been bashful about their plans to change how this franchise is viewed. And this move provides tangible evidence that they deliver on their bold proclamations.
Connelly will be joining a diverse front office in Minnesota. Gupta is Indian American, Senior and assistant GM Joe Branch are Black, as are Chief Experience Officer Marquise Watts, who was hired away from Klutch Sports in March, Vice President of Sports Science and Performance Javair Gillet and Director of Analytics Aaron Blackshear.
There will be questions to answer as well. Typically, when a new president is hired, he has the freedom to make as many changes as he wants to in order to assemble a team around him that adheres to his philosophy. But Finch just signed a contract extension before the playoffs began, ownership would like Gupta, who is popular within the walls at Mayo Clinic Square, to remain on board and Senior was just added to the front office staff on a three-year deal.
Finch publicly stumped for Gupta at the end of the season, but Finch has a good relationship with Connelly and has spoken with him and ownership during the process.
Connelly will be expected to hire some of his own people, but he has a reputation for working well with others and likely will spend significant time evaluating the staff he inherits before making any major changes.
(Photo of Tim Connelly: Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)