Denver Nuggets: Pressure is on for a Championship-winning season

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David Zalubowski/AP Photo
Fans walk through the team logo illuminating the floor of Ball Arena before the Denver Nuggets host the Phoenix Suns in the first half of Game 4 of an NBA second-round playoff series Sunday, June 13, 2021, in Denver.

KSE vice chairman Josh Kroenke said Friday the Denver Nuggets are entering a “championship or bust” chapter that will be guided by general manager Calvin Booth following the recent departure of executive Tim Connelly to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“We're entering a new phase of the organization, and with this squad in particular, which is: it's championship or bust. And this is the first time those words have been uttered around these halls, I think," Kroenke said.

Fulfilling that promise depends on the returns of Jamal Murray (knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (back) to the court alongside star Nikola Jokic, who led the Nuggets to a 48-win season without his fellow star players last season.

“We have a two-time MVP, we have two more All-Star-caliber players coming off injuries," Kroenke said. "And I think that we are poised in a way that perhaps this organization hasn't been in the past.

“And that excites me. But that brings a lot of pressure. We’re no longer the underdog that’s kind of the lovable guys that are bouncing along from Denver, Colorado. I think that when we get healthy and show what we’re capable of we will have a target on our back.”

In a wide-ranging 33-minute news conference — his first since 2015 — Kroenke said both the Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche will get new training facilities as part of a massive redevelopment plan near Ball Arena.

Kroenke also said he frets over the impact on young fans from a nearly three-year local television blackout of Nuggets and Avalanche games stemming from a dispute with the state's largest cable company.

Altitude TV — a Stan Kroenke-owned independent regional sports network — has been in a long-running dispute with Comcast, the state’s largest cable provider, which has not carried Altitude since their previous deal expired in 2019.

Kroenke also congratulated Connelly, who recently left to serve as the Timberwolves president of basketball operations after nine years in the same role in Denver.

Connelly's deal is reportedly worth $40 million over five years and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor confirmed it includes bonuses for team performance.

Kroenke said he made a competitive offer to keep Connelly.

“The term ‘equity’ was getting thrown around. I didn’t necessarily know what that meant. That can mean a lot of different things in the world of business,” Kroekne said. "But from the very start, he said, ‘Hey, if there’s some sort of equity upside, I really need to take a look at this for my family.’ And I said, 'OK.'

“Tim was under contract, the offer kind of came in through the side door, as they always seem to do in the NBA. And so once those type of numbers start getting thrown around and get into someone’s head, it becomes very difficult to contain. I felt that we made a very competitive offer that would have allowed him to feel good about staying in Denver, and ultimately he felt that some of the upside there on the back end through some of the bonus schemes were probably too good to pass up for his family.”

The news conference was originally scheduled for more than a week ago following Connelly's departure, but Kroenke said he contracted food poisoning and then COVID-19. He said he finally tested negative for the virus Thursday, allowing him to attend the Avalanche's 4-0 win over Edmonton in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup conference finals.

Booth will take over Connelly's duties in Denver, although Kroenke said he'll step in and help with the transition.

“I've always thought very highly of Calvin, I think he’s going to do a wonderful job for us,” Kroenke said. “I’ve had some great conversations with Coach (Michael) Malone in the wake of Tim’s departure of exchanged messages with Nikola and Jamal. I think everybody’s very excited. They’re obviously sad to see him go but very excited for the future.”

Kroenke was among several members of the organization who flew to Sombor, Serbia, last month to award Jokic his second MVP trophy, and Kroenke said he's planning a return trip this summer to present Jokic with a supermax contract.

That extension is projected to be $241 million, the largest contract in NBA history.

Kroenke also said he had no regrets over extending Porter with a five-year, $172 million deal prior to last season, when Porter played just nine games before requiring another back operation.

“I'd say we're concerned about his injuries, not concerned about the contract,” Kroenke said.