May 25, 2024

Familiarity between Timberwolves and Nuggets could breed the NBA’s next great rivalry

Rivalries can only be forged when the fire burns hottest. For years now, the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves have been circling that fire, each run-in seemingly throwing another shovel full of coal into the furnace.

Over the last six years, the temperature has gradually increased, starting in 2018 when the Timberwolves beat the Nuggets in a win-and-you’re-in Game 82 to snap a 13-season playoff drought. Denver returned the favor last spring, beating the Wolves in the first round of the playoffs en route to its first NBA championship.

In between those two high-stakes matchups, a peculiar cross-pollination has occurred. Two years ago, the Timberwolves surprised the NBA by luring Tim Connelly away from the Nuggets to be their new president of basketball operations. He joined an organization that already had head coach Chris Finch and assistant coach Micah Nori, both of whom previously worked under Michael Malone in Denver. This season, Connelly acquired Monte Morris, once a popular Nuggets role player, in a deal with the Detroit Pistons in February.

To replace Connelly at the top of the front office, the Nuggets elevated Calvin Booth, who was hired in 2017 from … Minnesota. Malone also has two former Timberwolves coaches, Ryan Saunders and David Adelman, on his staff.

All of that familiarity, including the four games per season they play against each other in the regular season as Northwest Division foes, should make for one of the purest second-round matchups in the playoffs. The two sides know each other too well for any tricks or gimmicks to work when the series opens in Denver on Saturday.

Connelly drafted or traded for many of the players who took the Nuggets to the title. He hired Malone and Booth. Nori used to carpool with Malone to and from the Denver airport and remains tight with Nuggets star Nikola Jokić.

On the other side, Saunders coached many of the players who have led the Wolves’ renaissance this season, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards.

“I think it’ll add a little additional competitive spice to it, but I know both teams respect the entire building, which I think is well-deserved,” Connelly said.

The similarities don’t stop with personnel. Both franchises are located in mid-sized markets that are not traditionally hotbeds for free agents. Both know what it feels like to struggle. When Minnesota swept Phoenix in the first round, it was just the second time in the 35-year history of the franchise that the Wolves moved on to the second round.

The Nuggets went nine straight seasons without winning a first-round series, including five consecutive in which they didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

“We see them four times a year. We saw them in the playoffs last year,” Nuggets star Jamal Murray said. “We know what they like to do, and they know what we like to do. I think the series will be decided on who can do a better job of taking away the strengths of the other team.”

Even though the Nuggets won a title last season and the Wolves have been the talk of the league with a rising star in Edwards, there is a humility to both organizations about the unpredictability of what can happen next.

They both know what it’s like to be overlooked in the league discourse and they both know exactly what their opponent likes to do.

“We know each other very well,” Nuggets point guard Reggie Jackson said. “We both know our strengths and weaknesses and what we like to do. It’s a unique challenge. Minnesota’s a division rival. We saw them in the playoffs last year and we are going to see them this year. We’ve kind of watched them grow into what they are now, and it’s been fun to see how far they have come. It’s going to be a fun series, and we are looking forward to the challenge.”

There doesn’t appear to be much animosity between the two teams — yet. Towns, Jokić and Wolves center Rudy Gobert were all Northwest rivals earlier in their careers, but Jokić has developed into the league’s best player over the last four seasons and has the undying respect of both Towns and Gobert.

“They have the championship pedigree,” Towns said. “They’ve got guys who, almost all of them, have been there, winning a championship with them.” 

These are two largely organically grown teams. The four best players in the series — Edwards and Towns for the Wolves and Jokić and Murray for the Nuggets — were all drafted and developed by their respective teams. Both teams supplemented that core by making smart and game-changing trades around their respective frontcourts — the Gobert trade for Minnesota and the Aaron Gordon trade in Denver.

Both teams drafted small forwards, Michael Porter Jr. and Jaden McDaniels, who were maligned in their pre-draft process, but who are now significant talents. And both teams made smart moves on the edges of their roster, which have gotten them both to this point.

When he decided to leave Denver two years ago, Connelly knew he wouldn’t be able to avoid the Nuggets. He was staying within the Western Conference and the division, so the meetings were going to be plentiful. But two playoff meetings in his first two years on the job? It has sent some conflicting feelings shivering through his body.

Connelly and his wife, Negah, spent nine years in Denver. Two of their three children were born there. Connelly is a social person by nature and still has close friends in the organization and the community. Last year during their playoff matchup, he hosted some Nuggets folks at his house in the Minneapolis suburbs between Games 3 and 4.

Michael Malone (left) and Tim Connelly worked together in Denver. (Garrett W. Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)

When he took over the front office in Denver, the Nuggets were a non-factor in the West. So he takes great pride in being a part of building them into a champion, work that was buttressed by Booth making a few savvy draft picks and deft free-agent signings to catapult the Nuggets over the top last season.

“It’s kind of neat to see all these familiar faces and whatever happens, I think either side is gonna be happy for whoever,” Connelly said.

How long all the warm and fuzzy feelings last remains to be seen. This matchup is one of the most highly anticipated of the second round. The Lakers and Warriors are out, meaning no LeBron James and no Steph Curry, the NBA’s most marketable players. In their absence, Edwards and Jokić are ready to fill the star void. It’s a series that should aid the league’s pursuit of developing the next generation of faces.

Jokić is the favorite to win his third MVP award in the last four seasons. Edwards has been thrust into the spotlight by a dominant and dynamic performance against the Suns.

In ascending the way they have, the Nuggets and Timberwolves are providing a blueprint for how to build an NBA franchise in the current climate of the new collective bargaining agreement.

If the previous era of NBA basketball was defined by making the big trade for a superstar or the big free agent signing, this promises to be defined by organic growth and the need for front offices to be prudent and smart with the moves they make, big and small.

“Denver is the best team in the world,” Connelly said. “We’re playing the best team in the league and the defending champs, so it’ll be a great test for us just to see how we can have emotional control, which I thought was excellent in the first series, and game plan discipline.”

For years, Gobert’s length and athleticism gave Jokić issues. And then in the NBA bubble in Florida, when Gobert was still with the Utah Jazz, Jokić figured out Gobert and where he could attack him.

The Wolves have tried to at least make it tough on Jokić by guarding him with Towns and using Gobert as the low man and rim protector, cheating off of Gordon to help, should their defensive shell break down. Expect to see more of the same early in this series.

“It’s awesome getting a chance to compete against the best, and especially guys who have been some of the best offensive players we’ve ever seen,” said Towns, who guarded Kevin Durant in the first series against Phoenix.

Jokić eviscerates almost any player put in front of him. The Timberwolves have typically tried to take away his superior passing to slow down Murray, Porter Jr. and the rest of Jokic’s supporting cast. Jokić averaged nine assists per game during the regular season but just 4.4 in four games against the Wolves.

Of course, it is easy to say it and much harder to follow through against a player of Jokić’s size and processing ability. He always seems to be one or two steps ahead of the competition. Maybe Minnesota is equipped to handle that thanks to all the battles the Wolves have had with the Nuggets leading them up to this one.

They know what’s coming. Jokić and the Nuggets know what’s coming.

“We know how they’re going to guard us,” Nori said. “We know how they’re going to guard them. It’s more than anything I guess down the stretch of games: What do they like to go to here and there?”

Connelly and some other former Nuggets staff members who followed him to Minnesota were actively involved in the game planning for last year’s series. With Finch needing surgery this week to address a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, that perspective becomes even more important.

“Look, you’re trying to rip their head off for 48 minutes and then whoever wins or loses you try to stay clear for half an hour, then you’re back to being friends,” Connelly said.

Deep in his heart, Connelly likely knew that the Wolves were overmatched last playoffs against the eventual champs. The Towns-Gobert pairing was disjointed because of injury issues and Edwards had not yet figured out how to combat aggressive double-teams.

This time around feels different. The Timberwolves (56-26) finished just one game behind the Nuggets and appear to be ready to compete against the champs.

Before the season, Connelly told anyone who would listen that this was the year the Wolves had to break through and win a series for the first time since 2004. Now that they have done that, Connelly wants to see more. He helped build one Western Conference power. Now he’s trying to do it again.

“I think we’re a contender now,” he said. “We have to believe it. We’re entering the second round with an unblemished playoff record. This room certainly thinks we’re a contender.”

(Top photo of Micah Nori and Nikola Jokić: Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)