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Signing key players among top priorities for Nuggets

Fifth year for missing playoffs brings end to trying season

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Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly says contract extensions for center Nikola Jokic and guard Will Barton are among his offseason priorities and he hinted coach Michael Malone might be in line for one, too.

The Nuggets have increased their win totals from 30 to 40 to 46 under Malone but they extended their playoff drought to five years when they lost in overtime at Minnesota in the season finale earlier this month.

“This is the most confident I've been in our core group since I've been here,” said Connelly, who's been in his post in Denver since 2013. “I think we have the makings of a team that can enjoy sustainably high levels of success.

“I think there's going to be some pretty interesting financial decisions we'll make this offseason.”

Jokic was drafted in the second round in 2014 and signed a three-year, $4 million deal a year later. The Nuggets have a $1.6 million fourth-year option, which they can decline this summer and instead give Jokic a max contract.

While that would crimp their budget next season, it would keep their star away from free agency.

“He's a guy that's been tremendous in how quickly he's developed and a guy that we love and he loves Denver. So, the sooner we can get his signature on a long-term contract, the better,” Connelly said April 13.

Connelly also lauded the versatile Barton's growth, and said: “We hope we can get something done. He's our guy. We love him and I think if he's back in a Denver jersey, it's good for both him and the team.”

Malone has a year left on his original four-year deal he signed in 2015. Although he wouldn't commit to an extension for his coach this summer, Connelly made it clear how he feels about Malone and his staff, suggesting it would be foolhardy to view a 46-win season as a disappointment or a fire-able offense.

“I think Coach and his staff have done a wonderful job,” Connelly said. “We've got to continue to challenge each other. We've got to get better. This press conference is premature. We can't keep having it after the regular season.”

In praising Malone, Connelly cited his 16-game improvement over two years and the development of the team's core young players, emphasizing the difficulty in coaching a young team.

The Nuggets played better than any team in the West over the last dozen games and took a six-game winning streak into the season finale against the Timberwolves. That marked the first time in franchise history that the Nuggets had posted six straight wins against teams with winning records.

Yet, their inability to close out a seventh straight victory left them lamenting a dozen or so games they frittered away during a trying season in which free agent addition Paul Millsap missed 44 games and second-leading scorer Gary Harris missed 11.

“I thought 46 wins would have us firmly in the playoffs, in a pretty good spot,” Connelly said. “I'm certainly disappointed we didn't make it. ... But as I reflect on the season and the growth that we've shown, I'm unbelievably proud of our team.”

Yet, he's also running low on patience.

“I thought we had extended stretches of very good basketball. I think at times we had games that were inexcusable, and those games come back to haunt you,” Connelly said.

Echoing Malone, Connelly said this season was never a “playoffs-or-bust” undertaking, but next season certainly will have that feel.

“I think we're there,” Connelly said. “How many times can you be the bridesmaid?”

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