Pro basketball fans in Baltimore might feel a bit removed from the NBA playoffs, which began over the weekend.
The team that used to represent the city, the Bullets, moved away 35 years ago. The team they became in Washington, eventually renamed the Wizards, won just 32 games this season, out of playoff contention early.
Yet there is a team — albeit one located more than 1,600 miles away — that has more than a few ties to Baltimore.
And after Saturday night’s 101-96 defeat at home to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of their first-round series, the Denver Nuggets might need all the fans they can muster. Game 2 is Tuesday night in Denver.
“I have people always tell me that they’re rooting for us just because of the Baltimore ties we have,” Will Barton said last week. “I feel that the more success we have, the more fans we will have back home.”
Along with Barton, the former Lake Clifton star who’s now in his fourth year in Denver after spending his first four NBA seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Baltimore’s connection to the Nuggets can be found in their front office and coaching staff.
Tim Connelly, in his sixth year as the team’s general manager and vice president for basketball operations, was a 1994 graduate of Towson Catholic High.
Michael Malone, in his fourth season as Denver’s coach, played four years at Loyola Maryland (1989 to 1993) and began his coaching career at the Friends School.
And Wes Unseld Jr., a member of Malone’s coaching staff since 2015-16 and his top assistant the past two seasons, played at Johns Hopkins after growing up around his Hall of Fame father’s adopted hometown.
All have played a major role in Denver’s steady rise from a Western Conference bottom feeder into the No. 2 seed in the West. This marks the team’s first playoff appearance since 2013.
Maryland sophomore center Bruno Fernando and junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. announced Monday that they will make themselves eligible for the NBA draft, but both are leaving the door open for a possible return to College Park next season.
Only the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors had a better record in the West.
“I think all of those struggles and near-misses have helped us this year and helped our young guys understand how hard to play, and how every game matters,” Connelly, 42, said recently.
Compared with other Western Conference heavyweights — particularly the Warriors, but also the No. 4 seed Houston Rockets because of their backcourt — the Nuggets are a fairly anonymous bunch.
Center Nikola Jokic, a 24-year-old Serbian who is the only player in the NBA this season aside from LeBron James to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists, became the first Nugget to be selected to the All-Star Game since Chauncey Billups in 2010.
With the exception of Barton, who starts at small forward, and veteran power forward Paul Millsap, the key members of the rotation are largely homegrown.
Jokic was a second-round pick (No. 41 overall) in 2014. Shooting guard Gary Harris came in a draft-night trade in 2014 after being picked in the first round by the Chicago Bulls. Starting point guard Jamal Murray and backup shooting guard Malik Beasley each came in the first round in 2016.
Brothers Tim Connelly (Denver Nuggets), Pat Connelly (Phoenix Suns), Joe Connelly (Washington Wizards) and Dan Connelly (Utah Jazz) grew up in Baltimore's Roland Park neighborhood and now work for NBA franchises.
“We struggled several years ago trying to find an identity,” Connelly said. “It started with Coach Malone and his staff developing some of the young players, most obvious being Nikola Jokic. We found an identity on which to build upon.
“We are very fortunate to have a patient ownership group that didn’t want us to skip steps. That’s often the hardest thing when you start to win games. You make win-now moves and oftentimes you make moves that are not sustainable.”
“We’ve got our own style of play, we’ve got a lot of different guys from a lot of different backgrounds and play different styles of basketball, and I think that’s what makes us good,” said Barton, who missed the first half of the season with a torn adductor muscle.
“You’ve got Jokic with the European style of play, myself from Baltimore, and I just hoop. Gary always makes the right play and plays the right way. So does Paul. Jamal is the wild card who makes big shots and things like that. I just feel like we have a well-balanced mix of different things.”
Connelly said when the Nuggets played the Wizards — for whom he worked before going to New Orleans and eventually Denver — several of his high school teammates and his former high school coach came to Capital One Arena.
“How I view the game, it’s all based on Baltimore,” Connelly said. "I’ve been lucky to have a lot of great influences, learn from really smart people smarter than myself, but I’ve been able to develop a pretty wide world view of the game, but it all started in Baltimore.”
What the Nuggets don’t have much of is playoff experience.
Going into Game 1 against the seventh-seeded Spurs on Saturday night, Denver’s entire roster had barely more playoff experience (121 total games) than two Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan (116 combined). (San Antonio has its own connection to Baltimore in veteran forward Rudy Gay, who played at Archbishop Spalding.)
The son of former NBA and college coach Brendan Malone, the 47-year-old Malone is coaching in his first playoff series. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich is coaching the Spurs in the playoffs for the record-tying 22nd straight season, with 278 games (168 wins) and four NBA titles.
Malone jokingly told reporters in Denver before Saturday’s opener that a coaching matchup between he and Popovich — for whom he worked as an assistant from 2011 to 2013 before becoming head coach of the Sacramento Kings — is “a Mike Tyson knockout.”
It was more a TKO, with the Spurs taking the lead late in the first quarter and never relinquishing it.
Barton got a little playoff experience early in his career in Portland and understands what’s in store.
“Obviously it’s going to be more intense,” he said. ”It’s going to feel like every play matters, every shot matters, every little thing. But at the end of the day, you can’t get lost in it. It’s still basketball. That’ll never change. As long as you come out with the right mindset, ready to compete, everything will take care of itself.”
Said Unseld: “I think it’s dramatically different, from the pace of play to the way it’s officiated. Then you start to see the star players stand out. … It’s a star league and those guys seem to elevate their play in those big moments.”
The Nuggets have lost their past five playoff series dating to their last appearance in the conference finals in 2009, and 12 of 14 going back to their historic upset of the No. 1-seeded Seattle SuperSonics as the No. 8 seed in 1994.
Unseld was a freshman that year at John Hopkins, and rooting for the Nuggets because their team president and general manager, Bernie Bickerstaff, was a close friend of his father.
“It’s funny, very few people have made mention to that [playoff series],” the younger Unseld said last week. “I think a lot of young guys on this team probably don’t even know.”
Barton said the team’s success the past two years at home — the Nuggets had the league’s best home record (34-7) this season and the fourth best (31-10) a year ago when they won 46 games — has a lot to do with its passionate fan base.
“I feel they’re ready for it, they've been behind it all year,” Barton said. “They’ve been patient with us in the four years I’ve been here and I feel like it’s time. They really get behind us. It’s all coming together at the right time. I hope we can keep growing together.”