Calvin Booth’s front office career was born during the 2008-09 season while he was still wearing a Sacramento Kings jersey.
It was the final season of his 10-year playing career and Booth would only appear in eight games. Naturally, as the season wore on and his minutes decreased, Booth thought about what was next and the possibility of one day working in a front office.
So from the end of the Kings’ bench, Booth began to pay increased attention to the art of team building. Why were teams and rosters built in the way they were? What types of skill-sets and personalities mixed best on the floor? How were different franchises able to effectively surround their star with the right kind of role players?
“I had a front row seat to watch the best players in the world, learn how teams were constructed, and what worked and didn’t work,” Booth told DNVR. “It was the best education I could have asked for.”
It was during those final months of his NBA career when Booth first began to develop his vision for how to construct an NBA-championship roster.
Finishing the job
After starting his front office career as a scout with the Pelicans, Booth took a job with the Timberwolves a year later and worked his way up to Minnesota’s director of player personnel. Connelly, who was the assistant GM in New Orleans when Booth worked there, then hired him in Denver in 2017 to be his assistant GM and No. 2 executive.
As Denver grew into a championship contender, Booth grew into a highly-respected executive around the league. He interviewed for the Timberwolves general manager opening in 2019 and the Kings GM job in 2020. But Connelly’s sudden departure to Minnesota earlier this offseason placed Booth in a position he never expected to be in. Booth always figured that if he did get the opportunity to run a team, that it would be a rebuild, not a contender on the doorstep or an NBA championship.
“I never thought I’d be, you know, the steward of a team of this caliber in my very first job,” he said.
There’s a quiet confidence that Booth has carried with him into this role. It mainly comes from the fact that he was here to help lay the foundation of this roster with Connelly. He has worked alongside Michael Malone since fairly early on in the Nikola Jokic era. He has watched up close as Jamal Murray grew into an All-Star level player. He has tracked Jokic’s development from starter to All-NBA talent to back-to-back MVP. He has thoroughly analyzed what types of role players around Jokic and Denver’s big 3 work and which ones don’t.
“The hard part about where I’m at right now is we’ve done a great job. Tim and Coach Malone and Mr. K and Josh, all of our best players getting us to this point, and now you’re inside the 10-yard line and the job becomes really, really hard,” Booth said. “But on the other side, what’s really easy is I know what Coach Malone likes. I have a feeling or a vision for the kind of guys, Nikola, Jamal or Michael would like to play with, and it just happens to be in line with my philosophy anyway.”
Based on what he’s done in his first offseason running the Nuggets, Booth’s vision appears crystal clear. He entered the summer wanting to add more defensive-minded players with size to the Nuggets’ roster. He did that in his first move this summer by trading for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in exchange for Will Barton and Monte Morris. Denver also got reserve point guard Ish Smith in the deal but Caldwell-Pope was the main prize.
In the lead-up to this offseason, the Nuggets surveyed the league for available two-guards. They came away believing the 6-foot-5 Caldwell-Pope was the best available player and fit based on guards that Denver deemed gettable. Of course, there was competition for his services. In conversations prior to the trade, Caldwell-Pope’s agent Rich Paul told Booth that the Wizards’ shooting guard was in high demand around the league. Booth knew he had to act swiftly to nab him before someone else did. Many teams wanted Caldwell-Pope’s championship pedigree and high-level role player skill-set.
Bruce Brown also fit Booth’s vision for how to surround Jokic and Denver’s offensive talent. He’s a big guard at 6-foot-4 with a 6-9 wingspan who’s a high-level defender. Booth believes he can play point guard, shooting guard and small forward in some lineups. I’d look for the Nuggets to use Brown similarly to how Denver deployed PJ Dozier last season as a versatile ball handler who can play with a multitude of lineups and players.
“He was right at the top of our list,” Booth told DNVR of Brown. “He was the guy for us.”
Brown was coveted around the NBA, but Denver was able to nab him for the taxpayer mid-level exception. I asked Brown in Las Vegas this week if he turned down more money to sign with the Nuggets and play with Jokic. He didn’t come out and say he did, but Brown didn’t give the greatest poker face either.
Booth’s other free agent addition, DeAndre Jordan, led to some backlash. Jordan bounced between the Lakers and 76ers last season and appeared in 48 games. By December he was out of the Lakers’ rotation. After signing with the 76ers in March, he stuck with Philadelphia’s bench unit during the regular season but lost his rotation spot to second-year backup big Paul Reed in the playoffs.
From what I can tell, here was Denver’s thinking in bringing in Jordan: The Nuggets thoroughly surveyed the market — let’s not pretend that these deals and signings aren’t decided before free agency begins — and liked some of the intangibles that Jordan brought to the table. Jordan is a culture guy and well-liked throughout NBA locker rooms, which was a big selling point for Denver. I don’t know how many other true backup centers were willing to come to Denver and play a small role behind Jokic on a minimum contract either. Maybe most importantly, he’s a rim roller. That’s something Denver wanted to prioritize in a backup center. I think the Nuggets will also aim to play Jeff Green at backup center, which is his best position, throughout the season too.
Those three moves, but the Caldwell-Pope and Brown acquisitions in particular, shaped Booth’s first offseason at the Nuggets’ helm.
Drafting the future
Booth was never a star throughout his playing career. The self-described journeyman filled a lot of different roles as he bounced between seven teams during his 12 years in the NBA.
He was drafted 35th overall by the Wizards in 1999. Two years later, Booth signed a six-year contract with Seattle and started 40 of 133 games over the next three seasons. His career-high 24-points came in a 2001 win over Dallas where Booth shot a perfect 12-12 from the free-throw line. In 2004, Booth recorded a career-high 10 blocks in only 17 minutes against the Cavaliers and a 19-year-old rookie named LeBron James.
His shining moment as a pro came in Game 5 of the 2001 playoffs. Booth made the game-winning layup with 9.8 seconds remaining to give the Dallas Mavericks a 3-2 series lead over Utah Jazz. It would be the Mavs’ first playoff series win since 1988.
Booth’s varied background as a role player has given him a unique perspective on scouting and roster building. He has seen what works and what doesn’t in this league. He has watched role players come and go. He has seen highly-regarded prospects bust and unheralded, under-the-radar draft picks go on to have storied careers. He knows the work ethic, attitude and day-in-day-out approach that’s needed to make it in this league.
Booth is highly, highly respected within the Nuggets and around the NBA as a scout. Prior to Connelly leaving Denver, Booth was already leading weekly Zoom calls with the Nuggets’ front office where staffers discussed and debated players and prospects. He has been running the Nuggets’ day-to-day for at least the last year.
“He’s the best talent evaluator I have ever been around,” one high-ranking NBA scout told DNVR.
In Booth’s two first-round draft picks this summer, you saw his roster-building philosophy on full display. In Christian Braun, Booth nabbed someone in the draft who he believes has an incredibly high floor but can also develop into an upper-level role player. At 6-foot-7, Braun fits Booth’s vision as both a bigger guard and one who’s defensive-minded. I don’t think you’ll see the Nuggets under Booth’s guidance bring in a smaller guard who doesn’t defend. It just doesn’t fit his vision.
Braun’s skill-set and intangibles will eventually complement Jokic and Denver’s high-volume scorers, maybe as soon as this coming season. Booth believes that Braun’s motor, competitive spirit and fearlessness will lead him to having a long NBA career. The Nuggets inquired about trading up into the lottery on draft night but a deal never came to fruition. In the end, they were more than OK betting on Braun.
Booth is as thorough as they come in the lead-up to the draft, and he used all the information at his disposal to select Peyton Watson 30th overall. Watson barely played as a freshman at UCLA after joining a loaded roster that returned all five starters and 10 players total from last year’s Final 4 team. But the five-star recruit did have moments throughout the season where he flashed upside, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Booth was also in attendance when Watson scored a season-high 19 points on 9-12 shooting in an early-season win over Bellarmine.
The Nuggets’ front office did their due diligence on Watson’s background too. Booth came away impressed with his passion for the game and drive. It was an all-encompassing scouting process where Denver had to look at the full picture when it came to the 6-foot-8 small forward with a 7-1 wingspan.
“I think you need all aspects of information when evaluating players, but I think sometimes people overlook certain things,” Booth told DNVR. “If I was only data-driven on the Peyton Watson decision, I don’t know if I would have taken him. But my experience as an NBA player and seeing guys like that and seeing how other players respond to that guy on the floor is all part of our discourse in the room.”
Learning the role, and the MVP
Booth arrived back in Denver at the start of free agency after a quick trip to Sombor, Serbia. There he broke bread with the back-to-back MVP who’s enjoying his offseason back home alongside his family and friends.
The two kept their conversation light. Over dinner, Booth discussed his plans for the roster with Jokic, but they also spoke about life and topics outside of basketball. The offseason gives Jokic time to disconnect from the NBA world and be surrounded by his close circle, his family and his horses during the summer months. It’s something that Booth, who’s a family man himself, and the Nuggets respect and honor.
“One thing I can appreciate about Nikola is his ability to be present and enjoy where he’s at,” Booth said. “That’s a special skill to be able to have. He can rest, recuperate, recharge and then get ready to make another run at it.”
It was Booth’s first time to Sombor and the check-in with Jokic is a responsibility that now falls on his shoulders as the Nuggets’ top basketball executive. It’s one that he’s more than happy to take on. Booth loves talking shop with anyone, whether that’s the best basketball player on the planet or the last guy on his roster. That’s just who he is.
Booth will sit for hours, like he did over the last week in Las Vegas, and just watch basketball. He’s addicted to the sport. It doesn’t matter the level of the prospect he’s watching or the magnitude of the game, Booth is always jonesing for more hoop. Any level, any venue, any stage, Booth’s burning desire to learn more about a player or the game never stops.
That passion and humility helped Booth get to this point in his career. His dedication to his craft and the respect he’s garnered from his peers led to Josh Kroenke entrusting him after Connelly left the organization in May.
“You have to be at the right place at the right time to get a job like this, obviously,” Booth told DNVR. “Being in this position, I’m lucky. We all make mistakes from time to time but you always try to correct them on the fly and go back and see why they were made so you don’t make them again.”
It’s an opportunity that Booth doesn’t take lightly. Booth feels a responsibility to steer the Nuggets towards a championship and maximize Jokic’s prime. He knows the expectations that are riding on this season. It’s why he entered the summer with such an aggressive mindset.
He saw an opportunity to improve this roster with his vision and took it.
“We have a two-time MVP,” Booth said. “And we feel like we’ve surrounded him with the pieces that should put us in position to win a championship next season.”