Nuggets GM Calvin Booth on 2024 offseason: “We can use a little bit more talent”

Nuggets GM Calvin Booth on 2024 offseason: “We can use a little bit more talent”

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As a longer-than-expected offseason tips off for the Denver Nuggets, team officials want to be sure they separate from what coach Michael Malone calls “the emotional reaction to losing” before any major decisions are made.

“I think you always want to take time to let everything sink in and go back and take a quality look at everything that happened during the season,” general manager Calvin Booth said, “and then make decisions from that point.”

As those reflections begin, Booth, Malone and team president Josh Kroenke addressed several topics during a 34-minute news conference Thursday. Chief among them: Do the Nuggets need to find a way to upgrade their roster?

It was telling that Booth focused heavily on advancing the development of Denver’s youngest players.

“I think (the 2023 draft picks) need more seasoning,” he said. “They need to get in the gym. They need to play Summer League. They need to get stronger. Obviously maybe in our top seven, we can use a little bit more talent. Maybe there’s a way to upgrade one or two positions. … Get a guy that’s a more accomplished NBA player for whatever (roster) slot they’re taking. But I don’t see anything that’s, like, crazy out of sorts for our roster.”

All indications from the extensive availability were that Denver isn’t rushing to make drastic changes to its roster. Booth doubled down on his previously stated team-building philosophy, which involves continuity achieved through drafting and developing to fill out the fringes of an expensive championship roster. He acknowledged the need to address the bench this offseason, potentially even with outside acquisitions, but it’s clear the Nuggets would prefer to rely on home-grown depth.

That Kroenke later expressed faith in the starting lineup — despite its poor showing against Minnesota — was among multiple signs that Denver isn’t rushing to shop Michael Porter Jr. as a trade piece this summer. Malone also rebutted Porter’s own comments taking blame for the early exit.

“We think we still have the best starting five in basketball, even though we fell just short this year,” Kroenke said. “Could have gone either way up until the last few minutes. So we don’t think we’re far off.”

Here’s a look at some of the other topics addressed Thursday:

Will Nuggets cross second apron to keep Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?

Booth said: “We spend a lot of time looking at the second apron and all this other stuff. I think for me personally, it’s win a championship, one. Two, we have to look at the overall financial picture. And three, second apron. And I know the second apron is daunting, and there’s all kinds of restrictions, but I don’t think that’s first on our priority list. KCP’s been a great addition the last couple years. We obviously would love to have him back. We’re gonna take a hard look at what that looks like.”

Analysis: Denver’s roster payroll already exceeds the luxury tax line and the first tax apron, resulting in a list of penalties imposed by the new collective bargaining agreement. If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope exercises his $15.4 million player or if the Nuggets re-sign him in free agency, they’ll trigger the second apron next season — meaning even more penalties. But Booth’s comment Thursday indicated that won’t be what stops Denver from retaining Caldwell-Pope.

Kroenke also said that while he’s cognizant of the long-term consequences of existence in the second apron, he’s comfortable going there to make the most of a Nikola Jokic-led roster.

Alignment between Michael Malone and Calvin Booth

Booth said: “We’ve talked about this a lot upstairs. The general manager, front office job oftentimes is to make sure the long-term view is something that we’re satisfied with. And Coach Malone’s down there in the trenches trying to win every night. And a lot of times, those things are aligned, but sometimes they ebb and flow away from each other.”

Malone said: “I’m thinking how do we win the next game? That’s my job. And Calvin as a GM is thinking about how do we win the next couple of years? That’s his job. And Josh is overseeing all that and understanding how to piece all that together.”

Analysis: When Booth and Malone made these comments, they were answering separate questions about different topics. So this has clearly been a theme within the organization in the days following the Nuggets’ second-round exit.

The franchise need its general manager and head coach to be on the same page in order to maximize all 15 roster spots during the regular season. Most of what that boils down to is Booth’s aforementioned dependence on drafting and developing against Malone’s reluctance to trust young players with extended minutes. (That’s not a tendency that’s exclusive to one NBA head coach.)

Nikola Jokic’s backup big men

Booth said: “We’ll get a great chance to evaluate Vlatko (Cancar) this summer. … If (Slovenia is) able to get out of those qualifiers in Athens, he’ll be available to play in the Olympics, and I believe he’ll be playing in those qualifiers. … Zeke (Nnaji) is a young player. He brings energy to the game. He gives effort every night. He’s trying to grow into both sides of the ball. I think originally we drafted him to be a four. He’s ended up playing a lot of five. I don’t think it matters as much off the bench, but there are certain matchups where it becomes a little bit more problematic. But he has to get better. He has to be ready for his opportunities when they come. I think he’s gonna have a good NBA career.”

Analysis: Cancar missed the entire 2023-24 season after tearing his left ACL during a national team game last summer. His contract has a $2.3 million team option this offseason. The Nuggets need affordable salaries like his, but it would be difficult to justify holding onto him if his health continued to be an issue. If he’s able to make his return in international competition (and maybe even play against Jokic or Jamal Murray in France), it’ll be a huge boost.

As for Nnaji, his four-year, $32 million contract signed last October has aged controversially due to his lack of playing time. Booth seems to prefer Nnaji as a backup four instead of a backup center to Jokic, but if that’s the case, it still leaves a roster hole at the five. (Especially if DeAndre Jordan doesn’t return.) Nnaji’s contract is tradable until it isn’t. If the Nuggets become a second-apron team, they won’t be able to aggregate salaries such as his to get back a larger AAV.

Is Christian Braun an NBA starter?

Booth said: “He obviously has the intangibles and the physical strength and athleticism and defense (to be a starter). And he’s gonna have to make some improvements, as he has, shooting the ball. But I don’t know how you could see a player in his second year that’s done what he’s done and not think he has a chance of starting. He’s ahead of schedule in that regard.”

Malone: “I think Christian Braun, it’s all gonna come down to one thing. To be a shooting guard in the NBA, you’ve gotta be able to make shots. That’s the bottom line. So if you want to simplify CB’s future as a starting two-guard in the NBA, it’ll be determined upon his ability to be a 38% or above 3-point shooter.”

Analysis: If Caldwell-Pope moves on in free agency, this is the leading applicant for Denver’s fifth-starter opening. The No. 21 overall pick in the 2022 draft, Braun was in Malone’s closing lineup for much of the Minnesota series due to his defensive prowess against Anthony Edwards. That’s an impressive notch in the 23-year-old’s arrow, on top of playing rotation minutes in the NBA Finals as a rookie.

In an ideal world, Braun would come off the bench again next season, improving Denver’s 2024-25 depth and giving him one more year to develop before making that jump to a starting role. But to Malone’s point, here’s the good news: Braun already shot 38.4% from 3-point range this season.

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