The front office executive has more important matters to evaluate than his star player’s Kia MVP chances. But after collecting two of those trophies already, can Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic join Larry Bird (1984-86), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68) and Bill Russell (1961-63) as the lone NBA players to win three consecutive regular-season MVP awards?
“I don’t think he has expectations about getting a third MVP,” Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth told NBA.com. “But he holds himself to a high standard as do we. We know he’ll perform somewhere along the numbers he’s had the last couple of the seasons.”
In other words, the Nuggets expect Jokic to perform in the 2022-23 season the same way he did in his other MVP-winning seasons in 2020-21 (26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game on 56.6% shooting) and in 2021-22 (27.1 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 7.9 apg on 58.3% shooting). Denver may ramp up Jokic’s workload in its preseason finale against the Golden State Warriors on Friday (10 ET, ESPN2) after playing limited minutes in two exhibitions.
My favorite moment had to be seeing a local band perform the ‘Nikola Jokic song.’ He’s friends with a local band that is popular there and performs at parties. We went out to a restaurant and saw them.”
— Nuggets GM Calvin Booth, on visiting Nikola Jokic in Serbia
Still, Booth sounded aware that the team’s success goes beyond Jokic. The Nuggets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Golden State Warriors amid injuries to Jamal Murray (left ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (back). Booth talked to NBA.com about numerous topics, including those three players, the team’s offseason moves and becoming the lead basketball executive after Tim Connelly became the Minnesota Timberwolves’ President of Basketball Operations.
Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: What do you think were the key factors that secured Nikola Jokic to a long-term extension this summer?
“We’re very excited that he did that. It’s not a given he would. His market would always be high any time he decides to be a free agent. We’re very fortunate to have him as part of our team. It started with Josh Kroenke, Tim Connelly and coach Michael Malone building a relationship with him and making him comfortable. Now, he’s seen what we’ve done with him and the success we’ve had. When Tim left for Minnesota, Nikola was still comfortable with the direction I wanted to take the team in.
What were the highlights of your visit to Serbia to see Jokic?
I got to see him at his home and in his element with celebrating the success he’s had. It was nice to see him relax in that environment and hear his insights about basketball and life. He has one of the highest basketball IQs I’ve encountered. My favorite moment had to be seeing a local band perform the ‘Nikola Jokic song.’ He’s friends with a local band that is popular there and performs at parties. We went out to a restaurant and saw them.
Malone has called on Nikola to be a more vocal leader this season. How do you look at that?
He’s trying to grow into that naturally. There is a balance of him being who he is. He’s often led by example, but his words and opinions hold plenty of weight with our guys. The more he’s willing to speak out, the better it will be for our team because he has everybody’s respect.
What is your outlook on Jokic winning a third consecutive MVP?
I don’t think he ever goes into a season thinking about winning the MVP. He wants to play the best he can and wants the team to do the best it can. Whatever happens out of that is great. I don’t think he has expectations about getting a third MVP, but he holds himself to a high standard, as do we. We know he’ll perform somewhere along the numbers he’s had the last couple of the seasons.
How is Jamal’s health after returning from his ACL injury and recently injuring his left hamstring?
I see him ahead of where he’s been in past years when he was healthy. With his preparation and how much he’s played compared to past summers, he put much more time in getting out on the floor because he wanted to be ready to come back. He looks a little bit sharper. Once the regular season starts, maybe he won’t have the slow starts that he typically has. I think he’ll be more ready to start. We’ll see the Jamal Murray we’ve all come to expect. He’s a guy that will score 20 points or more, have a great impact on the game and be unselfish. Hopefully he can perform at a level where he gets recognition that he deserves with All-Star consideration.
What jumped out to you on how Jamal navigated through his injury and rehab?
Devastation was the initial feeling he had. Up until that point, he had been a relative Iron Man. No one was used to him missing a lot of games. This time, this wasn’t something he could tough out and play through. He had to have surgery and be out. He understood where he was at with his body and how to work with our performance staff. Our basketball ops and coaching staff were fine with him taking time to come back. That was huge for him. When you see him playing now, he’s not thinking about anything. He’s going out there and playing how he usually plays. I don’t think he would’ve been able to play like that in the playoffs [last season]. In the summer, he started playing with our guys and doing shooting workouts. He was really locked in.
How would you answer those same health and performance questions relating to Michael Porter Jr.?
A lot of the same answers. Everyone talks about Mike’s shooting and the balance between him taking a tough shot and moving the ball. But what I don’t think is talked about enough is how much he loves to play basketball and how tough he is. It would’ve been very easy for him to sit out in the Phoenix series [in the 2021 playoffs] and say that his back is hurt. But he toughed it out. He was in positions that made him didn’t look good, but he never complained about it. We have to look out for Mike. If his back is bothering him at all, we have to err on the side of resting him instead of letting him tough out through situations.
Will Mike undergo any load management or restrictions this season?
No restrictions up to this point. But if he has a little back tightness or soreness, maybe he should sit out that night instead of trying to play through it.
How did you adjust to Connelly’s departure to the Timberwolves?
The best way I can ease the transition is to be myself. Tim is one of the best executives in the league. But I just leaned on my overall basketball experience as an executive and player. I never thought I’d be in a position with a team that is this good. If I were to ever [be] a No. 1 person, I thought it would be more of a rebuilding situation. There was an adjustment in that sense. But when you have a great coach and great cornerstones to build around with Malone, Nikola, Jamal and Aaron [Gordon], it makes things a little bit easier.
What does it mean to you that the Nuggets then signed you to a multi-year extension?
Josh [Kroenke] has been very supportive the whole time. With the way the transition was handled, I felt like they were comfortable with the way the things were going and wanted to reward me with an extension. I was very appreciative of it.
We have signed General Manager Calvin Booth to a multi-year contract extension! 🔒
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) October 2, 2022
During the offseason, you made a few moves through trades (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ish Smith), free-agent signings (Bruce Brown, DeAndre Jordan) and the Draft (Christian Braun at No. 21; Peyton Watson at No. 30). What needs do they address?
We wanted to be more athletic, be better on defense and have more two-way guys. We felt we accomplished that. With KCP, we have one of the best 3-and-D guys in the league, someone with championship experience and a proven vet. Bruce was one of the most underrated guys in the league last season. We’re finding that out every day in the game with how sophisticated of a game he has. Christian and Peyton will eventually address those needs. We valued DeAndre’s vet leadership and the way he communicates. He’s one of the best rebounders of his generation, and he can still do that. Ish Smith has been a great addition as well and brings different levels of speed and pace to the game.
How has Malone handled the group and collaborated with you?
He is a basketball lifer. All of these things are fairly easy for him. He was very supportive with a lot of things that I wanted to get done. I was very appreciative of that. He’s trying to feel the team out, see how to deploy the guys we acquired and how to get the team to become the highest version of itself.
You’ve been involved in the NBA for a while as a former player (1999-2009) and in the Nuggets’ front office (assistant GM from 2017-20, GM from 2020-present). But philosophically what does it mean both to be one of the 11 Black NBA general managers and to maintain longevity? (The NBA had 11 Black GMs in the 2020-21 season and seven Black GMs at the start of the 2019-20 season)
It means a lot. We’re representing every single player and every minority that wants to be in a high-ranking executive position. The responsibility is not lost on me, so I try to do the best I can and prepare the best I can. I acknowledge it, but then I just try to do the best job to my ability.
Where do you see the Nuggets fitting in with the rest of the Western Conference field this season?
We have a high upside. Best case scenario, we can play deep into the season. When you get to that point, anything can happen. We’ll give ourselves a chance by doing the right things every day during the regular season.
Beyond health, what will determine the Nuggets’ title chances?
Guys being able to take leaps in situations they had not been in beforehand. We made the Western Conference finals in 2020, but KCP is the only guy that has made the Finals. Once you get to that point, there will be teams with plenty of experience. Are we overwhelmed by it? Or can we focus and play our game? Outside of health, that’s one of the biggest obstacles with how we handle the success we have. The early returns on the camaraderie, chemistry and willingness to spent time with each other off the court will pay dividends down the line.
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