The Nuggets confusing trade that shipped off two starters might be good

Jun 29, 2022, 2:48 PM

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope...

Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets traded away their longest-tenured member and a fan favorite on Wednesday for role players.

In what was a confusing trade in several aspects we’ll get into, the objective was clear: upgrade on defense. In a trade that is a bit of a microcosm for the Nuggets offseason, they went into this summer with the need for wing defenders that can shoot threes. Denver needed to upgrade to a more defense-oriented two-guard who could be the point of attack defender on the league’s best guards.

The Nuggets think they got that guy in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from the Wizards. They also added backup point guard Ish Smith in the deal that sent out Will Barton and Monte Morris.

Let’s start with what Denver acquired. I listed KCP a month ago in a story about the Nuggets top trade targets for this offseason. He was listed, traded for, and liked by the Nuggets for so long because of his strong defense and ability to space the floor on offense.

KCP is a clear upgrade for the Nuggets at shooting guard and is a better fit with a fully healthy team than Will Barton. He’s played in many postseason games and is a winning player, staying on the floor an average of 31 minutes a game in the playoffs in his career.

In 2021-22 KCP averaged 13.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.1 steals per night in 30 minutes of action a game. Due to make $14 million this season, the 29-year-old is on the last season of a three-year deal.

Most importantly, let’s focus on his guarding. Last season he was in the 95th percentile of the league in steals per 75 possession, 91st percentile in on-ball perimeter defense, 88th percentile in loose ball pickups, and 80th percentile in deflections per 75 possession. He has Barton beat on all but one of those stats.

KCP was sent to Washington last summer for Russell Westbrook. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound shooting guard won a title with LA in the bubble. Over the past three seasons, KCP has shot 39.5% from three on four-and-a-half shots a game. Last season KCP shot 42% off of catch-and-shoot (85th percentile in the league) and 45% from the corner (79th percentile.) He’s also very durable, having twice played all 82 games, and over his nine seasons, he’s played more than 67 games in each year.

The Nuggets also added Ish Smith, who they say they will not waive. He’s a fine third-string point guard soon to suit up for his record-breaking 13th NBA team. Smith has played in 719 NBA games, mainly as a reserve, where the 34-year-old averaged 7.6 points and 3.9 assists per game. A career 32.5% shooter from deep, the 6-footer is not a straight Morris replacement. The Nuggets already have Bones Hyland to backup a healthy Jamal Murray or slide into KCP’s two spot for a more offensive look. Smith and two-way contract signee Collin Gillespie will likely battle for the third-string guard spot, a role the Nuggets have needed in the past few years.

What Denver had to ship to the DMV might be a tough pill to swallow for many. For starters, Morris and Barton played nearly a combined 800 games, including the postseason, while in Denver. Each player started over 70 games last season, with Morris stepping up for the injured Murray.

Morris, 27, had already played the sixth-most playoff games in Nuggets history. Big Game Tae was only set to make $18.5 million over the next two seasons, and many around the NBA were interested in the steady point guard. He has been one of the best assist-to-turnover rate players in the league, and he shoots at a 39.4% clip for his career from three.

A Nuggets second-round pick from Iowa State, Morris has been a critical player for four seasons. Giving him away is a real loss, but one the Nuggets feel they can bare with Murray and Bones.

Barton, 31, was in the final year of a contract he signed last summer. The eight-year-long Nuggets guard/forward scored 14.7 points per game last season on 44% shooting and 37% from deep. The scoring 6-foot-5 former Memphis Tiger struggled to assume a more significant role with both Murray and Michael Porter Jr. out. With them healthy, he’s a tough fit since his role requires more defense, and he’s an offensive-focused player.

The writing has been on the wall, with Barton needing to go for a long time. From bad in-game decisions to fighting teammates on the sideline, some things started to sour with Barton, who was beloved for a long time. That’s why many teams around the league viewed him as unfavorable. Which doesn’t make a ton of sense given there’s value in an expiring deal, it’s not all that much money, and he still nearly scored 15 points a game last season.

Either way, the Nugget bid farewell to two starters for one, and that one player is probably better than either of the players they gave away—but it’s close. And there’s no doubt the Wizards got more talent than the Nuggets in this trade.

This part is confusing, given how coveted Morris seemed to be. On top of that, this is the second Nuggets trade in a week that clears salary, raising questions about the seriousness of Josh Kroenke’s championship speak.

The Nuggets roster is incomplete; they have four spots to fill, and how they fill them will better reflect on this trade. Still, the trade is likely the most significant single swing of Denver’s offseason. KCP is an upgrade and fills a clear need, but the clearing of critical depth by a team who had two max contract players miss the entire season last year is scary. Did the Nuggets really need to move Morris for KCP? Will Denver follow through on its speak of spending into the tax? These questions raise confusion on a trade that should end up being a positive one for the Nuggets—especially come playoff time.



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