NUGGETS

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will decline his option and hit the market

Jun 27, 2024, 2:29 PM

DENVER—Shams Charania was busy dropping Denver Nuggets news Thursday afternoon and the reporter confirmed what Calvin Booth had hinted at hours earlier—Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is hitting the market this summer.

Charania reported that KCP is expected to receive interest from multiple teams with salary cap space now that he’s declined a $15 million option. The Nuggets have his bird rights and can match any deal on the market but it’s up to team ownership to commit to a higher wage bill, team executives to willingly box themselves into the ramifications the higher tax brings as well as KCP wanting to call the Mile High City home longer. So the situation is unlike Bruce Brown’s from last summer where the Nuggets were boxed in, this time around Denver has options but the ultimate decision lies with KCP.

Caldwell-Pope has the final piece put into place for Denver’s “best starting five in basketball.” Booth put the group together ahead of the 2023-24 championship season and it was the rookie GM’s first big move. After just two seasons in Denver, KCP has a player option that he’s going to opt out of because his defense and shooting on the open market could fetch as much as $25 million a season. Denver would be placed in a bidding war with several other teams and starring themselves in the mirror of committing that much to the 31-year-old guard who struggled in the Nuggets last playoff series and has shown aging in the form of leg injuries. This nightmare scenario for the Nuggets could cause them to lose their perfect-fit two guard.

Caldwell-Pope played 76 games in 2023-24, averaging 10.1 points, 2.4 assists, 2.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.6 blocks on 41% shooting from deep. Denver’s defensive rating of 111.0 when KCP was on the floor was 36th-best among players who played at least 65 games and 20 minutes a night.

“I think we have to look at everything, and the nature of free agency is that he is unrestricted so we can try to bring him back but if he doesn’t want to come back or he chooses to go somewhere else, that’s his prerogative, we’ll have to work with that,” Booth said on Wednesday. “But I think we’re prepared to like, plug-and-play, so to speak. I think we look at some of the teams that have been good in the past. They have to find a way to replace fourth and fifth starters, and sixth men off the bench and still keep rolling. It’ll be nice if KCP is back they have a lot of continuity together but I think all and all the stuff I’ve looked at the lineup stuff and everything Christian Braun is one of the best net rating guys in the league as is KCP. So I think if he has to step into the starting lineup, like probably projected I think, you know, we’ll be okay if KCP doesn’t return.”

Let alone the option, based on what Booth said, it seems unlikely Denver will not ink KCP to a longer-term deal worth more money than the option.

This would leave Christian Braun as the starter. Braun has a similar defensive profile, albeit not as strong as a screen navigator, across the board but KCP is a far better shooter. The veteran has made 125 or more threes in each of his two Nuggets seasons whereas Braun is yet to make 100 triples as a pro. Braun actually went 20-straight playoff games without hitting from deep whereas KCP only didn’t hit a three in five of his 32 playoff games for the Nuggets.

In a perfect world, Braun would still be a fine sixth man with KCP would be in the lineup. The issue is the tax bill and those ramifications could prevent Denver plus the hesitation to match any deal. The question to ask now is can the Nuggets actually afford to be a contender without KCP? Most of the Nikola Jokic era has been a struggle because of perimeter defense, an issue instantly solved when Booth added KCP. And even if Bruan fills in there, he clogs the offense with his shooting struggles and the Nuggets already have one uncertain shooter from deep in Aaron Gordon. Yes, the Nuggets do have some young shooters like Julian Strawther who could take the load off Braun, but his 50-game rookie season carried a less than 30% shooting from deep.

Wherever the Nuggets go from here, the path is unpaved:

Go deeper into the tax, be shallow with KCP, and possibly shorten the back end of the title window.

Let KCP walk maybe losing the window altogether while cobbling together a big trade costing assets just to get back to where you were before.

The good news from this week is that the Nuggets finally added some frontcourt depth and it was exactly who they wanted and Jamal Murray isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will decline his option and hit the market