NUGGETS

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope departs Nuggets for Magic

Jun 30, 2024, 5:28 PM | Updated: Jul 1, 2024, 2:46 pm

The best starting five in basketball is no more as the Denver Nuggets have lost Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Orlando Magic in free agency, as the shooting guard agreed to a three-year, $66 million deal on Sunday, according to USA Today. The move was the first major signing in the NBA of this year’s free agency.

Caldwell-Pope had many suitors with not only the Nuggets interested in bringing him back but the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks all known to be sniffing around. As was true when the Nuggets first added KCP, each team was interested in a championship-winning shooting guard with all-defensive team skills and a strong shot. The 31-year-old has played 835 regular season games and another 62 in the playoffs, where he’s helped his teams to two banners.

Caldwell-Pope was the last piece put in place to the Nuggets championship roster, acquired in a major trade that moved long-tenured players Monte Morris and Will Barton to Washington. KCP immediately improved Denver’s defense and answered the team’s long issues with smaller shifty guards. Caldwell-Pope was also a firey three-point shooter at a Mile High, hitting 42% of his deep balls. Getting KCP has been the most important move of Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth’s time on the job thus far. Booth got the gig and soon thereafter made the deal. While Denver did reach a goal of getting their first title ever, Booth’s mind was on a dynasty around Nikola Jokic, which will be a challenge now that the Nuggets have lost such a key player.

In 2023-24, 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. But Denver was obviously apprehensive about their money circumstances and committing that much to a veteran guard who struggled in the Nuggets last playoff series and has shown aging in the form of leg injuries. Unlike Bruce Brown’s situation from last summer where the Nuggets were boxed in, this summer Denver had the option to go higher than any other offer KCP got but the ultimate decision was with the two-guard. If the Nuggets had matched though, they would’ve faced the highly restrictive second apron supertax that would’ve limited Booth’s options heavily once bringing back KCP. This nightmare scenario has led the Nuggets to lose their perfect-fit two-guard. Now without him, the team has more flexibility to add depth around the roster but lacks a high-caliber three-and-d wing to start alongside Jamal Murray.

“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,” Booth said on Wednesday. “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.”

This leaves Christian Braun as the likely starter for the Nuggets. Braun has a similar defensive profile across the board, albeit not as strong as a screen navigator, 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 and the Nuggets would be able to flip Zeke Nnaji’s contract with another asset for another shooting guard. If they’re able to do this or use their mid-level exception on a more veteran option that player along with Bruan and Julian Strawther will likely make up the Nuggets shooting guard rotation. Braun has the defense and Strawther, in theory, has the shooting, though his 50-game rookie season carried a less than 30% shooting from deep. Denver still has holes behind Murray at second-string point guard and has a question at second-string center between Nnaji, then just-drafted DaRon Holmes II and veteran DeAndre Jordan.

Meanwhile KCP joins a young team that just finished fourth in the east last season. He joins first-round pick and former Buffs star Tristan da Silva as the team’s biggest adds under coach and former CU player Jamahl Mosley. The team is on the rise led by Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs and KCP will be a veteran in the locker room who will play a lot..

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