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What’s next for Nuggets after losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?


What’s next for Nuggets after losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?

For the past few weeks, the Denver Nuggets have been bracing for the possibility of losing starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. As the days got closer to Sunday’s start of free agency, those fears inside the organization turned into acceptance and resignation. The Nuggets knew, even though it made what they felt to be a competitive offer, that Caldwell-Pope was likely to leave.

That likelihood turned into reality during the first hour of free agency as Caldwell-Pope agreed to a three-year deal with the Orlando Magic, making the Magic stronger while weakening the Nuggets. It marks the second consecutive offseason the Nuggets have lost a key piece from the team that won the 2023 NBA championship.

The Nuggets need to figure out a way to replace what Caldwell-Pope brought to the roster on and off the court. It won’t be easy in either aspect.

Below is a breakdown of the challenges the Nuggets face and what they can do next.

Why is this loss so substantial?

The Nuggets didn’t become championship competitive until they started stopping people at the point of attack on defense. And they didn’t become demons on defense until they brought in Caldwell-Pope. Defenders such as Caldwell-Pope were able to help mitigate Nikola Jokić’s lack of rim protection.

Caldwell-Pope, while being one of the best perimeter defenders in all of basketball, also hit 41.5 percent of his 3-pointers in his two seasons in Denver and he made a habit of hitting big shots.

He proved to be a good fit in Denver’s offensive scheme because he moved so well without the basketball. He took advantage of his opportunities and never hijacked the offense while maintaining terrific chemistry with Jokić and Jamal Murray.

His value in the locker room was almost as great, if not even greater. He provided a voice of competitive calm. After winning the 2020 title in the NBA bubble with the Lakers, he brought with him a championship pedigree and spoke often about what it was like to win at the highest level. He was the only player on the Nuggets roster who experienced a title before 2023. He translated that experience to his teammates.

Caldwell-Pope often took on difficult perimeter assignments, so Murray wouldn’t have to tax himself defensively. He is the very definition of a veteran who wore many hats and allowed more celebrated teammates to thrive. As a result, his presence won’t be easily replaced.

Why did this happen?

The Nuggets made a competitive offer but the new rules and penalties brought by the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement hurt Denver in this instance. Had the Nuggets retained Caldwell-Pope, they would likely have gone into the second tax apron, which would severely limit how a team can construct a roster. Here is what happens if you are a team in the second apron:

  • No access to any mid-level exception in free agency.
  • Can’t aggregate contracts in trades
  • Can’t send cash in trades
  • Can’t sign and trade your own player
  • Can’t trade a first-round pick seven years in the future, and that pick falls to the bottom of the first round if the team is also above the second apron in two of the ensuing four years

Denver made a competitive offer to Caldwell-Pope, but when the race is a tie, you essentially have a 50 percent chance of losing that race. The Nuggets ended up losing the race. It also should be noted that even if Denver had been able to keep Caldwell-Pope, the Nuggets likely would be in the same boat next summer with Aaron Gordon.

In losing Caldwell-Pope, the Nuggets now have access to the $5.18 million taxpayer midlevel exception. They likely aren’t finding a starter with that kind of money. But they can find a rotation player with that. That leads us to …

How does Denver replace Caldwell-Pope?

The Nuggets are exploring the trade market and canvassing free agency. Yet, if the Nuggets’ roster largely stays the same, Christian Braun is in line for a big jump in playing time and responsibility. Elevating Braun to the starting lineup could be a mixed bag. Braun is bigger and more athletic than Caldwell-Pope. He’s a similar defender, and a tough, competitive player. He’s a much better player in transition than Caldwell-Pope.

But he’s not nearly the same level of shooter. He’s also not as good a creator off the dribble and creating off the bounce wasn’t Caldwell-Pope’s strength.

There is a question as to whether or not the Nuggets give Julian Strawther a chance at starting, and keep Braun as the sixth man, but playing Braun 30-plus minutes a game. Strawther is a terrific shooter. The former first-round pick out of Gonzaga is long and rangy for a shooting guard at 6 foot 7. He’s more creative off the dribble than given credit. His presence helps offensively and helps the spacing of the offense.

However, Strawther isn’t a great defender and he must get better.

Peyton Watson also is in line for an uptick in minutes, although he is likely to come off the bench, no matter what happens.

What do Nuggets need?

Internal development will aid the Nuggets here. They need Strawther, Hunter Tyson and Jalen Pickett to come back as better players, because, with the trade of Reggie Jackson to Charlotte, the Nuggets now no longer have a backup point guard. The Nuggets will need to find one in the coming days. Denver needs a lead from Braun and Strawther. The Nuggets need Michael Porter Jr. to continue to improve what he does as well.

This is the reality of the new collective bargaining agreement. Teams are going to have to spend wisely and choose wisely. It becomes more difficult to maintain a championship-level core, and Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth knows that.

Losing Brown last year and Caldwell-Pope now is difficult. It puts an onus on the Nuggets to hit on most roster moves. Denver is in the middle of Jokić’s prime and wants to maximize a winning window. It’s going to require more creativity than ever to get that done.

Are the Nuggets done as title contenders?

No. Not as long as Jokić is in his prime, and not as long as Murray can stay upright and healthy. No matter what happens the rest of the offseason, Denver is a prime threat to come out of the Western Conference and win a title. But they probably aren’t the best team or the second-best team in the league. They aren’t title favorites, but it’s unfair to strip them of the label of title contenders.

What does that mean? The Dallas Mavericks were contenders to get out of the Western Conference, not favorites. They caught fire and played well at the right time. They encountered some favorable matchups and they made the NBA Finals. Barring a major upgrade in the coming days, that’s probably where Denver is heading into next season. The Nuggets will win 50-plus games, provided they stay healthy. They will garner a high playoff seed. From there, it will be a battle for them.

It’s not an insurmountable place to be, just a more difficult place to be.

Required reading

Robbins: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope intends to sign 3-year, $66 million deal with Magic
NBA free agency 2024: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leads top available shooting guards

(Photo of Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post)

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