Nuggets GM Calvin Booth made two promises heading into his first offseason manning the organization.
Booth said he knew the team needed to improve defensively, and he vowed to be aggressive in the process.
He accomplished both on Wednesday, sending veterans Will Barton and Monte Morris to Washington in exchange for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith, sources confirmed to The Denver Post.
The Nuggets had been eyeing Caldwell-Pope since the trade deadline and viewed him as a defensive upgrade and a player with championship experience, sources said. The expectation, sources said, is that Denver won’t waive Smith, either.
Caldwell-Pope, who averaged 13.2 points on 39% 3-point shooting last season, has one year remaining on his deal, and the Nuggets have interest in retaining him beyond this season, a source told The Post.
With Booth running the Nuggets, Denver had a self-prescribed mandate to get better and bigger on the defensive end. Caldwell-Pope, 29, is an immediate upgrade in the backcourt over Barton.
Morris was an invaluable piece of the Nuggets roster last season as he held down the fort while Jamal Murray recovered from his ACL tear. In playing so well, and establishing new career-highs across the board, he not only proved he could handle starting point guard responsibilities but he inevitably drove up his appeal across the league.
Prior to last week’s draft, the Nuggets received calls about Morris from more than 20 teams, multiple sources told The Post.
Numerous teams saw what the Nuggets saw in Morris and viewed him as a starting-caliber guard who might not get to start once Murray returned to the starting lineup.
In moving Morris now, Booth capitalized by taking advantage of the steady guard at his highest value. Having started last season, it was unclear whether he’d be slated to start heading into this season. As Murray returned, and Bones Hyland blossomed into a reliable scoring guard, moving Morris became more palatable even if the decision was difficult for Booth and his colleagues.
Barton, with one year and $14 million left on his deal, was a different case. Pairing Morris with Barton may have been a necessity, as many teams in the NBA weren’t interested in taking on a 31-year-old with a history of core injuries. Defensively, Barton was underwhelming, which was part of the thinking in eschewing him for Caldwell-Pope.
In aggregate, the Nuggets improved at shooting guard by getting younger and better defensively, while eliminating the redundancy of Morris and Hyland. The Nuggets’ starting lineup didn’t need any more shot creators like Barton. It needed a steady two-way presence to stretch the floor and capitalize on Nikola Jokic’s gravity. In one fell swoop, the Nuggets added shooting and bolstered the defense, as was Booth’s mandate.
Few starting fives in the NBA will be able to rival Denver’s with Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Jokic.
Defensively, the Nuggets knew they needed to get Gordon some help. Now, instead of asking Gordon to guard dynamic guards, they can leave him to the bigger wings of the West, while allowing Caldwell-Pope to challenge opposing backcourts.
As painful as it was for the Nuggets to give up Morris, they likely improved their most glaring flaw in adding one more defensive stopper to a team that has designs on a championship.