The Long Two: 76ers, Nuggets upgrade on the perimeter

Denver Nuggets, NBA, Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers and Nuggets have each shaken up their guard rotations on the trade market. Will De’Anthony Melton and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope unlock better versions of their new teams?

NBA Draft night featured almost no player movement on the trade market, but the 76ers’ acquisition of De’Anthony Melton was the kind of marginal addition that could go a long way for a team hoping to contend for an NBA title.

A late first-round pick (which the Grizzlies used on David Roddy) and mostly dead salary (in the form of the injured Danny Green) was a fairly low price to pay for Melton, and it’s not surprising that the Sixers jumped at the chance to acquire him. (Daryl Morey drafted Melton as the Rockets’ general manager in 2018 before dealing him to Phoenix as part of a salary dump, and Melton is the kind of rangy, undervalued perimeter player for whom Morey has always had an eye.)

De’Anthony Melton is the kind of two-way connector who could help the 76ers thrive

If stars are the bricks with which NBA teams are built, players like Melton are the mortar, fitting cleanly into gaps, connecting other pieces and smoothing over rough edges. He isn’t a primary option on either end of the floor, doesn’t create for himself or others at a high level and he isn’t an elite defender at the point of attack. Melton has never posted eye-popping individual numbers and has been an inefficient scorer most of his career. But his ability to fit around star players without taking anything off the table makes Melton an eminently useful complementary player on winning teams. In that way, he’s quite similar to Green, who will likely miss at least the majority of next season with a torn ACL and LCL. But Melton can do more than just replace Green’s solid 3-and-D play; he has the ability to introduce new wrinkles that make Philadelphia more dynamic on both ends of the floor.

The Sixers were one of the most lethargic teams in the NBA last year, and while Melton won’t solve every issue, his speed, secondary ball-handling and defensive activity should inject some pace and urgency into a languid group.

Defensively, his instincts, athleticism and hands make Melton one of the best off-ball guards in the NBA. He ranked 10th leaguewide in deflections last season while grading out in the 96th percentile or higher among combo guards in block rate, steal rate and defensive rebound percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. Memphis turned opponents over significantly more often with Melton on the floor, which helped the Grizzlies create significantly more opportunities in transition when he played. The 76ers won’t run as often as the younger, more athletic Grizzlies did last year, but Melton’s proclivity for getting out in the open court should pair well with Tyrese Maxey’s fast-break sprints and that duo could help sustain Philadelphia’s offense when James Harden, Joel Embiid or both are off the floor.

Melton could also help reduce some of the friction that has bogged the Sixers’ halfcourt offense down in previous years. While he can’t consistently break defenses down and put pressure on the rim off the dribble, Melton plays exceedingly well alongside players — like Embiid, Harden and Maxey — who can. He has a keen sense of when to cut, drive and move the ball, finding teammates within the flow of the offense and decisively attacking seams in the defense.

He isn’t a knockdown shooter who pulls defenses apart with his movement, but Melton shot 40 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and 48 percent on corner 3s last season, which should at least give Maxey, Harden and Embiid some more breathing room. He’s also a cagey offensive rebounder who creates extra shots through sheer effort — a welcome addition for the NBA’s worst offensive rebounding team last season.

Melton isn’t a perfect player and he won’t solve all of the Sixers’ issues, no matter how many little ways he contributes to winning. He’s a solid, but not elite, on-ball defender whose size prevents him from being able to handle high-level wings, and has become close to an offensive liability in each of the last two postseasons. There’s a world in which Melton logs key playoff minutes as a two-way gap-filler, but it’s also possible he falls out of the rotation by the second round. Still, given how little it took to acquire him, this trade was close to a no-brainer. If all goes smoothly, it could leave other teams wondering why they passed on someone who is so valuable in so many ways.

Did the Nuggets get better, or just save more money?

It’s understandable at this point to view any trade the Denver Nuggets make with a healthy dose of cynicism. Typically, when Denver shakes up its roster, it’s for the purpose of saving owner Stan Kroenke — whose estimated net worth exceeds $10 billion — money. This is a franchise that, despite employing the two-time reigning MVP, hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2010 and has made multiple trades in recent years to stay under the tax line.

It’s only natural, then, to instinctively label Denver trading Will Barton and Monte Morris to the Wizards for Ish Smith and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as another cost-cutting move that will handicap the team’s ability to win moving forward. Morris and Barton were key parts of the Nuggets’ rotation for the last four years, and Denver — who is now roughly $3 million above the tax line — reduced its 2023 payroll even further.

Yet from an on-court perspective, it’s hard to deny that this move almost certainly makes the Nuggets better, whether they intended to save money or not. Losing Morris hurts, and the 34-year-old Smith is unlikely to replace his steady, mistake-free orchestration. Yet the impending return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. helps absorb the impact of that loss, and a downgrade at backup point guard might be worth the upgrade Caldwell-Pope provides.

The difference between Barton and Caldwell-Pope will be most noticeable on defense, where Barton lacked the size to defend physical wings but also struggled to stay in front of quick guards and get over screens. Caldwell-Pope also can’t quite contend with the NBA’s best wings, but his quickness and technique allow him to blanket guards at the point of attack — giving the Nuggets a much-needed backcourt defender who can chase shooters and stay in front of ball-handlers.

Offensively, Caldwell-Pope should slot in seamlessly next to Nikola Jokić as a cutter, movement shooter and handoff partner (much like Gary Harris did before his offensive decline). Barton helped energize the depleted Nuggets as an isolation scorer, pick-and-roll operator and pull-up shooter last season, but with Murray, Porter and Jokić firmly cemented in the offensive hierarchy, Barton’s off-the-dribble creation becomes redundant.

Caldwell-Pope isn’t the same caliber of pull-up shooter or individual creator as Barton, but he fits more cleanly into an environment already containing three on-ball creators. Last season, Caldwell-Pope shot 42 percent on four catch-and-shoot 3s per game, and almost a fifth of his offense came off of screens and cuts, per BBall-Index. Barton, meanwhile, made just 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s on slightly fewer attempts, with just nine percent of his offense coming from cuts or screens.

Caldwell-Pope also has smoother shot mechanics than Barton, which allows him to get his shot off faster and in a wider variety of situations. He can fire off of movement in either direction or quickly shoot over the top of closeouts in a way Barton couldn’t due to his slower release. KCP isn’t quite as persistent an off-ball mover as Barton, who learned how to cut and relocate around the best passer in basketball, but he’s shown the ability to move without the ball and should improve in that area the way all of Jokić’s teammates do. He’s also two years younger than Barton and doesn’t rely as much on speed and explosiveness on offense, which theoretically makes him more useful next to Jokić over the long term (assuming the Nuggets keep him around after his contract expires).

It’s unclear how much Smith will contribute to next year’s Nuggets at age 34, but if Caldwell-Pope provides the reliable 3-and-D play he’s capable of, he alone might be worth the price of Barton and Morris. Losing Morris also clears more room for Bones Hyland in the rotation, though that probably makes Denver slightly worse at backup point guard in the short term.

The rest of this offseason will be critical for the Nuggets, who have a chance to put themselves squarely into title contention by rounding out their rotation with shooting and defense. Jokić will be eligible for a five-year, $260 million extension this summer, which will almost certainly force ownership to pay the luxury tax for the first time since 2010. How much and how long Kroenke is willing to stay above that threshold might be the most important determinant of Denver’s success over the rest of Jokić’s prime, and the rest of the offseason will reveal the extent of his commitment to winning.

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