2024 NBA free agency: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leaves Nuggets, joins Magic on $66M deal, per reports

After playing off Nikola Jokic and having the time of his life, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is leaving the Denver Nuggets to sign with the Orlando Magic, as first reported by USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt. The deal is worth $66 million over three years, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and it will have a player option on Year 3, as first reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

Caldwell-Pope, 31, was a crucial part of the Nuggets’ 2023 championship run, but the front office sent clear signals ahead of free agency that it was not willing to pay what it would take to re-sign him. “I think we’ll be OK if KCP doesn’t return,” general manager Calvin Booth said during his post-draft press conference on Wednesday, shortly after referencing Christian Braun’s net rating.

For the Magic, Caldwell-Pope fills a glaring hole offensively and reinforces their defensive identity. Orlando ranked second in the NBA defensively last season, but only 22nd offensively, largely because it didn’t have anybody like Caldwell-Pope. It is a credit to coach Jamahl Mosley and the team’s collective commitment to defense that it managed to win 47 regular-season games despite being one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league in terms of both volume and efficiency. 

Caldwell-Pope may not get to play the same style of basketball as he did in Denver, but he will fit in extremely well. A playoff-tested 3-and-D guy, he will make everything easier for Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, the Magic’s two playmaking forwards. He shot 41.5% from 3-point range in his two seasons with Denver.

As for the Nuggets: This looks rough. With the obvious caveat that free agency just began and Booth’s front office deserves a chance to make some moves, it’s concerning that Denver couldn’t find a way to bring Caldwell-Pope back. He started 76 games for the Nuggets in each of the last two seasons, and, around the league, there were few better marriages of player and role. Caldwell-Pope feasted on layups and 3s, and he had a knack for cutting and just the right time. He was the team’s best point-of-attack defender, and, while he was better suited to defend smaller players than bigger ones, he was willing to do both.

Caldwell-Pope’s departure is a bigger blow than losing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green was last summer. When Booth told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor before last season started that Denver was trying to win “three out of six, three out of seven, four out of eight” rather than trying to maximize its chances of winning back-to-back championships, it was not clear that this was coming. Are the Nuggets confident that Braun will become an efficient, high-volume 3-point shooter? Do they think Peyton Watson can hold up in the playoffs next time around? Is there something else up Booth’s sleeves?

Had Denver paid Caldwell-Pope exactly what the Magic paid him, it would have been up against the second apron, pending other roster moves. The roster-building restrictions that teams with payrolls that high are real, and, in that Ringer story, Booth said that one of his biggest fears is the Nuggets becoming a team with “no outs.” 

This is not the only team that is making a difficult, decidedly unpopular move in the name of maintaining financial flexibility — Klay Thompson’s future with the Golden State Warriors appears nonexistent, and, as this story was being filed, the Los Angeles Clippers put out a statement saying Paul George would not return. It is difficult, however, to reconcile Denver’s hopes for another championship with this continued talent drain. The Nuggets’ depth was a problem with Caldwell-Pope on the team; it will probably be a much bigger one going forward.

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