76ers, Nuggets upgrade at the perimeter

The 76s and Nuggets have each shaken up their guard rotation in the trading market. Will De’Anthony Melton and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope unlock better versions of their new teams?

NBA draft night showed almost no player movement in 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 for an NBA title.

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


De’Anthony Melton is the kind of two-way connector that could help the ’76s succeed

If stars are the building blocks that NBA teams are made of, players like Melton are the mortar that fits neatly into gaps, connects other pieces, and smoothes rough edges. He’s not a primary option at either end of the arena, doesn’t create for himself or others at a high level, and he’s not an elite defender at the attacking point. Melton has never published flashy singles figures and has been an inefficient goalscorer for most of his career. But his ability to adapt to star players without taking anything off the table makes Melton an extremely useful backup player for winning teams. In that regard, he’s quite similar to Green, who is likely to miss at least most of next season with a cruciate ligament and LCL tear. But Melton can do more than just replace Green’s solid 3D game; He has the ability to introduce new folds 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 problem, his speed, secondary ball handling and defensive activity should bring some pace and urgency to a sluggish group.

Defensively, his instincts, athleticism and hands make Melton one of the best off-ball guards in the NBA. He finished 10th in the league distractions last season while ranking in the 96th percentile or higher among combo guards in block rate, steal rate, and defensive rebound percentage cleaning the glass. Memphis turned opponents significantly more often with Melton on the floorwhich helped the Grizzlies create significantly more chances in transition when he was playing. The 76ers won’t run as often as the younger, more athletic Grizzlies did last year, but Melton’s penchant for coming out on the open court should pair well with Tyrese Maxey’s quick sprints, and this duo could help sustain Philadelphia’s offense at James Harden, Joel Embiid or both fell off the floor.

Melton could also help ease some of the friction that has stalled the Sixers’ offense in recent years. While he can’t consistently break down defense and apply rim pressure while dribbling, Melton plays exceptionally well alongside players like Embiid, Harden and Maxey who can. He has a keen sense of when to cut, hit and move the ball, finds teammates in the flow of offense and attacks crucial defensive seams.

He’s not a knockdown shooter who rips defenses apart with his movement, but Melton shot 40 percent further Catch and shoot 3s and 48 percent respectively corner 3s last season, which should at least give Maxey, Harden and Embiid some breathing room. He’s also a reserved offensive rebounder who gets extra shots through sheer effort — a welcome addition for the NBAs worst offensive rebounding team last season.

Melton isn’t a perfect player and he won’t solve all of the Sixers’ problems, no matter how many small ways he contributes to the win. He’s a solid but not elite defender on the ball, whose size prevents him from dealing with high-ranked wings, and he’s become an offensive liability in each of the last two postseasons. There’s a world where Melton logs key playoff minutes as a two-time stopgap, but it’s also possible for him to drop out of the rotation in the second round. Given how little it cost to acquire, this trade was almost a no-brainer. If all goes well, other teams might wonder why they passed on someone who is so valuable in so many ways.

Have the nuggets gotten better, or have you just saved more money?

At this point, it’s understandable to view every trade the Denver Nuggets make with a healthy dose of cynicism. When Denver shakes up its roster, it’s usually to save owner Stan Kroenke — whose estimated net worth exceeds $10 billion — money. This is a franchise that, despite employing the two-time incumbent MVP, hasn’t paid a luxury tax since 2010 and has made several trades to stay under the tax line in recent years.

It’s only natural, then, to instinctively label Denver, which is selling Will Barton and Monte Morris to the Wizards for Ish Smith and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as another cost-cutting move that will hurt the team’s ability to win going forward. Morris and Barton have been key figures in the Nuggets’ rotation for the past four years, and Denver — which is now about $3 million over the tax line — reduced its 2023 payroll even further.

However, from an on-court perspective, it’s hard to deny that this move almost certainly makes the Nuggets better, whether they were trying to save money or not. The loss of Morris hurts and Smith, 34, is unlikely to replace his stable, flawless orchestration. But the imminent return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. is helping to absorb the impact of that loss, and a demotion at backup point guard could be worth the upgrade Caldwell-Pope is offering.

The difference between Barton and Caldwell-Pope is most apparent on defense, where Barton didn’t have the size to defend physical wings but also struggled to stay ahead of fast guards and get past screens. Caldwell-Pope also doesn’t quite match the best wings in the NBA, but his speed and technique allow him to cover guards at the attacking point – giving the Nuggets a much-needed backfielder who can chase shooters and stay in front of the ball – handlers.

Offensively, Caldwell-Pope should fit in seamlessly alongside Nikola Jokić as a cutter, movement shooter, and handoff partner (much like Gary Harris before his offensive demise). Barton has helped energize the exhausted Nuggets last season as an isolation scorer, pick-and-roll operator and pull-up shooter, but with Murray, Porter and Jokić firmly entrenched 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 that already features 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 from screens and cuts, Per BBall index. Barton, on the other hand, made just 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers on slightly fewer attempts, with just nine percent of his offense coming from cuts or screens.

Caldwell-Pope also has smoother shooting mechanics than Barton, allowing him to fire his shot faster and in a wider variety of situations. He can fire in both directions while on the move, or fire quickly over remnants in a way Barton couldn’t due to his slower release. KCP isn’t quite as tenacious an offball mover as Barton, who has learned how to cut and execute basketball’s best passer, but he’s shown he can move off the ball and should be like everyone in that area from Jokić improve teammates do. He’s also two years younger than Barton and doesn’t rely as much on speed and explosiveness up front, which theoretically makes him more useful alongside Jokić in the long term (assuming the Nuggets keep him on after his contract expires).

It’s unclear how much Smith will add to next year’s Nuggets at age 34, but if Caldwell-Pope offers the dependable 3-D play he’s capable of, he could take the price of Barton and Morris alone be worth. The loss of Morris also creates more room for Bones Hyland in the rotation, although this likely makes Denver slightly worse as a backup point guard in the short term.

The remainder of this offseason will be crucial for the Nuggets, who have a chance to head straight into title contention by rounding out their rotation with shooting and defending. Jokić is eligible for a five-year, $260 million extension this summer that will almost certainly force the owner to pay the luxury tax for the first time since 2010. How much and how long Kroenke is willing to stay above that threshold could be the single most important factor in Denver’s success through the remainder of Jokić’s heyday, and the rest of the offseason will reveal the extent of his commitment to the win. 76ers, Nuggets upgrade at the perimeter

John Verrall

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