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NBA Trade Grades: Nuggets-Wizards Make Impactful Deal Ahead of Free Agency

Denver traded Monte Morris and Will Barton to Washington for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith. The Crossover graded the deal.

On the eve of free agency, we have a trade! The Nuggets shipped Monte Morris and Will Barton to the Wizards for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith. Here’s how both teams did in a transaction that seems minor but could have a meaningful impact on the 2022–23 season.

Denver Nuggets: B

Last month, new Nuggets president of basketball operations Calvin Booth made it clear that Denver would have to improve on defense if it wanted to prevail in four straight playoff series anytime soon. This trade is a step toward addressing that need. Caldwell-Pope remains a quality on-ball defender who can hound high-volume ball-handlers at the point of attack, chase shooters around screens and stay in front of bigger wings.

The Nuggets were torched by the Warriors’ guards in the first round, so much to the point that Austin Rivers (not a bad defender but not an ideal answer, either) became indispensable before a hamstring injury ended his season in Game 5. KCP, who’s 29 years old on an expiring $14 million contract, will help in a matchup like that. He can also stick to Devin Booker or Chris Paul, harass Ja Morant and Desmond Bane, etc.

Alongside Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray on offense, Caldwell-Pope is a natural fit. He can hit threes, leak out in transition (Jokić will hit him with at least a dozen full-court baseball passes next season) and work the occasional dribble handoff, zipping up out of the corner then gliding into the paint. As a player who’s accustomed to moving off the ball, KCP will be annoying for defenders to guard when Jokić surveys the floor. The back cuts will be constant. Do not envy those who have to keep their heads on a swivel for 30 minutes.

Losing Morris stings. He has been a solid rock for this organization since 2018 and, as a 51st overall pick, is a jewel from Tim Connelly’s tenure. Last year he started 74 games, finished with one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the league (again!) and deepened a crisp on-court chemistry already shared with the two-time MVP. (Their DHO game was basically unguardable.)

But with Murray about to return from his torn ACL, Denver’s entire offense still running through Jokić and someone like Bones Hyland in need of a slightly larger role, Morris is the reliable veteran attractive to other teams whose responsibilities can be spread around Denver’s existing roster. There aren’t enough touches for Will Barton on a healthy Nuggets team, either. He just isn’t efficient enough, with defensive woes that support Booth’s assessment.

This deal is also what they’re looking for financially. Ish Smith’s contract for the upcoming season is non-guaranteed and doesn’t become fully guaranteed until July 1. If they keep him, Smith’s salary is also about $5 million less than the $9.1 million Morris is set to make in 2023. (Morris is also guaranteed $9.8 million in 2024.) Michael Porter Jr. is about to enter the first season of his max contract and Jokić’s supermax extension begins in 2023–24. The Nuggets can duck the tax by exchanging these two backup point guards. But they will enter it next year.

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Denver upgraded its perimeter defense and streamlined its offensive options. Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, Porter Jr., Jokić is a championship-level starting five. But they may need to add more defensive versatility on the wing if they want to win it all. (Incoming rookie Christian Braun will help.) Given that they gave up the best player in the deal (Morris), it would’ve been nice to pick up a second-round pick in a trade like this. But that’s a nitpick. The Wizards don’t have any to move until 2026. And the money disparity is more attractive to them, anyway.

Washington Wizards: B

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Wizards president of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard made a bit of noise recently when he suggested that Bradley Beal could be their point guard next season (assuming he re-signs). By acquiring Morris, one of the sturdiest traditional point guards in the league (and, to a lesser extent, drafting Johnny Davis with the No. 10 pick) that scenario no longer seems too likely.

Morris fills a gaping positional hole in Washington. He’s a proven table-setter who guards up a position, and he’ll make life easier for Beal, Kristaps Porzingis, Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and everyone else who figures to be in their rotation next season.

Instead of signing someone like Tyus Jones (who probably isn’t thrilled by this trade) with cap space, Sheppard decided to get Morris—who’s a little bigger and superior on defense—via trade. It’s a cheaper calculation and one that should work out. Morris has shown he can run a team and run a whole bunch of pick-and-rolls, too. Porzingis is not Jokić, but they should develop some degree of potency together. Morris can knock down pull-up twos and drill spot-up threes.

It’s fascinating how diametrically opposed his game is from Russell Westbrook’s, who teamed up with Beal a couple years ago. This speed and tempo should suit the roster well. Morris is more valuable in Washington than he could be in Denver.

The Wizards also get Barton—an actual small forward!—which is nice. When healthy, he’s a self-reliant innings eater on a team that can aspire to make the play-in. If Washington stumbles, he’ll get shopped before the trade deadline. 

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