Nuggets GM says ‘we’ll be ok if KCP doesn’t return’ in free agency

In his limited time as the lead decision-maker for the Denver Nuggets, general manager Calvin Booth has displayed a knack for two things: Winning, and being far more candid than your average team executive.

The former quality brought the Nuggets their first NBA championship in franchise history, while the latter might have given the public an explanation for why they didn’t repeat. In a 2023 preseason story from Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer that featured such astounding candor from Booth about Michael Porter Jr. and Bones Hyland that the GM was forced to go on ESPN airwaves and claim his comments had been intended to be off the record, Booth additionally raised eyebrows with how honest he was about whether he cared about repeating as champions or not.

“I just want dudes that we try to develop, and it’s sustainable,” Booth told O’Connor then. “If it costs us the chance to win a championship this year, so be it. It’s worth the investment. It’s more about winning three out of six, three out of seven, four out of eight than it is about trying to go back-to-back.”

The Nuggets did not go back-to-back, and their bid for three out of six or four out of eight could be in serious jeopardy too, if one is to read between the lines of Booth’s remarks from after night one of the 2024 NBA Draft.

Ryan Blackburn of Mile High Sports asked Booth about his confidence in retaining Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the team’s stalwart shooting guard starter, in NBA free agency after the draft. Booth’s answer seemed to strongly imply he is not confident the two-time champion shooting guard will be back (emphasis mine):

You mentioned the starting lineup, having all those guys together, having an expensive starting lineup — we’ve talked about the limitations that the CBA has really presented, has that changed your perspective or shaped your perspective on making sure to retain KCP vs. different pathways that were obviously limited obviously if you lose him?

Booth: Yeah, I think you have to look at everything and the nature of free agency is that he’s unrestricted. So we can try to bring him back and if he doesn’t want to come back or opts to go somewhere else, that’s his prerogative so we’ll have to work with that. So I think we’re prepared to like plug and play so to speak. When you look at some of the teams that have been good in the past, they had to find a way to replace fourth, fifth starters, sixth men off the bench and still keep rolling. It would be nice if he’s back, we’d have a lot of continuity together, but all the stuff I’ve looked at with lineup stuff and everything, Christian Braun is one of the best net rating guys in the league — as is KCP. So I think if he’s to step into the starting lineup, I would project that we’ll be OK if KCP doesn’t return.”

That last part… Yikes. You can watch the full video for full context below, but it’s pretty rare of a GM to openly tell the media they’ll be “OK” without a free agent they’re in any way hoping to retain:

Now, for a brief bit of explaining about how we got here…

Why would KCP leave the Nuggets?

Caldwell-Pope has a player option worth approximately $15.4 million for next season that most project him to decline before trying to secure one last big, multi-year deal at age 31, and there are increasingly loud whispers that he will really look at other teams to get that bag from.

The Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls — all teams with big cap space in a relatively weak free-agent class — are all expected to have interest, according to multiple reports. If those teams can’t get the type of star they’re looking for, KCP profiles as exactly the type of star in his role that any team in need of 3-and-D reinforcements on the wing (read; every team) would covet.

So why wouldn’t the Nuggets just pay up and keep him?

Denver is currently just barely below the second tax apron, which comes with all kinds of consequences, from heftier luxury taxes to possible frozen draft picks for teams who exceed it too many years. Re-signing Caldwell-Pope to a deal with an annual salary above what he’s making right now could be tough for Denver from a team-building perspective, and may not be something ownership wants to pay for anyway.

Plus, as Booth mentioned, Caldwell-Pope is an unrestricted free agent, so the Nuggets have no avenue to stop their veteran starter from leaving if he wants to go somewhere else for financial or other reasons.

However, as someone who closely chronicled the dismantling of the 2020 championship Lakers, I can write this confidently: Undervalue KCP at your own risk. As ESPN’s Tim MacMahon is fond of saying on “The Hoop Collective” podcast, KCP could also be short for “Keep Championship Players.” It’s a lesson the team the Nuggets have stomped out of the last two postseasons already had to learn the hard way after not properly appreciating Caldwell-Pope’s reliable shooting and defensive chops.

To Booth’s point about plus-minus, Braun was third on the team in that stat during the playoffs (KCP was fifth). However, when looking at playoff net rating, while the Nuggets outscored opponents by 3 points per 100 possessions in Braun’s minutes and just 0.9 in KCP’s, the team was far worse with Caldwell-Pope on the bench (outscored by 6.5 points) than they were when Braun sat (-3.8), per

During the regular season, however, the only player with a bigger swing in the Nuggets’ on-off ratings than Caldwell-Pope was Nikola Jokic. Some of that is surely the two playing a fair bit of their minutes together, but it is worth noting that the only player on the team who the Nuggets were better when they sat than Braun (net rating of 8.6 with him off the floor) was fellow youngster Peyton Watson (8.9). Again, there is some statistical noise there surely, but the idea that numbers paint Braun as an easy, instant KCP replacement are just not quite there.

Net rating isn’t everything, but all this is to point out that while keeping KCP would be expensive, and possibly limiting from a roster-building perspective, but breaking up a championship-caliber core too early because of fears of that could be even worse. The Nuggets were already shown to be mortal this year by the Minnesota Timberwolves — do they really want to tempt fate and lose their fifth starter to see if they can make the margin between themselves and other would-be West contenders even snugger?

If Booth’s comments hinting that Caldwell-Pope is already just about out the door are to be believed, well, Denver may not be “ready…” but they may be about to find out nonetheless.

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