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NBA trade reaction: Breaking down the 4-player Nuggets-Wizards swap

NBA trade reaction: Breaking down the 4-player Nuggets-Wizards swap

It's always refreshing to see a good ol' fashioned players-for-players exchange.

The Washington Wizards and Denver Nuggets didn't play games in their 2-for-2 trade on Wednesday. According to the reports, Washington sent Ish Smith and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Denver, and the Nuggets dealt Monte Morris and Will Barton to the Wizards.

That's it. No pick protections, no draft swaps, and not even a "cash considerations" cameo. Two proven NBA basketball players moved to a new team for two proven NBA basketball players of loosely the same position and stature, all ranging between 27 and 34 years old. Of course, we don't know the full intent of the deal from each side, and the Gordian Knot that is offseason transactions hasn't even come close to untying yet.

For now, though, Washington and Denver have signaled with this trade that they recognize a need for stylistic change in the rotation. These four players are not the biggest names we'll hear about over the next couple of days, but they've been acquired to impact winning on two squads that should feel pressure to win.

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Let's deconstruct the deal team-by-team and player-by-player.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Bradley Beal declined his $36.4 million player option on Wednesday, but as Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday, that was an expected move, as Beal can now sign a five-year supermax contract worth close to $248 million. So if his free agency plays out as expected, Beal is still entrenched as the steward of the Wizards, which means Washington is still trying to rebuild and contend on the fly.

The franchise has reenergized its pursuit of a stable backcourt surrounding Beal. The Wizards selected Johnny Davis with the No. 10 overall pick in last week's NBA Draft, and he projects as a seamless complement to Beal in time: a tough-as-nails defender at the point of attack and a scoring threat when attacking the basket. 

Davis is not ready to be thrown into the fire as perhaps the second-leading touch-getter on the roster, though. Enter Monte Morris, who's quite a different player from Beal and Davis in all the right ways. 

Morris is a career 39.4% three-point shooter from beyond the arc. Most of that clip comes from catch-and-shoot prowess, where Morris hit at 42.1% this season vs. just 32.4% on a much lower volume of pull-ups. There's been a fairly consistent gap in those categories for most of his career.

He also sported one of the better at-rim rates in the league last season, finishing 68% of his shots within 4 feet of the basket (90th percentile among point guards, per Cleaning the Glass). That percentage also comes with a caveat: Morris was assisted on a whopping 63% of his at-rim makes, which is by far the highest percentage among all point guards (and fifth among all guards who played at least 800 minutes this season).

Having one of the world's best passers in Nikola Jokic on the Nuggets certainly changed Morris' role. He likely won't be in quite as many vertical cuts to the basket, waiting for a feed from a post-up big. The point is that Morris knows how to cut and space effectively, and next to a creator like Beal, should get his share of catch-and-convert looks.

He can still make some scoring plays happen on his own with his ability to change pace and direction quickly. Morris has also been lauded as an assist-to-turnover wizard, and it's true that his turnover rate is consistently among the best in the league. He doesn't exactly create assists, but Morris is at least a steady decision-maker you can trust as a secondary guard. 

With that being said, Morris does not solve the creative playmaking gap that exists throughout this Wizards roster. Among the 10 players who logged at least 800 minutes in Washington, zero ranked in the top-25 percentile at their respective positions for assist-to-usage rate. Several were fairly close — Beal, Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Raul Neto were all above-average — but in the absence of a Tier 1 playmaker, it feels like this rotation could use one more person to open up the court.

Barton's assist rate (17.1%) and assist-to-usage rate (0.87) both slotted in the 87th percentile among wings last year, even as he played alongside Nikola Jokic and other great passers. I was personally suprised to find that Barton actually posted the highest adjusted assist-to-pass ratio on the Nuggets in 2021-22, even edging out Jokic. Amidst his streaky scoring and unfortunate injury history, Barton adds an underrated dimension as a passer.

Barton adeptly keeps his eyes up when he drives and can hit popping players like Jokic, or finds the open man if his attack draws help. He's not a human highlight reel as a passer, but these are some quality finds for a player who makes his living as a scorer. Barton assisted on 12% of plays where he drove to the basket, per BBall Index, ranking in the 80th percentile at his position.

A trio of Beal, Kuzma and Barton threatening as drivers should open up options for Washington's array of complementary scorers.

Do Morris or Barton patch up the Wizards' 25th-ranked defense? Absolutely not. But as solid as Caldwell-Pope was, he was not holding together the defensive end, and parting with him makes sense for two well-fitting offensive pieces. Washington's guard rotation, long considered a weakness outside of Beal, now feels like an area of strength and relative upside. 

DENVER NUGGETS

Let's get the financial incentive out of the way before looking on the court. According to the reports, this trade helps Denver sneak back under the luxury tax — not something to cheer about, but certainly beneficial for the future. 

More importantly, the move showed Denver recognizes the limitations of its own roster, and has a plan to correct them.

Caldwell-Pope started all 77 games in his lone season with Washington, putting together a resurgent year by averaging 13.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game — all bests over the past four seasons. 

Offensively, the fit is obvious: KCP should thrive as an outlet for Jokic. Caldwell-Pope canned 42.0% of his catch-and-shoot threes last season, and 14% of his halfcourt possessions involved cuts (97th percentile), per BBall Index. That was in Washington; imagine how he succeeds in some of those aforementioned scenarios in place of Morris. 

The real kicker, though — Denver finally has a primary perimeter defender. 

Caldwell-Pope described how he approaches defense last fall, and you can see his work show up on film. He has to rotate over on this first play to cover Morris, and knowing that will open up a passing lane for a swing to Barton (how ironic is this first clip in hindsight), gets his arm in front of the ball for a steal.

Later in the reel: KCP knows Trae Young wants to get to his right hand to shoot or pass, and can poke away a steal before Young gets the ball there. He can make up for his smaller size by playing physically with larger wings like Jaylen Brown or Jonathan Kuminga. His foul rate of 2.5% is also surprisingly low for a player with such active hands.

Denver had the 15th-ranked defense in the regular season, but was 19th out of 20 Play-In and playoff teams in postseason Defensive Rating. KCP won't change that overnight, but he can be a spark where the Nuggets sorely need one.

At the same time, the Nuggets have Jamal Murray on his way back from a long ACL recovery, They also have Bones Hyland readying for a Year 2 leap after he averaged 12.8 points and 4.3 assists per game on a 63.8% True Shooting percentage post-All-Star break. Morris would have been crunched for minutes in the guard rotation, so it makes sense to replace him with a steady veteran in Ish Smith, who can hold down the remaining playing time.

And Smith is no throw-in, either. He's on his NBA-record 13th team and should provide a locker-room boost that cannot be quantified. 

Smith doesn't project as quite the seamless fit as KCP should be. But this might actually force positive change from a player who has spent so much of his career trying to keep bench units afloat as an on-ball initiator.

Last season, 104 players played at least 50 games and averaged at least five drives per game, according to Second Spectrum. Smith passed the ball on 60.1% of his drives, more than any other player, and shot just 44.5% on his driving field goal attempts (ranked 84th). 

Smith is a phenomenal passer and still one of the pure fastest players with the ball in his hands. But he also has had to rely so heavily on his own ability to create, and with Smith getting older (and the league getting longer and more switchable), the bar to clear goes up.

In this vein, I'd like to see if and how he is used off the ball in Denver. Smith is a capable shooter, and perhaps he can fit into some of the roles occupied by past Nuggets guards. At the minimum, he'll be a safer play at backup point guard than, say, Facundo Campazzo. But I think there's also some untapped room for growth. 

The Nuggets have established themselves as contenders, but have gone backwards in the playoffs over the past three years. Caldwell-Pope and Smith won't drastically spring Denver's fortunes to crazy heights, but as we see every postseason, the complementary specialists can swing a game or series.

Sometimes, that's all a team needs to change.

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