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Swiped Right on KCP

Jeff Weltman has always been someone who does things his way. Upon his arrival in Orlando, he became a master of the cloak-and-dagger approach. The possibilities of what he may do seem like a potential reality, and the more confident you are about a situation, the better. Weltman uses that certainty to leer you in and attack when you least expect it -- a master poker player, never genuinely revealing his hand or his next move.

In fact, it's this very approach of his, through several years of calculated decisions, small and large, that have given Orlando as much optionality as the team had, rearing its head onlooking the upcoming free agency. A future so bright, as the team started to fulfill its promise faster than anyone imagined. There was no more enjoyable stage in a team’s life cycle than where the Orlando Magic were this past season. Ascending without expectations. Young without pressure. Uber-talented without a formidable price tag. Enthusiasm without self-interest. Joy without pain.

All that is going to change. In the wake of that change, Jeff Weltman worked tirelessly through the nights before free agency putting together a master-plan to catapult Orlando further atop the Eastern Conference. He exhausted every option before even slightly compromising. As a result, using the Paul George "meeting" domino to reel in his believed-to-be perfect match. On Sunday night, a few hours into the free agency period, the belief was Orlando would wait out the Paul George "decision." The team instead made a sudden, somewhat shocking pivot to acquire someone who is … definitely not that. Two-time champion Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Immediately, the former two-time champion fits Orlando's mold to a tee -- a prototypical 3-and-D guard fitting seamlessly into Head Coach Jamahl Mosley's scheme. During his stops in Los Angeles and Denver, surrounded by other star-studded players, Pope knew how to complement them. He can space the floor but also generate efficient looks off a ball screen or dribble handoff.

The fact that this level of shooter can also excel off the catch is a nightmare for opposing defenses and can likely lead to a revitalization of Orlando's half-court offense. The Magic struggled to score when the game slowed down, making the Caldwell-Pope acquisition this summer even more enticing. Orlando finished near the bottom in catch and shooting this season (30th in attempts) and (29th) in three-pointers made.

For an offense that was seemingly random and employed off-ball screens coupled with timely cuts, Orlando's offensive structure had a few commonalities with Denver, the team Pope helped bring home an NBA championship to very recently. The usage of dribble-handoffs was the closest thing the Magic had to a consistent through line last season.

His ability as a movement shooter pairs really nicely with one of Orlando's favorite tactics, a dribble handoff play called Chicago Action (pin-down into DHO). The Magic, who lack movement shooting in minimal space, were only able to generate one made three from this play of theirs. Instead, the team often relied on their size for pain buckets down low.  

Caldwell-Pope knows how to use his size to his advantage, and he can create his own shot at any point in the possession. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Caldwell-Pope has the size and game of a perimeter player. He’s one of the best shooters in the NBA — he shoots 40.6 percent from 3 on 4.1 attempts per game and 89.4 percent from the free throw line — and Pope's length allows him to fire when there isn’t any space to work with. Even if a smaller player is draped all over him on defense, the opponent can’t bother his shot, since he is coming off a DHO with a quick trigger.

Off-movement dribble handoffs last season, Pope connected on 40.2 percent, the 18th-best mark among the 77 players who took at least 75 of them. Now pair that with Orlando's coveted Chicago Action play, and you have suddenly opened up a new sheer variety of options in the Magics' playbook—of moves and countermoves, feints and wrinkles—which should also make their bottom-tier offense harder to decipher come playoff time.

Until now, neither Franz Wagner or Paolo Banchero had ever found an opportunity to stretch their entire skill set with a full complement of supporting players who made sense alongside reliable spacing to ease their offensive load. Often times you'll see teams blitz Orlando leaving the corners open. The teams inability to connect on them played hand-in-hand with a bevy of their issues. Poor efficiency from star players, to lackluster shooting nights from the team all together.

Kentavious Caldwell-Popes value as an off-ball guard who capitalizes off of the creation of others by finishing routine plays has kept him on the floor in the bright lights for a long period of time receiving starter minutes in the regular season and deep into the NBA Finals. However his corner shooting ability is most intriguing in boosting Orlando’s lackluster perimeter offense. Orlando had the seventh-worst percentage from the corners (37.6 percent). Pope himself shot better then the Magic (43.4 percent).

The Magic's version of Nikola Jokic is Paolo Banchero, the hub of his team's offense. Every game, he displays his creativity as a passer, with subtle nuances that elevate his vision in both aesthetics and effectiveness. Having a stationary and moving perimeter threat alongside the first-time All-Star is invaluable, giving him a reliable target and an extra step defenses have to process before thinking about blitzing.

The pairing of Pope and Banchero won't stop there. This past season, the Magic added wrinkles to their offense to further weaponize inverted screens for Paolo Banchero. (A guard or wing setting a screen for Banchero). You may not remember it, as the human brain works to erase those nightmarish memories. It was the same play Orlando spammed through the first two games in Cleveland in round one of the playoffs—the possibilities of a play that are allegedly endless. But when the Magic ran it, there was only one possibility: another missed field goal added to the team's totals.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope accounted for nearly 100 screen assist (88) points last season. No guard on the Magic came close to sniffing that number. Pope had two common ways of freeing up his "big," one of which was via wedge screens—picks set at a diagonal angle, meant to get big men on the opposite block—in every game to make opposing bigs fight before Jokic even catches the ball. That screen in itself sets the table for Denver's offense to strike from. However, the defense responds.

Another way Pope showcases his array of versatility as a inverted screener for bigs like Jokic is by setting pin-in screens. When Caldwell-Pope has his number called on a play like this, the defense has options. It might switch or double on the catch, but you can’t do that with Jokic or now with Banchero.

Both can intimidate smaller defenders with their size and easily locate an open cutter if opponents decide to swarm. Just the presence, willingness, and spacing KCP provides will enhance the Magic playbook. Even when all these actions don't result in points, they serve more than one purpose: Making Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner's lives easier.

Free agency, in essence, is like Tinder for the NBA. It's a strategic game where a pool of players, known as 'free agents,' line up their bios filled with career accomplishments. General Managers and Head Coaches then gather intel, swiping right or left to build their dream team. Weltman and his staff are confident that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will enhance the DNA of their core.

Orlando's DNA under Jamahl Mosley has been defense, a pillar of strength that has seen them finish as one of the best defensive teams this past season. Mosley, a renowned scientist throughout the league, is constantly mixing ingredients to whip up schemes and coverages that haunt offenses for 48 minutes on a nightly basis, providing a sense of security to the team and its fans.

I've been knowing [Jamahl Mosley] since my rookie season," Caldwell Pope said. "We've spoken here and there. I'm excited to be a part of this team and being able to be coached by him. He's a great coach."

The defensive mastermind he embodies will now have a starting backcourt pairing of Jalen Suggs and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, two players who routinely shadow the opposing team's best player nightly.

"I'm gonna go on and say it right now: we might be making [All-Defense] again together next year," said Caldwell-Pope about the pairing of him and now teammate Jalen Suggs. "I think we were gonna be one of the best backcourt defensive teams in the league."

The fit on offense is clean. The fit on defense is exquisite. Pope has consummate tenaciousness and instincts. He’ll walk into Orlando surrounded by teammates who can hold their own on the perimeter, navigate screens, close out under control, and shrink the floor with exceptionally long arms, Caldwell-Pope can even switch when a matchup calls for it, ranking No. 1 when opponents shot a 200-shot-minimum league-low 40.6 percent with him as the nearest defender (591 attempts).

Alongside Jalen Suggs, KCP serves a clear purpose — to defend the other team’s best guard and take that load off the third year defensive ace. Pope is an aggressive defender with the wingspan of a big man and the speed of a guard. Those very tools allowed him to hoist extraordinary numbers while matched up with the game’s best scorers and playmakers. Steph Curry shot 9-of-24 (37.5 percent) with KCP contesting; Anthony Edwards went 7-of-17 (41.8 percent); Paul George 11-of-27 (40.7 percent); Jalen Brunson 4-of-10 (40 percent) and Devin Booker 1-of-5 (20 percent). 

Caldwell-Pope has also spent significant time defending different positions and players throughout the Lakers and Nuggets playoff runs. He's matched up with Austin Reaves and even Anthony Edwards, who can create at all three levels, and bigger forwards like Karl-Anthony Towns and LeBron James, who, in their own right, play very different styles. His unique profile makes him offer legitimate resistance and switchability.

His versatility and ability to take on so many different roles and challenges defensively allows him to serve as a defender at the four in small ball lineups at times. Orlando could find success in the non Paolo Banchero or Jonathan Isaac minutes this upcoming season now that they have the ability to put out more ultra switchable lineups with Pope as the key that makes it all work.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope joins a roster that was bleeding for a veteran with playoff experience, following the departure of Joe Ingles, who served in that role last season. He not only has more playoff minutes than the entire roster combined, but has vowed to take on the leadership role.

"I just want to come over here and bring my championship mentality, the knowledge I've gained from the teams I've been on, my leadership, just being that vocal leader on the court and off the court, just being able to get these guys and get us to stay connected. The more we can stay connected and have that chemistry together, the easier the season is going to be."

Kentavious Caldwell-Popes' championship experience, paired with his ability to enhance the two-guard starting slot as a prototypical 3-and-D, is what piqued Orlando's interest this offseason. A perfect fit alongside their budding stars Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. Both of whom are ball-dominant players whose value comes from their ability to dice up defenses, pressure the rim, score in the paint, and create advantages at an extremely high volume. Pair that skillset with an elite outside sniper specializing off the ball with the ability to operate in dribble handoffs, inverted screens, pick-and-rolls, pops, and quick attacks off the catch, and you have one of the most seamless fitting, talented offensive backcourts in all of basketball.

Just remember there are expectations this season -- pressure while being young. A formidable price tag while being uber talented.

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