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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Is The Denver Nuggets’ Unsung Hero


Key Highlights

  • The Denver Nuggets are 3.5 points better per 100 possessions defensively with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the floor. Last year, they were 5.8 points better.
  • Since joining Denver prior to last season, Caldwell-Pope has shot 40.6 percent on 646 attempts beyond the arc.
  • Caldwell-Pope’s plus-1.6 Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus this season ranks in the 90th percentile.

Late in the fourth quarter of last week’s clash between title favorites in the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, Jamal Murray succumbed to Jaylen Brown‘s domineering point-of-attack pressure and coughed up a turnover with Denver leading by two and under a minute remaining. As the ball caromed into Kristaps Porzingis‘ clutches, Jayson Tatum beamed down the floor, hoping to parlay a snappy outlet pass into a game-tying bucket.

Simultaneously, though, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sprinted to Tatum’s side and disrupted his rhythm upon catching the outlet pass. Any potential angle to the rim against a scrambling Nikola Jokic and his limited rim protection was dashed. Instead, Tatum spun around, extinguished his dribble and lofted a feed to Brown, who tossed it to the trailing Derrick White — only for White to immediately be met by Caldwell-Pope and swing the ball to Tatum in the corner.

Tatum’s open triple fell short, Jokic engulfed the rebound and the Nuggets ultimately held on for a 115-109 victory.

Caldwell-Pope’s contributions — both across the full 48 minutes and that specific sequence — were not the headliner of a victory encapsulating Denver’s dominance. Jokic dropped 32-12-11 on 68 percent true shooting and discarded every option and strategy the Celtics deployed against him. The Nuggets’ defense held Boston’s top-ranked offense to a 110.3 offensive rating. In the loss, Brown notched 41 points, relentlessly attacking the rim and chiseling through defenders for scores.

And yet, Caldwell-Pope was integral to the win. His off-ball rotations consistently broke up the rhythm of the Celtics’ pick-and-pop offense with Porzingis. As Denver sent two to the ball against Tatum, like many teams do, Caldwell-Pope was responsible for rotating to Porzingis beyond the arc and prompting a buffer period in the lanky Latvian’s decision-making.

He nabbed three steals and prevented Boston from building momentum on the swing-swing-swing sequences into utopian shots that action often elicits. He scored 11 points on seven shots (70 percent true shooting), exploiting soft spots in the defense when Boston prioritized slowing the glamor aspects of Denver’s multifaceted unit.

What Does Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Do So Well?

Caldwell-Pope isn’t the lifeblood of the Nuggets’ title hopes, but it’s by no means a mere coincidence they won a ring in his first season with the franchise and are better positioned than anyone around the league to do it again this spring. While the 3-and-D label is apt for him, it does not properly capture the scope of his excellence in both regards, nor does it account for the layers of his game that help tilt Denver from a very good offense to one leaving almost all its opponents without any sort of answer.

With his shooting and perimeter defense, he completed the Nuggets’ starting lineup. Aaron Gordon is a very good defender, but zippy, vibrant guards pose trouble, especially those traversing through a series of screens; he’s most adept stymying wings (a la his defense on Kevin Durant). Murray isn’t fit for the job either and Will Barton struggled immensely on defense down the stretch of his Denver tenure — a prominent reason he was moved as part of the deal for Caldwell-Pope.

The Georgia native has filled the remaining gaps for the Nuggets to fortify them as a title contender. He’s canned 41 percent of his triples since joining Denver and is the type of versatile defensive cog necessary to make them a playoff-tested-and-survived group.

His best work comes off the ball. A vocal, instructive communicator tipping off teammates about rotations to anticipate or execute, he’s a preeminent screen navigator who thrives denying players their preferred touches. Stephen Curry is averaging 23 points on 52 percent true shooting and has 18 assists to 11 giveaways in four contests against Denver this season. Caldwell-Pope is largely responsible for that.

Whether it’s zoning up on the weakside, playing one pass away between his assignment and the ball, tagging and recovering to the perimeter or hounding star scorers away from the action, Caldwell-Pope excels in the gaps. He’s rarely caught in no man’s land; his positioning is always purposeful. It’s emblematic of the entire Nuggets’ defense, which sits ninth on the year and fourth since the All-Star Break.

Last year, he finished in the 83rd percentile in steal rate. This year, he ranks in the 87th percentile. He just doesn’t let offenses act as they intend. If they try, he’s a manifestation of their immediate regret.

His blend of size (6-foot-5), lateral quickness, physicality, discipline and dexterity are a fearsome combination on the ball. He refuses to concede space versus contact, yet still averages a meager 2.1 fouls per 36 minutes (2.2 in 2022-23). Guards are his forte, but he’s entirely willing and able to slide up against forwards. It is a hellacious endeavor to find rhythm when he’s in the vicinity.

His defense is like a popcorn kernel stuck in your teeth.

You know it’s there. You know it’s bothering you. You want to dislodge it.

Your efforts are futile.

With the likes of Jalen Suggs, Alex Caruso, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White (among others), the competition for an All-Defensive Team spot at guard is deep and impressive. Even so, Caldwell-Pope deserves lengthy consideration. He’s been that good while donning a variety of hats.

How Does He Thrive Offensively?

Denver relishes in all he provides defensively because he doesn’t remove anything offensively. A fifth starter being a legit high-volume sniper is kind of a luxury, but it’s partly why the Nuggets steamrolled to a title last season and are the favorites again weeks ahead of the 2024 playoffs. The “weak link” of their starting five is a 40 percent three-point shooter competing for an All-Defensive Team nod.

He’s also a capable ancillary decision-maker with some off-the-bounce verve. Denver is comfortable calling dribble handoffs for him with Jokic. This season, he’s shooting 51.5 percent (68 of 132) on one- and two-dribble pull-up two-pointers. Last season, he shot 51 percent. It’s a bona fide weapon. Run him off the arc or stash a poor defender on him and the Nuggets are content to burn you. That screen navigation better be crisp, too, because Jokic is one of the NBA’s foremost pick men.

There’s some understated playmaking juice in his bag as well. He’s a sharp pocket passer to Jokic and wields a keen eye for cutters. The Nuggets aren’t afraid to tab him as the trigger man, letting the off-ball talents of Jokic, Murray, Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. shine within their free-flowing, creative, improvisational scheme.

This is Denver’s fifth starter fulfilling similar duties to that of Mikal Bridges for the Phoenix Suns during their title pursuits together in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Since the All-Star Break, the Nuggets are 10-1 with a plus-13.5 net rating, second-ranked offense and fourth-ranked defense. They’re first in the West at 46-20 and own the fifth-easiest strength of schedule over their final 16 games. The quest to repeat may not formally begin until late April, but they already seem to be prepping for a championship defense.

Nobody can match their peak. A short, easy answer as to why is Jokic’s brilliance.  An expanded truth contains a whole lot more depth and includes Caldwell-Pope, the league’s most important fifth starter gunning for his third ring in five seasons.

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