Why KCP was ‘exactly’ what the Nuggets needed
It didn’t matter that Kentavious Caldwell-pope was the smallest. What mattered was that he was the hungriest.
When Jamal Murray’s halfcourt heave caromed off the rim with 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s overtime thriller against the Clippers, Caldwell-pope secured it among a throng of Nikola Jokic, Mason Plumlee and Paul George. In snatching the rebound, Caldwell-pope saved the possession and, probably, the game.
“One team wants it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “One team has to have it.”
Caldwell-pope reset the ball in Murray’s hands, who found Michael Porter Jr. waiting on the perimeter before the Clippers could recalibrate. The 3-pointer helped force overtime, where the Nuggets ran Los Angeles off the floor. It was the only play Malone showed his team in the jubilant postgame locker room.
“That rebound for KCP was much bigger than the open three,” Porter said.
That highlight, projected onto the screen at the front of the locker room, preceded what’s become an occurrence about as frequent as a Nikola Jokic triple-double: Malone awarding Caldwell-pope the Defensive Player of the Game chain. The steely, 6-foot-5 shooting guard has become the anchor of Denver’s defense. What was once the 28th-ranked outfit has marched up to 13th overall; since Dec. 18, a span of 34 games, the Nuggets rank fifth in the NBA.
“To win any games, defense is the key to it,” said Caldwell-pope, whose teammates refer to him as “first team,” a nod to his firstteam All-defensive candidacy.
Baked within their defensive rise has been a commitment to guarding the 3-point line, which is where Caldwell-pope generally prowls. Over the first two months of the season, Denver’s defense allowed opponents to shoot 37% from 3-point range,
the 25th-worst mark in the league. But in the past 35 games, the Nuggets’ 3-point defense ranks first in the NBA, conceding less than 33% from deep.
Caldwell-pope, an NBA champion with the Lakers in 2020, has been at the heart of Denver’s renaissance. The Nuggets identified Caldwell-pope as early as last year’s trade deadline, according to league sources, as a player that could elevate their team on both ends. What general manager Calvin Booth gambled on was a veteran shooting guard eager to win again.
What Malone has marveled at, on numerous occasions, is his professional approach.
“Every day he comes into the gym, sets the tone, works hard,” Malone said. “Every night he goes out there, he guards his matchup, guards the other team’s best player on the perimeter and does it with a tremendous amount of pride and urgency.
“Really, there’s nothing not to love about Kentavious Caldwell-pope. He is a great two-way player and exactly what we needed.”
Sitting along the sidelines at a recent shootaround with ice packs draped over his knees, Caldwell-pope laughed at the phrase “consummate pro.”
Since being traded to the Nuggets and agreeing to a two-year extension before the season started, Caldwell-pope is on pace to set career-highs in 3-point shooting percentage, steals and blocks. Within the Nuggets’ starting unit, their fifth option just so happens to be a 45% sniper from 3-point range.
“Being consistent and being the best at my role,” he said when asked how he’d define being a consummate pro. “I try not to do too much outside my game. … Being that great teammate, I feel that’s what the word they’re saying means for me. I come in and do my job.”
Several weeks ago, Caldwell-pope was disgusted over his snub from
the 3-point contest at the All-star game, but in that absence, his wife planned a surprise trip to Cabo for them and their friends. According to Caldwell-pope, it was a couples-only retreat.
“Cabo was great,” he said. “My All-star break is more of a mental break for me than anything. I try to just relax, relax my mind. Try to stay away from basketball. … My birthday was amazing.”
But as necessary as the break was, Caldwell-pope was eager to return to his basketball family and get on with what they’ve already accomplished. Within Denver’s tight-knit locker room, everybody is embraced, including newcomers Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant.