With the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope signing with the Orlando Magic now official I thought we’d do something a little different than our typical season reviews.

Denver Nuggets fans found themselves bewildered come the early Fall of 2020. Their beloved team was in the throes of the first round of an NBA Playoff like no other. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the playoffs were delayed by months and held in what became known as the “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando, FL. It was not the setting or the delay that had Nuggets faithful at a loss though, it was what they were seeing unfold in front of them as their team quickly fell behind three games to one to the Utah Jazz in the first round. The Jazz got a dominant performance from Donovan Mitchell who made the bubble look very much like what it was for him: shooting in an empty gym. He opened the series scoring 57, in game two he scored 30 and then he put the Nuggets on the brink of elimination with another 50+ piece in game four. The Nuggets survived game five…and then Gary Harris returned from injury. Suddenly nothing was easy for Mitchell and in the deciding game seven Harris suffocated him, forcing Mitchell to hoist 22 shots just to get 22 points. The Nuggets sealed up a last minute victory and advanced to the second round where Harris once again spent a series hounding a top perimeter player, this time Paul George, and proving to be the piece the Nuggets were missing early in that Utah series.

Unfortunately for Denver they ran into a Los Angeles Lakers team who stood to benefit more than anyone from the extended midseason break. With 35 year old LeBron James and oft injured Anthony Davis fully rested and healthy for a playoff run, L.A. cruised into the Western Conference Finals where Harris was too small to contain James, leaving Jerami Grant to do that job and essentially no one to defend Davis. The Nuggets lost in five games and Grant left for the Detroit Pistons in the offseason. The loss of their big wing defender, plus the general inability of anyone, including Grant, to slow L.A.’s massive frontcourt, highlighted a weakness in Denver’s roster. They need someone to battle with the LeBron’s, Kawhi Leonard’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s of the league if they were truly going to reach the promise land of an NBA title, so the Nuggets made a difficult choice. In the spring of 2021 the Nuggets traded Harris (along with a first round pick and R.J. Hampton) to the Orlando Magic and in return got their versatile, strong combo forward defender in Aaron Gordon. At it’s very outset the move looked to be a stroke of genius with Denver looking like a legitimate title contender for the first time, but injuries reared their head and robbed Denver of two of their best players. One of them, Jamal Murray, missed the next two playoff runs. The Nuggets were still competitive and behind MVP performances from Nikola Jokic they still found their way to the playoffs, but the postseason runs were short lived.

Now, one could certainly point to the loss of Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in the 2022 playoffs as the key factor for the team’s unceremonious gentlemen’s sweep that they suffered at the hands of the Golden State Warriors that year, but there was something else that became quite obvious: the Nuggets couldn’t defend guards. Ever since Denver had to give up Harris to get Gordon they never replaced him with a legitimate perimeter guard defender. Sure Gordon was great for the likes of James and other forwards/big wings, but when he was asked to cover a smaller, quicker guard like Jordan Poole it didn’t yield positive results. Other than Gordon, there was simply nowhere else to turn for a plus defender. That is why, following Denver’s quick exit in the 2022 NBA Playoffs, Calvin Booth elected to trade two longtime, loyal Nuggets players to get Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

KCP was in NBA no man’s land aka the Washington Wizards during the 2021-2022 season. A casualty of the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook trade, the three and D guard was wasting away his prime years on a non-competitive team and with a salary right in the range of Will Barton, making a trade to the Nuggets very feasible. He was exactly the player the Nuggets needed and by using Barton and Monte Morris to acquire him and Ish Smith, the trade naturally created a starting rotation spot for KCP to slide into.

Oct 22, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) signs autographs before the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The return was almost immediate. Pope approached defense with a ferocious tenacity and gladly welcomed taking the task of defending the opposition’s best guard every night. In his first twenty games with the team he recorded twenty-four steals and was practically automatic from three, particularly from the corners. Beyond his counting stats, he provided something else that Denver seemed to be lacking on the court: an edge generated from toughness. KCP wasn’t afraid to get after anyone on the court and he hounded them relentlessly. His approach was to smother the opponent, oftentimes full length of the court, and never relent. That full throttle, 100% of the time mentality on defense was something Denver hadn’t seen since Harris, and injuries kept him from bringing that intensity night in and night out. Suddenly it wasn’t just the altitude or the seven foot Serbian guy dicing you up on offense that made Denver so hard to face. Now you had to deal with those things, plus Aaron Gordon bodying your big wings while KCP hounded your smaller ones on defense. On offense your only choice was to live with Pope shooting threes because somehow a 40% knockdown three point shooter was the most favorable of options when dealing with this loaded roster. Whether on offense or defense, opponents knew that facing Denver now meant a full out 100% effort for all 48 minutes.

As it turns out, Booth was exactly right about KCP. He was the final infinity stone in the Nuggets gauntlet. Pope turned in one of his best seasons as a pro. With the benefit of being generally open as the 5th option, he shot a scorching 42.3% from three, a career best, and pushed right up against the 60% true shooting mark which generally speaking is the cutoff point to be considered an elite shooter. He didn’t dream of a larger role like Jerami Grant, he wasn’t malcontent with not getting the spotlight like Bones Hyland. He just showed up every day as an elite three and D guard and did his job. He elevated his game once the playoffs came, culminating with a masterful performance in the Western Conference Finals against his old team, the Lakers. A week and a half later he secured his second championship ring and helped the Nuggets to win their first ever NBA title.

The following Summer turned out to be a preview of things to come. Bruce Brown, another key addition to Denver’s championship roster, opted out of his player option and got paid more money by the Indiana Pacers than the Nuggets could offer. Watching Bruce leave was the signal to many that KCP, who had a player option for the ’24/’25 season, would be the next casualty come another year. However, some nuances of the CBA gave the Nuggets the ability to pay Pope far more than they could Brown though the penalties for doing so would likely be heavy. That was enough to give fans hope and belief that even if KCP opted out the Nuggets would retain him.

The ’23/’24 season played out similar to the one prior but with a fizzle instead of a bang at the end. The Nuggets started a PR campaign to get Pope recognition for his defense, calling him “first team” any time the cameras were around and making a point to let everyone know the nickname was based off their belief that KCP was a first team all defense level defender. That probably put some unfair expectations on Pope who certainly is an elite defender but never at a level to garner significant consideration for either first or second team all defense. Nonetheless, he continued to show up night in and night out with that same defensive intensity. His three point shooting slipped slightly but his true shooting eclipsed that elite 60% mark for the first time in his career. Once again the Nuggets marched to the playoffs as the favorites to come out of the West.

Unfortunately for Pope, he suffered a sprained ankle in the first round against the Lakers which ebbed his ability to be an elite defender. When the second round brought Anthony Edwards, perhaps the most dynamic scoring guard in the league with a frame that could serve an NFL linebacker, Pope started to look overmatched. By the end of the Minnesota series Michael Malone was using more and more of Christian Braun to cover Edwards and whether it was because of injury or simple exhaustion Braun looked like the better answer than Pope when it came to defending Ant. The season ended short of expectations with the Nuggets blowing a twenty point lead on their homecourt in the second half of game seven against Minnesota. Pope had twice as many games scoring six points or less than he did scoring in double figures in that series. He scored just five in the pivotal game seven which would turn out to be his last in a Denver uniform.

Despite an up and down 2024 playoffs, KCP still garnered plenty of interest in the free agent market after he declined his player option. Ultimately he ended up landing a three year, $22 million per deal from the Orlando Magic. The Nuggets had the ability to offer that much but elected not to. Such an offer meant crossing the second apron, a scenario that keeps NBA GMs and Governors alike awake until the wee hours of the night. With the Nuggets investing first round picks in Braun in 2022 and Julian Strawther in 2023 they were prepared to move forward without their starting two guard and ultimately that’s what they decided to do.

Will Braun be a capable replacement for Pope in the starting lineup? Everyone in Nuggets Nation now hopes so, but it doesn’t mean anyone thinks less of KCP, including myself, one of the most vocal supporters of moving forward with Braun as the starting two guard. It simply was a numbers game that the Nuggets planned for years in advance and are now executing the plan. No one can take away what Pope did for the Nuggets in helping them to win their first title and for that he will always be remembered very fondly in Nuggets lore. We wish nothing but the best for him and are thankful for getting to share in the ride to the top with him.

Jun 12, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; (Editors Notes: Caption Correction) Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) celebrates after winning 2023 NBA Championship against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports