October 4, 2022

When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope swarmed Jamal Murray — then a scorching supernova — in the 2020 playoff “Bubble,” the Nuggets never forgot who poured cold water on their magical Disney run.

During those playoffs, which ended with a Lakers championship after eliminating the Nuggets from the Western Conference Finals in five games, Caldwell-Pope tied Murray for more than 100 possessions. Hotter than anyone else in the playoffs at that time, Murray was only 36% shooting with Caldwell-Pope draped over him.

Although the past two seasons (first with the Lakers and last season with Washington) haven’t yielded the same playoff success, the Nuggets have indeed thrown Caldwell-Pope a lifeline. Their trade to the Wizards became official Wednesday, sending starters Monte Morris and Will Barton to Washington in exchange for Caldwell-Pope and reserve guard Ish Smith.

Speaking for the first time since the deal was finalized, Nuggets coach Michael Malone praised his addition. At 6-foot-5, Caldwell-Pope will give the Nuggets size at shooting guard, a competent 3-point option (at least 38 percent over the past three seasons) and a player with a winning history.

“He’s seen what it takes to win a championship,” Malone said.

Caldwell-Pope started all 21 Lakers playoff games that season, averaging nearly 30 minutes per game. Considering who he replaces (Will Barton) and the 29-year-old’s strengths, it’s a significant improvement.

Malone thanked Morris and Barton for all they had done to help the Nuggets from the precipice of discord, but Caldwell-Pope was the piece Malone and general manager Calvin Booth leaned on. At Caldwell-Pope, Malone said the Nuggets no longer need to ask Aaron Gordon so much every night, and he predicted an even better season from Gordon as a result. It’s the functional trickle of adding a player like Caldwell-Pope.

Off the field, Malone said he’s already spoken to Caldwell-Pope about embracing the team’s young point guard, Bones Hyland, and priming him with a championship mindset. In an ideal world, Malone won’t have to raise his voice during a low-energy workout. Instead, someone like Caldwell-Pope will hold his teammates accountable.

Along with Caldwell-Pope, the Nuggets are working to build a championship culture.

First-round pick Christian Braun is a perfect fit in that regard. He left Kansas after winning a national championship, and that followed three consecutive Kansas high school championships.

“Guys who have won know what it takes,” Malone said. “The sacrifices, the discipline, the commitment.”

Malone said he could see Braun contribute next season – a rarity for a rookie on a contending team. In Braun, Malone sees a fiery competitor, much like him, who craves contact and isn’t afraid to go for a defender.

“What I love most about him is his tenacity and his physicality,” Malone said.