The Nuggets are 8-1 and get a couple of well-deserved days off before Sunday’s matchup in Houston against the Rockets. DNVR Nuggets looks back at the most impressive aspect of Denver’s 8-1 start, discusses Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s defense, and who on the second unit needs to raise their game after a bad bench showing vs. the Warriors.
What has been the most impressive part of the Nuggets’ 8-1 start?
Adam Mares: The focus.
I fully expected a championship hangover out of the gate. That hasn’t happened. Nikola Jokic looks like a man on a mission and the entire team is following in his footsteps. There are a lot of young, inexperienced players on the roster. Often times a team moves at the pace of their weakest link. That hasn’t been the case. The Nuggets are 8-1 because they came into the year focused and dedicated to winning and building a lead in the wins column in the Western Conference.
Harrison Wind: The defense
What comes with a championship hangover is typically a laissez-faire approach on the defensive end of the floor. That’s not at all what we’ve seen with these Nuggets. Denver is the seventh-best defense so far and has several players playing engaged, committed, and attentive defense early on including Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. There’s been an early-season commitment to defense that I wasn’t expecting. But it’s one that Michael Malone has to be thrilled about. Now, he won’t have to spend the entire season convincing his team to buy in on that end.
Brendan Vogt: The bench
The rotation was working before Murray’s absence. Booth had a vision for his second unit, and it quickly materialized. Credit to the coaching staff for having them so prepared and the players for buying into their roles so fast. It’s not that any particular bench player looks like a revelation. It’s that they figured out how they should play together. That’s the key to surviving non-Jokić minutes, which is the key to winning 58 or more games. Life without Murray will put a strain on this dynamic.
How realistic is it for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to make First Team All-Defense or even win Defensive Player of the Year this season?
Mares: I think it’s tough but realistic. Like most awards, there needs to be a narrative behind KCP’s candidacy. The first part of the narrative is his performance. He’s held some high-profile players like Steph Curry and Desmond Bane to well below their season averages in his matchup with them this season. The second part of the narrative is the team’s record. If the Nuggets are the #1 overall seed, awards voters will start to look for people to credit. Lastly, the Nuggets need to finish in the top 7 or so on defense. If those three things happen, KCP should make an all-defensive team.
Wind: If Marcus Smart won the award then it’s possible for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to. Caldwell-Pope is a top-rate, elite perimeter defender. He’s at the level that Smart was at when he won it. But to be in the DPOY “conversation” the Nuggets as a team will have to be statistically one of the best defenses in the NBA (the Celtics were the top-ranked defense the year Smart won it). If Denver is in the top 10 at the end of the season, Caldwell-Pope should land on the All-Defense First Team. If they’re 1 or 2 and Caldwell-Pope keeps stacking these defensive performances, has a chance at the top honor.
Vogt: The DPOY award is hard to imagine. Not necessarily due to merit, at least so far, but the narrative leap-frogging it would require to stick out in voters’ minds. But making an All-Defense team is on the table. He and his teammates were wise to start that conversation early when many lasting impressions are formed. Paired with his legitimately impressive resume through the first nine games, it’s easy to buy what they’re selling. Lastly, Pope’s has won two championships, proving vital in both. That’s what it takes to change how you’re viewed and discussed around the league.
Who on the Nuggets’s second unit needs to step up after a bad bench game vs. the Warriors?
Mares: I’m not sure any one player needs to step up. Collectively, they need to rediscover their defensive identity. Grind the other teams down and look to get back out in transition. Fly around. If I were to narrow it down, I’d say that Christian Braun needs to find his three-point shot. As good as he is on defense, he won’t be nearly as impactful of a rotation piece if he can’t start knocking down his threes.
Wind: Christian Braun didn’t play in the preseason and he’s gotten off to a slow offensive start to the year, especially to us who thought he might be able to take a leap in that department this season. I thought Braun’s 3-point shot would be better and that he might have a little more of an off-the-dribble game this season. So far, we haven’t seen either one of those things. But I’m confident that Braun will start showing out once he gets his legs under him. He should be in a better rhythm going forward. As expected, his defense has been elite.
Vogt: Whoever is playing the point guard position. It’s mostly about defense, and I don’t think either guy is well-suited for what we want to see on that end. If that’s how it plays out, they need to salvage more out of the half-court offense. Whether that’s Collin Gillespie taking and making more shots or Jalen Pickett creating more for others, it has to look different than it did against Golden State.