Today marks 43 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 6: How will the Nuggets utilize Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown?

Even though injury reinforcements were on the way, the Denver Nuggets knew they had to solve some roster issues before the 2022-23 season.

Jamal Murray missed Denver’s last two playoff runs and wasn’t able to affect the losing results against either the Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors. Michael Porter Jr. struggled against Phoenix, but he too missed the Golden State series. The Nuggets were clearly outmatched, and though they still found ways to score in each series, the offense wasn’t serious, and neither Phoenix nor Golden State feared Denver. They knew they could pick apart Denver on the other end and come up with enough stops when it mattered.

So, even though Murray and Porter are poised to return with a vengeance, Michael Malone, Calvin Booth, and the rest of the Nuggets brass knew that this offseason would be one of change. Denver had to get serious about winning, and they had to do so quickly.

Denver’s largest area of weakness on the roster? Perimeter defense. Both the Suns and the Warriors picked apart Denver’s porous defense by attacking Jokić relentlessly in pick and roll. It wouldn’t have been such an issue if the Nuggets had capable perimeter defenders to make these actions just a bit more difficult run over and over again. Unfortunately, Denver’s backcourt of Monte Morris, Will Barton, Bones Hyland, Facu Campazzo, Austin Rivers, and Bryn Forbes just wasn’t enough to prove any true resistance from the guard spots. Rivers was good, but his offense was not, and the Nuggets were forced to make no-win choices no matter what lineup they decided to play.

The Nuggets needed to make perimeter defense a priority. It began in the draft with Christian Braun and Peyton Watson as project wing defenders, but the Nuggets also looked for players who could help out sooner rather than later in both the draft and free agency.

So, they identified Washington Wizards shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brooklyn Nets guard Bruce Brown as the best players they could get, and they made it happen.

In my Nuggets offseason free agency and trade target list, Brown and KCP ranked third and fourth respectively among players the Nuggets had to make a play for. First on the list was Kevin Durant (because you just have to ask). Second was Gary Payton II, another great guard defender who ended up changing teams. Brown was third, highlighted because of his free agent status and his versatility on both ends of the floor. Caldwell-Pope was fourth, highlighted because of his steadiness as a 3&D shooting guard with championship experience.

The Nuggets, in theory, added two of the very best players they could afford to acquire that will tangibly improve the team on the defensive end.

In practice, it will take some time to figure out the best ways to deploy each player.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

When the Nuggets acquired Caldwell-Pope, they were criticized for making a financial move, sending away two of their starters for one in return, plus Ish Smith as a backup point guard option. While the financial critiques are misguided at best, the truly important aspect of adding Caldwell-Pope to the Nuggets is how seamless the fit projects to be.

On the offensive end, KCP has shown the ability to space the floor at a high level for his star teammates. In his last five regular seasons (369 games) KCP has shot 38.0% from three-point range on 1,790 attempts. In his playoff career, KCP has shot 37.0% from three as well. There’s enough of a sample size to confirm that the Nuggets just acquired a really strong outside shooter.

Caldwell-Pope will primarily be an outside shooter, but he can also do a variety of other things on offense at a reasonable level. He ran pick and rolls and handoffs with about average efficiency, mixed in some cuts to the basket, and got out in transition. When asked to do something on offense, he’s never incapable of executing actions, which will come in handy for a Nuggets team that prides itself on versatility and variability.

Defensively will be where Caldwell-Pope shines though. The Nuggets needed to add a perimeter defender to their starting lineup capable of matching up with lead ball handlers consistently. While KCP isn’t the best perimeter defender in the league, he’s consistently solid. He executes defensive schemes, jumps passing lanes, and challenges players at the point of attack. The best of the best will still get theirs, but KCP makes them work for it, and that’s what matters.

KCP’s signature defensive move? The strip steal on shot attempts that actually gets counted as a block. It’s uncanny.

In a lineup featuring Murray, Porter, and Jokić, Caldwell-Pope represents a capable option to take on difficult perimeter assignments in the Western Conference playoff race. Players like Stephen Curry, Devin Booker, Ja Morant, and Paul George, and Anthony Edwards are some of the primary scorers the Nuggets have struggled to defend in recent years. KCP won’t shut those guys down, but he will do a solid job against most of them.

KCP is also a solid switch defender against smaller and bigger players. With the Wizards, KCP was often defending the primary ball handler when opponents screened him to try and generate a switch. He capably guards point guards, shooting guards, and most small forwards, and he even battles capably against bigs. When other teams downsize in clutch time, the Nuggets can feel comfortable doing the same knowing that KCP will be a capable defender against whoever he faces. That dependability is exceptionally important for a Nuggets team that hasn’t had much of it lately.

When KCP is on the floor, game plans for the Nuggets will be very straightforward. There will be times where Denver tries to expand beyond the normal stuff, but the offense and defense will be so good in how simplistic they are. The formula for Denver will be mostly unstoppable, even when opposing teams know what’s coming. As long as KCP gets back to his best self on the defensive end, he will be a perfect role player for Denver next year.

Bruce Brown

In some ways, Brown and Caldwell-Pope are funhouse mirror versions of the same type of role player contenders need to be successful. While KCP is reliable as a defender and shooter, Brown is stronger as a defender, weaker as a shooter, and brings a unique mix of other skills to the table.

For the last two seasons, Brown has filled an interesting role for the Brooklyn Nets, ranging from an off-ball floor spacer to secondary ball handler. He even set guard-to-guard screens frequently and rolled to the rim as a nominal big man.

Normally, complementary guards space the floor for other ball handlers in the corners or above the break. Not Brown though. Among the 138 assisted baskets Brown scored from Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Patty Mills, and Goran Dragic last season, 119 of them were two-pointers. Just 19 of those baskets were three-pointers, with brown showcasing some unique tendencies as a cutter, slasher, and roller to the rim.

Brown very rarely is stationary on the offensive end. He likes to keep moving, finding the gaps in the defense. This often creates easy shots for himself and others, but also has the gravity effect that many teams are looking for from certain actions. Teams have to keep an eye on Brown because he’s liable to disappear at any time.

Brown also operated as a roll man in the pick and roll plenty of times the last two seasons. He wasn’t nearly as efficient in 2021-22 (0.84 points per possession as the roll man, 14th percentile) as he was in 2020-21 (1.14 ppp, 55th percentile), but it’s an action that he’s clearly capable of performing within the flow of the offense.

Brown hasn’t operated as much of a facilitator for others in Brooklyn as he was in Detroit, but that’s mostly due to the presence of Durant, Irving, Harden, Mills, and Dragic throughout the last two seasons. He’s shown plenty of court vision, and he had 13 games with at least five assists last season. By comparison, Aaron Gordon had just nine games with five or more assists out of 75 contests.

The Nuggets will have an opportunity to use Brown in very unique ways next season. When he plays with Nikola Jokić, Brown will be moving toward the basket constantly. It will either be as a screener for Jokić in big-small pick and rolls or as an off-ball cutter when Jokić surveys the floor. Either way, expect to see some highlight dunks and finishes from the Jokić-Brown connection.

When it’s not Jokić though, Brown will likely have two primary functions in halfcourt offense. He will be a slasher off the catch when Bones Hyland or Jamal Murray is creating off the dribble, or Brown himself will be screening for those guys in guard to guard actions. Players like Zeke Nnaji, Jeff Green, and Davon Reed could certainly benefit from Brown screening in the middle of the floor.

Defensively, Brown is exceptional at the point of attack. Often tasked with the toughest assignments on a Nets team with few defenders, Brown guarded players like Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday, Donovan Mitchell, and Tyler Herro fairly well on-ball. At 25 years old, Brown has quick, agile feet on the perimeter and can slide pretty well to wall off the paint. He also has long arms and springs in his legs that he uses to make defensive plays frequently.

More than anything, the Nuggets need athleticism and playmaking on the defensive end of the floor. Denver’s scheme is often very conservative and doesn’t call for players to hunt for steals often. Brown gives the Nuggets an option who can do that. Brown’s 2.1% steal rate ranks 19th among the 134 players to play as many minutes as him (Jokić actually ranks 17th at 2.2% which is hilarious).

Among the same 134 players, Brown’s block rate of 2.6% ranks 23rd. That was actually the top number among all guards to play the same number of minutes. Brown’s wingspan and leaping ability certainly show through on the defensive end of the floor.

Almost certainly, Brown will take the toughest perimeter defensive assignment for the Nuggets, even when Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon are both on the floor. There will be exceptions, but Brown just makes plays. He has a good sense of the game plan and has the physical gifts to execute said plan. He’s a perimeter defender the Nuggets haven’t had access to since Gary Harris in the 2020 bubble playoffs.

As the Nuggets progress through the 2022-23 season, it will become increasingly clear that Caldwell-Pope and Brown are each essential to Denver’s vision. Murray and Jokić have always been the backbone of Denver’s high level playoff offense. Beyond those two, there are plenty of lineup configurations Denver could use at any point.

Porter will be out there consistently as his all-around game improves. Gordon remains a big part of things on both ends of the floor. Bones Hyland is still improving. Mixing in Caldwell-Pope and Brown as steady, defensive-minded veterans gives Denver options. One or both of them could be out there at any time, and deploying both at the same time gives the Nuggets their best chance at playoff caliber defense. Even if Porter and Bones prove to have too many weaknesses defensively, Caldwell-Pope and Brown will have no such issues. They’re proven. Ready-made.

When the Nuggets match up with the Warriors, Brown makes sense as a Steph Curry defender while Caldwell-Pope switches between Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole, and Andrew Wiggins. When it’s the Suns, Brown will probably match up with Chris Paul while Caldwell-Pope guards Devin Booker. If it’s the Clippers, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George matchups become more dicey due to their size, but there will be plenty of guards and wings to guard throughout the series like Reggie Jackson, John Wall, Terance Mann, and Luke Kennard.

If the Nuggets do end up pushing for a deep playoff run, expect both Caldwell-Pope and Brown to be the role players Michael Malone trusts most down the stretch.