The Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers will tip-off Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight.

For the Nuggets, this is their greatest opportunity to win an NBA championship in franchise history, the moment the organization and fans have been waiting for. After falling short due to injuries and roster holes in the previous two seasons, the Nuggets are back on the doorstep of their first NBA Finals birth. Nikola Jokić is playing out of his mind. Jamal Murray has been an ideal second star to shoulder some of the burden throughout the process. Michael Porter Jr. has had stretches of dominance that have changed Denver’s fortunes for the better. Aaron Gordon has filled his role perfectly.

For the Lakers, this is an opportunity to get Banner 18. The Lakers and Boston Celtics are tied at 17 championships apiece, an embarrassment of riches that is foreign to the Nuggets franchise. After two bad years in a row and what was looking like a third midway through this season, the Lakers traded away Russell Westbrook and acquired D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley, three players that have helped them throughout the process to recover their lost season and turn their fortunes around. LeBron James isn’t at his best, but he’s still awesome. Anthony Davis has stepped up as the best player on the team. The Lakers are a defensive team again, led by Davis, and it’s helped them reach another Conference Finals.

These teams know who they are. The Nuggets have known for awhile now, and while the Lakers are just finding their stride, they’re still here, and they’re still dangerous. Both of these teams can win a championship, and when LeBron senses that opportunity, he rarely falls short. Jokić and the Nuggets are their strongest challenger though and offer unique challenges that may be impossible to overcome.

The X-Factors may shift the series one direction or the other, and for the Nuggets, that player is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Nuggets acquired Caldwell-Pope in late June of 2022 between the draft and free agency. Denver had already selected both Christian Braun and Peyton Watson and would ultimately still add Bruce Brown in free agency; however, the Caldwell-Pope trade was the most consequential of the offseason for the Nuggets. They sent Will Barton and Monte Morris, two longterm veteran voices, to the Washington Wizards for Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith. The public were split on this deal for Denver, seeing as it was a significant price to pay for a 3&D role player.

What wasn’t in question was Caldwell-Pope’s fit with the Nuggets as the perfect shooting guard to start between Murray, Porter, Gordon, and Jokić. In the five years preceding his trade to Denver, Caldwell-Pope had played 369 games, starting 267 of them, as an off-ball wing whose main job was to play defense. He wasn’t always a strong defender, but he improved over time and turned into an integral role player for the Lakers championship run in 2020 (through the Bubble Nuggets). Caldwell-Pope figured out that his best path as an NBA player was to be a 3&D wing, shooting when open and defending all the time, and the Nuggets saw that as a great option to complete their starting five this year.

Caldwell-Pope was an immediate success in Denver, maintaining career highs in shooting efficiency, steals, and blocks. His plus-minus numbers were incredible, and he complemented exactly what the Nuggets had in Jokić and Murray. Caldwell-Pope didn’t need an excessive number of shot attempts or touches to fill his role to perfection, and his willingness to play such a role kept him on the floor in almost every single big moment the Nuggets had this season.

When the Nuggets needed him to step up and shoot a bit more, he was able to accomplish that too, scoring 21 points in the first half of Game 6 against the Phoenix Suns to effectively end that series. After having to guard Devin Booker for the entire series, Caldwell-Pope stepped up on both ends in a clutch situation and delivered the dagger, because that’s what great veterans do. They understand the moment and capitalize.

Caldwell-Pope, Smith, DeAndre Jordan, and Jeff Green have been great veterans for this Nuggets team. Having played in the NBA for a long time and each seen different situations throughout their careers, their collective knowledge and experience helped the Nuggets navigate the regular season without an issue. There were questions as to whether the Nuggets could step up their intensity and attention-to-detail heading into the playoffs, and the Nuggets have answered those questions. The veterans have a lot to do with that, and their ability to help the Nuggets solve problems throughout the regular season and playoffs has been greatly understated, often be me.

It’s hard to just be a leader in the locker room or on the sidelines though. The Nuggets needed some leaders on the floor. Caldwell-Pope has slowly transitioned into that for Denver, serving as one of the leading communicators throughout the game. It was Caldwell-Pope who focused in on how little the Nuggets communicated defensively early in the season. He and other veterans helped to instill that if Denver was to become a great defense like the 2020 Lakers, they would have to communicate and help each other. That aspect of Denver’s defense has improved so much, and it’s taken that leadership and focus in order to make it happen for 48 minutes a night.

If the Nuggets are going to defeat the Lakers in a playoff series, it will be because of their togetherness, attention to detail, and force of will. Talent is another part of the equation, and the Nuggets certainly have that in spades, but it’s not the most important factor anymore. The Lakers are clearly talented enough to win this series too. It will be the intangibles that separate these two teams, and those intangibles manifest from great habits and attention to detail.

Caldwell-Pope isn’t perfect, but he’s a great example of how the Nuggets have to approach this series. Understanding the opponent’s tendencies inside and out is part of the equation. Competing to win the margins on that scouting report is what separates a great player from a champion. Caldwell-Pope knows that and has instilled that mentality in Denver. It’s why the Nuggets were ready to execute defensively against Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. It’s how they found the pressure points against an elite team and made them look like something far less threatening by the end of the series. They sought out every bit of an edge that they could find, and the series turned out to be easier by the end as a result.

Caldwell-Pope doesn’t have a direct matchup in this series like he did against Booker and the Suns. The Lakers run their offense mostly through LeBron and AD, though there are several guards to also account for. D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves are starters in the backcourt, averaging 15.7 and 15.4 points per game as a result. Either of them can score, and when they do, good things often happen. Russell has scored over 15 points in seven of their 12 games, and the Lakers are 7-0 when it happens. Reaves has four games of 20+ points, and the Lakers are 4-0 in those games. Allowing the Lakers guards to get in a rhythm allows LeBron and AD the opportunity to catch their breath.

When Russell scores 15 points or fewer, the Lakers are 1-4. When Reaves scores under 20 points, the Lakers are 4-4. When those events occur in the same game, the Lakers are 1-3. It seems apparent that limiting the Lakers role players can be a recipe for success.

Caldwell-Pope will have to find a way to shut down his matchups multiple times throughout the series. He will likely spend time on both Russell and Reaves. He will likely spend some time on Dennis Schroder as well, who’s liable to score if his outside jumper is falling. If those three players have success in this series, it will be that much more difficult for the Nuggets to stop the Lakers offensively. The trades the Lakers made to become more dynamic have allowed them to put multiple playmakers and decision makers on the floor and help make LeBron’s life easier. Shutting that down will be key to Denver’s success, and Caldwell-Pope is capable of leading that charge.

There will also be moments when Caldwell-Pope defends LeBron while Aaron Gordon slides over to guard Anthony Davis. If that’s the case, Caldwell-Pope will have to be stout in the post and wall off the paint as best as he can. Preventing LeBron from getting to the rim in those situations may seem like a fool’s errand, but if Caldwell-Pope can at least make LeBron work, there’s potential for fatigue to help the Nuggets out, especially at altitude. Whether the Nuggets start with that matchup or are forced to switch into it, Caldwell-Pope can’t be a non-factor against LeBron defensively.

On the other end of the floor, the Lakers will try and defend Jokić straight up with Anthony Davis. That probably won’t work though, and if it doesn’t work, the Lakers will have to be more creative with their help defense. Perhaps they switch up the matchups and use Davis as a roaming defender off of Aaron Gordon. Perhaps the Lakers simply shrink the floor a bit more and dare the Nuggets shooters to hit shots.

Whatever the case may be, Caldwell-Pope will have to hit outside shots, run in transition, and occasionally generate an open look in dribble handoffs. The Lakers will have to live with Caldwell-Pope shooting because of how dangerous the rest of Denver’s rotation is. Leaving Murray, Porter, or Jokić on the perimeter isn’t an option for teams, meaning they’re more prone to leave Caldwell-Pope in big moments. The Nuggets veteran has proven his ability to hit big shots in big moments, and those moments will appear once again in the Conference Finals. If Caldwell-Pope hits those shots, there’s little the Lakers can do to stop it.

For all of those reasons, Caldwell-Pope is my X-Factor in this series. He’s not a natural X-Factor in that he could put up crooked scoring performances or be the shutdown defender on the opposing team’s star in this series. For that reason, he’s the guy I will be watching. How does he leave an imprint on this series? Can he shut down the ancillary players in the Lakers rotation? Can he take advantage of the Lakers likely trying to hide D’Angelo Russell on him for most of the series? In a situation where there’s not the perfect role for him to fill, how does he stand out in a positive way?

In the bubble, Gary Harris tried to fill this role against the Lakers in the Conference Finals. He was awful, despite having played a major impact against both Donovan Mitchell and Paul George in each of the two previous matchups. There was no star guard or wing for Harris to guard in the bubble, and he couldn’t find a way to impact the game as a result.

Does the same fate befall Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in this series?

Time will tell.