Nuggets coach Michael Malone: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Christian Braun both winners

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

During that playoffs, which ended in a Lakers championship after knocking the Nuggets out of the Western Conference Finals in five games, Caldwell-Pope drew the assignment on Murray for more than 100 possessions. Hotter than anyone else left in the playoffs by then, Murray managed only 36% shooting with Caldwell-Pope draped on him.

Though the last two seasons (the first with the Lakers and this past season with Washington) haven’t yielded anywhere near the same postseason success, the Nuggets effectively threw Caldwell-Pope a lifeline. Their trade with the Wizards became official on 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 raved about his addition. At 6-foot-5, Caldwell-Pope will give the Nuggets size at shooting guard, a proficient 3-point option (at least 38% the past three seasons) and a player with a history of winning.

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

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

Malone thanked Morris and Barton for all they’d done to help get the Nuggets to the precipice of contention, but Caldwell-Pope was the piece Malone and general manager Calvin Booth keyed in on. In Caldwell-Pope, Malone said the Nuggets no longer needed to ask so much of Aaron Gordon on a nightly basis, and he predicted an even better season from Gordon as a result. That’s the functional trickle-down of adding a player like Caldwell-Pope.

Off the court, Malone said he’s already talked to Caldwell-Pope about embracing the team’s young backup 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 practice. Instead, someone like Caldwell-Pope will hold his teammates accountable.

With Caldwell-Pope, the Nuggets are working on building a championship culture.

First-round pick Christian Braun is a seamless fit in that regard. He left Kansas after winning a national championship, and that came on the heels of three consecutive high school championships in Kansas.

“Guys that have been around winning know what it takes,” Malone said. “The sacrifices, the discipline, the commitment.”

Malone said he could see Braun contributing next season — a rarity for a rookie on a contending team. In Braun, Malone sees a feisty competitor, not unlike himself, who craves contact and isn’t scared to go at a defender.

“The things I really love about him the most are his toughness and physicality,” Malone said.

The Nuggets view Braun at 6-foot-7 as a bigger shooting guard. If he can hold his own defensively, it’s a safe bet Malone will give him a chance.

Murray sighting: Malone sat intently Tuesday watching as Murray played 5-on-5 against Denver’s Summer League squad. According to Malone, it was the most intense 5-on-5 Murray has played since tearing his ACL in April 2021.

Malone said he didn’t care whether Murray was making shots or not. Instead, he was watching how he moved defensively, which was one of the hang-ups as Murray deliberated returning late last season.

“He was mobile, agile, hostile, versatile,” Malone said. “He looked comfortable. He looked confident. That’s the most important thing for me.”

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