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Film Friday Vol. 2: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's defense, Jalen Pickett, and Michael Malone's X's and O's

Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

Welcome to Film Friday, our weekly series where we'll be sharing the things we noticed over the last slew of Nuggets games—with, of course, the help of film.

The Denver Nuggets have maintained their top-dog status in the league. They're currently 9-2 on the season, tied for the best record in the NBA. They have yet to lose at home, a perfect 7-0, the association's best home record.

For the second edition of Film Friday, we'll be looking at Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's early All-Defense case, Michael Malone's sideline mastery, Jalen Pickett's debut, plus a quick shoutout to Reggie Jackson.

Kentavious Guards Well-Pope

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's had an insane start to the year as a defender. In fact, this might be his best season yet on that end of the floor. (That's not to say anything about his offense, by the way... KCP's shooting a blistering 45 percent from deep).

He's gotten some buzz within Denver's locker room as an All-Defensive teamer. Coach Malone has pushed his candidacy in multiple postgame pressers.

Caldwell-Pope's got a pretty convincing case, too. Denver's defense is a ridiculous 13.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, a 95th percentile on/off ranking at his position. Opponents are shooting just 35.8 percent when guarded by the 30-year-old, an asinine 10.9 percent worse than their normal shooting average of 46.7 percent.

Here are some notable performances from players guarded by Caldwell-Pope:

  • Brandon Ingram: 3-of-8 shooting (37.5 percent) and 4 turnovers.
  • Jordan Clarkson: 1-of-7 shooting (14.3 percent) and 1 turnover.
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 1-of-4 shooting (25 percent).
  • Kyrie Irving: 0-of-4 (0 percent) shooting.
  • Jalen Green: 1-of-3 shooting (33 percent).

His most impressive outing yet might've been against Stephen Curry. He held the two-time regular season MVP to 3-of-7 shooting (42.9 percent). However, the stats only tell half the story; KCP's constant ball pressure and denial made it impossible for the Golden State superstar to get into a rhythm. Curry finished with 23 points on 6-of-17 from the field (37.5 percent) in the Warriors' 108-105 loss.

Players are taught to keep an eye on their man and the ball when defending away from the action. But Steph is such a special offensive player—and more importantly, a five-alarm fire-worthy threat without the ball in his hands—that those rules must be done away with.

Caldwell-Pope face-guarded the future Hall of Famer throughout that cold November night. He tracked each and every one of Steph's many movements as the 35-year-old scurried around screens, and he was persistent about throwing a hand into the air to deny passing windows. It was textbook denial, and it removed Golden State's best player from multiple half-court actions. KCP did his work early... before Curry could even touch the ball. At one point, denying Steph gave Caldwell-Pope the opportunity to stick a paw in, poke away a steal, and set up a fast break.

KCP was exceptional defending on the ball, as well. When Golden State went to the pick-and-roll with Curry leading the dance, Caldwell-Pope was diligent about going over the top of screens to take away pull-up shooting opportunities from the greatest shooter of all time.

He's also adept at defending physically without fouling. KCP defends so well with his chest to make his assignments uncomfortable, and he keeps his hands raised high so that they can't hunt for calls. Just textbook perimeter defense.

Most impressive of all might've been his nonstop motor. As mentioned, Curry is at his most dangerous without the ball in his hands, a rarity in today's game. He alternates his speeds to catch defenders by surprise, at times slowing down to a stroll and then erupting into a full-out sprint to get open from deep. Defenders tend to let their guard down when their assignment passes to a teammate, and that's when Curry does the most damage.

Here, KCP did a great job going over the top of the ball screen and then caught up with Curry to force a pass out to the perimeter. But the play wasn't over yet, and KCP knew this. After passing out, Curry scurried over to the corner toward Dario Šarić. But Caldwell-Pope stuck to the four-time NBA champion like super glue and completely erased any possibility of him coming off an off-ball screen. Golden State was left with a floater from Andrew Wiggins, who missed.

Keep an eye on KCP's All-Defensive case.

Michael Malone's masterful tactics

Being a coach in the NBA is hard. Coaches are the easiest to blame when a team struggles, and they're typically the fall guys when things go wrong. There are very few coaches in the NBA with near-unanimous approval ratings from their fanbases; Michael Malone is one of them. In fact, he's one of the longest-tenured coaches in the association.

Malone didn't just lead Denver to its first-ever championship; he was a leading voice in fostering a culture of winning. He's widely described as a player's coach who finds a way to connect with each and every one of his players, one through fifteen. He's someone that players want to go to war for, night after night. That type of leadership is rare to find.

What sometimes goes under the radar is that Malone is also a mean X's and O's tactician.

It's fairly rare to get an all-out coaching battle of back-and-forth adjustments during the 82-game slate. Teams mostly use the regular season to build out their principles and chemistry, and they don't game plan as much for specific opponents. Yes, there are film sessions and overviews of scouting reports, but the playoffs are typically when we see intense wars of the minds between coaching staffs. Sometimes, coaches will even save certain adjustments for the playoff crucible. They don't want to tip their hand.

November 8th against Golden State wasn't one of those nights.

Throughout the evening, Denver defended Warrior pick-and-rolls in a very specific way. They had Jokić play higher up the floor to take away three-point opportunities from Curry, specifically. This style of pick-and-roll defense—called "hedging"—involved Jokić jumping out toward Curry when his man set a screen. Then, Jokić would recover back to his man when they rolled to the rim.

Head coach Steve Kerr caught on and quickly realized there was a finite window in which Jokić's man would have an unimpeded roll to the rim after setting the screen. Late in the fourth, Golden State had Kevon Looney set a ball screen for Curry. Denver, as they had all night, "hedged" the pick-and-roll by having Jokić briefly double-team Curry. This left Looney open on a roll to the basket.

Looney would then cut his roll short and stop halfway at about the free-throw line. This is known as "short rolling." From there, he caught the pass, turned toward the rim, and surveyed the floor.

Denver was forced to help in order to stop Looney's free lane to the cup. But when Christian Braun and Reggie Jackson slid over as the "low men" and "tagged" Looney's roll, their original assignments—Jonathan Kuminga and Wiggins—cut along the baseline to receive alley-oop passes from Looney.

The Nuggets were in a tricky spot. Malone needed Jokić playing higher up the floor on Curry's pick-and-rolls because of his three-point gravity, but they also couldn't allow Looney to have so much freedom thundering down the lane. So, Malone counter-adjusted. And boy, what a doozy it was.

Malone solved the problem by moving Jokić away from Looney altogether. At first, that meant guarding Šarić, and when Šarić set a screen for Curry, Jokić ignored him entirely when the Warrior big popped to the top of the arc to miss a three-pointer.

(Looney, meanwhile, was away from the action and neutralized by Aaron Gordon. If Golden State went to screening actions between Curry and Looney, Denver could simply switch and have their wing-stopper, Gordon, pick up Curry.)

When veteran point guard Chris Paul checked in, Malone got even more devious. He moved Jokić, his 6'11 center, onto Paul, all 6-foot flat of him. 38-year-old Paul is not much of a threat to get to the rim, nor is he dangerous from three-point land, and he does most of his damage from the midrange. So, when Golden State gave Paul the ball to cook against Jokić, Denver's center shadowed Paul masterfully on one of his patented baseline fadeaway jumpers. It was an unconventional strategy from Malone, but a genius one.

Malone was at it again 6 days later.

Clippers head coach Ty Lue similarly targeted Denver's defense. Jokić was once again playing higher up the floor on pick-and-rolls to account for the scorching-hot Paul George, who finished with a game-high 35 points. So, Lue went small by putting 6'5 forward Terance Mann on the floor and using him as a screener for George.

On one play, Mann set a screen, got into the "short roll," and made a pass to Russell Westbrook cutting baseline from the corner. Very similar to what Golden State did just under a week ago. Later, the threat of Mann's short roll helped George turn the corner and finish a layup past Jokić.

It was Malone's turn to punch back. However, instead of fidgeting with Jokić's defensive responsibility like last time, the Nuggets simply attacked the Clippers for going small on the other end.

The Nuggets ran the same play five straight times—with two "wedge" screens at the elbows to get Jokić deep positioning down on the block—and got points out of every possession.

The Clippers switched on Denver's "wedge" screens, which regularly gave Jokić the mismatch with one of LA's forwards. At first, Lue had his wings—George and Kawhi Leonard—guard Joker in single coverage but to no avail. When LA did bring over a secondary defender, Jokić was quick to pass to an open teammate and capitalize against the 4-of-3 advantage.

"It's a play that we usually run for our power forwards," said Malone when asked by Nuggets.com about the sequence. "It's something that I had on my play-call sheet as a go-to play for Nikola when teams are switching pick-and-rolls. And the great thing about that play is that he has the option to post-up directly depending on how they guard him on the initial screen. He starts on the right wing, and if he doesn't go into the post, now he's playing side pick-and-roll. If they're gonna switch that, then you have Nikola being guarded by a small, and that's usually an advantage for Nikola."

Denver ran the wedge play to the tune of 2 points per possession, remarkable halfcourt efficiency, and it completely destroyed LA's small-ball lineups.

"It's just something that we have within our play calls, but I really rarely run it with Nikola," said Malone. "But I'm glad I did tonight because down the stretch, obviously, we milked it, and Nikola and Reggie (Jackson) made all the right plays."

Denver is 4-1 in crunch time because of Malone's end-of-game execution. They have the best clutch defense and the fourth-best clutch offense. It seems almost criminal, but Malone's never finished higher than third place in Coach of the Year voting in ten NBA seasons. Perhaps this is the year...

Jalen Pickett's debut

Jalen Pickett, drafted 32nd overall out of Penn State University in this June's draft, made his official debut on Tuesday against the LA Clippers. The second-rounder didn't look out of his element. In fact, he looked like he belonged.

Pickett finished with 5 points on 2-of-3 shooting to go with 2 assists, 2 rebounds, and a steal in 17 minutes. Modest numbers on the surface. Though, his performance earned praise from some of Denver's veterans.

"Phenomenal confidence. Not scared the moment," said Reggie Jackson. "Knowing you're the point guard, like, he was really even-keeled. Even during the tough times, his face was pretty even-keeled. I can see him thinking—he's trying to figure out how to be better. But I think just his demeanor really helped and (he) did a great job of running that second unit."

Pickett's poise stood out when we profiled his game in the Nuggets Knowledge video series this offseason. He's an incredibly cerebral player and an instinctual passer, making him a natural in the pick-and-roll. Denver went to a double pick-and-roll for Pickett (widely known as "double drag") with Zeke Nnaji rolling to the rim and Aaron Gordon popping behind the arc, and Pickett hit Gordon right on the money for an open three-point shot. Right idea.

Later, Denver went to the pick-and-roll with Christian Braun screening for Pickett. When LA switched, Pickett eagerly rained down a three over the slow-footed Ivaca Zubac. Punishing defenses for poor decision-making will be key for the 24-year-old at this level, and he passed that test on Tuesday.

Pickett's unselfishness stood out in his debut. He's always scanning the floor to find an open teammate. Halfway through the second quarter, Pickett drove past Kawhi Leonard and then hit Michael Porter Jr. in his sweet spot for an open jumper. Pickett is very comfortable tossing these "skip passes" over the heads of defenders.

His willingness—no, better yet—near-religiousness about making the right play is almost Jokić-esque. Twice, Nikola found Pickett on passes that could've potentially led to good shots. But instead of taking those shots—a transition three-pointer and a potential floater along the baseline—Pickett passed the ball back to Jokić for an even better pair of close-range shots.

He turned good shots into great ones. Straight out of the gospel of Jokić.

Pickett also ignited Denver's fastbreak on two separate occasions.

The first play was a well-timed handoff to give Aaron Gordon a runway to the basket. His second transition play was even more impressive. The Penn State product grabbed the rebound and pushed the pace all the way up to the three-point line with just Leonard in front of him. This put Kawhi in an impossible situation, stuck choosing between Pickett and Caldwell-Pope. Leonard eventually stepped up to Pickett, and the moment he did so, the savvy point guard kicked to KCP at the left wing.

These plays may appear simple initially, but they're integral and keep the chain moving in Denver's free-flowing offense.

What was most encouraging was his defense. He looked perfectly comfortable navigating the pick-and-roll, here mixing in an "under" with an "over" against pick-and-roll maestro, James Harden.

("Over" refers to when a player goes over the top of a ball screen and "under" refers to when he goes underneath it.)

Pickett also held his own when guarding post-ups. He used his chest and strong low base to force Leonard into a miss, one of the most powerful players in the NBA. Similarly, Pickett's 202-pound fire hydrant frame bumped Russell Westbrook into an ugly turnover.

Jalen's strength is a major weapon, and it makes him a viable fit within the Nuggets' bench defense, which tends to swap assignments frequently. Opponents not being able to back down Denver's rookie point guard after switches would be a major development. There's no playing him off the floor, at least not by the use of sheer physicality.

There are things that Pickett will need to work on. He's still adjusting to the speed of the NBA game, though he's much improved at that even since the preseason. Lengthy defenders can occasionally slow him down on offense. But holistically, Pickett's debut went about as well as it could've. He certainly made a strong case for himself to earn more minutes.

A quick shoutout to Reggie Jackson

Reggie Jackson has filled in admirably for Jamal Murray. He's averaging 15 points on 50 percent shooting and 40.9 percent from deep since Denver's starting point guard went down with a hamstring strain. In his last three contests, those numbers have risen to 17.3 points per game on 52.5 percent shooting.

His chemistry with Jokić seems to grow by the game. Jackson is getting visibly better at knowing when and how to cut off Jokić's passing. The give-and-go between both players has been one of Denver's key actions. 62.5 percent of Reggie's points have come off drives to the rim, and he's shooting 50 percent from the field in this setting.

Unforeseen circumstances have thrust Jackson into the starting point guard role, and he's done one heck of a job keeping the ship afloat while Murray recovers.

There's a lot left in the tank for the twelve-year NBA veteran. Denver wouldn't be where they are without him.

All statistics courtesy of NBA Stats, PBP Stats, Synergy Statistics, Second Spectrum, or Cleaning the Glass unless stated otherwise.