Nuggets Mailbag: Nikola Jokić's MVP case, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's toughest matchups, and team culture

Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

Welcome to the first regular season Nuggets mailbag where we answer fan questions from our X and Instagram accounts. Topics include Nikola Jokić's early MVP candidacy, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's toughest matchups, cultivating a positive team culture, work-life balance in basketball, and much more.

It should be known that none of the answers provided reflect the thoughts and opinions of the front office and coaching staff. Be sure to follow our socials to stay up to date and be on the lookout for when we do our next mailbag column.

Now, onto your questions!

@kollinkolbb on Instagram: Can Jokić win MVP?

Well, given that he just won Western Conference Player of the Month, it sure seems like it. Jokić has totaled the most points, rebounds, and assists in the entire NBA. He's averaging career highs in both points (29) and rebounds (12.8) per game. He's shooting 78.8 percent on floaters and leads the league in shooting percentage from 5-to-9 feet away from the rim (where players typically take hook shots and floaters).

He's got a deserving case.

@jasonlundgren_ on Instagram: What is the team's approach to creating a positive team culture and chemistry among the players?

The coaching staff encourages players to play their games. That seems to be the biggest thing. It keeps guys happy. They're getting to do what they like on the court while working within their comfort zones.

Players aren't being molded into a system. The system molds to them. It's a free-flowing, selfless style of basketball.

The process begins in the offseason. The front office targets players who already play like Nuggets. They search for good personality fits, as well, within Denver's unselfish culture. That makes the transition to joining a new team a little easier. From there, it's just basketball.

@budino97 on Instagram: Who is the hardest player faced by KCP?

Kentavious has faced a lot of good players. He typically guards opposing teams' best wings and guards, and there are a lot of talented NBA players at those two positions. He's basically guarding a star-level offensive force every single night.

And he's been terrific at it. There's a reason the team has been so vocal about KCP's All-Defensive Team candidacy.

His toughest matchup might've been Anthony Edwards, who scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting in the 6:23 minutes they were matched up.

His best defensive performance? Maybe against Steph Curry on November 8th. KCP held the two-time MVP to a 3-for-7 night. In fact, that's something we wrote about in the second edition of our Film Friday column. So, go check that out if you want to learn more!

@josh_turner651 on Instagram: How do you balance basketball and life?

This is a really interesting question. I think that answer largely varies from player to player. In fact, there are pretty distinct differences in approach on this Nuggets team. Jokić, for example, is pretty vocal about balancing his personal life with hoops. He goes home every summer to Sombor, Serbia to spend time with family and race horses. KCP and Reggie Jackson, meanwhile, were in the gym just a few weeks after the Nuggets won the championship. There isn't a "right" way of finding that balance; it's just about whatever works for each individual player.

Here's what newcomer Justin Holiday had to say on the matter a couple of weeks ago.

"I actually don't watch that much basketball. I don't watch sports at all, really. Once I leave here, I leave it," said Holiday. "I have two daughters at home, and I'm usually either doing something with them or watching whatever they wanna watch."

It hasn't always been that way for Holiday.

"When I was younger, I was immersed in this game and it was unhealthy for me, so I learned ways to figure it out," said Holiday. "I think that lesson being learned is different for everyone. Because I know guys who have been in the league as much as me who still love to play basketball, (and) they were able to handle that better than I was.

"And, shoot, early on, I watched a lot of my games over and I used to be hard on myself. So, it is important to give yourself grace and not be hard on yourself. Figure out how you can learn the game and just be as healthy as possible with it. Whatever that is for you. What worked for me was eliminating all that (and) taking myself away from the game once I left. And when I came back, we were ready to go and get to it, and that's helped me."

@j.illl on Instagram: How did Jokić get such good court awareness?

I love this question. It reminds me a lot of one of the biggest qualms in psychology: Nature vs. Nurture.

Is passing an innate skill? Or is it something you can develop?

I'm of the mind that, yes, being able to pass the basketball is something that's given at birth. Players can improve a great deal as a playmaker. Take Bradley Beal, for example, who saw his assists averages jump by more than 30 percent in his late 30's.

But the truly elite passers are that way from day one. The Magic Johnson's, the LeBron James's, or the Steve Nash's of the world.

Jokić is in that class. He's one of the best passers ever. And he's been that way from the moment he first stepped onto NBA hardwood.

@jerdriggs on Instagram: What can the bench do to replicate the “nasty” that was lost when Bruce left?

I actually think the team has done a pretty good job replacing this aspect of Bruce Brown's skill set.

Peyton Watson's defense has been the definition of "nasty," especially as of late. Some of the blocks he skies for and the steals he picks off are absolutely outrageous, and he's done a great job guarding opposing stars. Just this weekend, he held Kevin Durant to 1-of-9 shooting.

The force that Christian Braun plays with on offense certainly replicates some of Brown's "nastiness." Braun is a total beast in transition, and he's much improved at getting downhill for thunderous drives to the rim. Fastbreak scoring and straight-line driving were some of Brown's most valuable skills, especially during the postseason, and Braun's taken a pretty sizable step in both.

@ethanfarrar_w on Instagram: Do you think the team relies on Jokić too much?

No. Not at all, actually.

Yes, Denver runs a majority of their offense through Jokić either in the post, at the top of the arc, or with him as a screener.

Jok leads the team in average touches per game (74.4). However, he's seventh on the team in average seconds per touch (2.82) behind the likes of Jamal Murray, Reggie Jackson, Jalen Pickett, Collin Gillespie, Aaron Gordon, and Christian Braun. He's eighth on the team in average dribbles per touch (1.59) behind the players mentioned above, plus Julian Strawther.

Jokić is touching the ball a lot but gets off it quickly. It's the secret sauce to Denver's egalitarian offense. He doesn't pound the air out of the basketball; he simply receives it and makes decisions quickly. It's honestly remarkable that Nikola's averaging 29 points per game while barely holding onto the basketball for more than a couple of seconds.

Compare this to, say, Stephen Curry, who is averaging about the same number of points per game (29.1). Curry, who's wildly regarded as an unselfish player, is averaging 4.65 seconds per touch and is taking 4.69 dribbles per touch. Giannis Antetokounmpo is at 3.5 seconds per touch and 2.54 dribbles.

You're always going to run your offense through your best player, but Denver does it in a way where Jokić isn't dominating the basketball. It's why the entire starting lineup, plus Reggie Jackson, is averaging more than 10 points per game.

@_kim.tang_ on Instagram: Could a Jokić and Jordan PNR be a thing?

It could be! Jokić is basically a 6'11 point guard. Denver will run plays with Jok handling the ball, and Aaron Gordon screening and rolling to the rim. They've connected for some pretty sweet highlight dunks in the past with this alignment.

Jordan, meanwhile, is still a ferocious pick-and-roll player who can get above the rim for alley-oops. He and Nikola could certainly do some damage together in the screen-and-roll game.

I think the bigger question comes on defense. One of Jordan or Jokić will have to guard the opposing team's power forward. Against certain teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves who play two centers at the same time (Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert), that might make sense. Versus another team like, I don't know, the Oklahoma City Thunder? Not so much. Jokić or Jordan guarding Lu Dort or Jalen Williams doesn't seem like it's in Denver's best interest.

@jemzbonci on Instagram: Is Reggie gonna be the permanent backup now?

It kind of seems like that was the plan even before the season started. Reggie inked a multi-year deal this offseason. It was a display of confidence from the front office. And man, he's sure vindicated that move. 13.6 points and 4.5 assists per game on 50.9 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from deep is quite the start for the Colorado native.

So, yes. Safe to say he'll be the backup for the rest of the year.

@3bodyj on Instagram: When can the Nuggets sign new players? Or does it have to be a trade?

The Nuggets could technically sign a new player tomorrow. But first, they'd need to clear a roster spot. And they'd be working within a pool of existing free agents, meaning guys who aren't in the league currently.

A larger-scale move would have to come via a trade, and most players can't be dealt until December 15th. February's trade deadline is the most likely window for a big move... if, of course, Denver even chooses to make one.

@srilty on Instagram: What is your favorite memory from the playoffs outside of winning a/THE game?

There was one that stood out. It happened before the start of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. That was when it hit me. Holy crap, I'm in the building for an NBA Finals.

Like most of us hoops fans, the NBA Finals are a HUGE deal. It's been that way for as long as I can remember. Some of my fondest memories as a kid came while watching the Finals on TV. Ray Allen's corner three against the San Antonio Spurs. Kyrie Irving's huge three-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. Those memories are burned into my brain for eternity. I know exactly where I was and exactly how I felt right when they happened.

So yeah, there I was. Sitting in the media section just before the start of Game 1. The strobe lights were dancing on the Ball Arena walls. The crowd was cheering with an elated, if not slightly nervous excitement. And the team I worked for was taking the floor for their first-ever NBA Finals. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Man, the thing I used to wait months for every single year, I'm here for it. In-person.

It was a pretty cool feeling.

@tallslimtees on Instagram: Who’s the funniest guy on the team?

There are a lot of funny guys. I think that's why the locker room is so tight. Humor tends to alleviate the stress of tough moments in the season.

If I had to pick one, I'll say DeAndre Jordan. I constantly find myself cracking up during his media availabilities.