The Denver Nuggets are heavy betting favorites against the Miami Heat in the 2023 NBA Finals. Not only does Denver have the best player in the Nuggets-Heat series, but the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference is also loaded with stud role players.
With two regular-season MVP awards on his mantle and a dominant run in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, Nikola Jokic has established himself as the best player in basketball. Jamal Murray has emerged as a superstar, proving that his performance in the bubble was no fluke. The Nuggets will obviously be relying on their two stars to beat the Heat in the 2023 NBA Finals. But who could be the Nuggets' X-factor?
Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon are Denver's best role players. But is either player an NBA Finals X-factor? They probably don't qualify, given that the Nuggets pretty much know what they'll be getting from those two players on a nightly basis. A true X-factor is less of a sure thing. A player who can suddenly turn the tide of the NBA Finals and end the Heat's chances if he has a big series.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is that player for the Nuggets. Often overlooked because of how much talent Denver has, Caldwell-Pope completes the best starting five in the NBA. If Caldwell-Pope plays well, the Nuggets will be just about impossible for the Heat to defeat.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was arguably the Nuggets' X-factor against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. In Denver's sweep, Caldwell-Pope averaged 14.8 points per game and shot 44.4% from 3-point range. He guarded LeBron James well at times and played mistake-free basketball, never recording more than one turnover in any game.
In the Nuggets' 12 playoff victories, Caldwell-Pope is averaging 13.2 points per game. Denver's starting shooting guard is averaging just 5.7 points in three playoff losses. It was a similar story in the regular season. Caldwell-Pope scored 11.6 points on 45.0% shooting on 3-pointers in wins. In losses, Caldwell-Pope's averages dropped to 9.2 points on 36.6% shooting from behind the arc.
Miami will have a hard enough time stopping Porter Jr. and Murray. Gordon is going to play great defense and get his share of open dunks. Jokic is all but guaranteed to have a big series against the Heat. If Caldwell-Pope is scoring close to 15 points per game, it could be a very short series.
Caldwell-Pope's defense is going to be important in the NBA Finals. The veteran could spend time defending Jimmy Butler and Caleb Martin. Miami will be hard-pressed to win any games in which one of those players has a subpar offensive showing.
Martin had a breakout series in the Eastern Conference Finals. He nearly was named the MVP of the series over Butler. Will Martin's hot shooting carry over into the NBA Finals? It remains an unknown and important question. Martin has yet to play on basketball's biggest stage.
There is no question about how Caldwell-Pope might handle the pressure of the NBA Finals. He passed that test with flying colors three years ago. When LeBron James and Anthony Davis were looking for a role player to stand out in the NBA bubble, Caldwell-Pope answered the call. Caldwell-Pope was the Lakers' third-leading scoring in the series, averaging 16.0 points in the final three games. He made the biggest shots of Game 4, hitting a 3-pointer and a layup on back-to-back possessions to extend Los Angeles' lead to seven points with two minutes left in regulation.
Three years later, Caldwell-Pope has the opportunity to beat Miami in the NBA Finals as a super role player, once again.