Keeler: Nuggets’ Christian Braun wasn’t Bruce Brown. He’s not Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, either. If Nuggs let KCP walk, they’ll regret it

Keeler: Nuggets’ Christian Braun wasn’t Bruce Brown. He’s not Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, either. If Nuggs let KCP walk, they’ll regret it

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If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a $20-million guard, I’m Chris Hemsworth. But by Odin’s raven, somebody’s going to offer it.

Which is why I have far more sympathy for the Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth than Chris MacFarland, his compatriot with the Avalanche, as they try to sort out the rubble this summer and make sense of where their respective seasons went wrong.

While the Avs have largely been their own worst enemy, giving Gabe Landeskog’s limbo and Val Nichushkin’s demons as much runway as they need, the Nuggets have been knee-capped by forces outside their control. Namely, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement.

Remember last summer? Once the hangovers wore off, Booth, by rule, couldn’t give super-sub Bruce Brown crazy money. Indiana could, and bye-bye, Brucey B.

Now he could give KCP crazy money at age 31, assuming Caldwell-Pope opts out of his deal. Which he should. So If I’m Booth, I’m either trading Michael Porter Jr. for whatever I can now, making whatever big, radical adjustments I need to fortify the next part of The Nikola Jokic Era now, or …

… I’m running it back. With everybody. KCP included. To heck with aprons. To heck with the draft picks. To heck with 2028 or ’29.

But here’s what I’m not doing: Anointing Christian Braun as my new fifth starter come the fall, my new No. 1 wing guard, and assuming that everything will be just fine. It won’t. Not without some serious — and potentially expensive — veteran back-filling on the bench should you elect to promote Braun from it.

“But I don’t know how you can see a player in the second year (in the NBA) that’s done what he’s done and not think (Braun) has a chance to start,” Booth said at the Nuggets’ end-of-season post mortem news conference this past Thursday. “He’s ahead of schedule in that regard. I don’t know how the next few years go, but we’ll see.”

Look, neither option’s ideal. KCP’s aging. Braun’s ascending. You could make a case that letting Caldwell-Pope walk and simply sliding CB into that slot is both a natural, inevitable progression and smart business. Especially given how pinched the Nuggets are for flexibility with all of the future money already due Jokic, Jamal Murray, MPJ and Aaron Gordon.

Why fight the market? KCP is the type of 3-and-D, veteran glue guy, even on the wrong side of 30, that an up-and-coming team will covet. Braun’s younger. Faster. Cheaper.

All true. But CB was younger, faster and cheaper than Bruce Brown last year, too. Peyton Watson, same deal. Both were tasked to replace Brucey B in the aggregate, as Brad Pitt said in the movie “Moneyball.” Did Braun step up his game as the season progressed, especially in the second half? Sure. Watson was a fun, high-flying, rangy defensive savant with some rough edges offensively.

But neither, in hindsight, proved to be Brucey B. What could Brown do for you? Everything. Whenever a particular non-Jokic piece got leggy or cold in the postseason, Brown could spell them and usually keep the engine purring. Wing threat? Sure. Backup point guard? No problem. Bang down low? He’s got this. On a championship sandwich, Brucey B wasn’t just another piece of meat. He was ranch dressing, the perfect condiment. He went with almost everything.

If you let KCP walk and move CB up, you better darn well have a proven veteran shooter in your back pocket to slot into coach Michael Malone’s bench. Or two. More proven than Reggie Jackson, at any rate.

“I know when the game is on the line, (Braun) is going to do whatever it takes to win,” Malone said late last week. “So sometimes you can get so caught up in percentages, the analytics. You know, I think Tom Brady said years ago, the greatest analytical stat is not a number — it’s a letter. Christian’s a winner. He knows how to get Ws. So I love him.”

As well he should. Braun fears nothing. And no one. He brings Duke-esque swagger and Duke-esque chutzpah with a Kansas pedigree. He’s the kind of player you love when he’s on your side but would love to slug in the kisser if he played for, say, Memphis.

He’s smart, long, hungry and a serial winner. But is he an upgrade on KCP in Malone’s rotation, right now?

As a defender, the gap’s narrowing — Braun, per, posted a 109.3 Defensive Rating per 100 possessions (and a lower number is preferable) during the regular season in ’23-24, while KCP put up a 111.0.

But on the other end of the floor, your eyes don’t lie. While Braun’s made strides, he’s still not the shooter KCP is. He’s not the weapon at the charity stripe, either. Caldwell-Pope during this past season posted a 122.4 Offensive Rating per 100 possessions to Braun’s 110, and a Net Rating of plus-11.3 points to CB’s plus-0.7.

Now how much of that is playing with Jokic and Murray, the tides that lift all boats?  Per’s tracking, a 3-man lineup of Jokic-Murray-KCP posted a 126.3 Offensive Rating, a 111.9 Defensive Rating and a Net of plus-14.4 over 1165 minutes together during the regular season. Meanwhile, a 3-man combo of Joker-Murray-Braun put up a Net Rating of plus-26.1 over 204 minutes, comparatively.

In the ’24 postseason, though, the script flips. The threesome of Jokic-Murray-KCP produced a Net Rating of minus-0.7 over 349 minutes together. A trio of Jokic-Murray-Braun strung together a Net Rating of minus-6.5 over 80 minutes.

That doesn’t read like a wash. Or a like-for-like. It looks like a serious roll of the dice.

“And to Calvin’s point, I think (for) Christian Braun, it’s all going to come down to one thing,” Malone said. “To be a shooting guard in the NBA, you’ve got to be able to make shots. It’s the bottom line.”

KCP still does that last part better. Yes, Braun’s coming around. But if you’re Booth, how long can you afford to wait for the next corner to turn? Because the window won’t.

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