There was a distinct level of uncertainty that was present in the humid Los Angeles air last summer that was hard to ignore for Lakers’ fans. The team, who was then under the firm control of a rookie front-office, entered their first NBA offseason with two goals in mind: salary cap flexibility and immediate on-court improvement.
The lofty goals, in theory, are what every NBA front-office aspires for heading into July, but for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the “talk” had to be quickly backed up both on the floor and in the books. Swiftly the new roster began to come into focus, as a whopping nine players were let ago that included the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Timofey Mozgov, Nick Young, David Nwaba, Tarik Black, Thomas Robinson, Marcelo Huertas, Jose Calderon, and Metta World Peace.
To finalize their summer blueprint the braintrust of Johnson and Pelinka drafted four rookies to fill out the roster and acquired the services of Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to solidify the team. The latter of which was expected to be vital additions to help lead the inexperienced team to a possible playoff spot.
In what became a memorable introductory press-conference, Rob Pelinka went as far as to compare KCP to “bread that fell from heaven” when the team inked the 24-year-old guard last summer to a lucrative one-year, $18 million deal.
Pope was expected to be the missing defensive guard/wing the team had desperately lacked in recent seasons while adding a necessary three-point shooting punch. Despite his initial share of defensive mishaps, Pope seemed to do a fair job helping the team create a form of defensive identity early in the season, but struggled mightily on offense.
Many fans soon became weary of Pope’s head-scratching transition decisions, shot selection, and simply for being inefficient. His on-court issues quickly became magnified as his off-court matters began impacting the team when in December it was announced he would not be able to travel outside of the state of California in compliance with his plea agreement, stemming from a DUI prior to the season. The agreement allowed Pope to play home games with the team but was forced to miss three straight out of state road games due to restrictions, which noticeably affected his individual performance.
In the month of December, KCP had his worst shooting month of the season as he shot only 36 percent from the field, and 29 percent from three. Both he and the team were struggling, and fans swiftly became restless. Thankfully, a switch was soon hit.
Once the restrictions were lifted and the new year came, KCP has been in full-on game-breaker mode which even to that lofty sentiment still may be an understatement. Since January 1st, among all players in the NBA who have attempted at least five threes a game, Pope is only behind Kevin Durant (47.3 percent) in terms of three-point percentage.
Furthermore, KCP has not tallied a single month since where he has shot below 45 percent from three and is currently shooting an absurd 47.4 percent from beyond the arc in March on 6.5 attempts per game. To put his shooting into context, the current NBA leader in three-point percentage is Indiana’s Darren Collison, who is making his three attempts a game at a 45 percent clip, which is on the bottom end of what KCP has put up in his last three months collectively.
What irked many fans about KCP’s game early in the season has seemingly been addressed either by coaching staff or by Pope himself, as his attempts and decisions on the court have been much more within the flow of the game-plan resulting in good things. Pope’s recent success encapsulates what has been an individual career year for the five-year guard.
According to cleaningtheglass.com, KCP is posting his best PSA (points per shot attempt) his best eFG%, his best field goal percentage at the rim and from three (Among wings he is in the 96th percentile in corner three percentage, and 82nd percentile on all threes).
But KCP has not been the only Laker with a recent stunning turnaround, as fellow new Laker Brook Lopez, has suddenly returned to his all-star caliber self in this recent stretch.
The Los Angeles native was acquired via a trade in the summer from the Brooklyn Nets (a team he played with for nine seasons) and was promoted to be the team’s “North Star” by general manager Rob Pelinka in his introductory press conference. The 29-year-old was envisioned to be a leader both on the court and in the locker room for not only the young centers Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant, but for the entire young crop of Lakers.
Up to this point, he has not been the offensive pillar many imagined he would be on a team filled with such inexperienced players as he is currently posting the 2nd lowest usage rate of his career. Yet unlike Pope, Brook’s initial struggles were less glaring and has consistently been a defensive anchor in the paint for the Lakers.
On offense, Brook’s ability to spread the floor from the center position was a common topic of discussion when he was first acquired specifically as a means to open up the paint for driving lanes for his wings, and more directly for Julius Randle.
Randle up until this point of his career has had the likes of Roy Hibbert and Mozgov as front-court partners, which were not ideal offensive pairings on either front considering Randle still hesitates to take his offensive range outside of four-feet, and neither Hibbert or Mozgov had the arsenal to play the inside-out game with Julius.
This season, Randle no longer has to share the paint as Lopez often happily drifts to the perimeter (Lopez is one of only two centers in the league that have attempted at least 250 threes this season) and is commonly seen pointing for teammates to initiate isolated post entries to Randle down low. Randle, like Brandon Ingram, is having a career year playing alongside Brook simply from his ability to draw the opponent’s back line defender out of the paint, an invaluable component for a young team trying to build confidence.
From an individual standpoint, Brook is in the midst of his best offensive stretch as a Laker. Since February 1, the 7-footer is averaging 15.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.5 blocks and is shooting 52 percent from the field, including 41 percent from behind the arc.
Lopez’s recent uptick can be evidently seen by his increased number of attempts, as in March, the center is averaging 13 attempts per game which is the highest individual amount of any month this season. As important as touches are, it is not only the number of shots that has upped his averages, but the types of looks he is getting. Lopez is averaging only 4.6 attempts from three in March (his lowest since December) and has been more primarily used in the post which he has proved to still be a handful for opposing defenses.
Pope and Lopez’s hot streaks came at an ideal time for the Purple and Gold as the team has recently become riddled with injuries. Yet, despite playing short-handed for a good amount of time now, the team is still 21-16 since the New Year which accounts for the No. 13 best record in the league during that stretch.
The two-pronged mission Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka set upon themselves heading into the season have arguably been met. The team was able to shed Mozgov’s contract last summer, plus the Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr trade accomplished at the deadline made it entirely possible for the team to have enough cap space to sign two max-caliber players if the opportunity presents itself this July.
In terms of their other goal, the immediate improvement of the team this season, it is hard to argue against it not being considered a decisive success. Whether it was due to the “Bread that fell from Heaven” or the “North Star,” the Lakers have been fortunate enough to have two players help instill a culture that will most likely remain even when they are gone.
All stats are courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.