The first three games of this Lakers season have been a harsh exercise in determining which perimeter players deserve playing time alongside the team’s dominating frontcourt.
Each guard has had his own impressive moments, like Troy Daniels’ shooting against Utah or Quinn Cook’s playmaking against Charlotte, but those have been compounded by equally disappointing stretches by every perimeter player. For example, the entry pass debacle against the Clippers comes to mind. Only Danny Green has been exempt from sustained negative play.
The Lakers have six players currently competing for backcourt minutes in Daniels, Cook, Green, Avery Bradley, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. That logjam doesn’t yet include the injured Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma, who are both expected to receive substantial minutes upon their returns. Within that crowd, it will be a struggle for any individual player, especially the ones coming off the bench, to carve out a meaningful and consistent role.
During the first two games of the season, Caldwell-Pope didn’t exactly make his case to separate himself from the pack. Offensively, he missed all of his shots from the field, and his scoring outputs of 0 and 1 points hilariously earned him the nickname “Binary Mamba.” If he’s not scoring, KCP isn’t likely to make an impact on that end of the floor, so much of his utility basically requires his shot to fall.
Defensively, Caldwell-Pope started the season with the unenviable task of trying to contain Kawhi Leonard. He did about as well as could be expected, given the Herculean labor he was presented with, and through three games, Caldwell-Pope’s defensive rating is 101.4 compared to 102.0 for the Lakers as a whole (per NBA.com), meaning that the Lakers are giving up less points per 100 possessions when he plays than they do on average. However, showing up in nearly all of Leonard’s highlights from opening night defeat leaves a little bit of a stain.
This is all without mentioning that through little fault of his own, it has always been a challenge for KCP to endear himself to the Laker faithful. His arrival in Los Angeles was always viewed as a workaround for the front office to be able to talk with Rich Paul and, by extension, LeBron James. Even though that plan came to fruition, Caldwell-Pope got none of the credit ,and was instead labeled demeaningly as a Klutch tax for the last two offseasons, even as he has received smaller contracts each summer.
Then there was the issue of Rob Pelinka celebrating KCP as a “manna from heaven”, which created an endless supply of jokes to throw at the the seventh-year guard.
It’s been somewhat strange to watch Laker fans and crowds warm up to Dwight Howard after three games when he spent six years as Public Enemy No. 1; meanwhile, KCP can’t shake far less baggage past to earn similar adoration.
Regardless of how he has been presented off the court, Caldwell-Pope is a useful player on it. He isn’t consistent enough to be a starter or even be in closing lineups on a regular basis, but he absolutely outpaces Cook and Daniels in terms of what he brings to a championship-level team. Although the quality drop-off from Green to Caldwell-Pope is jarring every time they are subbed for one another, KCP genuinely does some good things for the Lakers.
Caldwell-Pope is a low-usage player (17.9% for his career, per Basketball Reference) who rarely turns the ball over (8.2% of his possessions). Those numbers have become even more extreme this season, which means he can seamlessly complement the Lakers’ stars; either he shoots because he is a willing chucker or he moves the ball on to the next action.
No one would ever accuse Caldwell-Pope of being shy or even gumming up the offense by stopping the ball. His best attribute as a scorer is that he is always ready to shoot. His percentages last year may not have made that the most appealing option, but he will get open shots just like the one above on this team, and KCP is going to shoot them.
KCP isn’t limited to catch-and-shoot situations either. He can shoot coming off screens, or attack a closeout against a compromised defense. And unlike the shooting specialists on the Lakers, Caldwell-Pope provides some pressure at the point of attack. His help defense leaves something to be desired, but he can absolutely lock in on the ball.
Against Charlotte on Sunday, KCP was part of a five-man group that broke the game open in the second half. Alongside Caruso, Cook, Howard and Anthony Davis/LeBron, the Lakers outscored the Hornets 17-4 over a six-minute stretch, turning a close game into a comfortable win.
Caldwell-Pope didn’t score during that run, but he was part of a defensive unit that rotated, used its length in passing lanes, and finally demonstrated the talent disparity that exists between the Lakers and the Hornets. That’s the best-case scenario for KCP on this team — to come in, bring a lift off the bench, and find a way to be effective without making shots.
With Kuzma sidelined, Caldwell-Pope also has the advantage of being the only bench player big enough to guard most small forwards (again, Kawhi Leonard is not like most small forwards). Unless the Lakers are willing to hemorrhage points with Daniels at the three, KCP’s minutes will come.
After his first decent outing of the season, Caldwell-Pope told reporters on Spectrum Sportsnet what his mindset was after starting off the year cold from the floor.
“Don’t overthink everything, just play basketball. You know this is what I do for a living, I love the game. Just go out there and have fun.”
It’s a lot more fun for KCP and for the Lakers fans when Caldwell-Pope stays locked in on defense and hits shots. The beauty of playing alongside superstars is that’s all KCP really has to do.
For the first time in his career, KCP has the opportunity to not just be on a title contender, but be part of the rotation. He has the tools to be that player, and if he can do it on a consistent basis, he might stop being the butt of so many Lakers jokes.