LOS ANGELES — Just two days ago, criticism of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was so prevalent that Lakers center Dwight Howard felt the need to stick up for his teammate on Instagram. At least once this year, things have gotten literally loud enough that there were noticeable boos for Caldwell-Pope at a Lakers home game. Even Lakers head coach Frank Vogel acknowledged on Friday night that he’s seen the criticism of Caldwell-Pope, so to say the guard hasn’t exactly been a fan favorite would be an understatement.
But against the Sacramento Kings down the stretch, none of it mattered. Caldwell-Pope hit shot after shot to rack up 12 points in the fourth quarter — finishing with 16 overall — while also playing critical defense down the stretch to help the Lakers escape with a 99-97 victory. Perhaps even more unbelievable than that storybook turnaround was Caldwell-Pope’s claim that he hadn’t noticed any of the scrutiny until Howard mentioned it to him.
“That’s one thing I can’t worry about,” Caldwell-Pope said, before adding that such critiques don’t matter to him anyway.
“If I have a good game it’s going to be the same fans cheering me.”
On Friday evening that proved to be the case, and Caldwell-Pope credited his turnaround to “praying a lot” and starting to get his confidence back by demanding to take — and later making — a technical free throw earlier in the game so that he could see the ball go through the net. Although how much Caldwell-Pope actually had to improve upon in the first place was a point of contention for Vogel after the game.
“I would say the season has not really been up and down. I think his scoring has been up and down,” Vogel said. “He’s one of the guys on our team that brings the highest level of energy. One of his talents is how hard he plays. When you have a guy that plays as hard as he does, it impacts the energy on the floor.
“He’s an excellent defender. We’re the No. 1 defense in the league, and he’s a big part of that. So, I don’t feel like he’s really had an up-and-down type of season,” Vogel continued. “He’s been really consistent with his energy and with his defense, and the shot has come and gone a little bit, but it was there for us tonight.”
But regardless of how one evaluates Caldwell-Pope’s season, it was clear he had become (somewhat unfairly) a scapegoat for fans of the team. Why is an open question. The Lakers have been better with Caldwell-Pope on the bench than they have been when he plays, according to NBA.com, sure, but they’ve been much better defensively when he’s in the game, which is the end of the floor that usually makes fans fall in love with role players.
Is it just that when Caldwell-Pope makes mistakes offensively, they’re usually spectacularly loud (such as wedging a layup between the backboard and the rim last game, for example)? Is it that he’s been a Laker for going on three seasons now, so fans are more aware of and bothered by his flaws? Is it that he’s seen as some sort of tax for signing LeBron James and Anthony Davis, with whom he shares an agent? Some combination of all of these things?
Whatever the cause of the criticism may be, however, James says his teammate has to ignore such critiques, and seemingly has gone out of his way to push back on them. James said Caldwell-Pope deserved the game ball in his walk-off interview for local TV, and said he doesn’t care about any social media judgements of his teammates.
“Me personally, I could give a damn about what other people say outside the locker room, outside our practice facility, outside our plane and team busses, because cause it really doesn’t matter. It’s just outside noise. I’ve heard it my whole career, so I really don’t pay attention to it, and I don’t think anyone should pay attention to it,” James said.
“I think it’s dope that Dwight stuck up for him,” James continued, adding that he and the rest of the Lakers have been continually reminding Caldwell-Pope of the openings they’ll create for him, and that they just want him to shoot with confidence when they do.
“Don’t let the game be dictated because if you make or miss shots. There’s other ways you can effect the game,” James said of his advice to Caldwell-Pope. “He did it on both ends tonight.”
But while James was full-throated in his defense and support of Caldwell-Pope, such defense was a little less easy on Davis. Not because he doesn’t believe in his teammate — his remarks made it clear that he does — but due to the fact that his locker is stationed right next to Caldwell-Pope’s, meaning that he was getting asked about the shooting guard’s big night by a crowd of media only narrowly separating him from Caldwell-Pope’s locker.
Making things even more awkward for Davis was Caldwell-Pope continually laughing as all this happened, seemingly out of amusement at the idea of Davis being asked about him for once, instead of the other way around.
Still, Davis managed to get a few words out, and said that — like LeBron — he has been trying to find opportunities for Caldwell-Pope.
“He’s been up and down. Confidence kind of been low, and for him to come out and play the way he played is definitely a confidence booster,” Davis said, drawing chuckles from Caldwell-Pope.
“We tell him to keep shooting. Just keep playing. And he did that tonight, made some big shots especially in the fourth,” Davis continued. “He helped us get this win tonight.”
Immediately after he was mercifully spared anymore questions, Davis playfully barked back at Caldwell-Pope for his mostly harmless interruptions.
“It’s hard to do it when you’re right there,” Davis laughed.
But it’s probably a lot easier when Caldwell-Pope earns it with a late-game performance like he had against the Kings. And if he keeps playing like this, then showing him the same kind of love will be simpler for Lakers fans, too.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.