Editor’s Note: Welcome to our “2020 Lakers Season In Review” series, where we’ll be looking back at every member of this Lakers roster as the offseason commences, and answering some questions about what they contributed (or didn’t) to the team’s 17th championship, as well as discussing what their situation is moving forward. Today, let’s discuss Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
How did he play?
Nothing short of spectacular. It’s been said before, but we’ll say it again: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was arguably the Lakers’ third-best player over the entirety of the postseason, something that is incredible when considering how the season started for him.
Most of this has been well-chronicled. Caldwell-Pope missed his first nine shots this season. The first one that went in was a goaltend. He received boos at Staples Center, and social media hate for him went so far that teammate Dwight Howard went to bat for Caldwell-Pope publicly. His words seem prescient today.
“We’re gonna need KCP to win this championship,” Howard said then. “Of course there’s going to be nights where guys miss shots, miss layups, but we need to set a standard... If we want to win a championship, everybody has got to have that same championship mentality. We’ve got to be on the same page. If we’re on the same page as an organization and as a fanbase and as a team, there’s nothing that we can’t accomplish.”
The Lakers ended up needing Caldwell-Pope more than they probably ever could have guessed at that point. After starter Avery Bradley opted out of going to the NBA bubble, head coach Frank Vogel opted to start Caldwell-Pope — who had been playing great at that point — in Bradley’s place.
As has become standard for Caldwell-Pope’s Lakers tenure, he got off to a slow start, shooting just 27.8% from three in the seeding round games at Disney World before going 0-9 in his first playoff game as a Laker in the first round. There were calls for Vogel to change the starters again, with Caldwell-Pope taking the bulk of the criticism.
Then Game 2 happened.
Caldwell-Pope shot 4-6 from three in a bounce-back performance that helped deliver a win for the Lakers, and shot 48.1% from three in the first round after Game 1. Then he shot 42.1% from deep against Houston, and a scorching 44% against Denver. In the first NBA Finals appearances of his career, his shooting percentages cratered, but Caldwell-Pope’s activity on defense and in transition were huge for the Lakers in creating easy baskets they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And in the final two games of the series, he shot nearly 40% from deep and delivered in Game 6 most of all, scoring 16 points while providing some key defense and hilarious trash talk against Duncan Robinson.
There were a lot of key stakeholders that led the Lakers to the 2020 NBA championship, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis obviously at the front of the line. That said, it’s possible Los Angeles couldn’t have done this without the man his teammates affectionately call Kenny. Maybe they could have, but after this postseason, they’re surely happy they didn’t have to find out.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
Caldwell-Pope has a player option (worth approximately $8.5 million) he could exercise to opt in to the second year of the two-year contract he signed last summer, but he is widely expected to opt out whenever free agency begins, making him an unrestricted free agent.
Will he be back?
Shams Charania of The Athletic reported in October that “there’s significant mutual interest between Caldwell-Pope and the Lakers, but there will be some external suitors.” The good news is that the Lakers have Caldwell-Pope’s full bird rights, and therefore can go over the cap to re-sign him if they want to.
Those two realities, in conjunction with the fact that Caldwell-Pope is represented by Klutch Sports — whose solid working relationship with the Lakers is well-chronicled, and who also represent Anthony Davis and LeBron James, among several other Lakers — as well as how dry the free agency market is in terms of teams having money to spend would all seem to indicate that Caldwell-Pope will likely be a Laker once again, barring the unexpected.
However, as Brian Windhorst of ESPN recently pointed out to our own Jas Kang, that doesn’t mean this will be an easy negotiation. And in a free agent frenzy that promises to be as rushed and crazy as any that have preceded it as teams desperately scratch and claw to put rosters together in a shorter window than they’ve ever had, anything could happen. So after the Lakers get their deal with Anthony Davis done, Caldwell-Pope needs to be their top priority.
And this is not just about how good KCP was this year, although it’s a factor. It’s also that this isn’t a choice between spending eight figures on Caldwell-Pope or another free agent. It’s about spending eight figures on Caldwell-Pope, or trying to cobble together a replacement for his services by committee out of the free agency bargain bin using cap exceptions the Lakers could otherwise be using to reinforce their team around him.
Think of the free agent market like a trip to Best Buy. The Lakers are choosing between getting a brand new, full-price copy of Avenger’s Endgame, or being restricted to getting Ang Lee’s Hulk on DVD from the repurposed cardboard box full of $2 movies at the front of the store, with no other options.
Is Endgame a perfect movie? No, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative. The same goes for Caldwell-Pope.
We’ll see how the market ultimately shakes out for KCP, or how his “love-hate relationship” with Lakers fans dating back to the vitriol he receives online whenever he struggles factors into things. But coming off of the most effective basketball season he’s ever played in a role that seemed perfect for him, with teammates he loves and a coach who he knows has never lost faith in him, Caldwell-Pope may not be looking to shake things up. He and the Lakers finding a way to reunite on a deal that benefits both sides seems like the most likely outcome here.