Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as like the 30 second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The first 10 games of the season were bad for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — like, really bad.
To start the season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 5.2 points per game on 36.2% shooting from the field, including 23.8% shooting from behind the arc. There were players on the Lakers with worse shooting splits than KCP (Alex Caruso and Troy Daniels) but the expectations weren’t nearly as high for them as they were for him, nor were their salaries.
Instead of crumbling under the pressure of playing on the most competitive team he’s played for in his three years in Los Angeles, Caldwell-Pope kept his head down and silenced his critics with the most efficient season of his young career.
Through 63 games, including 20 starts, for the Lakers this season, Caldwell-Pope has averaged 9.5 points per game on 54.3% shooting from 2-point range and 39.4% shooting from 3-point range (both of which are career-highs) while averaging 25.4 minutes per game. He’s also averaged career-highs in effective field goal percentage (56.5%) and true shooting percentage (59.2%), per Basketball Reference.
Going into the season, there was a sense of optimism that Caldwell-Pope would thrive in an offense centered around two star players, particularly one with a knack for finding shooters like LeBron James. Granted, Caldwell-Pope played with James last season too, but the offense wasn’t developed enough for a shooter like Caldwell-Pope to benefit from playing with James — the same can’t be said this season.
According to NBA.com, 28.9% of Caldwell-Pope’s 3-point attempts this season have been “wide open” attempts — a 2.3% increase from last season. On those attempts, he’s shot 42.5%, a notable improvement from the 38.8% he shot last season.
Caldwell-Pope’s 3-point shooting well be crucial for the Lakers in Orlando, especially now that Avery Bradley — one of the team’s most efficient 3-point shooters — won’t be making the trip. However, for the same reason, it’s just as important that he stays sharp on the defensive end.
Outside of Danny Green, Caldwell-Pope is the only player on the roster that offers the same combination of 3-point shooting and defense that Avery Bradley did, at least in theory. That’s probably why Frank Vogel felt comfortable starting KCP when Bradley was sidelined earlier this season.
The only problem is that the five-man lineup of Caldwell-Pope, Green, James, Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee hasn’t been as productive on the defensive end as the normal starters this season, and some of that can be attributed to the fact that Caldwell-Pope’s defense hasn’t been nearly as good as Bradley’s. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers have been a whole 4.8 points better per 100 possessions on defense with Caldwell-Pope on the bench. Only Rajon Rondo has a worse defensive point differential.
Caldwell-Pope doesn’t rank favorably in ESPN’s defensive real real plus-minus (-0.42) or FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR (-0.4), either. The question is: Why?
The easy answer is that there’s been a trade off with Caldwell-Pope’s defensive production and offensive production, and given how well the Lakers have performed on both ends this season, it hasn’t been detrimental to their success. While there might be some truth to that, it can also be attributed to the fact that Caldwell-Pope has played out on the wing for most of this season.
According to Basketball Reference, Caldwell-Pope has spent 60% of his playing time at the small forward position this season. For context, he’s never spent more than 20% of his minutes at small forward, and he hasn’t done it since his sophomore season. Against a team that likes to go small, that’s not a problem, but against a team like the Clippers that has the size to stay big on the wing at all times, it is, as we saw on opening night.
The Lakers can stay afloat with KCP being the same player he’s been all season, which, to reiterate, is still a good player. But in order for them to sustain the success they’ve enjoyed this season, they need him to be a true two-way player, whether he’s starting or coming off of the bench.