Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a recurring target of criticism throughout his Lakers tenure. It was one thing to malign him when the team posted losing records over his first two years, but even as the Lakers dominated during the 2019-20 regular season, Caldwell-Pope was still a punching bag for his mistakes.
In fairness, KCP makes some loud mistakes. His finishing around the rim isn’t great, and it’s an adventure any time he leads a fast break. But there’s one thing Caldwell-Pope can do reliably: He can shoot.
The Lakers are an excellent basketball team, better than even their most diehard fans would’ve presumed at the start of the season. But they still have some flaws, and one of those is shooting the ball. They were a bottom-10 team in 3-point makes and 3-point percentage during the regular season, and they converted threes at a lower efficiency (30.3%) than every other team during the seeding games. L.A.’s 3-point percentage perked up to 34.3% against the Trail Blazers before rising to a shocking 37.7% against the Rockets, and then fell back down to 33.9% in the Western Conference Finals.
But even as individual Lakers have seen their outside shooting wax and wane over the course of the postseason, Caldwell-Pope has been a reliable constant throughout the playoffs. He is shooting 42.7% from 3-point range since the postseason began, and has been above 40% in every round thus far. After a somewhat disastrous opener when he shot 0-of-9 from the field and 0-of-5 on threes in Game 1 against Portland, KCP has been the lethal shooter the Lakers have needed.
“I think everything he does is important to us,” Frank Vogel said recently. “Obviously his ability to knock down threes when Anthony (Davis) and LeBron (James) are double-teamed is very important, as well as running the floor, but KCP’s impact is most felt with the energy that he plays with.
“He’s one of the hardest-playing guys in the league; he changes ends with great speed, effort, and hustle,” Vogel continued. “That motor, that energy really impacts our group. But certainly if you’re asking about his shooting on the back side when double teams are (sent) at Anthony and LeBron, that’s been a big part of our success.”
The beauty of playing next to Anthony Davis and LeBron James is that Caldwell-Pope isn’t guarded like a plus shooter. Whereas defenders cling to shooters like Duncan Robinson or Joe Harris, Lakers opponents are forced to pack the paint, leaving Caldwell-Pope clean looks from the perimeter. Of KCP’s 75 threes in the playoffs, 36 of them have been classified as wide-open — meaning the closest defender is at least six feet away — and he has canned half of those.
In the rare event that he has been covered, he’s been good enough at driving baseline, shot-faking into a 2-pointer, or cutting into the paint when the defender’s eyes veer to the ball handler. That also provides spacing for the other Lakers to attack the basket, which is what they do best.
Much of the credit for KCP’s open looks falls on the L.A. stars drawing attention, but Caldwell-Pope also creates his own openings by running the floor. Other than his shooting, speed is KCP’s greatest asset, and he uses his pace in transition to generate good shots. James finishing at the hoop is the most common outcome of a Lakers fast break, but Caldwell-Pope pulling up from the wing has become increasingly frequent.
Caldwell-Pope’s shooting is what sets him apart, and it’s also often the only thing that shows up on his box score. But the Lakers have unleashed his speed to track opposing guards full court, starting with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in round one and now pressing Jamal Murray from the moment the ball is inbounded. The starting backcourts for Portland and Houston visibly wore down; Murray hasn’t yet shown the same signs of wear in the conference finals, but Caldwell-Pope and the Lakers are playing the long game.
In some ways, KCP was primed for this role. He made 38.5% of his threes in the regular season, the best among Laker rotation players, and 40.4% as a starter. He was essentially the de facto third guy for the Lakers during the regular season, averaging the third-most minutes and playing the third-most minutes in the clutch.
But this is also the biggest stage that KCP has ever played on, just the second playoff appearance of his seven-year career. He is a notoriously slow starter and streaky shooter, and when he came into the seeding games cold, there was a chance that could snowball. Caldwell-Pope was open about the anxiety he felt at the start of the season when he struggled, even as the team was rolling.
Instead, Caldwell-Pope turned it around. He continued to have confidence in what he does, taking the shots that come to him in the flow of the offense and using his energy to affect the games on both ends of the floor. In his first extended postseason run, he has been more consistent than some of the championship-winning veterans on the Lakers roster. The team has relied on KCP to produce, and he has delivered.
It’s strange to think that Caldwell-Pope is the longest-tenured Laker on this team. He wasn’t around for the lowest of the lows that the Lakers experienced this decade, but it hasn’t always smooth sailing for him in his time in Los Angeles. He was unrealistically overhyped at his introductory press conference, he had legal trouble, his play was up and down, and other guards kept being brought in to take his minutes.
But KCP is still here, still chugging away to make the most of this opportunity for himself and for this franchise. His performance has been integral to the Lakers’ success, and he provides a skill that no other player on this team has been able to with any regularity. If Caldwell-Pope was indeed a Klutch tax when the Lakers first signed him, he has been worth every penny.