The Lakers are in the midst of their best stretch of the season. They’ve won their last four games and have really hit their stride in their last three, all road wins by double digits that were even more lopsided than the final scores would suggest.
There are a number of reasons for the Lakers kicking into high gear over the last week or so, chief among them Anthony Davis’ appeal to the team to improve their defensive effort. But the Lakers’ recent 3-0 road surge also coincides with the return of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the lineup.
By the end of last season, it was pretty widely accepted that Caldwell-Pope was the team’s third-best player, so his value isn’t taken for granted anymore. But the Lakers upgraded their depth over the offseason, and the additions of Dennis Schröder and Wesley Matthews combined with improved play from Talen Horton-Tucker, Alex Caruso, and Kyle Kuzma were supposed to mitigate Caldwell-Pope’s importance.
As it turns out, all that talent couldn’t compensate for what KCP brings that no one else on the Lakers really does: Speed.
That speed manifests itself in so many different ways, starting with disruption on the defensive end. KCP picks up full court, runs through screens, and has quick hands, all of which making opposing players uncomfortable, even if they don’t directly lead to stops. In his first game back after sitting out with an ankle sprain, Caldwell-Pope had two steals in the first 90 seconds. With his burst, he covers so much ground on the defensive end that it can be hard for the offensive players to keep track of him.
There’s another advantage to that speed: It is overwhelmingly clear how hard Caldwell-Pope is working, and that has a positive effect on the rest of the team. It’s one thing to watch LeBron James or Anthony Davis use their prodigious physical talents to affect a game; because of their skill, those feats often look effortless. But in watching KCP, it’s obvious how hard he plays, and that he inspires his teammates to do the same.
“We’re a big team. We play with great size, we have size, and to play with that type of size, you need speed to complement it,” Frank Vogel said after Caldwell-Pope’s first game back. “And his speed and athleticism is invaluable to us. And then you add what he can do defensively... He’s really one of our best players and an important part of what we’re doing.”
Caldwell-Pope is also quite good at translating defense into offense. The Lakers force turnovers on 16.3 percent of possessions when Caldwell-Pope plays, which would be a top-five mark in the league, giving the team plenty of opportunities to run.
And though the Lakers have two of the best outlet passers in the game, they need targets. Davis can be one of those receivers — and he often leaks out early to get in position — but defenses are always tuned in to Davis. For better or worse, defenses take their eyes off KCP (let’s be clear, it’s objectively the correct choice considering the finishing disparity between the two), and he zooms right past them in the open court.
It also helps that Caldwell-Pope is simply faster, and he’s usually stationed on the perimeter anyway, making it easy for him to change ends.
LeBron playing a little QB on Sunday with this bullet pass to KCP pic.twitter.com/719SOyUafO— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 11, 2021
As exemplified in the clip above, KCP doesn’t just run off turnovers; he gets moving whenever James has his hand on a defensive rebound. And he mixes up his output as well. KCP will streak down the court for a fastbreak layup, he’ll fill the wing or the corner if someone else is leading the break, or — my personal favorite — he’ll just pull up for a transition three. To be able to stop on a dime after running at full speed is a uniquely KCP trait on this roster, one that he showed off against Houston on this road trip. The Lakers bench always loves to see it.
Last year, the Lakers were one of the most efficient teams in transition, but they were judicious about picking their spots. This season, those spots appear to be expanded to “whenever Caldwell-Pope is playing.” When he is on the floor, the Lakers finish 4% more of their possessions in transition, and their transition efficiency increases by a whopping 27.4 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers with KCP are the second-best transition team in the league, both in efficiency and frequency. Without him on the floor, they rank in the bottom third. To put it another way, a week ago, the Lakers averaged 1.13 points per transition possession; after three games with KCP back in the lineup, that figure has jumped to 1.18.
It certainly helps that Caldwell-Pope has been shooting the lights out. KCP is currently in the middle of 50/50/90 season, meaning he’s shooting at least 50 percent from the field and on threes while also canning 90 percent of his free throws. Those numbers are sure to come down, but not by much; over a third of this 3-pointers are wide open, and Caldwell-Pope has historically connected on at least 40 percent of those looks. He’s just never gotten this many.
Over the past three seasons, we’ve seen Caldwell-Pope go on hot streaks, and it’s quite possible this is another one that has led him to have an outsized statistical impact. But even without the shooting, KCP always plays with this level of effort, and the Lakers as presently constructed are perfectly suited to capitalize on that. His energy and speed won’t waver, so he doesn’t need to be knocking down half his threes so long as he’s active on defense, forcing turnovers, and making plays in the open court.
The Lakers had a sluggish start to this season, and they were going through the motions for large portions of each game. It’s not an accident that they finally started to regain their identity as a team that can fly around defensively and up and down the court when their speedster came back into the lineup.