Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
How did he play?
It seems almost hyperbolic to say. considering what a tire fire the overall Lakers season ended up being, but this might have been the best individual year of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s career.
Confidence and streakiness have always been an issue for KCP, but he came into the season with a well-earned belief in himself thanks to an impressive postseason when he was the team’s third-best player during a championship run. The Lakers rewarded that performance with a consistent spot in the starting lineup and a shiny new multi-year contract, neither of which Caldwell-Pope had received previously in Los Angeles while previously playing on a series of what were essentially one-year, prove-it deals with player options.
Caldwell-Pope validated that investment right away. Unlike prior seasons when it took him a while to find his footing, KCP made 10 of his first 19 threes and dazzled as part of a starting lineup that ran roughshod over opponents. His speed keyed the team’s transition attack, as he was one of only a few Lakers who had his legs to start the season. Through December and January, Caldwell-Pope was shooting 47.8% on threes and 88.9% from the foul line.
His offense hit a bit of a lull in February, as the mileage of the past year, combined with an ankle sprain he suffered in January, started to catch up to him. KCP’s also always at his best when he’s amplifying the stars around him, and injuries/health and safety absences for Anthony Davis and Dennis Schröder forced Caldwell-Pope into a more expanded role on offense, one that was ultimately beyond his capabilities. Fortunately, the All-Star Break helped Caldwell-Pope regroup, and he was back to 43.2% on threes over the final two months of the season.
Caldwell-Pope didn’t really add anything new to his game on the offensive end; the percentage of plays he finished off handoffs, screens, and spot ups were almost identical to 2019-20. He just got a little bit more efficient with his shooting, converting over 40% of his threes for the first time as a pro. He also trimmed some of the fat out of his game, running about half as many pick-and-rolls — the lack of a lob threat likely contributed to that — and spending 8% more of his possessions in transition.
And offense may have been the lesser part of KCP’s game in 2020-21. He was the lone Laker to earn a vote for Defensive Player of the Year, an oddity that no one could have predicted entering the season. Although that outcome was primarily a result of injuries to LeBron James and Davis, it shouldn’t undersell the fact that Caldwell-Pope had one of his finest defensive seasons as the Lakers had the top-ranked defense in the league.
As Frank Vogel noted when making all-defense cases for both Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso, his defense at the point of attack has no gaps. “They’re great with containment, they can defend 1-on-1, they’re great with deflections and steals, competing with bigs, negotiating through screens and reconnecting with their man, the pursuit aspect,” Vogel said.
KCP doesn’t always look the part when he’s asked to cover bigger wings — even Devin Booker, a big shooting guard, had his way with Caldwell-Pope in the playoffs — but his defense leaves little to be desired on 1s and 2s.
Unfortunately, Caldwell-Pope’s postseason wasn’t at the same level as the first 72 games. He had bouts of hesitation with his shot so severe that LeBron James had to tell him to keep shooting, and then suffered a knee injury that held him out of Game 4 of the first round, a rarity during what had previously been an Iron Man Laker career. A full offseason should help to recharge KCP for 2021-22.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
Caldwell-Pope is entering year two of a three-year deal he signed in the 2020 offseason. The contract is only partially guaranteed in 2022-23, so the Lakers appear to be treating Caldwell-Pope as a semi-expiring contract for trade purposes.
Should he be back?
Despite the Lakers offering up KCP on a silver platter (along with Kyle Kuzma) to basically everyone in the league, the past season reinforced Caldwell-Pope’s value to the Lakers. First and foremost, he is the one Laker rotation player who actually has shooting gravity, which makes him an indispensable partner for the team’s superstars. He also maintained the defense befitting his 3-and-D moniker. If KCP were two inches taller, he would be the perfect complementary role player. As it stands, he’s still pretty darn good and worthy of keeping around for another attempt at a title.
The problem is that the Lakers are chasing bigger fish and have limited assets to put into trades for stars. As an above-average rotation player on a reasonable contract, Caldwell-Pope is more valuable than just about any other Laker in a trade (given that Talen Horton-Tucker is currently a free agent). That means his future in Los Angeles isn’t solely tied to his past performance — if the Lakers can swing a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry or another high-level perimeter creator, then Caldwell-Pope could be the price of doing business, and rightfully so. KCP’s been a part of trade rumors for the last three years, and that doesn’t figure to change so long as James is around and the front office has to do whatever it can to maximize the team’s title window.
The Lakers aren’t going to get a better wing in free agency than Caldwell-Pope, and championship teams need players like him to fill out their rotation. He has earned the right to play out his contract in Los Angeles; so barring a superstar trade, he should be brought back next season.