Over the course of the offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers, from management to coaches to players, raved about the team’s presumed depth. While it’s true that the team has played at least 10 deep every game and that Walton trusts almost everyone on the roster, not all of those signed depth pieces are multi-dimensional players.
Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson are one-dimensional playmakers, having to stop the ball to be at their best (and at times, their worst). They are not shooters nor defenders. Michael Beasley, who has appeared in only three games, is a scorer but offers little else.
One signee who does offer multiple benefits to the Lakers, however, is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was signed to another one-year deal after excelling in his first season with the Lakers last year.
Caldwell-Pope has become somewhat of a scapegoat among Lakers fans with a month-long stretch of bad basketball resulting from off-court struggles marring what was an otherwise successful season for the shooting guard in 2017-18. This year, the 25-year-old got off to a slow start, at times seeming invisible on a team relying on LeBron James and four players all under the age of 24 as their biggest difference makers.
KCP has slowly begun to round into form, however, as the shooting guard has regained some of the confidence that allowed him to be a difference-maker on a surprise 35-win team.
Since the start of November, Caldwell-Pope has been a different player, averaging 8.2 points per game while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and a sizzling 40 percent from three, a welcome addition to a Lakers team that came into the season with major question marks about its shooting prowess.
When Caldwell-Pope plays well, the Lakers have a wholly new dynamic, as evidenced by their 5-1 record to start the month and their rejuvenated defense that began its improvements even before Tyson Chandler was signed.
Offensively, KCP not only gives the Lakers a spot-up threat when the likes of LeBron James and Brandon Ingram are driving against set defenses, but he also can run off screens to shift defenses and is one of few Lakers players comfortable with taking and hitting three-pointers in the flow of transition offense.
The Lakers are among the worst teams in off-screen actions in the NBA with their 0.729 points per possession ranking 28th in the league. Much of that is based around Caldwell-Pope who received the plurality of those play types (174 of 466 used possessions) last season for the Lakers.
This year, Caldwell-Pope has been abysmal, hitting on only two of his 13 field goal attempts off screens with his 0.4 points per possession being in the zeroth (!!!) percentile in the league. You can already see how that may change, however, with Chandler’s addition to the second unit adding a screening threat that the Lakers have not had this season:
KCP’s improvement in that regard should be huge for the Lakers. If the guard brings any level of gravity with his running off screens, that can be just as valuable as him hitting an open three. It’s that level of dynamic playmaking without the ball in his hands that has the Lakers reportedly interested in a trade for the Cavaliers’ Kyle Korver. Caldwell-Pope will never get the same amount of attention that Korver does when running off screens, but he can have a similar impact if his improvements are here to stay.
When Caldwell-Pope is on, he also poses a threat beyond the perimeter in transition. That’s something the Lakers have little of, as can be evidenced by their surprisingly low efficiency on the break (1.069 points per possession for 18th in the NBA, per Synergy). KCP is one of only a handful of players on the team willing to take those shots early in the clock:
Caldwell-Pope has struggled to be effective on the break to this point but as his play improves, that should be something the Lakers can rely on when he is on the court.
Defensively, KCP is also rounding into form, recording two steals in back-to-back games against the Blazers and Hawks, showing his ability to play passing lanes without unnecessarily gambling. His numbers guarding the pick-and-roll are not a pretty sight but that relies on the secondary defender and a good bit of bad luck, as well. For example, opposing ball-handlers have hit all seven field goal attempts when Caldwell-Pope goes under the screen.
It’s apparent that Caldwell-Pope’s comfort and confidence levels are rising, even after losing his starting job. In six November games, the guard has already attempted 25 three-point attempts, surpassing the 18 he took in eight October games despite playing, on average, six fewer minutes per game.
KCP is in a comfortable role off the bench but he is the type of player that can be slotted in nearly any lineup depending on the flow of a game. He doesn’t require the ball in his hands but when his shot is on, he is likely to make good use of it when he does. He does not stop the ball, he sticks to what he’s good at and he makes an impact defensively.
By virtue of his contract, Caldwell-Pope will be placed in many trade rumors this season. But if his current level of play continues, he could be an invaluable part of a Lakers team improving with him every step of the way.