As the Lakers get comfortable in the bubble, they are getting used to being without their starter in Avery Bradley. Also, losing backup Rajon Rondo shortly thereafter to a hand injury puts about 44 minutes up for grabs. Per Lakers reporter Mike Trudell, Coach Frank Vogel has said he thinks Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will start:
Vogel reiterated that he’s pretty sure that KCP will start, citing how good he was when Avery Bradley was out earlier this year (LAL went 17-3 when KCP started).
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) July 20, 2020
Caldwell-Pope had his best year yet for the Lakers, shooting 39 percent from three. He will have to continue it for the team to succeed in Orlando.
Simply plugging Caldwell-Pope in for Bradley in the starting lineup shouldn’t have any issues offensively. The team’s offensive rating jumps from 114 to 117 when replacing one with the other. This team relies on the shooting opportunities created by the stars; Bradley shot just 31.7 percent on his spot-up opportunities (20th percentile), while Caldwell-Pope shot 43.5 percent (83rd percentile). Teams are reluctant to help off of Danny Green and with Javale McGee in the “dunker” spot, that means they mostly helped off of Bradley. Putting Caldwell-Pope in the starting lineup makes that calculation even tougher.
Both guards are not adept ball handlers but have playmaking capabilities. Therefore, Vogel put them in pretty similar actions in the half-court. The main action being two “stagger” screens that lead to a handoff with a big out of a “horns” set, allowing them the choice of taking the midrange, hitting the big, or kicking to the “weak-side” shooter like in this clip:
Caldwell-Pope built tremendous chemistry with Dwight Howard as his screener and would need to see the same thing continuing with the starters. These actions in the starting lineup were critical in taking pressure off the stars to create every possession.
A concern in the starting lineup is the lack of guards to handle ball pressure. While Bradley isn’t Kyrie Irving, he is more of a traditional point guard than Caldwell-Pope. Now that duty falls pretty much all on LeBron. Davis carries some of the load as he likes to “push” after a rebound, but it will be important for the guards to contribute in that area. LeBron already holds a huge offensive responsibility, and forcing him to bring the ball up every-time can be taxing.
The Lakers posted the third-best defense in the league and that’s in no short part to Bradley. The team even came up with the term “the Avery challenge” as a defensive mantra. He is elite in ball pressure, which fits perfectly with Vogels’ scheme of daring guards to attack the towers waiting. The team could throw him on the opposing team’s best ball handler and give them hell. That led to him allowing the lowest eFG percentage as the closest defender for guards this year (minimum 300 field goal attempts). He could pressure guards like in this clip against Ja Morant, knowing his bigs were ready behind him:
Caruso is likely the better defensive guard, but Caldwell-Pope might be the best at imitating what Bradley did for the starting lineup. The bench lineup had a similar scheme, as he would force teams into attacking Howard at the rim. Being listed at two inches taller gives KCP the ability to have more leeway on defense. They average about the same number of steals per game and are not shot-blocking guards in any sense. One concern though is defensive rebounding and physicality. Even with his smaller frame, Bradley is more comfortable boxing out bigs down low.
Who starts doesn’t impact who closes on this team. Other than LeBron and Davis, coach Vogel has an open door on who closes games. Second on the team in fourth-quarter minutes after LeBron is Caldwell-Pope (eight minutes per fourth quarter) while Bradley averaged five minutes. Caldwell-Pope shot a ridiculous 44.1 percent from three in the final quarter and gained the trust to hit shots in clutch situations. Third, in fourth-quarter minutes is Howard, and those two with LeBron, Davis, and Green posted a plus 13 net rating.
Losing your starting point guard on a team paced to win 60 games is never great, but the Lakers are fortunate to have a replacement. Caldwell-Pope had a defensive rating three points worse than Bradley, but the uptick in the offense should offset it. He has also shown confidence in his ability to fill the role per Lakers reporter Mike Trudell:
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said he’s not going to change his mindset given injuries in the backcourt. He expects things to look similar to how they did when Bradley missed 20 games (KCP started and LAL went 17-3).
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) July 15, 2020
No one replaces what Bradley brought to the table, but he has the quickness and chemistry with the bigs on both ends to come closest.