Early Wednesday morning, the Los Angeles Lakers and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope agreed to terms on a one-year, $18 million deal.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported the signing 20 minutes past midnight, and it’s evident that Caldwell-Pope’s long-term value has taken a hit. Less than a week ago, KCP turned down a five-year, $80 million offer from the Detroit Pistons after claiming it “wasn’t even close” to what he wanted. He’ll be making two million more this season compared to the average he would’ve gotten from the Pistons, and I believe that Caldwell-Pope recognized no team is going to give him anywhere near a max deal.
Now, he’ll be banking on improving. The 24-year-old had four solid seasons with the Pistons but never broke out. In his most recent campaign, KCP appeared in 76 games and was a huge piece of the rotation. Stan Van Gundy dubbed him starting shooting guard, and he eclipsed 2,500 minutes played for the third-straight season. Caldwell-Pope had moments, but struggled more nights than not and finished the year with 13.8 points a night on 39.9 percent shooting. The good news is that he shot a career-best 35 percent from three and began to look like a complete playmaker with 2.5 assists a night.
The biggest upside with Caldwell-Pope is his defense. Detroit was great on that end collectively, and they aren’t going to miss KCP that much because of their acquisition of Avery Bradley. In fact, they’re going to be better.
At 6-6, Caldwell-Pope has great size to play the two and complements that with decent length and solid athleticism. Detroit was a top-10 team on defense, and KCP wasn’t going to get as many minutes if he was a liability on that end. He was third on the team with 2.5 defensive win shares, trailing only Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond. Compared to last season, however, Caldwell-Pope did take a step back regarding his on/off numbers.
During the 2015-16 regular season, the Pistons’ opponents were 2.7 points worse per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Reference. During the series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they were 12.6 points worse when Caldwell-Pope sat. (They were still allowing 118 points per 100, but 118 is significantly better than 131.) Additionally, his defensive box plus/minus was a plus-4.0 that series.
This year, Detroit allowed 110.2 points per 100 with KCP on the court compared to 103.3 when he sat.
The on/off stats are a bit wacky. When Drummond — one of the more underrated defenders in the league — was on the floor, Detroit’s opponents were 10.3 points better. Drummond had the best defensive rating in the NBA this year. See what I mean? I understand that I said Caldwell-Pope isn’t a liability, and I believe it. Despite the team numbers saying otherwise. On the flip side, he appears to be more detrimental to a team’s offense because he’s an inefficient shooter who’s not adept at creating his own shots. The on/off numbers, once again, buck the narrative: 106.5 points per 100 when he’s on, 105.7 when he sits.
Some of the issues Caldwell-Pope has on that end can be blamed on the Pistons system, or lack thereof. From 2016 to 2017, they went from 19th in points per game to 26th, and 13th to 24th in efficiency. Detroit doesn’t have an identity. They’ve built their brand on defense. Last year, they at least had Reggie Jackson playing at a high level, but that wasn’t the case this time around because he was dealing with different ailments. Is it a coincidence that Caldwell-Pope had a better season in 2016 when he had an effective weapon next to him? No, because great point guards make their teammates better.
Being an average isolation player at best, KCP needs other guys to attract attention. With the Lakers, he’ll have Brook Lopez, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Jordan Clarkson with Lonzo Ball conducting everything. Despite poor showings in Vegas, Ball is going to have a solid rookie season. Even if he’s not putting up numbers, his unselfishness is contagious. And that’s easy to see even with the Baby Lakers.
I envision Caldwell-Pope getting ample catch-and-shoot opportunities, where he posted a 55.1 effective field goal percentage; on threes, KCP connected on 36.8 percent, which would’ve been good enough for fourth on the Lakers 2016-17 roster. (Per Synergy, only Lou Williams, Tyler Ennis and Nick Young shot better. Also, Tarik Black did too, but he didn’t have enough volume for me to include him.) On spot ups, Caldwell-Pope put up 0.94 points per possession, tying him with Jordan Clarkson. His eFG percentage on those attempts was 47.5 percent, and it once again slides him nicely into what the Lakers are already doing.
Luke Walton is still the coach, so I can’t see Los Angeles switching up the playbook too much. If anything, they’ll be more pass-friendly. When it comes to Caldwell-Pope, I just don’t see Lonzo missing him on open looks; he’s too talented a point guard for that to happen.
The Lakers can also experiment with KCP’s versatility. Lonzo is more than capable of playing off the ball, and Caldwell-Pope finished last year in the 70th percentile as the pick-and-roll ball handler. That’s impressive. He generated 0.89 points per possessions and had the third-lowest turnover percentage on the Pistons (11.2). He’s not as dangerous as some of his contemporaries, but he’s an astute decision-maker who doesn’t make boneheaded plays.
I’m excited to see the development in that aspect. I’m also intrigued to see if KCP looks better coming off screens, on cuts, etc. For a two guard, Caldwell-Pope hasn’t shown us that he’s a feared threat away from the action. Then again, the Pistons offense was about as frightening as a baked potato. Maybe the Lakers make him look better than he actually is. If that’s the case, there’s the chance he re-signs with them to help their recruiting efforts for LeBron James and Paul George. Then again, Caldwell-Pope will command a lot more money if he finally breaks through his ceiling, and the Lakers would have to let him walk if they’re unable to work out a cap-friendly deal.
The other thing to keep an eye on is KCP’s ability to create for himself. I touched on it briefly, but it’s not his most endearing asset. The best shot creators have an extraordinary skill about them. Guys like Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Stephen Curry are all magicians with the basketball and use that to get anywhere on the floor; LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo are athletic freaks of nature who can overpower or go through anyone who gets in their way. Caldwell-Pope isn’t either. He’s a solid athlete with good ball skills, but they’re nothing to write home about. Even when he’s able to get close to the basket, it’s usually an assisted bucket (58.1 percent of the time, actually.)
Where he excels is the mid-range, and that’s a bothersome zone for anyone to defend. Last year, Synergy noted that Caldwell-Pope connected on 40.2 percent of his 245 attempts from that area. From the straight-away three, it plummeted to 33.4. If I’m the Lakers, I want KCP to take one dribble inside of the arc because it’s a nearly seven percent improvement. That’s tremendous. It’s unconventional given today’s landscape, but, if it works consistently, no one’s going to care.
Caldwell-Pope doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, just perfect it. A mid-range clip of 40.2 is decent and gives a foundation to build upon.
Signing KCP is a good deal for both parties. Los Angeles has been on the wrong end of a few bad contracts, but Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have been working to rectify any and all of the poor decisions that the front office made in the past. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s contract is just another notch in the belt. He has a chance to be considerably better than he was with the Pistons. If that doesn’t happen, the Lakers aren’t tied up and will still have the cap flexibility to make a big move next summer.
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