Players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are both essential and unspectacular in the exact kind of way that allows them to be taken for granted. After the Detroit Pistons renounced his rights back in July—rejecting an opportunity to surrender over $100 million for their former lottery pick's service—Caldwell-Pope hit the open market with an agreeable game that snugly fits into the NBA’s own tactical trajectory.
He’s a shutdown wing who launches more than half his shots behind the arc. (After a slow start, Caldwell-Pope has nailed just over 40 percent of his threes over his past 10 games and is at a career-best 36.1 percent this season.) What’s not to admire? Weaknesses exist—including an offensive rigidity that prohibits him from being much more than a tepid playmaker, at best—but they’re embraced warmly enough thanks to all the thankless tasks he provides elsewhere.
Caldwell-Pope is now on the Los Angeles Lakers, where he signed a one-year, $17.7 million deal. It feels like an uncomfortable stasis for a player in his fifth season, enduring his second contract year in a row. But the 24-year-old has yet to test the shortcomings of his game for the sake of his own individual growth or production, at the cost of his team's success. Instead, he's solely focused on finding ways to move L.A.'s needle in a positive way. His teammates respect that, understand how important he is, and recognize the partnership could end sooner than anyone wants it to.
"If I put myself in his shoes, it’d just be tough to embrace everybody and kind of get into the whole team aspect knowing that next summer is another free agent year," Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. told VICE Sports. "But he’s done a terrific job of being selfless and looking out for others."
Even though he’s been integral in helping turn L.A.’s defense around—from a three-year stretch where they ranked either last or second to last in defensive rating to the top-10 unit they own today—Caldwell-Pope is understandably overlooked on a rebuilding roster that includes two of the NBA's last three second-overall picks and a mythological Almighty named Kyle Kuzma. He ranks seventh on the Lakers in usage, with a role that never calls attention to itself, for a team that currently has a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs.
“When we made this deal, me and my agent, we discussed it multiple times,” Caldwell-Pope told VICE Sports. “We knew the risk we were taking. Nine times out of 10 I’d like to bet on myself. That’s what we did. It’s a one-year deal, and so far this season it’s been going well.”
This is far from basketball purgatory, but it’s also not an obvious home. Caldwell-Pope doesn’t have a lot of time to fit in; for reasons we'll get into later on, it’s more likely than not he’ll be in a different city next season. “There’s no benefit [to a one-year deal]. I’m up again next year,” he said. “I could be here, or be wherever I land.”
The good news for both the Lakers and Caldwell-Pope is that his skill-set is seamlessly transferable. He defends multiple positions extremely well, doesn’t need the ball (but can do a little bit with it, if necessary), and levels off as a fine three-point shooter who’s accurate enough to space the floor.
“Obviously it’s always a challenge when you’re coming to a new team on a one-year deal, and I think he’s done a really nice job of playing the way that we want him to play,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said. “It’s not like he’s learning an entire new offense or anything like that. It’s more just what we’re looking for, what we’re valuing…you learn your teammate's strengths and weaknesses and where you can help them out and where they can help you out. All that stuff just takes time.”
Caldwell-Pope has helped simplify the first two months of Lonzo Ball’s career—as a reliable target on throw-aheads and someone who’ll happily assume the stress caused by wading through the league’s wave of obscene point guard talent every night—and is an ideal chip for one of the league’s fastest offenses.
Last season, Detroit’s pace was 97.6 with Caldwell-Pope on the floor. Right now, in Los Angeles, he’s on a team that’s averaging 105.2 possessions per 48 minutes. No team in basketball is faster.
“He’s a big player for our team, man,” Ball said. “Plays on both ends of the court. He can score with the best of them, and he makes my job a lot easier, just because he can run the lane and guard the guards.”
It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that he might be finding more of his offense in the open floor than last year. And guess what? He is! According to Synergy Sports, only two players (Elfrid Payton and Darren Collison) who’ve logged at least 50 transition possessions have a higher percentage of their individual offense coming from that play type.
Caldwell-Pope gallops the floor off missed shots and turnovers, perpetually looking to cash in against a retreating, unbalanced defense. “Luke made an emphasis on that this year. He wanted to play fast,” Caldwell-Pope said. “He wanted to get the ball up and down the court—see if we got [a good look], if not get it back to Zo and then just run a play. But mostly we want to get out in transition.”
Even though his core responsibilities haven't changed, Caldwell-Pope has been asked to create less offense for himself and others. The percentage of his possessions that have come as a pick-and-roll ball-handler have dropped 10.5 percent. He’s been effective coming off screens and more of his baskets are assisted than before, but unlike a stiff catch-and-shoot wing, Caldwell-Pope is still able to wiggle into satisfactory results when opponents take away what the Lakers want to do.
Here’s an example from a recent win against the Charlotte Hornets. It’s an "elevators" action that attempts to free KCP up for a three by zipper cutting through a double-doors screen set by Kuzma and Brook Lopez.
Marvin Williams recognizes what’s happening and switches out to contest, so Caldwell-Pope puts the ball on the floor, gets to the elbow, and rises up to knock down a mid-range jumper. It’s that ability to improvise that puts him a nose ahead of comparable players like Danny Green. (Here’s how "elevators" looks against a defense that isn’t prepared to stop it.)
At 6’5” and 200 pounds, he's an occasional victim of L.A.’s switch-happy defensive strategy that invites mismatches on the block as a means to neuter the offense’s ball movement and invite inefficient two pointers. Caldwell-Pope ranks dead last as a post defender, according to Synergy Sports, allowing 32 points on 21 possessions despite fighting for position before and after the catch.
But he's polished on the perimeter, a master of the NBA's dark arts defending on and off the ball. He knows how to elude screens, lock onto his man's hip, and transform into his shadow. "He gives me tips and pointers," Lakers rookie Josh Hart told VICE Sports. "He’s talked to me just about how to guard shooters off down screens…how to just be attached and go over the top so you don’t lose that separation and get torched for threes."
Nance Jr. added: "Whether it be Kemba, or Chris Paul, James Harden, Steph, every single night there’s some kind of guard that we play that has go-off potential, and he’s done a really nice job of slowing them down thus far."
Caldwell-Pope hasn’t made any noticeable statistical strides and his True Shooting percentage is still below league average, but he plays hard within his own limitations. Given the dearth of wings who check off the boxes he does on a nightly basis, how increasingly integral spacers who can also defend have become, and the fact that he's yet to enter his prime, Caldwell-Pope should be in line for a massive raise this summer. (He'll enter a marketplace that could also include Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, and Danny Green.)
Caldwell-Pope is best-suited on a team that’s ready to win now, but also able to aid a less-experienced roster and help shove them in the right direction (just like he’s doing right now with the Lakers).
But unless he's willing to sign another one-year deal (unlikely!), the Lakers probably won’t keep him beyond this season. Even if they strike out on Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, LeBron James, etc. in free agency, L.A.’s President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson is all about preserving max space for the summer of 2019. The organization appreciates all KCP is doing, but would prefer to fill their cap sheet with All-Stars. So if not Los Angeles, where will Caldwell-Pope be next season?
A few intriguing candidates could elbow their way into the hunt—the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Brooklyn Nets make sense—but my favorite destination is one that wasn’t on anybody’s radar even a month ago: the Indiana Pacers. When you’re good, young, and have a ton of cap space, doors that were once closed start to creak open.
The fit is almost too perfect. Caldwell-Pope would be sublime beside Victor Oladipo, able to defend opposing point guards, spot up on the wing, and prey in transition. This could be the Pacers’ starting backcourt until Myles Turner’s prime. For a franchise that hasn’t traditionally been able to take advantage of free agency, the Pacers have money to spend, an exciting core, and boast an attractive playing style.
“That’s what I do,” Caldwell-Pope told VICE Sports when asked how he’s enjoying L.A.'s quicker cadence. “I run the floor, I run the wing. Either get easy layups or transition threes.”
There’s also the possibility Los Angeles moves him before the trade deadline to a team that’s looking to make a playoff push, but that feels unlikely for a few reasons. To start, whichever team traded for Caldwell-Pope would only receive his non-Bird Rights. Long story short, that means they’d likely need cap space to re-sign him over the summer, as the exception only allows four year deals up to 120 percent of the previous season’s salary with a five percent annual increase.
Crazier things have happened, but it’s highly unlikely Caldwell-Pope’s market value won’t be higher, strengthening the likelihood of him being a mid-season rental more than a long-term investment. He also has a 15 percent trade kicker.
Are there any teams that believe half a season of Caldwell-Pope’s service is worth a first-round pick? The Minnesota Timberwolves would almost definitely fit this description, but they already owe a lottery-protected first to the Atlanta Hawks. The New Orleans Pelicans also fall in line, but lack enough salary in expiring contracts to execute a deal; a three-team transaction is always possible but incredibly difficult to pull off assuming the Lakers and Mystery Team X both want draft picks in the deal.
Caldwell-Pope is an ideal accessory for LeBron in his eternal quest to dethrone the Golden State Warriors—the two employ Rich Paul as an agent—but even though the Cleveland Cavaliers can cobble together a sensical trade package (something like Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2021), it’s really hard to see the Lakers go out of their way to nudge James closer to a championship.
If they don't trade him, Los Angeles will probably lose Caldwell-Pope for nothing. They knew what this was the moment they signed him, but that still doesn't make it any easier to accept. He'll likely stay in the Lakers' starting lineup for the rest of the season and continue to instill winning habits in a culture that hasn't enjoyed a player like him in over half a decade. Beyond that, the only thing we know for sure is whichever team does sign Caldwell-Pope for the long haul won't be disappointed.