Finally, the Los Angeles Lakers got their man. After waiting patiently for the first week and a half of the free agent feeding frenzy, they landed 24-year-old shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who wasn’t expected to be available at all.
Intent on maintaining cap space for next summer so they can chase the likes of Paul George and LeBron James, the Lakers walked into a fight with 29 other teams with one hand tied behind their back. They flirted with George Hill and Dion Waiters, only to watch them go to franchises who could offer them long-term deals while Los Angeles stuck to their plan of only giving one-year contracts.
Then, fate came knocking, and ironically it was the rival Boston Celtics who helped open the door. Gordon Hayward ended the suspense surrounding his own free agency on the Fourth of July and announced that he was Boston bound, but the Celtics had to free up a little cap space in order to give Hayward the max contract he was seeking.
With one of Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, or Avery Bradley needing to go, the Celtics sifted through offers and ultimately shipped Bradley to the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons had been unable to come to a contract agreement with Caldwell-Pope, who was their own restricted free agent that they selected with the eighth overall pick in 2013. With Bradley in town, Caldwell-Pope was now expendable and too expensive, so they renounced his rights, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent and hit the market.
The Lakers, being one of the few teams with cap space available, pursued him with gusto despite their self-imposed restriction of only offering one-year deals, ultimately landing Caldwell-Pope for about $18 million.
Clearly, the hope is that Caldwell-Pope can help shore up a porous Los Angeles defense and take some of the pressure off of rookie point guard Lonzo Ball by checking the opponent’s best guard. On the offensive end, Caldwell-Pope can help space the floor with his three-point shooting, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he has a career-year in that area.
Only 35% of Caldwell-Pope’s shots with the Pistons last season were of the catch-and-shoot variety, compared to 48% for then-Lakers shooting guard Nick Young in coach Luke Walton’s system. Add the high-level passing that Ball brings and open shots that he will create in transition and it’s easy to envision Caldwell-Pope feasting in a shooter’s paradise.
As intriguing as it would have been to see Ball play alongside D’Angelo Russell on the offensive end, Caldwell-Pope’s ability to fit seamlessly on both ends of the court makes him a better option.
With their 2018 first-round pick in the clutches of the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics depending on where it falls, the Lakers don’t benefit by losing games this year. The tank is dead, and the hope is that adding Ball, Caldwell-Pope, and Brook Lopez into the starting lineup alongside Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram will allow next year’s Lakers team to rise to new heights.
For Caldwell-Pope’s part, in accepting a one-year deal, he’s taking a gamble that Walton’s system and Ball’s passing ability will turbo-charge his stats and allow him to hit the free agent market again next summer with momentum. Draft experts have long surmised that Ball’s passing wizardry will make him popular with players because he will inflate the production of everyone around him, leading to larger pay days. Caldwell-Pope will be one of the first to test that theory, and a one-year deal now could give him an opportunity to sign a very lucrative one next off season.
On the flip side, while Caldwell-Pope makes a lot of sense for the Lakers on the court, contractually things will be a bit challenging for them next summer. Since he is on a one-year deal, Los Angeles will not have his Bird rights, which means that they must use pure cap space to bring him back. The Lakers are saving their cash for a pair of superstars, and it’s unlikely that Caldwell-Pope will hit that level next season.
With Randle, Caldwell-Pope, and Lopez all hitting free agency next summer, the Lakers will have some very difficult decisions to make as they pursue stars like Paul George, LeBron James, and DeMarcus Cousins. All three could have to be jettisoned, but that’s a bridge the Lakers will cross when -and if- they get to it.
Additionally, while the Lakers kept their cap sheet clean for next year, adding Caldwell-Pope did not come without a cost. In order to get the cap room necessary to sign him, the team waived defensive wing David Nwaba, who was one of the feel-good stories of last season after battling his way into the D-League (now G-League) with the D-Fenders (now South Bay Lakers) and eventually worked his way up to the big show.
The hope was that Nwaba would clear waivers and that the Lakers could bring him back once they had signed Caldwell-Pope, but the Chicago Bulls claimed Nwaba and foiled the Lakers plans.
That said, the bottom line is that, on paper, next season’s Lakers appear better than last years’ squad. Walton, Magic Johnson, and Rob Pelinka have ushered in a new era of Lakers basketball, one filled with a level of optimism that hasn’t existed for some time.
If things go well, and Caldwell-Pope helps the team exceed expectations and thus become a major free agent destination again next summer, then this move will be a solid step towards bringing the Lakers back to the top of the basketball mountain. If not, it’s still a worthwhile move with very little downside.