The 2019-2020 Los Angeles Lakers are jam-packed with one feel-good story after another, as tends to be the case when a championship is won.
Bringing home the franchise’s 17th Larry O’Brien trophy to honor the memory of Kobe Bryant certainly sits above all other storylines. But not to be overshadowed were Rob Pelinka proving himself as a general manager, Dwight Howard’s redemption, Frank Vogel’s success coaching a team his way and Anthony Davis ascending as a clutch (Klutch?) playoff performer.
The good vibes just keep rolling for the Lakers.
And yet, there is one narrative that still isn’t getting enough attention, and that’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s journey from scapegoat to a star (in his role).
During free agency three seasons ago, Caldwell-Pope surprisingly became available when the Detroit Pistons rescinded his qualifying offer and allowed him to hit the open market. Detroit was unable to come to an agreement on a new deal with Caldwell-Pope, who they had selected with the eighth pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, and decided it best to look elsewhere.
The Pistons moved on from Caldwell-Pope when they acquired defensive ace Avery Bradley in a trade with the Boston Celtics. Ironically, Bradley and Caldwell-Pope joined forces last season on the Lakers, creating an imposing duo.
The Lakers, in the middle of a rebuild and flush with cap space, offered Caldwell-Pope a one-year deal at above-market value, hoping $18 million in a single season would be enough to convince him to kick the can down the road on finding a longterm deal. That contract turned into two more deals as Caldwell-Pope helped the Lakers transition from rebuilding to contending.
The prevailing thought when he was signed was that the Lakers were getting not just a solid shooting guard to add to their young roster, but also a direct line to his agent, Rich Paul. This would allow them to establish a relationship that could pave the way for LeBron James, another Paul client, to land in Los Angeles (spoiler: it worked).
Caldwell-Pope established himself as a solid player in his first two seasons with the Lakers and was asked to take on a bench role behind Bradley at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season. The year started disastrously, with Caldwell-Pope shooting just 22% from three during the first 11 games of the season.
A few of his misses were particularly ugly, and the notion of cutting his minutes became a popular talking point in the press.
At that point, aside from being a team built around James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ team identity was still a mystery, and there was uncertainty over how they would handle the various bumps in the road that the NBA season tends to bring. Caldwell-Pope’s struggles were the first major test of their chemistry in a season that turned out, through no fault of their own, to be extremely bumpy.
As we came to find out, the Lakers’ go-to response to adversity was to circle the wagons and double-down on their belief in each other. Adversity became a unifying force for the team, making them stronger rather than tearing them apart.
Prodigal son Dwight Howard was surprisingly vocal about Lakers fans calling for Caldwell-Pope to be benched, sticking up for his teammate and becoming particularly irritated when some fans tried to spin what turned out to be a minor injury to Caldwell-Pope as a positive turn of events.
“We talk about Lakers Nation, we talk about winning a championship, and we need everybody on the same page,” Howard said.
“KCP is my teammate. He’s my brother. And he’s a part of this family. We don’t talk bad about nobody that’s on our team… We’re gonna need KCP to win this championship, and I don’t think it’s right for anybody to wish any type of harm or any type of danger on my teammate. Of course, there’s going to be nights where guys miss shots, miss layups but we need to set a standard.”
Howard’s words, nearly a year old at this point, now appear prophetic. The Lakers did indeed need Caldwell-Pope in order to bring home a championship. His shooting eventually got back on track, and when the dust settled he turned in the highest 3-point percentage of his career, and on a team where defenses are forced to prioritize James and Davis, having shooters who can cash in on open looks is important.
While his scoring dipped into the single digits for the first time since his rookie season thanks to a decrease in usage on a loaded Lakers roster, Caldwell-Pope made up for it with efficiency.
He also gave the Lakers the depth at a position that would prove to be critical. When Bradley went down midseason due to injury, Caldwell-Pope slotted back into the starting lineup and the Lakers didn’t miss a beat, then did it again when Bradley opted out of the NBA’s Orlando bubble.
Most teams wouldn’t be able to withstand losing a perimeter defender of Bradley’s caliber, but Caldwell-Pope’s steady presence allowed the Lakers to adapt.
For a season that started with a firestorm of criticism, Caldwell-Pope’s resolve, as well as that of the Lakers, to continue believing was inspiring. Now, with rumors that he will decline his player option and hit free agency once again, Caldwell-Pope will look to cash in on his success.
Maybe he will finally get that elusive long-term deal from the Lakers after all.
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