LOS ANGELES — Perhaps it's human nature, but fans of every NBA team seem to seek out one player on their favorite club as a pariah. It doesn't seem to matter if the franchise is at the bottom of the standings or competing for a championship.
On the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers (15-2), veteran guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—the team's fourth-highest-paid player and third Klutch member next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis—has seemingly been singled out as the scapegoat.
It even got to the point where the scapegoat of the 2012-13 Lakers, a redeemed Dwight Howard, spoke out to Silver Screen and Roll's Harrison Faigen in defense of his teammate: "We don't talk bad about nobody that's on our team. We're gonna need KCP to win this championship."
But then starter Avery Bradley suffered a right leg injury, and head coach Frank Vogel promoted Caldwell-Pope in his stead. Over that six-game stretch, including the Lakers' 114-104 win in San Antonio on Monday, Caldwell-Pope has shot a blistering 61.5 percent from three for 14.2 points per game.
The Lakers miss Bradley, but Caldwell-Pope has stepped in admirably and quieted the haters—at least for now.
To be fair, Caldwell-Pope was objectively bad to start the season. He was torched by Kawhi Leonard in the Lakers' opening-night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers (never mind that Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA) and couldn't hit a shot, missing all nine attempts over the Lakers' first two games.
Something wasn't clicking, leading Vogel to reduce his minutes down to just four against the Toronto Raptors and eight versus the Phoenix Suns. The low point, symbolically, may have been the layup attempt against the Golden State Warriors that wedged between the rim and the backboard.
While Vogel had tapered down Caldwell-Pope's minutes prior to Bradley's setback, he had expressed faith throughout, saying: "You need as many perimeter defenders that you can trust and can get out and guard and have speed. ... He's one of those soldiers for us. I know he gets a lot of criticism for his offense, but he's capable of knocking down big shots."
Through 17 games, per NBA.com, Caldwell-Pope has been a net positive. His offensive rating is 109.6 points per 100 possessions, just a hair below Anthony Davis' 109.8 and slightly above Bradley's 107.9. Those numbers include a significant boost from his last six starts. Over that period, Caldwell-Pope has a stellar offensive rating of 118.5.
Defensively, the Lakers have slipped a bit in recent games, in part because they miss Bradley. On the season, Caldwell-Pope has a 103.9 defensive rating (well below Bradley's 98.6), but over the recent stretch, he's at 115.7.
For those who are looking for a continued reason to gang up on Caldwell-Pope, his net rating over his six starts (despite his hot shooting) is just 2.9—well below almost all of his teammates. But realistically, he is a role player valued by his teammates and the coaching staff, and he's likely here to stay.
By one of the many quirks of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, Caldwell-Pope can block any trade this season. Any players re-signed for just one season benefit from the one-year Bird rule, which applies to Caldwell-Pope, even though he holds a player option for the 2020-21 season.
Given he's represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, who also represents James and Davis, the Lakers may not even consider shopping Caldwell-Pope. And if they need help via trade (perhaps with the Memphis Grizzlies for Andre Iguodala), Paul may not want to sacrifice Caldwell-Pope, even if it betters James and Davis' chances of winning a title.
"Paul probably doesn't want to send the message out to future prospective clients that he's only about LeBron," one Eastern Conference executive said. "He's already fighting that perception. The Lakers are probably going to have to find another way to improve, outside of dealing KCP."
If there's any incentive, Caldwell-Pope has a 15 percent trade bonus in his contract that could yield him between $700,000 and $2 million, depending on timing and the option on his second season. (He could choose to opt in before a trade, which would also eliminate his ability to block a deal.)
The numbers are further complicated by Caldwell-Pope's incentivized contract. He signed for $19 million, with $16.6 million guaranteed. The rest ($1.2 million per season) is based on the following benchmarks:
$350,000 if he averages 4.0 rebounds per game.
$300,000 if he averages 1.85 assists per game.
$300,000 if he averages 1.2 steals per game.
$163,392 if he is named to an all-NBA first or second defensive team.
$50,000 if his team advances to the conference finals.
Thus far, Caldwell-Pope is at 2.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.8 steals per game. He's not on track for an All-Defensive team, but the Lakers certainly hope they'll get to the Western Conference Finals and beyond.
When Bradley returns, perhaps in a week or so, Caldwell-Pope will likely return to the bench, where he'll play fewer minutes with both James and Davis. With that, his open looks will probably decrease. He'll make a few bad decisions on the court, turn the ball over, etc. Whatever it may be, the fan community known as Lakers Twitter will undoubtedly turn on him again.
Caldwell-Pope is far from a perfect player, but he is an asset to the Lakers. More importantly, he's part of the Klutch family with James and Davis.
The initial Caldwell-Pope signing in 2017 first enabled the Lakers to build a relationship with Paul, helping to build a level of comfort that may have contributed to James' decision to sign in 2018.
Some fans are bitter, feeling that Caldwell-Pope has been overpaid. Statistically, he is not a negative for the Lakers, but is he worth around $9 million per year?
If in some way having Caldwell-Pope on the roster keeps James and Davis happy, the answer is a resounding yes.
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.
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