Should the Lakers give Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a high-priced contract?

(Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
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Los Angeles Lakers
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Should Rob Pelinka give Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a raise?

This isn’t a cut and dry question.

KCP struggled throughout the regular season guarding opposing wings as the Lakers reserve shooting guard. We’ve seen the same story from Caldwell-Pope throughout his career—at 6’5,” 200 pounds, he’s too small to smother bigger wings.

He consistently gets bullied by players like Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday, or any other perimeter athlete whose bigger or stronger than him.

You can take KCP’s inability to guard wings one step farther because there were times during the regular season that opposing perimeter players hunted for KCP off preplanned switches.

The Lakers’ first game of the season against the Clippers was a great example of this strategy; every time Caldwell-Pope entered the game, Kawhi Leonard hunted for switches with KCP. Once Kawhi found the former Piston standing in front of him, he attacked for point after point.

KCP’s defensive play throughout the playoffs struck a huge dichotic change from his regular season performance for one fundamental reason. During the postseason, he predominantly played the point guard position for the Lakers. Caldwell-Pope excelled at the 1 because he could use his motor and quick feet to harass opposing point guards on the perimeter, and they were too small to bully him off of drives to the rack.

Caldwell-Pope was a solid defender against a slew of uber-talented point guards, but here’s the thing: Alex Caruso was still better than him, and Avery Bradley is also more reliable.

Yes, KCP held his assignments to 0.2 percent less than their regular field goal percentage, but Alex Caruso suffocated the men he covered to 1.2 percent under their typical average. Plus, AC finished the postseason ranked 14th in the NBA in defensive rating (minimum 15 minutes per game).

These numbers co-align with the eye test as well. It felt like every time an opposing point guard started to heat up against the Lakers, Frank Vogel yanked Caldwell-Pope and inserted his best option, Alex Caruso.

AC’s built like a bulldog. He combines his underappreciated strength with incredibly quick feet and great defensive awareness. Alex Caruso was the Lakers’ best perimeter defender against point guards; he was the best ballhawk against opposing 1’s in the playoffs.

Every Lakers fan already knows that Avery Bradley didn’t play during the postseason, but he was a real pest on defense during the regular season. He finished the year ranked 13th in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus (1.26) and 32nd out of all NBA players in defensive rating (minimum 15 minutes per game.

On offense, Avery Bradley shot 36 percent from deep. But, during his last seven games, before play was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bradley started to get into his comfort zone and connect on 40 percent of his three-point attempts, a number that would have easily led the Lakers.

If Avery Bradley opts into the final year of his contract, Rob Pelinka should let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk. Alex Caruso and Avery Bradley are better equipped to handle the point guard duties for the Lakers, which because of LeBron’s greatness as a point forward, only requires two excellent skills; perimeter defense and outside shooting.

If Avery Bradley decides to walk and test the market, things get dicey for the Purple and Gold. The western conference is stacked with great offensive point guards, and the Lakers built their title run around playing excellent perimeter defense.

Several solid wings will be available this offseason, guys like Wesley Matthews, Bryn Forbes, and Jae Crowder. Unfortunately, none of those players can guard the 1 near the level KCP showed he’s capable of throughout the playoffs.

ESPN’s Bobby Marks predicted that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will ask for $12-14 million per year on his next contract. That price is too high for a guy who’s averaged 11 points per game over the last three years for the Lakers while never showing he can consistently play high-level defense throughout an entire season.

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If Avery Bradley does indeed opt-out, Rob Pelinka should offer KCP a contract more in line with his actual value, something like a two-year, $9 million contract. KCP might not be happy. But the way this pandemic has affected the salary cap, in combination with Caldwell-Pope’s inability to guard wings at his natural shooting guard position, means he could very well have no other choice but to take the Lakers offer.