Step slowly away from the negotiating table . . . and put the max contract down!
The popular sentiment earlier this season was that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had put himself in position to become the next “max” free agent from the Detroit Pistons after teammate Andre Drummond was rewarded similarly last summer. In watching KCP’s season develop, however, it would be difficult to argue that such a long-term commitment is even remotely in order.
Over the last month or so of the 2016-17 campaign, when the Pistons were in dire need of victories, Caldwell-Pope was invisible. His on-court demeanor was almost one of disinterest.
The turning point for this squad came on a four-game road trip in March where they had the opportunity to feast on the Eastern Conference’s worst clubs. KCP never bothered to show up. They went to Chicago desperately needing a victory and he took just four shots in 30 minutes. He’s the team’s most athletic wing player; its most dangerous 3-point shooter; and he manages a paltry four shot attempts? Caldwell-Pope didn't get to the free throw line, recorded a measly one assist, and turned it over twice. The Pistons were crushed by 22.
Two nights later, they were destroyed by the punchless Orlando Magic, this time by 28 points. Caldwell-Pope was 2-for-11 and left no imprint on the game.
Same thing in the road trip finale, another double-digit loss, this time to the completely dysfunctional New York Knicks. KCP played 32 minutes, made three baskets (on 12 shots), and coughed it up three times.
This was a guy rumored to be in line for a $100 million payday in a few months?
Maybe that'll still wind up being the case, but Stan Van Gundy would be wise to let such a deal be inked somewhere else..
It’s never ideal to let a valuable piece walk for nothing, of course. But Van Gundy can't possibly still believe that Drummond, Caldwell-Pope, and Reggie Jackson represent the future core of this organization.
Good, Not Great
KCP, a former lottery pick out of Georgia. is an adequate NBA player. He’s an effective defender, though he'd never be placed in the shut-down category. He’s the definition of “streaky” from the perimeter. For the year, he was 35 percent from downtown and sub-40 percent overall from the field. He’s also a better than average finisher on the break.
But down the stretch, his game deteriorated rapidly. He stopped attacking the basket. Over a five-game period, he shot a total of two free throws. As the Pistons closed the year with an ugly nine losses in 12 games, Caldwell-Pope was also heaving endlessly from beyond the arc, with little success. In that span, he jacked up an astounding 68 3-pointers and converted just 16 (23.5%).
When you take into account the dearth of foul shots, the excessive (and inaccurate) 3-point barrage, and the late-season DUI (the early morning of a game day too), it becomes near-impossible to label Caldwell-Pope as a player hell-bent on turning the fortunes of this franchise around.
In today’s NBA, the most valuable guys are the ones able to create quality shots for themselves or teammates. There’s a reason Russell Westbrook and James Harden are at the forefront of every MVP debate. Nobody cares that both players just shattered the single season record for turnovers. (No player had ever committed anywhere close to 400 turnovers; Harden just exploded for 464!) They only care that both guys were responsible for so much of their team’s offensive production.
It’s not to say that Caldwell-Pope needs to reach that level of dominance in order to be considered an asset to the Pistons, but for him to truly be considered an upper-tier player in the league, creating those golden opportunities on offense is a requirement. That’s not KCP’s game. He can come off screens and bury big triples. He’s even got a little bit of Allan Houston in him in that regard (though obviously not with near the same level of precision). But as far as isolating KCP and trusting he’ll get a good shot for the team, that's not one of his strengths.
Not a Shot Creator
Whether you enjoy today’s size-averse game or not, it’s undeniable that it's become one dominated by ball-handlers and penetrators. There might have been a time 20-25 years ago when true shooting guards like Kendall Gill, Dan Majerle, and Vernon Maxwell could thrive. They didn’t bring the ball up the floor, they didn’t really handle it in pick-and-roll situations, and they weren’t called upon to rack up big assist totals. They’d knock down shots and defend the other team’s top swingman.
In 2017, if that’s all you do, you’re a role player. Not a complete afterthought, but not somebody making the front page of the sports section, either. Caldwell-Pope is similar to a guy like Allen Crabbe in Portland: a nice player, a valuable piece off the Blazers’ bench, but not someone ever considered to be a $130 million dollar superstar..
Fool Me Once, Shame on You . . .
The Pistons would be wise not to fall into the same trap they did with Drummond last off-season. Van Gundy and Co. pinned their hopes on Drummond developing some kind of offensive game and becoming more of a well-rounded player, despite a lack of any evidence to suggest such a transformation was forthcoming. He’d already been in the league four years. Blindly hoping that major changes were just around the corner was wishful -- if not utterly fantastical -- thinking.
Obviously, this year played out and it became clear that Andre was the same player as always. There was no real improvement, no groundbreaking additions to his arsenal. The Pistons counted on a big contract miraculously turning an average player into a superstar, and unfortunately, professional basketball doesn’t really work like that.
The organization has a similar four-year sample size with which to evaluate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. At 24, there is still room for him to mature and get better, but to what degree? Can he become the next Jimmy Butler or Paul George? Doubtful. The fear is that the franchise will pony up the cash as if he’s already achieved such elite status, which would further hamstring the roster’s growth in the years to come.
If Caldwell-Pope ended the year with a flourish and captained the Pistons to a playoff berth, maybe a bank-breaking contract wouldn’t look so outrageous. But that's not what happened. His effort level tanked; his shooting percentage took a nosedive; and the whole “drinking & driving at 2 a.m. with a game the next night” thing didn’t exactly curry any favor with an already skeptical fan base.
Van Gundy has to regret the mega-deal he handed Drummond last summer -- an impulsive decision made on the heels of the team’s first playoff appearance in seven years. Then this season happened and the contract suddenly turned into an albatross.
Drummond’s passion was called into question (by SVG and others), his free throw shooting remained a giant issue and only got worse as the season progressed, and to top it all off, little-used Boban Marjanovic looked to be as effective a player -- if not more so -- during his end-of-the-year audition.
The Pistons’ brass can double down on this current group, throw another $100-some million at another marginal young player; or get to work steering this ship in a new direction.
It’s not ideal to start thinking about another version of a rebuild with the move downtown coming in a handful of months, but it is still preferable to a repeat viewing of the 82-game zombie walk the Pistons just completed.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has a place in this league, just like the aforementioned Drummond. But if you pay them like NBA royalty -- instead of the more niche-type players that they are -- you run into serious problems down the road.
The Pistons went just 37-45 in an extremely watered-down Eastern Conference.
It’s a deeply troubling sign that can’t simply be ignored. Inking KCP to a whopping extension would be doing just that.