Reflecting on Caldwell-Pope’s tenure with the Detroit Pistons

DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 23: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 23: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope /

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s tenure with the Detroit Pistons is now over. The final lottery pick of the Joe Dumars era will be wearing purple and gold this upcoming season. With that in mind, it’s time to reflect on the four seasons he spent in the Motor City.

“KCP? More like Kid Can’t Play.”

“The Pistons should’ve drafted Trey Burke!”

“He takes way too many shots.”

If you’re a fan of the Detroit Pistons, then the statements above should sound familiar.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s arrival in Detroit was met with little (if any) fanfare. The Pistons selected him with eighth overall pick in the now-infamous 2013 NBA Draft. Former Michigan stand out Trey Burke was still available.

Most Pistons fans wanted Burke, and that was understandable. He had just led the Wolverines to the National Championship Game for first time since 1989. Burke was also named the 2013 national college player of the year.

But Dumars elected to go with the 6’5″ shooting guard from Georgia. It came as a surprise, and to some, a disappointment. Little did we know, that the Detroit Pistons had found one of the bright spots in an otherwise disastrous draft class.

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Rookie year

The 2013-14 season was a turning point in Pistons’ history.  Detroit had brought in two big-name free agents in the off-season. Point guard Brandon Jennings and small forward Josh Smith each signed multi-year deals.

Smith’s was the most lucrative contract in franchise history at the time, with $54 million in guaranteed money throughout four-year agreement. (The Pistons are still paying Smith $5.3 million a year, and will do so until the conclusion of the 2019-20 season).

To nobody’s surprise, the off-season moves didn’t work. A front court consisting of Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond quickly became clogged and ineffective.

New head coach Maurice Cheeks was fired 50 games into the season after the Pistons amassed a 21-29 record. Dumars would step down as president of basketball operations a few days before the season ended. Oh and Josh Smith? He finished the year shooting 26 percent (70 of 265) from beyond the arc.

With the franchise in disarray, their first round draft pick didn’t receive much of an opportunity. Kentavious averaged just 5.8 field goal attempts per game – a far cry from what his numbers would become in the following years.

Oddly enough, Caldwell-Pope’s best game as a rookie came in the season finale against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He scored a then career high 30 points on 11 for 19 shooting, and hit 5 of his 7 three-point attempts. The Detroit Pistons would fall on the road, but it was a sign that KCP had the potential to be a scoring threat.

SVG and the sophomore

Stan Van Gundy was hired as the Pistons’ head coach and president of basketball operations in the spring of 2014. Various perimeter shooters had succeeded under his guidance in the past. That was plan for Caldwell-Pope, and the second-year youngster delivered.

Related Story: Avery Bradley and KCP make SI's top 100

KCP started 41 games as a rookie. But this time, he’d be the permanent starter – a role he’d never relinquish for the remainder of his time in Detroit.

To say that his production increased in his second season would be an understatement. Caldwell-Pope raised his scoring average by 6.8 points per game, and easily surpassed his rookie shooting percentages.

Some of this can be attributed to an increase in minutes. He averaged 31.5 minutes per game during 2014-15, compared to just 19.8 the previous season. However, a surge in floor time doesn’t always mean a surge in production. Caldwell-Pope got the opportunity he deserved, and made the most of it.

A mid-season trade would give KCP a new teammate in the back court. Erratic and unpredictable Brandon Jennings was gone. His replacement was Reggie Jackson, a more conventional point guard. Pairing these two up brought out the best in each other.

Caldwell-Pope helped mask Jackson’s deficiencies on defense. Kentavious would guard the opposition’s primary ball handler, while Reggie was usually responsible for a spot up shooter. It was at this time when Caldwell-Pope’s presence as a defender became vital to Detroit’s strategy.

The Detroit Pistons would miss the playoffs for sixth straight year. But they headed into the summer with growing expectations.

Break out season and the playoffs

Detroit Pistons
Detroit Pistons /

Detroit Pistons

Detroit quickly caught the NBA’s attention in the 2015-16 season. The Pistons raced out to a 5-1 record. Drummond recorded back to back 20-20 games within that span. His emergence as one of the more dominant players in the paint opened up the perimeter for teammates like Caldwell-Pope.

Six Pistons finished the season with a scoring average of at least 10 points per game. Even Ersan Ilyasova and Tobias Harris, who each spent half of the season in Detroit, reached the double-digit plateau. Caldwell-Pope averaged a career high in points (14.5), rebounds (3.7), steals (1.4) and field goal percentage (42 percent) in 2015-16.

What you won’t be able to infer from the statistics above is the way in which Kentavious improved as a scorer. He became more comfortable attacking the basket, scoring off the dribble, and adjusting to what the defense was giving him.

Caldwell-Pope also emerged as the go-to guy in transition. You can’t teach instinct, and you can’t teach speed. He has a knack for both. His aggressiveness on the break led to many electrifying one-handed slams.

This one quickly comes to mind:

Fourth and final season

Caldwell-Pope and the Pistons had high expectations entering the 2016-17 season. They had just ended their six-year playoff drought. Drummond was coming off a season for the ages. The starting five seemed to fit just right.

But Detroit still lacked depth at the point guard and power forward positions. Steve Blake‘s lack of speed and urgency wasn’t going to cut it. The Pistons also needed a true stretch four coming off the bench. Anthony Tolliver could score, but he didn’t have the size to hang with players like Kevin Love.

Blake and Tolliver were replaced by Ish Smith and Jon Leuer. Van Gundy had addressed the team’s weakest links, and everything appeared to be falling in place. For the first time since the Goin’ To Work era, there was an underlying confidence that surrounded the Pistons.

The expectations, confidence and long-awaited excitement would abruptly be put on hold.

Left knee tendinosis and a UCL sprain on his right thumb would sideline Reggie Jackson for the first 21 games of the season. Detroit managed to go 11-10 throughout his absence, but the damage had already been done.

Jackson’s return messed with the new-found chemistry the Pistons had established with back up point guard Ish Smith. A player’s-only meeting in late December spoke volumes about the state of the team.  They would continue to flounder the entire season.

Pay KCP?

As the 2016-17 campaign drew to a close, fans and media members alike began to shift their focus towards the future. More specifically, Caldwell-Pope’s future with the Detroit Pistons.

Would, and should, the Pistons pay KCP?

The 23-year-old was set to become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2017. He regressed slightly from the previous season, but so did the entire team in 2016-17.

Caldwell-Pope was still Detroit’s best overall defender, especially on the perimeter. The Detroit Pistons had also relied on his offensive contributions. He averaged 13.8 points per game on 40 percent shooting. Kentavious was also one of the club’s best three-point shooter at 35 percent (Jackson shot 36 percent but only appeared in 52 games).

Detroit had the right to match any offer that an opposing team made to him. But was Caldwell-Pope worth the money and long-term investment? The Pistons were already strapped for cash. A contract extension for KCP would’ve all but eliminated their chances of signing quality free agents the next few years.

That question was answered on July 7, 2017.

Detroit traded small forward Marcus Morris to the Celtics in exchange for shooting guard Avery Bradley and a 2019 second round pick. The Kentavious Caldwell-Pope era was officially over.

Whether or not it was the right answer, remains to be seen.

Saying goodbye

Caldwell-Pope’s No. 5 won’t hang in the rafters at Little Caesars Arena. Mitchell & Ness won’t produce a commemorative jersey to celebrate his career in Detroit.

Some fans might even forget about him – which would be a crime, because KCP exemplified what it means to be a Piston.

For each of his four seasons in Detroit, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope played with a chip on his shoulder. An unheralded player found a home in one of the country’s most misunderstood regions. He played defense with a sense of pride, something we see don’t usually see in today’s game.

Caldwell-Pope was relatively quiet off the court. But on the floor, he was competitive, emotional and yes, vocal. He embraced the name on the front of the jersey, which not all Pistons (see Bob McAdoo and Allan Houston) have done.

Detroit Pistons fans will miss him, and rightfully so.

His arrival in Tinseltown might be overlooked. But this time, the world already knows what “KCP” stands for.

Next: Reggie Jackson's foundation to hold charity event

Kid. Can. Play.