AUBURN HILLS, MI — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope spent the summer working on his defense, and it’s paid off.
The problem is that, somewhere in all that effort, he lost his jump shot.
For the first 20 games of the season, Caldwell-Pope was unquestionably Detroit’s best defender. He even held Stephen Curry to 7-for-18 shooting and forced him to turn the ball over five times in a game that the Golden State Warriors “only” won by 14 points.
Unfortunately for Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons, Caldwell-Pope wasn’t able to produce the offense that they needed at shooting guard. With Jodie Meeks sidelined by a broken foot, he was the Pistons’ only experienced player at the 2-guard, averaging over 37 minutes in those 20 games. However, he shot 38.2 percent from the floor, including 29.2 percent on three-pointers.
Everything seemed to change on Dec. 4 against the hapless Los Angeles Lakers. In a 20-point win, Caldwell-Pope scored 22 points and only had to play 31 minutes. The reduced workload was temporary – he’s averaged 39.1 minutes in Detroit’s last six games – but he’s started to score again.
Wednesday, he played 43:51 in a three-point victory over the Celtics, scoring a career-high 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting while facing a pretty good defensive guard in Avery Bradley.
“Obviously, my best coaching decision of the night was getting KCP four minutes of rest in the first half, because he wasn’t coming off the floor after that,” Van Gundy joked. “I think after the last few games, we can be confident that his shot is back.”
Caldwell-Pope had given some indications that his scoring touch was returned in the previous two games, scoring 18 points in a rout of the Indiana Pacers and 19 in an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. In the latter game, he played the entire second half and overtime period, and was one of the few exhausted Pistons still playing defense at the end.
He credits his defensive work with sustaining him through the prolonged shooting slump.
“Shooting is the one thing in basketball that is always going to come and go, but if you play defense, you will still be helping the team, and you will create points in transition,” he said. “I’ve been playing long enough to know my shot would start falling, so I just kept playing my game and waited for it to happen.”
Caldwell-Pope’s defensive prowess was the reason Van Gundy kept him on the floor for big minutes when he wasn’t scoring. The same balance is the reason that his franchise player, Andre Drummond, wasn’t on the floor in crunch time against the Celtics. Drummond went 3-for-10 from the free throw line, leading Van Gundy to pull him late in the third quarter and again in the fourth.
“I’ve talked to Andre about this before, and I’m going to talk to him again,” Van Gundy said. “Yes, he needs to make more free throws, but he’s also going to have to step it up on the defensive end. When they did this to Dwight Howard in Orlando, he would get us four straight stops, and our lead would go up.
“That’s what Andre doesn’t do. He gets frustrated by missing the free throws, and it gets to him on the other end. As long as our lead stays intact, he can stay on the floor, but if it costs us our lead, he’s got to come out. That’s why he wasn’t on the floor at the end tonight.”
Drummond is going to have to solve his own problems, but Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Jackson are about to get some help in the backcourt. Brandon Jennings, who’s been sidelined since February with a torn Achilles’ tendon, has been cleared to play and will suit up Saturday for Detroit’s D-League affiliate.
“Brandon knows that he can go to Grand Rapids and play 35-40 minutes, where we can’t give him that many minutes right now,” Van Gundy said. “This is going to give him a chance to play more minutes and get into game shape.”
The Pistons hope to get Jodie Meeks back early in the New Year, which will cause a glut of guards on the roster, but that’s a problem Van Gundy will be happy to have. Right now, he’s counting on Caldwell-Pope to continue shooting well while playing 40 minutes a night.