The NBA playoffs always bring unexpected storylines and breakout performances. As the stakes get higher, new stars emerge and certain veteran players solidify their reputation as winning, playoff-level players. There are two former Wizards who are doing exactly that this season: Rui Hachimura and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
After being acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers mid-season, Rui Hachimura has played a crucial role in the Lakers’ unexpected rise in the Western Conference standings and a deep run in the playoffs. For a player with very limited playoff experience, Hachimura’s ability to take his game to the next level in high-intensity match-ups has been one of the most surprising developments in the postseason.
Hachimura’s well-noted ability to hit mid-rangers and provide instant scoring has given the Lakers a much-needed offensive boost. He is averaging over 12 points per game in the playoffs with %55 shooting from the three-point line. He stepped up his game as the Lakers advanced in the postseason, averaging 19 points on 16 of 21 shooting from the field so far in the Western Conference Finals.
Rui Hachimura’s defense against the Denver Nuggets has been impressive
Yet, the more impressive part of Hachimura’s emergence has been his defense. Deployed at times to guard Nikola Jokic in the Nuggets series, Hachimura took everyone by surprise by holding his own. At times, he was also tasked with defending Jamal Murray in the first two games and did a solid job. His ability to stay on the court defensively earned him the trust of coach Darvin Ham as Hachimura averaged 29 minutes per game in the Western Conference Finals.
A solid two-way wing who can reasonably guard multiple positions is very hard to come by in the league. The fact that Hachimura was able to show this level of performance the moment he left Washington is a bad sign for the Wizards organization. The Wizards traded away Hachimura mid-season for a middling return of Kendrick Nunn and five second-round picks. Nunn is not bad, but as an undersized guard with limited athleticism and inconsistent shooting, it is hard to see him become a high-level contributor in the league. Hachimura may have never blossomed into this level of player in Washington but giving up on a 25-year-old with his size and skillset for that package is certainly disappointing.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is another former Wizard who has been a key piece in his team’s success in the West playoffs. The Denver Nuggets shooting guard has fit around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray like a glove. He shot over %42 from three while playing very good defense all season. He is consistent, reliable, and has no holes in his game. The playoffs are more about not having weaknesses rather than having a lot of strengths. And KCP has no weaknesses; he can play a lot of minutes, guard multiple positions, knock down threes, and even get to the rim if teams close out on him.
Caldwell-Pope had some of the best scoring games of his career in these playoffs. He closed out the Phoenix Suns series when he scored 21 points in the first half in game 6. He was also crucial in game 1 against the Lakers when he scored 21 points and was +16 in his 36 minutes. He has consistently been one of the best players for Denver this postseason.
Trading Caldwell-Pope and Hachimura demonstrates the Wizards’ inability to properly value their own players
Just like with Hachimura, Caldwell-Pope’s performance also brings forth questions about the Wizards’ decision to trade him away. Despite Caldwell-Pope being on a bargain deal worth $14 million a year, Washington traded him along with Ish Smith to Denver for Will Barton and Monte Morris in the 2022 offseason.
Barton, who also made $14 million like KCP, played so poorly for the Wizards that he got waived mid-season. Morris, on the other hand, is a solid, steady floor general. He doesn’t make many mistakes and he had a good season for the Wiz averaging 10 points and 5 assists with league-average efficiency. But he is overstretched as a starting point guard whose ideal role should be more of a backup point guard. For a team like the Wizards who wants to be a solid playoff team, you simply can not be trading away a starter-level shooting guard like Caldwell-Pope for a backup point guard.
It is great to see former Wizards thrive in their new teams and roles. It also raises questions about the decision-making of the Wizards organization. Losing two solid playoff contributors without having much to show for in return is discouraging. If the Wizards are serious about being a contender soon, the proper valuing of their own players will be key. Let’s hope that changes with a new general manager.