One enormous benefit of Phil Jackson’s hiring by the New York Knicks is that it has quelled the breathless speculation of Carmelo Anthony joining the Chicago Bulls this summer as a free agent. Assuming Anthony does not join the Bulls, their prime addition this summer would likely be Real Madrid power forward Nikola Mirotic. The 23-year-old Mirotic was the Spanish ACB League MVP in 2012-13 and has only improved this season. Much ink has been spilled elsewhere on his game (including my own after an in-person scouting trip last June), but it will suffice to say that his combination of shooting, skill, agility and feel are top-notch for the power forward position.
The video below provides an excellent view of the type of player he is and could become.
Mirotic would strike particular fear into the heart of opposing defenses running the pick-and-roll with Derrick Rose. His defender would have to stay relatively attached to him to prevent his popping for a three-pointer, while Rose is of course deadly on the play without a big man to deter him from getting into the lane.
Mirotic’s Buyout Complicates the Bulls’ Task
The Bulls face a number of issues bringing over Mirotic starting with his massive 2.5 million Euro buyout, which translates to $3.475 million at current exchange rates.
Buyouts from European teams are an extremely tricky business in the NBA. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prevents teams from spending more than what is known as the Excluded International Player Payment to buyout international players without it counting against the salary cap. This amount is $600,000 in 2014-15 (it has and will go up $25,000 each year of the CBA). Beyond that, any buyout amount is paid by the player. It was this buyout that prevented the Bulls from having a realistic chance to bring him over before this summer. Mirotic was the 23rd pick in the 2011 draft, and therefore was prescribed such a low salary that there is no way it would have made financial sense for him to come to the Bulls before this summer.
This summer, two things will have changed. Most importantly, the Bulls are no longer bound by the rookie wage scale, which previously would have limited Mirotic to a starting salary of a little over $1 million per year and locked him in to team control for up to four years. After three years have passed, a team has the option of signing a draftee to whatever contract it has room for via either cap room or exceptions to the cap. Such a contract must be for at least three years, exclusive of any option years.
The second new development is that the Bulls will have access to either the $5.305 million mid-level exception or cap room, which will allow them to pay Mirotic enough to entice him to come over. Here though, is where it gets even more difficult. Mirotic will have to pay the $2,875,000 remaining on his buyout after the Bulls pay the maximum $600,000 Excluded International Player Payment. Normally, this amount would count as a signing bonus.
However, paying the buyout as a signing bonus has important consequences for the size of Mirotic’s overall contract because of another rule that limits signing bonuses to 15 percent of the overall contract value. If the buyout were paid entirely as a signing bonus, that means the minimum overall value of Mirotic’s contract would be $19.2 million. On a three-year deal, this would require a first-year cap number of approximately $6.1 million, about $800,000 above the mid-level exception amount. The amount of the buyout/bonus allocable to the first (and each successive) salary cap year would be $958,333, or one third of the bonus.* If the Bulls do not amnesty Carlos Boozer to open up cap space greater than the MLE, or would simply like to pay Mirotic less, this would cause problems because they would not be able to give Mirotic a contract starting at less than $6.1 million if the entire buyout were paid as a bonus.
*For cap number purposes, the signing bonus is spread over the guaranteed years of the contract in proportion to the percentage of each contract year that is guaranteed (not the dollar amount paid in that year). Since all of the years of the contract would be fully guaranteed in this scenario, the bonus would be spread equally over the years of the contract.
This leaves two potential solutions. The first would be offering Mirotic a four-year contract. This would allow a cap number of about $4.5 million in the first year. However, Mirotic would be unlikely to take such an offer; a big part of the incentive for him to come to the NBA is to get past his first contract as soon as possible. If he is as good as it appears he will be, his second contract could be into eight figures per year.*
*One idea to make coming over more palatable, as suggested to me by Danny LeRoux, would be for Mirotic to have a fourth-year player option on his contract. This would at least allow him a larger guarantee if he is injured or underperforms. The bonus could not be spread over the fourth year because it is an option year, but it would at least make the offer slightly more appealing to Mirotic. Edit: As I wrote here (scroll down) it is not clear whether the contract could legally contain an option or not.
The second potential solution would allow the Bulls to fit Mirotic within the mid-level exception while still providing him enough cash at signing to pay his buyout. If Mirotic were to sign for the full MLE amount, his signing bonus would be limited to about $2.47 million.* This would result in a shortfall of about $397,000 to pay his buyout. However, he and the Bulls could take advantage of a provision in the CBA that allows the advance payment of salaries for a given season starting on July 1. Up to 25 percent of a player’s base compensation (i.e., not including bonuses) may be paid before October 1, and another 25 percent may be paid before regular checks start on November 15. The first 25 percent could easily cover this, as that amount would be a little over $1.1 million. Therefore, Mirotic could be given almost $3.6 million immediately upon approval of the contract, more than enough to pay the buyout.
*This is slightly less than 15 percent of the overall contract, for reasons explained by Larry Coon.
Of course, such gyrations very well might not be necessary. I am not a specialist in the Byzantine world of European basketball contracts, but it is often the case that European teams are willing to negotiate a buyout down as a reward for excellent service and/or to maintain a reputation as a good place to play. It also is not necessarily the case that all of the buyout would be due immediately, or that it could not be paid over time. But this approach would guarantee that Mirotic could meet any draconian buyout terms, if needed. In fact, that might assist in the effort to negotiate it down.
The Mirotic Negotiations Will be Fascinating
On the other hand, if the Bulls do amnesty Boozer (as appears likely), an intriguing negotiation could develop. Rare is the situation where both sides have so much leverage and yet so much incentive to get a deal done.
From Mirotic’s standpoint, he makes a reported 3.5 million Euros per year from Real Madrid, or about $4.8 million.* Contrast that with his buyout amount of $3.475 million. Considering his buyout, he will be taking a paycut over the next three years if he signs for the MLE. This would be taken out of his contract, although an international tax lawyer I consulted stated that the buyout expense should be deductible against income. Mirotic is by all accounts very happy in Spain, and plays for a dominant team. Moreover, he is really good. The Bulls desperately need the offense he would bring, and given his European performance he might merit a contract of almost eight figures right away if he were on the open market. Ryan Anderson is in the midst of a four-year, $34 million contract, and Mirotic projects to be at least his equal as a player. All of these tend to favor him getting a larger salary from the Bulls.
*Edit as of April 30, 2014: I have had multiple sources tell me that there is no way Mirotic makes anywhere near $3.5 million Euros, and in fact that they would be shocked if it is over 1 million Euros per year. That changes the calculus for him significantly.
On the other hand, the Bulls have Mirotic’s exclusive draft rights. While he is no longer bound by the rookie scale, it is not the same as if he were on the open market. Back before the rookie scale, rookies still were not paid quite as much as they would have been as veteran free agents because they can only negotiate with one team. Perhaps more importantly, Mirotic will want to get to free agency as soon as possible so that he can truly maximize his earnings over the course of his career with two big contracts that he could never hope to match in Europe. At age 23 and forced to take a minimum three-year deal to start, he needs to get to the league now. Mirotic also faces the risk that his demands will be so steep that the Bulls will decide to use their cap space on someone else, retain his rights, and go through the whole dance again next year. Mirotic is so appealing precisely because the Bulls have his exclusive draft rights and can expect to get him on a value contract. If he totally eliminates that appeal, they could go in another direction and push back the clock on his potential big payday another year.
The timing issue will also be fascinating. If the Bulls get under the cap, Mirotic will need to convince them that their cap space is worth using on him during the fast-moving free agent market. The Bulls will fear missing out on free agents and being stuck with a ton of cap space and nobody to use it on except Mirotic. That, of course, would increase his leverage. Yet by waiting, Mirotic takes the risk the Bulls will settle on someone else and be left with minimal or no cap space to offer him a deal.* This would be a bitter pill to swallow indeed and also likely lead to his remaining in Europe for another year.
*A previous version of this article stated that the Bulls could offer Mirotic their $2.7 million Room Exception for teams under the cap. However, Room Exception contracts are limited to two years. Because any Mirotic deal in excess of the Rookie Scale must be for three years, the Room Exception cannot be offered to Mirotic.
I expect a deal to get done, because both sides ultimately have the incentive to make it happen. But each also has powerful leverage on their side to push the numbers in their direction. Either way, the negotiations between Mirotic and the Bulls promise to be absolutely enthralling.
Noah and Gibson’s Incentives: The Gifts That Keep On Giving
Others have previously reported on the luxury tax ramifications incentives for Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson might have for the Bulls this season. To refresh, Noah is due a $500,000 bonus if he makes first-team All-NBA, while Gibson will earn $250,000 for making the All-Defensive Second Team and another $250,000 ($500,000 total) for making the All-Defensive First Team. While the last of these is likely out of reach for Gibson, there is a good chance these players combine to add $750,000 to their ledgers this year.
Reaching these incentives this year would also have cap ramifications for next year, assuming the players have similar incentives in 2014-15. The general rule is that incentives are included as a part of team salary if they were earned the previous year. So, any incentives earned by Noah and Gibson in 2013-14 would by default be included in the Bulls’ team salary for next season. This could lower the available cap room for the Bulls by the amount of those incentives for 2014-15, presumably $750,000 again.
Although these incentives would be included in team salary by default, there is still a procedure by which this could be challenged by the NBAPA, which theoretically has an incentive to create more cap room so that other players can get paid more. The Players’ Association can request that a basketball expert jointly selected by it and the NBA determine whether it is very unlikely that the bonus will be earned.*
*The full procedure:
1. The expert conducts a hearing within five business days, and renders a determination within five business days after that.
2. The party initiating the proceeding has the burden of proof.
3. To grant the challenge, the expert must find that player is very unlikely to earn the bonus (in the case of an NBAPA challenge) or very likely to earn bonus (in the case of an NBA challenge).
4. No party can mention whether the bonus would or wouldn’t be included under the default rule.
5. The expert’s opinion is unappealable.
6. The costs of the expert are borne equally by the parties.
In practice, however, the NBAPA has rarely challenged such designations, and seems unlikely to now when they still lack a union leader (although that will hopefully be rectified by July). Note that there is no procedure for the Bulls themselves to challenge the likely or unlikely designation of the incentives; although the team might like to do so the NBA and the NBAPA are the only parties that may initiate the procedure.
Georgetown Prospect Omer Yurtseven is Ready for Center Stage
Omer Yurtseven spoke with Drew Maresca about playing for coach Patrick Ewing, training for the NBA during a pandemic and why he feels he’s the best center in the 2020 draft class.
Omer Yurtseven, the 7-foot tall, Georgetown center, posted an impressive junior season in 2019-20; he averaged 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With legitimate NBA size and skills, it’s no mystery why he’s confident. “I don’t think anyone has my combination of tools and versatility,” Yurtseven recently told Basketball insiders. But he’s also a student of the game –well aware of the game’s history and where it’s headed.
“I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of me. I haven’t seen anyone with the tools that I have. I can shoot the ball, the three-ball, and that’s where the big man is headed,” Yurtseven said.
But he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished thus far. He wants more. And he understands that he’ll have to continue working to ensure his spot in the league.
“Some guys might be more athletic [than me], but there are a lot of athletic bigs in the league who don’t stick,” Yurtseven continued. “The skillset is just as important, if not more. So is the [willingness to put in] the work. I think I’m better or as good as any other players, and my rookie year, that’s my goal, to prove that.”
Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown from N.C. State in 2018 after a successful Sophomore season in which he shot over 50 percent on three-point attempts. He sat out the 2018-19 season voluntarily to play for Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing. The opportunity to work with the Hall of Famer was too good to pass up.
“That’s what I was looking for coming in [working with Ewing]. I needed someone to see the game from my perspective,” Yurtseven said. “I was looking for that feedback and I demanded to be coached. I wanted to learn from him. The thing he stayed on me the most about was the pace of the game and how quick my moves would have to be at the next level.
“The turnaround jumper was one of his major weapons,” Yurtseven continued. “He was ahead of his time, but he wanted to see me do the same thing and give 100 percent effort every time.”
Yurtseven jumper is a major weapon in his arsenal, so a pairing with Ewing was an obvious fit. His numbers remained strong during his junior year season with Georgetown, but with one glaring drop off – three-point percentage. Ewing demanded that Yurtseven operate from the low post, a role that the prospect didn’t love, but accepted. Could a new role be to blame for a down shooting year? Yurtseven would never blame anyone other than himself, especially not Ewing. But it’s clear that he felt like he could have done even more if given the opportunity.
“The biggest thing is, I played how I played because that was the role demanded of me. All I had to do was be the inside presence, the defense collapser, and we had to stick to the strategy that coach thought was best for the team.
“I would love to have caught the ball at the top a little more,” Yurtseven continued. “But I was happy to be the post guy. I knew I had to get into my moves quick, so that’s what I did. I sacrificed what I think is my best skills for the team, and I was fine with it.”
It’s evident that Yurtseven is a team-first guy but his three-point shooting took a significant hit. As mentioned above, Yurtseven shot 50 percent on 1.3 three-point attempts as a sophomore in 2017-18, but only 21.4 percent on only half an attempt from long range per game in 2019-20. However, it’s not in his nature to look back – only ahead.
“That’s been my main focus,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “In April, I was shooting 30 or 40 percent two steps behind the college three. That percentage has added up 5 or 10 percent each month. Doing it isn’t easy, but it pays off and that’s why we do it. Now I’m at 75 or 80 percent (in practice sessions) and I’m really confident in my ability.
“And that’s the most important skill set for big men right now,” Yurtseven said. “You’ve got to be a perimeter shooter, as well as a perimeter defender, because big men are evolving away from the rim.”
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yurtseven – and all of the 2020 class – received longer than normal between the end of the 2019-20 NCAA season and the 2020 NBA Draft. And while mock drafts have slowly whittled down the number of prospects, Yurtseven is working tirelessly to improve his stock in any way possible. impressive game.
“No one knew this offseason would be so long. It’s been 6, 8 months already,” Yurtseven continued. “But the team around me has been a blessing – coordinating workouts and making sure I’m taking steps to improve, from nutrition to training lateral quickness to shooting.
“It’s speed and agility, studying the game and having the knowledge about how to position yourself,” Yurtseven continued. “It’s timing and positioning and footwork. It’s all pieces of the puzzle. But the league is another level than college. That’s why I’ve been preparing, increasing lateral quickness, strengthening my glutes, making sure my quads and hips are firing well and that my lateral push-off is explosive as I want.”
“And seeing it translate on the court in two-on-twos and three-on-threes. Switching on guards and providing I can do it to myself. It’s been really fun and fulfilling.”
Yurtseven could have opted to play professionally in Europe – he had numerous professional offers as an 18-year-old prior to coming to joining N.C. State. But Yurtseven is driven by more than money and fame. He is family-oriented and understands the long game. His parents wanted him to receive a college degree before pursuing basketball – a decision that Yurtseven is happy to have made.
“The education was the main reason [I chose to play in the NCAA]. My family’s dream was that I get a college degree.
“When I was 18, [Turkish teams] offered me a huge contract. I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” Yurtseven continued.
“Now it’s time to chase my dream. And my team, my circle, it’s our goal to find a franchise that allows me to grow into a player for 10-plus years – and I’ll never stop working at it.”
Where Yurtseven ultimately plays is anyone’s guess – but he’s already spoken with 17 NBA teams.
Whatever franchise selects the center will add a hard-working and versatile big man that looks well-suited for the modern game – or he may not be selected at all. Yurtseven is currently ranked outside the top 50 according to some mocks – but if he gets an opportunity, he knows how he’d like to play.
“My aim is to get a double-double, year one,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “And, of course, guarding 1 through 5 is another big thing that coaches are looking for. Look at the Bucks, they were ranked first in offense (in 2019-20). Most of their points come from spot-ups. Defenses collapse on Giannis and Middleton – and Brook Lopez stays alone in the corner. I think that’ll be where I get my shots, too.”
Only three rookies in the past 10 years have averaged a double-double in their first season in the league – Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton. That’s an elite club in which Yurtseven is seeking membership. Can he surprise the basketball world? Only time will tell.
There isn’t much data on him against elite big men. But there is one relevant contest worth examining: a Nov. 22 matchup against Duke and Vernon Carey, who is projected to be drafted No. 26 overall by Basketball Insiders.
Carey filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but so did Yurtseven (21 points, five rebounds and four blocks). That night, his entire repertoire was on full display – decisive drop steps, smooth turnaround jump shots over both shoulders, baby hooks, midrange jumpers and hard-nosed defense.
“He was the only true big man that I played against,” Yurtseven recalled. “He was quick and Duke did a good job putting the ball in his hands as soon as he stepped in the paint. I had to exert a lot of energy keeping him off his spot, but I adjusted quickly.
“I figured he would be very strong, but he ultimately didn’t feel as strong as I expected. My maturity and strength helped me a lot.”
Yurtseven’s skill and build render him tailor-made for the NBA. But for most, sticking at the professional peak is about more than skill and body. IQ, on and off of the floor, play a major role, too.
“A lot of guys [in this draft class] haven’t played many games,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “Having a college degree and that experience is a huge tool.
“Playing overseas as a pro is another layer of experience that I have compared to these guys. My IQ has improved. Those one-and-done guys are gonna be thrown into the fire, but I’ll be more ready.
“I saw a study,” Yurtseven explained. “Guys that come in 21-and-under stay in the league two or three years on average. Guys that come in and are 21-or-older stay seven or eight years on average. That just shows how much time it takes to mature your game.”
Comparatively, only four players were 22 or older as on draft night in 2019 – Yurtsevein is 22.
At the end of the day, it will be about how he performs on the court, and he’s comfortable with that.
“If I get drafted, I’ll be the first guy coming out of Turkey with a college degree,” Yurtseven said proudly.
“I’m ready for the next step. I appreciate everyone wishing me luck and supporting me from afar. I can’t wait to show my game’s evolution and reap the benefits of all of the work I’ve put in.”
NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers
Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.
When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.
Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.
Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.
But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.
In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.
This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.
There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.
Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.
He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.
The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.
In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.
Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.
During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.
Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.
Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.
For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.
With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.
When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.
He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.
The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.
When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.
Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.
Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.
Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.
NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee
The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.
Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.
The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.
For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.
But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.
Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.
“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”
On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.
He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.
He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.
Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.
“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”
Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.
He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.
For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.
“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.
“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”
And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.
“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”
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