The Race To Land Josh Smith: From the minute the Detroit Pistons announced that forward Josh Smith would be waived, the assumption was that Smith would finally land in Houston with life-long friend Dwight Howard and consummate a union both the Rockets and Smith pursued two summers ago.
Smith is expected to clear the NBA waiver process on Wednesday and would be eligible to sign a new deal as an unrestricted free agent with a new team sometime after that.
While Houston remains the team projected to land Smith, there is an ever growing sense that Smith may not make a quick decision and that other teams are getting a real and legitimate chance to sway Smith their way.
Here is what we know:
Cross The Knicks and Lakers Off The List
As much as fans of both the L.A. Lakers and the New York Knicks want to see some change in the way their teams are playing today, neither teams’ front office seems overly eager to make a change, let alone pursue Smith.
There is a wrinkle worth pointing out. There are some that see Smith as an enticement for his good friend Rajon Rondo in free agency and that landing Smith on what would likely be a very cheap contract could be an extra notch in the pursuit of Rondo in July.
Sources near both teams downplayed pursuit of Smith for any reason; however, until he signs with another team there is that idea hovering around both franchises that do have Rondo on their wish list of free agents.
Kings Are In The Mix
Take it for what it is, but there are rumblings coming out of Sacramento suggesting that Smith is as interested in the Kings as they are in him.
Some of that might be a little wishful thinking, but at least one Raptor player that is still close with Rudy Gay is saying Gay told him that Smith is a real possibility in Sacramento. Ryan Wolstat tweeted as much last night.
The Kings were the team trying to trade for Smith this summer, and were believed to still be at the table with an offer when the Pistons opted to waive Smith.
The Kings don’t have much more than the NBA minimum to offer Smith, but if the Kings can persuade Smith that he can play a big role in their future, maybe he does the unexpected.
The Kings are said to be pushing hard on the Smith front. We’ll see if that ends up making a difference.
Miami Trying To Free Up Some Cash
The Miami HEAT did reach out to Smith after being waived and logged their interest.
The HEAT also applied for a Disabled Player Exception on Josh McRoberts that could land them an additional $2.65 million if it is awarded.
The problem with a Disabled Player Exception is that the NBA processes them at their own pace and that could drag things out.
If the HEAT can secure the additional cash by way of the exception, that would put them in the lead in terms of cash being offered to Smith.
The problem with a deal based on a DPE is that it can only be one-year in length. It’s believed that Smith is seeking the balance of the season fully guaranteed and a player option for next year.
The HEAT would be unable to offer that kind of deal specifically, but they could always re-sign Smith next year for 120 percent of whatever they sign him for this year.
While offering more cash seems like it’s appealing, NBA contracts tend to have “set-off” language that helps the waiving team recoup some savings if a waived players signs a new deal.
Smith is eligible for a minimum contract worth $1.4 million, any difference between what he actually signs for and the minimum can be partially deducted from what the Pistons owe him.
In the case of the HEAT and an exception based deal, Smith would receive $1.2 million more than minimum; meaning 50 percent of that number gets deducted from what the Pistons owe him. So while it seems like the HEAT could offer substantially more in an exception deal, the net gain would be roughly $625,000 more than agreeing to the NBA minimum. Not an inconsequential amount, but not a landslide in the decision making process either.
Clippers Playing It Smooth
The L.A. Clippers were initially linked to Smith after being waived; however, Clippers president and head coach Doc Rivers sort of downplayed his team’s interest saying they’d look into it.
The Clippers are not playing nearly as well as they had hoped and landing Smith would be a huge upgrade at the small forward position. If anyone could reach Smith, its likely Rivers. The Clippers have only the NBA minimum ($1.4 million) to offer Smith and are not viewed as serious suitors at this point.
Mavericks Are Sort Of Luke Warm
The Dallas Mavericks have inquired about Smith as well. Rajon Rondo has sort of led the public charge to get Smith in Dallas, but their interest doesn’t seem nearly as great as some of the other suitors.
The Mavs clearly have a need for some of the things that Smith brings, especially as a shot blocker and a rebounder, but it does not seem Dallas is as genuinely interested as say in-state rival Houston.
The Mavericks, like the Clippers, can only offer the NBA minimum but that may not as big a factor as you might think.
The Rondo connection is interesting in this situation, but it may not be in the cards for the Mavericks,
Houston Leads The Pack
It continues to look like Houston is the front runner, but as chronicled above they are far from the only team with interest in the mercurial forward.
The Rockets do have a few things in their favor: Smith is life-long friends with Rockets center Dwight Howard. They grew up together in Atlanta and he is said to be leading the recruiting pitch, selling that Smith would play in Houston, that he’d have some security with the Rockets and that both he and James Harden want him there badly.
Don’t discount the appeal of being wanted badly after being waived and the importance of a friendly and safe place after the bad fit in Detroit.
Houston and Smith tried to consummate a sign-and-trade deal when Smith was a free agent two summers ago, but were unable to get Atlanta to play ball. So the two sides have had eyes for each other for some time.
The Rockets had tried a couple of times to trade for Smith, but didn’t have the contracts to get a deal done with the Pistons.
The Rockets also still have their $2 million bi-annual exception and can not only offer more than the NBA minimum, they could do so on a two-year deal, which is believed to be important to Smith.
Smith will not clear waivers until Wednesday so even though Houston is pushing hard to make something happen, other teams have a window for almost another full day.
So while the Rockets are deemed to be the leader in the club house, it’s far from decided.
Why They Waived Josh Smith: It’s pretty common for fans and non-insiders to believe that anyone can be traded, because frankly we’ve seen some of the worst contracts in the history of basketball traded.
The problem with believing that any deal can be traded overlooks the obvious – you have to have a team on the other side willing to take the player.
The Detroit Pistons in a shocking move yesterday opted to waive forward Josh Smith. He had roughly $9.1 million remaining to be paid on his $13.5 million contract year this year and two more years worth $13.5 million apiece for a total of $36.1 million left to be paid. That’s a ton of cash to pay someone to walk away.
To the Pistons credit they tried for the last six months to trade Smith, but everything they could get any traction on either had them taking on longer term contracts or sacrificing young guys or worse yet draft picks to make a deal.
Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters that he considered offers on Smith but anything they could have done would have hampered their future.
“I would rather be where we are right now than having taken back the players we were offered that would’ve sat on our cap for the next three years,” Van Gundy said to Pistons.com. “That would have slowed down our rebuilding effort. We went into the season expecting much, much better than this. To just continue on the same course and not do anything differently at 5 and 23 would be pretty bad leadership at this point. Looking back, I would rather have this situation than the opportunity we had in the summer.”
The Pistons’ struggles were part of the reason for the change and Van Gundy admitted he could have opted to downgrade Smith’s role on the team, but he was trying to be fair to what he wanted to see in terms of change for his team and what he felt was reasonable for Smith.
“Josh is the guy on our team with the highest usage rate. He’s taken the most shots. He’s a high-assists guy. He’s got the ball in his hands a lot,” Van Gundy said. “We would have had to reduce his role offensively. I don’t think he would have been happy with that at this point in his career. I don’t think it necessarily would have been fair to him. But I think it’s something we need to do to try to move on.”
The Pistons will use the “stretch provision” in the Collective Bargaining Agreement to spread out the payments and the cap impact of Smith’s contract. Because this decision was reached mid-season the current season cannot be stretched so the $9.1 million owed is paid as contracted. However, the remaining two years can be stretched using the formula of “two plus one” – two times the remaining years on his deal plus one, so Smith’s two years becomes five “stretched” years and his payout and salary cap hit drop from $13.5 million to just at $5.4 million per year.
Van Gundy rationalized the decision saying it helps the team cap position in the short-term and that with the expected increases in the salary cap in the future, the carry over impact won’t be that great.
“We gain an advantage the next two summers and then the three years after that, he sits on our cap – but with the cap going up, I think you’re looking at that being a very small percentage of the cap. It helps a great deal,” Van Gundy said.
The underlying message in this deal is that keeping the draft picks or avoiding the “throw-in” contracts that it would have taken to move Smith’s albatross of a contract was more important than carrying what can only be described as a cap penalty for three full seasons after Smith is gone.
The Pistons were not the only ones in this kind of situation. The Boston Celtics found an almost barren trade market for former All-Star Rajon Rondo. The Brooklyn Nets have been looking for homes for guard Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in an effort to make some change and clean up their roster, but they too are finding that moving money in the NBA will cost you.
There have been reports that the Sacramento Kings would take on Deron Williams but want big man Mason Plumlee as part of the deal for taking on the contract money.
While history has proven that even the worst contracts in the NBA can be traded, they often require additional inducement, and when you are a 5-23 team like the Pistons, can you really afford to give away young assets or draft picks to make change? The answer in the case was no.
While it’s easy to believe that everyone in the NBA has trade value, the truth is a lot of times they don’t, especially if they have two or three years remaining on their deal, much like Smith did with the Pistons.
On The Clock: When the NBA awarded the Milwaukee Bucks franchise to current owners Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry they were put on the clock. If the team did not break ground on a new arena by the fall of 2017, the NBA can reclaim the team for $575 million.
At the time of the purchase Edens and Lasry committed $100 million towards construction of a new building. Outgoing owner Herb Kolh pledged an additional $100 million and it’s believed that additional investors have pledged as much as $100 million more, bringing the total committed funding to $300 million on what’s expected to be a $400 million project.
Don Walker of the Journal Sentinel is reporting that during the negotiations with the city and county Edens and Lasry have committed an additional $50 million more.
The Bucks owners have candidly said that meeting the funding requirements to keep the team is easier than losing the team back to the NBA given what the current valuations NBA teams have reached, so they continue to indicate a new building is simply a formality and a process.
The price tag on the Sacramento Kings new building is said to be roughly $477 million, so with more than $300 million already committed it does not seem like the Bucks and a new venue are all that far apart in the grand scheme, but they are still very much on the clock.
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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.”