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NBA Daily: A Summer Of Bizarre Proportions

Everyone has been pretty entertained by what has transpired this summer, but this may have the been the strangest offseason we’ve come to witness, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When Dwight Howard agreed to return to the Los Angeles Lakers, it was just fitting.

It’s not fitting because Dwight fits with the Lakers’ needs. It’s fitting because it’s yet another in what’s been a longline of bizarre storylines this offseason. Seriously, it’s been one after the next.

No, it’s not bizarre only because of Dwight’s disastrous tenure with the Lakers from six years prior. It’s bizarre because a case could be made that they really didn’t need Dwight. Or another center if we’re being completely honest.

Anthony Davis may not prefer playing center, but 96 percent of his minutes last year was played at the five. Also, remember the year before when the Pelicans went on that 21-11 run following both Demarcus Cousins’ Achilles’ injury and the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic? That all came from Davis playing center full-time.

And here’s a question you’d never think anyone would ask- Is it possible Javale McGee’s not getting enough credit? Statistically speaking, the guy is coming off the best season he’s had in years, and one of the best in his entire career. He and Davis should be good enough as far as center depth goes.

The rationale behind bringing Dwight back was replacing the tragically oft-injured DeMarcus Cousins. It makes sense, but the Lakers may not have needed Cousins either.

And that’s what’s happened throughout the summer. A lot of stuff happened garnered the reaction of, “Yeah… Okay, but-”

It’s hard to decipher exactly where to begin with this bizarre offseason. The best way to start would probably be the lack of a “superteam.”

With Golden State’s death lineup dissolving and only one current superstar to support LeBron James in LA, the NBA no longer has that designated “Big 3” anymore for the first time since 2010. There are certainly some well-designed teams. Truthfully, with all that transpired this summer, the NBA has the most its parity its seen in years. With no superteams assembled, there is no villain.

In fact, we’ve seen players actively defy the construct of an elite trio. Kawhi Leonard could have gone to the Lakers and formed possibly the most talented trio to ever grace professional basketball. Instead, he went to the Clippers, a team that had more widespread talent than the Lakers do. Instead of chasing rings with LeBron, Kawhi chose to continue running his own show.

The peculiar aspect of this new development has nothing to do with Kawhi going to the Clippers. It stems from the fact that we have become so used to these star players joining forces since “The Decision” that seeing them opt not to is now an entirely new feeling. Remember how astonished we were when LeBron went to Miami to form the Heatles? That’s how it felt when Kawhi had the opportunity to do the same and did the opposite… to a certain degree. Ahem, Paul George.

Where this defiance to be on a superteam gets really weird is what happened with Jimmy Butler. Butler was recently on the most talented team he’s ever played with. In Philadelphia, he could have played a supporting role on a team that has a legitimate chance to make the NBA Finals for the next several years. As we all had speculated for months and has now been confirmed, that’s not what Butler wanted.

Jimmy wanted his own team. When you’re a multi-time All-Star, that makes sense. But of all the teams he could have chosen, Miami wasn’t exactly screaming championship with that team.

The HEAT were a team firmly stuck in no-man’s land before Butler’s arrival. Dwyane Wade may want to try a career in sales now that he’s retired, because it was awfully impressive of him to sell his good friend Jimmy on the HEAT knowing the state that they are in.

Even after adding Butler, they may be a shoo-in to make the playoffs, but they don’t measure up to the top of my conference. Outside of Jimmy Buckets, Miami’s roster – while having some nice young talent – is not all that special.

So for now, it looks like the days of the superteam are dead. In light of this, we’ve seen teams try to add their own variation of what makes a superteam. By doing so, these results have continued the theme of bizarre.

Let’s start with Houston.

Despite Daryl Morey vowing that Chris Paul was staying in Houston – in retrospect, Oklahoma City wasn’t in firesale mode at the time – he shipped CP3, plus a boatload of picks, for Russell Westbrook. A trade that everyone at the time smirked at.

Westbrook is overpaid, not the most reliable shooter, and he does not have a lot of playoff success tied to his name since Kevin Durant deserted him. Compared to Paul however, he has more years left of his prime, is a better athlete and James Harden wanted to play with him.

Paul wasn’t getting any younger, and with Golden State down for the count, the Rockets needed a boost. If they were going to be overpaying for a star point guard, it had to be for one that can stay the same for the duration of his contract. That wasn’t happening with Paul.

This would have been a bizarre trade if it was just Westbrook for Paul straight-up, but the picks added to it only puts more pressure on both Houston and Westbrook to stay a Western Conference power. Talent-wise, this makes sense. Fit-wise, it’s a little hazy. We know why Houston did this. We also know why this could backfire.

Then there’s the 76ers. Their offseason was bizarre, but not because they swapped Butler for Josh Richardson, or that they paid Tobias Harris superstar money. Their offseason continued the theme of strange because they used their available cap space to bring in Al Horford.

Horford at 33 is still a great player. This writer has gushed about him in the past because of all the skills he brings to the court. He would have been a good addition for anyone, but since he’s best used as a center at this stage in his career, his fit in Philly, or next to Embiid, is not a great one.

When teams give players max contracts, it’s usually because they want the skills that player has on their team. The Sixers signing him to that contract may not have been about helping them as much it was about hurting the Celtics. Horford established himself as an Embiid stopper last season, so by taking him away from Boston, it knocks a division rival out of contention.

This next part should make you a little suspicious. Horford’s best position is center, but he’ll be playing at power forward. Harris’ best position is power forward, but he’ll be playing at small forward. If you put those guys in their natural positions, this is a team that fits perfectly around Ben Simmons. Not so much with Joel Embiid.

There has been a lot of talk from media outlets that maybe those two aren’t the best pairing. Bringing Horford to the city of Brotherly Love could be a hint that the Sixers believe the same.

Enough about the teams that hauled in some talent albeit perhaps not the right talent. There are teams that went through pivotal changes who, on paper, would change their fortunes for better or worse.

Boston would be a team that in the wake of what it’s lost, should be worse next season. The Celtics don’t have the same level of talent with Kyrie and Horford both gone. Since they underperformed with high expectations, is it crazy to say that, in a weaker Eastern Conference, they could be much better with lower expectations?

It wouldn’t have much to do with adding Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. We could see major improvements from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward when you take their performances last season into account. Expectations surrounding Boston are nebulous, but as a whole, they shouldn’t be completely ruled out.

A team whose expectations are a little more certain is Brooklyn. It wasn’t too long ago that if you added players as good as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, you were the biggest winners of the offseason. Brooklyn’s ceiling should be much higher after adding those three alone.

But are the Nets going to be much better? Kyrie turned his back on a good situation for the second time in his career. Is he going to be a good soldier with the Nets? Kevin Durant is likely not going to be playing this season. Will he be back to normal when he returns? DeAndre Jordan has looked like a shell of himself over the last two years. Is he magically going to return to form?

Even though the organization took necessary risks, Brooklyn may not be in the clear from adding those three.

It sounds weird that Boston and Brooklyn could go in completely different directions than what’s expected of them. We won’t know if the moves they made were the right moves, but even for the teams who seemingly made all the right moves, there was a hint of bizarre for their summers turned out.

The Clippers may have been the biggest winners of the offseason from what they brought in and what they kept. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can be your two best players on a championship team. Patrick Beverley, JaMychal Green, Ivica Zubac and Mo Harkless are guys you can surround your best players on a championship team.

The only oddity is that they invested so much in what could be a two-year window. All of their picks belong to Oklahoma City from now until 2026. Even if they win the next two championships, should both Leonard and George leave, this could blow up in their face much like it did for the Nets in 2013. The Clippers made excellent moves, but they paid a hefty price even if they are the title favorites.

The Jazz did absolutely nothing wrong as far as offseason moves go. For a team that needed upgrades in the playmaking, shooting and depth department, the boys in Salt Lake made all the moves that they should have. It’s really just where their priorities were at that comes into question.

Utah may have signed Bojan Bogdanovic, who should be an excellent fit next to its top tier players, but remember that the original target was Nikola Mirotic. They were going to pay him good money, too. Everyone in the Utah area has known about the team’s long-standing interest in Niko, but paying top dollar for him following a playoff performance so bad that Milwaukee benched him before being eliminated might’ve backfired.

Utah should count its lucky stars that Mirotic opted for long-term security overseas. Sure, it worked out for the best since the team got the better player in Bogdanovic, but the team’s fascination with Nikola when Bojan was the better option is sort of a weird subplot to an otherwise excellent summer.

The next abnormality in this summer came from teams that lost their best player(s). Usually losing an All-Star caliber talent or two is the worst fate possible in the summer. The following teams proved otherwise.

New Orleans lost Anthony Davis, the most talented big in the West. They lucked out when they won the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, but in order to avoid the same mistakes they made in the Davis era, new GM David Griffin chose to both rebuild and retool.

On top of Williamson, the Pelicans brought an ocean of promising youth in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. On top of that, they brought in solid veterans who should serve as good locker room mentor in the young guys like JJ Redick and Derrick Favors.

Losing a talent as generational as Anthony Davis would usually destroy a franchise, but for the Pelicans, they couldn’t be excited to move on. Should it also be brought up that they own the Lakers’ future too?

Oklahoma City lost both Westbrook and George. With them gone, this will be the worst Thunder team in a decade. Even if it’s not a contender, this team is currently in pretty decent shape.

CP3 may be declining, but he should be a good influence for Shai-Gilgeous Alexander. Danilo Gallinari will be in a contract year, and Steven Adams is still one of the toughest bigs in the league. As far as roster changes go, it could have gotten a lot worse for OKC.

Best of all, now Sam Presti is swimming in draft picks from LA, Houston, Miami and even Denver. No matter what direction they go in, we all know Presti’s reputation with draft picks. If we see him do his magic again, it shouldn’t be long before the Thunder are back in business.

Memphis lost Mike Conley Jr. not too long after losing Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies didn’t get the same returns that New Orleans and Oklahoma City did for their stars, and yet it had one of the better offseasons that it’s had in years.

The Grizzlies now have a ton of cap flexibility, accumulated a lot of draft assets, and if their summer league championship is indicative of anything, its that this new youth movement in Grind City could have something promising on its hands.

They may have effects from the Jeff Green trade still looming over their heads, but the Grizzlies can take solace in that- though Grit-and-Grind is dead – the future is alive and well in Memphis.

In a rare change of pace, the teams who had to trade their superstars seem to have embraced the next chapter in their franchise. The journey they took to get to this point may not have been the way they would have wanted, but their prospects look a lot better than anyone could have expected.

The final stamp of this bizarro offseason is looking at the reigning NBA champions. With the Toronto Raptors, we also saw something we’ve never seen in possibly the entire history of sports. We’ve never seen a player leave a team after leading one to a championship like we just did with Kawhi Leonard.

We’ve seen LeBron leave teams after making The Finals on two separate occasions. We’ve seen Michael Jordan retire from basketball after winning the finals on two separate occasions. We knew Kawhi had interest in going back home. It just seemed preposterous that he would leave Toronto after winning it all there.

Now that he’s left, the Raptors are going to be the weakest defending champion since the 2006 Miami HEAT. Canada can’t complain because Kawhi gave it his all for the Raptors and it paid off, but we may never see something like this happen again.

The NBA has never been immune to odd storylines. In the past 10 years, we’ve had the Chris Paul vetoed-trade, the DeAndre Jordan backstabbing in Dallas and even last year, we had the Colangelo drama in Philly. We’ve never seen the level of weird dialed up as high before.

Bizarre can make for some good entertainment. What we’re going to find out this season is if these changes will fit under “good bizarre” or “bad bizarre.”

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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.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

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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.

David Yapkowitz

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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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NBA Daily: Alex Caruso: The Lakers’ Unsung Hero

The Los Angeles Lakers are two wins from an NBA championship and Alex Caruso is just happy to play his role and contribute.

David Yapkowitz

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Alex Caruso has technically been an NBA player for three years now, but this season is his first on a regular NBA contract.

After going undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, he began his professional career as with the Philadelphia 76ers in summer league. He managed to make it to training camp with the Oklahoma City Thunder but was eventually cut and acquired by their the G League team, the Blue.

In the summer of 2017, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers for summer league, and he’s stuck with the team ever since. A strong performance in Las Vegas earned him the opportunity to sign a two-way contract with the Lakers for the 2017-18 season, meaning he’d spend most of his time with the South Bay Lakers in the G League.

The Lakers re-signed him to another two-way contract before the 2018-19 season. Restricted to only 45 days with the Lakers under his two-way contracts, Caruso played in a total of 62 games over those two years.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that the Lakers finally signed him to a standard NBA contract worth $5.5 million over two years. And he’s become a key player off the Lakers bench, especially in the playoffs.

Despite not getting much of an early opportunity, Caruso continued to put in the work in anticipation of when his number would finally be called. He always was confident that it would come.

“It’s been the story of my career, no matter what level I’m at, the more time I have on the court, the better I’ve gotten,” Caruso told reporters after the Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity, I was two years on two-ways…finally I played well enough to get a contract, and over the course of the year it’s the same thing, anytime I can get out there on the court, I get better.”

Caruso’s stats may not jump off the page, he put up 5.5 points per game this season on only 41.2 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range, 1.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds, but his impact has gone far beyond statistics.

His playoff numbers are up slightly at 6.8 points on 43.6 percent shooting to go along with 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds, but he’s become an invaluable member of the team’s postseason run. The defensive intensity and energy he brings to the court have been instrumental in playoff wins.

In this postseason alone, he’s seen himself matched up defensively with Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and one of the bubble’s breakout stars in Jamal Murray. Each time, he hasn’t backed down from the challenge and has even provided solid man to man defense on each of them.

“Looking and diving into the basketball aspect, series by series, just finding different ways that I know I can be effective, watching past games against opponents, just knowing their tendencies,” Caruso said on a recent media call. “The defense and the effort thing is something I’m always going to have. You can see that in the regular season when I might be more excited on a stop or defensive play on somebody than the rest of the team in game 45 or 50 in the season.”

While his main contributions have been his defense and his hustle, he’s found ways to be effective on the offensive end as well. While not shooting particularly well from three-point range percentage-wise in the playoffs at only 26.9 percent, he’s hit some timely ones during Laker runs to either pull closer to their opponent or to blow the game open.

He’s also been able to get the rim off drives and get himself to the free-throw line, and he’s made strong cuts off the ball to free himself up for easy layups. Playing with the second unit, he’s played a lot of off-ball with Rajon Rondo as the main facilitator, or with LeBron James as the only starter on the floor.

“For me, I think it’s about being aggressive. At any time I can put pressure on the paint whether it’s to get to the rim to finish or to draw fouls or make the defense collapse and get open shots for teammates, that’s really an added benefit for us to have multiple guys out on the court,” Caruso said.

“So whenever I’m out there with Rondo or with LeBron, to not have the sole focus be on one of them to create offense for everybody, it makes us a lot more balanced.”

The trust that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel and the rest of the team have in Caruso has been evident this whole postseason. Perhaps no bigger moment came for him than in Game 6 against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals when Vogel left him on the court to close out the game.

He’s also become one of the team’s vocal leaders on the court during gameplay, on the sidelines in the huddle and the locker room. On a team with a lot of strong personalities, Caruso’s ascendance as a locker room leader is something that just comes naturally for him. It’s something he’s done his entire basketball career.

“Being vocal has always been easy for me. Outside of this team, I’ve usually been one of the leaders on the team, one of the best players on my team growing up at different levels of basketball. Being vocal is pretty natural for me,” Caruso said.

“I got the trust of my teammates, they understand what I’m talking about. I say what I need to say and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. I’m really competitive and if there’s something I think needs to be said, I’m going to do it. I leave no stone unturned to get the job done.”

Now in the NBA Finals, as the Lakers seek to win their first championship since 2010 and No. 17 overall, Caruso has reprised his role as a defensive irritant and glue guy who makes winning plays. For the team to win this series, they need to continue to get timely contributions from him.

And with each step of the way, he’s just soaking it all up and is thrilled to be able to have this opportunity alongside some of the NBA’s best.

“It’s a journey I’ve been on my whole life just to get to this point. It’s really cool, I don’t know how to state it other than that,” Caruso said. “It’s just super cool for me to be able to have this experience. To play meaningful minutes and play well, and be on the court with LeBron in big-time moments.”

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