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NBA Daily: Areas of Concern: Southeast Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Areas Of Concern” series with a look at the Southeast Division.

Ben Nadeau

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It’s early November, which means it’s time to make some rash overreactions — right? Well, maybe it’s a bit early to hit those panic buttons, but there are certainly some areas of concern for every NBA franchise. This week at Basketball Insiders, the team has tackled those big (and small) in-the-room elephants to get a better understanding of each squad. If you’re behind — listen, it was a busy week, we get it — then here’s your rapid-fire recap.

Spencer Davies tackled the Central Division on Monday; David Yapkowitz hit up the Northeast on Wednesday; Drew Maresca handled the pesky Atlantic; while Shane Rhodes grabbed the Southwest to finish up the work week. Which brings our coast-to-coast tour bus to the Southeast Division for the next entry in the series. Analyzing the division is no easy task as all of them seem headed in different directions at this time — but whether they’re tanking, experimenting or combusting, every franchise could do with a tweak here and there. With that in mind, let’s check out the current statuses of the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards.

Atlanta Hawks: Smooth Sailing To A Top Draft Pick

This feels like slightly cheating, to kick off these mini-capsules by saying there are no true areas of concern for Atlanta because they’re exactly where they should be: losing. In reality, the Hawks are in the midst of an important rebuild and even an unlikely postseason berth is not worth missing out on another top draft pick. Adding Zion Williamson or Cam Reddish to a core that already includes the talented Trae Young, plus John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince and Omari Spellman, should be a salivating prospect for the Hawks’ front office.

However, since it’s just the early stages of a long, long campaign, let’s assume that Atlanta wants to win a couple more games along the way. In that case, what should they do? On one hand, they could do worse than playing veteran Jeremy Lin more than 17 minutes per game, that’s for sure. Lin’s signing in Brooklyn was unfortunately marred by two gnarly injuries, but he’s proven to be adaptable and reliable at every other stop along the way. Even better, Lin’s minutes don’t need to come at the expense of Young either, as the former has experience playing alongside Kemba Walker in years past.

Still, the Hawks benefit most from racking up those losses while developing the younger portion of their roster — so don’t look for a major tune-up in strategy anytime soon.

Charlotte Hornets: Where Are The Kids?

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Charlotte Hornets, an in-between team with a new coach and a mostly re-run roster that’s done well to get off on their 6-6 start. As of today, the Hornets have the fourth-best offensive rating (114.3) in the NBA and a nearly top-ten defensive unit (107.4) to make the early returns even more impressive. The aforementioned Walker is still red-hot, but Nicolas Batum is playing the second-most minutes per game on the roster right now and 32-year-old Marvin Williams comes in at fourth — but at what long-term cost? The Hornets are shooting like an elite franchise currently — 12.8 three-pointers on 36.8 percent — but in 2017-18, this roster converted just 10 of them per game, a mark on the basement end of proceedings. That high tally also heavily relies on Walker staying at his scorching 4.1 three-pointers per game average as well. If they want to compete with the likes of the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors down the line, they’ll need everybody to continue contributing at this rate, if not even more.

That, naturally, is where Malik Monk comes in.

It’s a well-trodden subject at this point, but it was a frustrating rookie campaign for Monk last season. This year, the 6-foot-3 guard looks like a different animal altogether. Monk is averaging 13.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting in just 23.3 minutes per game — so it stands to reason that once the Hornets truly let Monk loose, they should benefit immensely. To the Hornets’ credit, they’re at not trying to fix something that isn’t broken, for now, which is the second-best scoring bench unit league-wide. Presumably, Monk will move into Jeremy Lamb’s starting spot and newcomer Miles Bridges will receive a deserved boost in minutes before too long. Ultimately, the conference’s top dogs run deep rotations and the quicker Charlotte gets their interesting collection of prospects — Dwayne Bacon and Willy Hernangomez included — going, the better they’ll be by springtime.

Miami HEAT: Just A Star Addition Away?

Originally, this blurb was about Miami’s need to specifically trade for Jimmy Butler. As of Saturday morning, that ship has officially sailed with the Butler move to Philadelphia. Superstars win championships in this modern day landscape and the HEAT happen to be one of the only strong postseason candidates without a bonafide juggernaut. Hassan Whiteside is a still a double-double machine, but he’s not a top-drawer, go-to guarantee at the end of games either. Surprisingly, Miami has imparted most of their scoring burden upon Josh Richardson, a 25-year-old that offers great two-way promise, but he can’t measure up against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard just yet.

That’s no slight against Richardson — 20.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game — of course, but it’s hard to believe Miami can keep pace without the acquisition of a star. It’s no shock that the HEAT were interested in Butler as his hard-nosed, defensive-minded prowess would have been the perfect linchpin for a roster that’s chock-full of second options. It’s safe to assume that the HEAT are as close as to a postseason lock as possible, but it’s tough to pit them against the upper echelon without further reinforcements. Through 11 games, Miami has shot and defended admirably — but they also haven’t beaten any game-changing competition either.

So much will happen between now and February’s deadline, but the HEAT could become serious conference contenders if the right deal eventually comes their way.

Orlando Magic: A Slow Start For Isaac, Bamba

Over the offseason, the hype for the towering Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba duo took on a life of its own — and who could blame those onlookers? The talented Isaac spent most his rookie year injured, but the 6-foot-10 forward showed flashes of absolute brilliance at times. Joined by Bamba (and the recently retained Aaron Gordon), it was difficult not to get excited about that trio’s innate potential, particularly so if these two promising prospects pulled through in fast succession. In retrospect, Bamba was never going to immediately take over for veteran and franchise stalwart Nikola Vucevic at center, especially under new head coach Steve Clifford, but it’s been a slower start than anticipated for sure.

In his limited minutes, Bamba has certainly impressed though: Every time the rookie has logged 20-plus minutes, he’s also grabbed six or more rebounds. Then Bamba notched his first-ever double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in just under 16 minutes against the San Antonio Spurs last week — hell, he’s already had a five-block game to boot.

As for Isaac, things have become a bit trickier once more. We’re yet to see the dominant Isaac that was on full display during the Las Vegas Summer League, with the second-year professional really only showing out in two contests in 2018-19 thus far. In October’s win on the road at Boston, Isaac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds on 66.7 percent from the field; three days later he went for 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a loss against Portland. But other than that, his game log has been sprinkled with 3-for-8 or 0-for-6 shooting performances — and the worst of it? Isaac is now dealing with another ankle sprain, the same ailment that shelved him for much of his first foray into professional basketball.

With the Magic involved in the convoluted Eastern Conference playoff picture for the time being, the overall outlook here may not change until closer to the trade deadline — and that’s OK too. Issac and Bamba are just 21 and 20 years old, respectively, so there are plenty of opportunities left here to peak together. Still, it’s hard to ignore how much better the Magic will be once this fearsome pair is healthy and fully unleashed.

Washington Wizards: Burn It All Down

Man, what a bummer this has been for the Wizards, huh?

After Friday’s disappointing loss to Orlando, Washington finds themselves in 14th place, ahead of just the 1-10 Cleveland Cavaliers, and tied for the second-worst record in the entire league. For a team with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Dwight Howard and plenty of other valuable contributors, that’s simply inexcusable. Even owner Ted Leonsis couldn’t resist piling on when NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the rise in scoring this season, adding bluntly: “They just have to play us.”

And, truthfully, it’s a whole lot worse than that. Their defensive rating is second-worst (114.6), while their offensive rating is not much better (104.5, 26th) and their assist ratio (16.2, 21st) remains toward the cellar as well. Words are getting passive-aggressive already and, when you zoom out the camera, this melodrama has been driving headlong into oncoming traffic for years now. Washington even added Austin Rivers and Howard to this ill-fitting puzzle with no corner pieces and genuinely thought it would work out — this very writer bought in, to be fair — but it’s not even a month into the season and here they stand: fraught and frayed as ever.

So, the Wizards’ areas of concern are, frankly, everywhere. Questions that must be asked, again: Can they overcome these chemistry issues? Are Wall and Beal still the backcourt pairing of the future? And where does the maxed out Otto Porter Jr. fit in at this point? (As of now, the answer is not well.) Once more, these are not new things to address — these are outstanding, important issues that the Wizards have pushed aside time and time repeated.

There’s obviously an insane amount of talent on this roster and November is far too soon to pull the plug — that should go without saying. In the East alone, the Wizards could play .500-or-so basketball for months and remain right in the postseason hunt, so there should be no immediate rush. But after multiple seasons of this head-scratching frustration, the mind can’t help but wonder when the front office will finally push that self-destruct button and start anew.

In the end, it’s still early, but for most of these teams — you’re excused, Atlanta — they’re still trying to figure out where they stand in the conference hierarchy. Three of the franchises boast new head coaches and those rotations won’t just magically reveal themselves, those fleshed-out nuances take time. In any case, seeing more Monk and Bamba, for example, would be an inarguable boon for their playoff-hopeful clubs. Miami has played up to their deep roster, but an injection of star power could make them a darkhorse contender overnight; while the Wizards need an injection — or an ejection, based on your viewpoint — of just about everything.

Either way, it’ll be intriguing to check back on these capsules closer to the trade deadline: potential overreactions, young stud breakouts and blockbuster transactions — it’s all bubbling there, right under the surface, for better or for worse.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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