Moving right along in Basketball Insiders’ yearly lottery-bound recaps, your talented and perennially disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves are up next. Our ‘Fixing Series’ aims to diagnose team-wide issues and offer future plans of attack heading into the offseason. And for what the Timberwolves lacked in the realm of consistent basketball, they made up for it in the drama department. From Jimmy Butler to Tom Thibodeau and everything in between, it’s been another eventful season for Minnesota — but one that still finds them far away from legitimate contention.
Armed with former lottery picks and a budding All-NBA centerpiece, Minnesota’s inability to put together a full campaign has become annual frustration. Still, there’s always next year and with a building block like Karl-Anthony Towns locked down, that hope will remain both palpable and plausible. The early season trade that brought in Dario Saric and Robert Covington for a disgruntled star will move the needle for seasons to come — but what must come next? First things first, however, the Timberwolves need to lock down their next head coach — whether that’s Ryan Saunders or not — and get ready to reload in June’s draft.
What Is Working?
In short order, the biggest and brightest successes for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018-19:
1. Karl-Anthony Towns
This paint-roaming menace is a special cat, let’s get the most obvious statement out of the way.
Towns is flat-out good. In fact, the former Wildcat had a near run-in with death last month and then responded by absolutely destroying his opponents over the next eight games — officially making the race for an All-NBA berth far more intriguing. Only two centers make more three-pointers per game than Towns — Brook Lopez and Kevin Love — but neither of them matches the 7-footer’s remarkable 40.1 percent mark. He’s a back-to-back All-Star, beloved by Minnesotans everywhere and continues to shoulder the franchise’s postseason hopes with each successive season.
As far as the unicorn discussion goes, Towns may not get as much hype as Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis, but he’s the type of multi-faceted superstar that will run an opposing team over without warning. Towns ranks in the top ten for both blocks and rebounds, loaded the added bonus of shooting above 50 percent in all four seasons of his career thus far — an efficient game-changer from start to finish.
24 games: That’s the amount of 15-plus rebound efforts Towns has pulled down in the 2018-19 campaign, topping it all off with a 27-point, 27-board, four-block masterpiece against New Orleans. If he plays in his final three contests this season, Towns will have missed only three others in the last four years combined — an Ironman-level of reliability. Sooner than later, Minnesota will put the right tools around this flexible, impossible-to-defend big man and this team will flourish, undoubtedly.
And at 23 years old, it’s scary to think the best for Towns is yet to come.
2. Ryan Saunders
Ryan, the son of late coaching legend Flip, took over the reins on an interim basis in early January and although the results have been mixed, he’s earned another shot. First and foremost, he’s gotten the ball to the aforementioned Towns at an even higher rate and helped the famously-inefficient Andrew Wiggins to shoot more efficiently, a gargantuan task in of itself. But as far as shrewd business moves go, leaning harder on your potential Future Hall of Famer is always an easy, reliable first step.
If Towns does end up snagging an All-NBA selection — and a whole yacht’s worth of extra cash — then he’ll know exactly who to thank. The center himself has already thrown himself behind the new coach, recently mentioning that “[Saunders has] done a lot to earn it . . . I think he’s a great candidate for the job.”
In terms of a stamp of approval, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Minnesota originally had eyes for the postseason when they dismissed Thibodeau, but Saunders has done well with his fractured puzzle. Tasked with implementing Dario Saric and Robert Covington into the mix — then losing the latter for the season in January — and dealing with injuries to Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, plus finding playtime for rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, Saunder has responded optimistically.
It’s hard to tell if Saunders is the long-term answer just yet — the Timberwolves are just 17-22 under him — but if Minnesota isn’t going with a full rebuild (logistically and financially, they cannot), then giving the league’s youngest head coach another whirl seems like the appropriate choice.
If anything, after one of the most nightmarish starts to an NBA campaign in decades, Saunders has righted the ship and re-energized the roster.
Even with a glaring lack of Jimmy G. Buckets, that hasn’t stopped his former squad from piling up the baskets — for years, it’s been their greatest strength. Despite their sub-.500 record, Minnesota currently holds the 13th-best scoring (112.7) and 11th-highest rated offense (110.7) in the NBA. At season’s end, the Timberwolves will have seven players averaging double-digits in points and most of the roster is hitting at 40 percent or better. Unfortunately, point-getting factor hasn’t been a major issue for Minnesota since Towns was drafted in 2015, but that’s just resulted in a less-than-sterling resume of one postseason appearance and a single, lonely win.
What Isn’t Working?
1. Andrew Wiggins
The Timberwolves’ franchise cornerstone has been on the hot seat for what feels like years now as a matter of not meeting his innate potential. Wiggins’ inefficiencies have been well-documented at this point and, unfortunately, at $25.4 million in 2018-19, people are going to notice. If he’s not within 0-3 feet (61.9 percent), Wiggins is a below-average marksman: 34.3 percent from 3-10; 32.6 from 10-16 and a downright disappointing 32.1 from three-point range. It’d be one thing if Wiggins’ struggles led him to rely on his strengths and get to the rim more often — instead, that’s hardly the case.
An unexplainable 73.5 percent of Wiggins’ field goal attempts are from 3-16 feet and beyond, fully exacerbating the issue by ignoring his one bankable reliability in lieu of tougher shots that he doesn’t have a history of making.
If Wiggins was a 24-year-old averaging 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 40.7 percent from the field — despite those harder-to-swallow numbers — that’d be one thing. However, he’s the 21st highest-paid player in the NBA this season and Wiggins will only earn much more from here on out. Wiggins has $146.6 million left in guaranteed money, an amount only bested by Stephen Curry, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Towns — sadly, of the bunch, he’s the clear outlier.
There will always be lingering hope for Wiggins given his athletic skill set — but, by now, potential or not, the 6-foot-8 small forward has moved into a nearly untradable territory.
2. Gorgui Dieng
Speaking of bad contracts, Gorgui Dieng absolutely makes a strong impression himself.
An old-school center in every sense, Dieng will be paid $17.3 million in 2020-21, the final year of a big extension he signed almost three years ago. The only problem is that the center is averaging just six points and four rebounds over 13 minutes per game these days, numbers that are more akin to a bench-warming role than a featured contributor. Relegated behind the likes of behind Taj Gibson, a former Thibodeau favorite, Dieng has plateaued on an already-thin skill set.
His career-high in rebounds (8.3) happened way back in 2014-15, but it came at a rich 30 minutes per game to boot. Beyond that, Dieng doesn’t shoot three-pointers and isn’t an influence on the defensive end — so he’s not exactly knocking down the door to the rotation either at 29 years-old. While this is not as debilitating as Wiggins’ situation — both in usage and salary cap figures — it’s still a sizeable chunk of mostly dead space.
Perhaps Saunders can get the best out of Dieng — but unless the Timberwolves are willing to part with a pick or a young player just to move his contract, they’ll certainly have to try.
3. Everything Defensively
While the Timberwolves’ offense is among the league’s best, the defense continues to be outright atrocious. Even under the defensive-minded Thibodeau, Minnesota struggled to find a ball-stopping identity as they held a 110.9 (27th) rating in 2016-17 and chucked up a 110.1 (25th) mark in 2017-18. Somehow, that rating managed to get even worse this season and dropped to a miserable 112.0 rating, only outpaced by teams that had given up on the season in December.
And in the Western Conference, that’s a guaranteed recipe for disaster, no matter how many times you manage to drop 120-plus points on the opposition. Search no further than the 11 — eleven — times Minnesota has allowed 130 or more points in a contest, including a traumatizing 149-107 loss to the Butler-led Philadelphia 76ers in mid-January.
The promising potential of Josh Okogie can help in that regard and so will perimeter stalwart Robert Covington once he’s back to full health this offseason — but the rest? Well, they’re not exactly great on that side of the ball. With a filter of at least 20 games played at 20 or more minutes per contest, the 63rd-ranked Covington was Minnesota’s best defender by defensive rating this year at 105.6 — and he only played 22 games for them. Perhaps worse, the next Timberwolves player doesn’t check-in on the list until No. 104, Tyus Jones’ 107.
Unsurprisingly, that’s not exactly the look of a postseason-ready franchise.
Focus Area: The Draft
As of today, the Timberwolves own the 11th-highest lottery odds, a 9.4 percent chance of jumping into the draft’s top three slots. Over their final three games, Minnesota must face the Oklahoma City, Thunder, Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets — so an 0-for to the end the season definitely remains on the table. If they manage to pass the Los Angeles Lakers in the loss column (36-44, currently), the Timberwolves’ chances of leaping up toward the elite mix go to slightly-more probable 13.9 percent — a notable cause indeed.
But in the likely reality that Minnesota stays put at their present position, there are plenty of worthy prospects that could make a noticeable difference almost immediately. Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, a perimeter-minded pest — and not dissimilar to Covington’s 3-and-D skill set — should be in franchise’s draft day crosshairs. Or, if they’d like to develop an extra rim-protecting presence across from Towns, Texas’ Jaxson Hayes offers plenty of high-flying potential at 7-foot-1. Minnesota’s middling place in opponent points in the paint (15th) and blocks (16th) per game would both benefit from anchoring Hayes in a budding second unit.
The Timberwolves also own the No. 43 overall pick, where a bevy on intriguing prospects will likely await them. If they have the patience to take on Missouri’s Jontay Porter, who re-injured his formerly torn ACL last month, then that’s a project worth taking on. Versatile collegiate standouts like Eric Paschall, Admiral Schofield and Carsen Edwards all make sense here as a flier, while steals guru Matisse Thybulle of Washington would be a terrifying duo alongside Covington.
Focus Area: Free Agency
For Minnesota, free agency will a tough sell for just about anybody right now.
Once July hits, the Timberwolves will be down to just eight players, plus Jeff Teague and his player option worth $19 million. Derrick Rose, Jerryd Bayless and Taj Gibson’s expiring deals will combine to free up about $31 million in cap space but the rest of the roster could use some major re-tooling.
In the past, Minnesota has tried to move Gorgui Dieng’s mammoth contract — again $17.3 million in 2020-21 — however, that’s been a total bust. That pesky Andrew Wiggins will make $33.6 million in 2022-23 — and, yes, there are no opt-outs there along the way either.
Tyus Jones has played well in spot minutes behind veteran guards since he was drafted four years ago, but his trip to restricted free agency might end up costing them. With both Teague and Rose done for the year, Jones has started the last 12 games for Minnesota and thrived. Even if Teague, 30, doesn’t decide to move onto a contender, Jones is a growing piece that they cannot allow to get away.
Frankly, the Timberwolves may just be stuck between a rock and a hard place — not good enough to attract true talent and not bad enough to ever fully tank out. Naturally, they’ll likely look for ways to move Wiggins or Dieng without attaching a heavy asset — but should they miss out there again, they’ll need to be careful to not compound their issues.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (RFA) could be the type of low-risk, high-reward asset that the franchise can afford to take a swing on this summer. Hollis-Jefferson’s bullish defense often allows him to guard across multiple positions, both at the three-point line and on the block. Pair him with Covington, the growing Okogie and another lottery pick and that’ll get the Timerbwolves one step closer to employing a respectable defense.
Other veteran options like Thaddeus Young (12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds), Al-Farouq Aminu (9.3, 7.4) and Trevor Ariza (14.5, 5.3) would all represent sturdy rotation contributors that wouldn’t capsize their books moving forward. If reaching the postseason again is their ultimate goal, there are plenty of small wins that the Timberwolves can find in free agency.
Instead of trying to hit a home run, Minnesota must simply focus on plugging that leaky defense — they’ve got more than enough offense.
Ultimately, the Timberwolves’ path to relevancy remains foggy. The roster seems to enjoy Saunders at the helm, but signing him to a real contract won’t solve their half-decade of problems overnight. Some of Minnesota’s brightest positives also double as their greatest weaknesses, so whoever takes over will have their work cut out for them. Teams can no longer just try to outgun others and manage to stay afloat in the ruthless Western Conference.
Worse, after all these years, Minnesota still hasn’t learned that lesson.
Maybe, finally, this summer — through trades, free agency and the draft — the Timberwolves can finally break from their lackluster mold.
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.”