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NBA Daily: Ranking The Executives

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ ranking series by taking a look at the best executives in the league.

Matt John

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If you’ve been keeping up with us for the past week or so, Basketball Insiders is ranking every position possible in the NBA. Last week, we took a look at players who were the best from their respective positions. This week, we’re taking a look at the other personnel’s effect on how the season turns out.

Today, we’re looking at the executives. The people that run the operation. The people who put the product out there. The people whose job NBA Twitter loves to pose as more than anything.

The guidelines for what makes a good executive depends on what the team’s goals actually are. If the team’s goals are geared towards winning a championship now, the executive is tasked with finding the right players and coaches to form a championship team. If the team’s goals are to winning a championship several years down the line, the executive is tasked with drafting and developing the right players. In some rare cases, the executive gets to do both.

It’s true that the executives are the ones responsible for the task of bringing in players in hopes of winning a championship. There does come a point where a question arises: If players are more involved in bringing other players in than the executive is, how much credit does the executive really deserve for the success that comes afterward?

Take Rob Pelinka, for example. LeBron James pretty much just fell right into his lap, and by extension, so did Anthony Davis. They wanted to play together. If they had wanted to do the same for New York, would we have really credited the Knicks’ management after years of incompetence? Nobody here is trying to say Pelinka is a bad executive; we have to keep it honest and say that he isn’t really responsible for the Lakers’ success as much as “GM LeBron” is.

For that reason, we have to hold Pat Riley, Sean Marks and Lawrence Frank to the same standard, no matter how good of a job they’ve done with their teams in previous years.

Does Riley deserve the credit for the HEAT’s success when it was Dwyane Wade who pushed Jimmy Butler to sign with them? Does Marks deserve props for Kyrie Irving wanting to play for his hometown team and having his best friend come to join him? Frank deserves some leeway because he established a winning culture in LA after Lob City collapsed, but the reason why the Clippers are competing at the top is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George wanted to play together for the city they grew up in.

If you want to give those guys more credit, all the power to you. Everyone has different criteria when it comes to rankings. The following executives named below formed the excellent teams they have now because of their savvy as executives and didn’t benefit from superstars wanting to join forces. At least, not entirely.

1. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

Hardly any reigning champion has ever lost its best player after winning the title. The ones that have usually did because said best player opted for retirement — Michael Jordan and Bill Russell come to mind. Such was not the case when Kawhi Leonard left Toronto for Los Angeles. Because of that, there’s no apt comparison to what the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors have done. If having to regroup after your best player — who’s still in his prime — leaves following a championship season becomes a thing, Toronto is setting the standard of how to do it right.

And they did this by…staying exactly the way they are — for the most part, at least. Besides bringing in a sneaky good infusion of youth — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis — the core, minus Leonard, has remained intact. Pascal Siakam’s taken yet another step into stardom, though he has simmered down a bit. Kyle Lowry’s back to his old ways. Fred VanVleet’s playing like he wants that Brinks truck. We could keep going on about the individuals who have contributed to Toronto’s unprecedented Cinderella run.

Nick Nurse’s genius schemes have helped Toronto stay on the course, but it was Ujiri who brought in all of the correct personnel for Nurse to put it all together, as well as Nurse himself. His moves since 2013 have all amounted to a team aiming to go as far as they did last year when no one thought that was possible back in October. That makes him an expert in team-building.

Maybe there’s a little recency bias considering the Raptors are the defending champions, but for two straight years, they have not only persevered when fate dealt them a cruel hand, but have seemingly come out on top. For that, Ujiri deserves the title as the best general manager in the league.

2. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder

He’s had his major hiccups in the past, but Sam Presti has proven time and time again that he is a brilliant executive. When he’s backed into a corner, he somehow manages to get himself out of it. He also somehow makes himself look smarter when he comes out on the other side. This time, Presti has made himself look about as brilliant as he’s ever been.

He already did everything that a smart executive would do in his position this past summer. He blew up the squad and squeezed every asset he could out of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. He has his point guard of the future. He has plenty of draft assets at his disposal to cement a new era. The only catch was eating Chris Paul’s contract. Who knew that wouldn’t be much of a catch?

Even through all of that, he managed to assemble possibly the most entertaining Thunder team since the Kevin Durant days. With the core they’ve formed behind Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, they’re basically the team that no one in the West wants to face in the playoffs. Not many teams get to have their cake eat it. The Thunder did because of Presti.

Look, the writing’s on the wall in OKC. We all know that this team will eventually be broken apart. That’s good for them. Even with the motherload of draft assets by his side, Presti is in prime position to get more. He’s got sign-and-trade scenarios with Gallinari coming up. He may enter the same situation with Adams. Schroder has some trade value, and, after the season Paul’s had, is it too crazy to say the veteran’s contract could be tradeable this summer?

To put the cherry on top, this is the perfect time to rebuild. Pretty much everyone in the West is going to vie for the playoffs next year. When there’s no competition at the bottom, that’s the perfect time to tank. OKC missed its opportunity for a championship during the Durant-Westbrook era, but Presti has put them in prime position to create a potentially more fruitful one for years to come.

3. Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks

When you know that you have a young super-duper-star on your team, it is absolutely imperative that you build around him the right way. If you don’t, you can wind up in a situation as disastrous as the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers. Since Milwaukee drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo and deemed him their new superstar, they’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, with the man who made all the difference being Jon Horst.

Before Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you don’t build around a young superstar
After Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you precisely build around a young superstar

Horst may not have been responsible for drafting Giannis, but he is responsible for putting the right team around the Greek Freak to excel. He got the right coach. He brought in the right personnel. He shipped the wrong personnel out of town. He took the necessary risks to make Milwaukee better. He’s made his mistakes — waiving Christian Wood to make room for Pau Gasol — but the Bucks were a nuclear weapon ready to explode. Horst was the one who lit the fuse.

Since then, the Bucks have topped the league in net rating for the last two seasons and have possessed the league’s best record. Even if they’re technically league-average from three — 35.6 percent, good for 16th in the league — their reliance on the perimeter has unlocked Giannis’ game. They couldn’t have done that without both head coach Mike Budenholzer and the spacing they added because of Horst’s efforts.

There’s a difference between having the potential to be something special and being something special. The Milwaukee Bucks were the former term for five years and have been the latter term for the last two. Had it not been for Toronto acquiring Kawhi Leonard, they might be the reigning champions right now. If the season resumes, there may not be a “might be” between Milwaukee and reigning champions when it’s all said and done.

4. Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks may not be contenders yet, but man, over the last two years, they’ve hit two straight-up bullseyes, and it’s already paying off more than anyone could have imagined. They got the Slovenian Boy Wonder and they have his Latvian partner-in-crime — for who knows how long, too? They may be deprived of assets, but those assets were well-spent.

And what did it cost to get them to what should be a glorious future? Cam Reddish’s draft rights, a few first-rounders that are sure to be late picks and eating what’s left of Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts. Lee’s contract will be up in a matter of months, and Hardaway’s bloated deal comes to an end. That’s pretty much a slap on the wrist considering Dallas hasn’t asked really anything from Lee — because they’ve never had to — and Hardaway has been reasonably productive in the role they’ve given him.

What most mystifying of all is that this wasn’t Dallas’ forte. They slyly built up an incredibly strong foundation of youth spearheaded by two of the league’s most exciting young stars in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Did anybody think Donnie Nelson had this in him two years ago? That’s not to say the Mavericks have been run incompetently under his time. It’s just the way that they’ve masterfully built their next era of basketball so shortly after Dirk Nowitzki’s prime didn’t seem in-character to them and, quite frankly, it’s unbelievable.

There are obviously more gaps to fill. Even while being one of the league’s historic offenses presently, the Mavericks have some guys to add on the defensive side of the ball. There’s no rush. Right now, they have the privilege of enjoying the ride. Because, for the first time in forever, time is on their side.

5. Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics

Just for the record, this list is not based on reputation. If it was, Ainge would be higher due to how many franchises he’s ruined to help the Celtics over the past decade-and-a-half. Moreover, if this list came out last year, he wouldn’t be mentioned because he did a horrible job running the team. This year, he got his spot back because his efforts as the executive are paying off big time again.

The assets he acquired from Brooklyn from back in 2013 are blossoming into the players he had in mind when he drafted them in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Kemba Walker has pretty much lived up to expectations as “Diet Kyrie.” Gordon Hayward looks a lot more like himself than last year, even if he’s not playing at the same level he did in Utah. Even Daniel Theis has evolved into one of the league’s better bargain contracts.

What’s most impressive is that in the wake of losing their best player, Kyrie Irving, and their most indispensable player, Al Horford, the Celtics managed to get better on both sides of the ball. They did more with less. Brad Stevens’ coaching has a lot to do with that, but Ainge was the one who brought these guys in so that they could compensate for their losses.

In essence, this has been a redemption year for Ainge following Boston’s season from hell last season. Ainge’s reputation for being one of the best executives in the league has stemmed from his cut-throat mindset. This time, he gets the nod because he executed the “less is more” approach to perfection.

6. Tim Connelly, Denver Nuggets

Why is Denver always off of everyone’s radar? This is the second consecutive season in which they have finished with a top-three record in the conference that has been deemed the tougher one to compete. It makes sense to talk more about the Los Angeles teams because, until proven otherwise, they are a level above everyone else. After that, people want to talk about Houston’s funky experiment, Utah’s struggles, Dallas’ surge, and Oklahoma City’s resilience among others….but the Nuggets have been better than all of them.

They still have one of the best all-around centers in the game. They’re a well-coached squad with guys who know their roles. Best of all, they somehow still have more potential to fulfill. This year, they found yet another reason to be excited about their future. They went with a low-risk, high-reward project in Michael Porter Jr, and let him redshirt his rookie season. Now, with Porter Jr. healthy and playing ball again, it looks like Denver may have yet another superstar waiting in the wings. If he avoids the injury bug, Denver’s ceiling gets taken up to yet another level.

It hasn’t all been perfect. Jamal Murray still hasn’t become the consistent electric scorer that he shows himself to be from time to time. Paul Millsap’s not getting any younger and…what happened to Gary Harris? Have we ever seen a young player’s production drop as badly as Harris’ when the guy’s only in his mid-20s? That’s what makes Denver even more impressive. In spite of some of their guys not being as productive as they like, they’ve managed to outplay everyone in the conference that doesn’t reside in LA.

It’s time the Nuggets got their due. They wouldn’t get one if it weren’t for Connelly’s excellent work running the operation. He would be even higher if he had just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights, but Nuggets fans have already heard enough about that, haven’t they?

7. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets

Daryl Morey has a reputation for making brilliant trades either because he hoarded the appropriate assets in order to make them, thought outside the box or thought he’d fit in with Houston’s gameplan like a glove — or all three. That brings us to Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook didn’t seem like the type of player that Morey would covet. He’s not a three-point shooter. He prefers having the ball in his hands. He’s not the most efficient scorer. An incredible future Hall-of-Fame talent, indeed — just not the sort of player that Morey would want on his team. We all know the situation both he and Rockets were facing with the fall out between James Harden and Chris Paul. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

So why is Morey on this list? Because, like all good executives do, he retooled the team into the perfect one for Westbrook and Harden. Instead of forcing Westbrook into Houston’s system the whole season, he changed up the system to make life easier for Westbrook to play to the best of his abilities. Going with all wings and no bigs is definitely not a foolproof plan. It is, warts and all, the only way he can properly justify trading Paul — who’s a shoo-in for an All-NBA team this year — for Westbrook, who wasn’t really fitting in with the team.

That’s what the best executives do. They make the accommodations so that the pieces fit even if it’s not a picture-perfect situation. Morey’s lower on this list than he usually would because there’s a very solid chance that this may not work, but he’s still here because he knew it’s what he had to do.

8. Kevin Pritchard, Indiana Pacers

It’s virtually impossible to not include a man who everyone regarded as incompetent almost three years ago only to be laughing in all of their faces since then on a list like this. Pritchard has been running a victory lap around everyone since he traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. This season, he had even more reason to.

Oladipo took the reins by becoming a star his first year in Indy, and now Sabonis has followed in his footsteps two years later. Even though the former’s status as a star is going to be in question until he proves he’s still got it, Indiana has still managed to be one of the tougher teams in the Eastern Conference. Pritchard deserves credit for helping them stay afloat after their best player has been through hell and back.

Sabonis’ evolution into one of the league’s best offensive bigs in the league has helped a fair amount, yes. Bringing in Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. McConnell to stabilize things has also helped. All of those players were brought in because of Pritchard; they were arguably upgrades over who they had before.

The Pacers have a good thing going on for them. If things continue to progress for them as well as they already have, things could turn out better than they were with Paul George. There is an elephant room that Pritchard will have to confront sooner or later — trading Myles Turner when it’s clear that Sabonis is their big man of the future — but knowing how he’s done since 2017, there should be plenty of confidence that he’ll make the right move.

This list was based off how the executives performed this past season. Had Zion Williamson not gotten hurt, David Griffin probably would have made this list. If New Orleans has a healthier season, and their young guys continue to grow, there’d be little reason not to include Griffin at a time like this. The same goes for Zach Kleiman and company, who have done a masterful job with Memphis this season.

If this had been based on moves made before the season, it’s very likely that Dennis Lindsey and Elton Brand would have been on here. Since the moves they’ve made haven’t worked out nearly as well as they had hoped, they can’t be included.

Lastly, these days, it’s tough to rank executives because management around the NBA period has gotten smarter for the most part. We have teams that still have poor ownership, but executives have mostly gotten smarter. Even recently, the Chicago Bulls, who have been largely criticized for the moves they’ve made (and not made), hired a smart front office guy — Arturas Karnisovas– to clean up their mess.

Maybe the New York Knicks will do the same. At least, that’s what their fans have wanted since the start of the 21st century.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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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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