Well, folks, it’s April and sports remain at a standstill, meaning that the NBA is still waiting to figure out when it will be feasible to either resume play or move ahead with the offseason. So while that’s happening and players are participating in video game tournaments or spreading the word of social distancing, we at Basketball Insiders have decided to spark a positional ranking series, sure enough, to garner some healthy discussion about the elite of the elite in the Association.
Ben Nadeau kicked us off on Tuesday by not only breaking down statistical areas but also facial hair and fun facts about the top shooting guards. Drew Maresca continued with a system based on individual numbers and impact on the team via net ratings when discussing the best power forwards. My strategy will be kind of a smorgasbord of sorts, counting what I’ve personally seen in my coverage of the league — no points system, really.
My draw was small forwards, a position that’s kind of been altered due to the rise of the point forward and playmaking twos. There’s an overlap of all kinds when you look at how teams construct rotations. It all depends on what the head coach’s beliefs are and where the respective players are put in lineups. You can look at size or you can look at abilities, depending on your view of the situation. Point being, the definition of small forward has been pretty subjective as of late.
For example, I would’ve listed Paul George as a three, however, Ben decided to throw him in on his list because he’s technically the starting shooting guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. Jayson Tatum is one who is clearly on the come-up as one of the top forwards in the league, yet Drew put him — as well as the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — as a four because that’s how the Boston Celtics choose to use him in certain combinations.
Injuries can also play a major factor, so we’re not going to leave those players out because they didn’t make an impact on this current season. We know what their capabilities are and that can’t go unnoticed despite the “what have you don’t for me lately” crowd.
So enough babbling on my part, let’s get to it, shall we?
8) DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
To be as consistent of an offensive threat that DeMar DeRozan has been for the past decade is *not* easy. The way he plays the game is a throwback, somebody that backs you down on the block and turns around with a fadeaway. He’s looking to draw fouls on his way to the tin. He loves a good 15-footer on the baseline, at the nail or at the corners on the key. The Spurs haven’t put together winning basketball this year, unfortunately, but pointing the finger solely at DeRozan would be foolish — especially with his annual statistics backing up his impact.
7) Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine is “the guy” in the Windy City. He’s the most consistent player that the Chicago Bulls have and is a scoring machine. All of a sudden, he’s launching eight threes per game and cashing in on 38 percent of those tries. For a guy who came into the league with crazy athleticism, LaVine’s known for much more than that these days. And while he may not fit the mold of a three, he certainly could start at that position for a number of teams.
6) Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
A first-time All-Star this year, Brandon Ingram is turning heads going into free agency — although in all likelihood, he’ll be staying with the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s continued the upward trajectory that he really started to find toward the end of last season with the Lakers, which was abruptly ended due to a blood clot in his arm.
Ingram’s willingness to be the aggressor has been the primary reason for this ascension. He’s been putting on a clinic in a career season as a three-point shooter (38.7 percent on 6.3 attempts per game), while taking responsibility as the first option in Alvin Gentry’s offense, with Zion Williamson being groomed to share those touches. That’s quite a duo moving forward if you ask me.
5) Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Khris Middleton’s evolution into an All-Star player has been a joy to watch because it’s been a steady rise. He hasn’t stopped growing. When you’re touted as a 3-and-D guy, it kind of puts you in a box, especially in the sense of contract talk. However, he didn’t allow that to happen and has exploded out of that box with authority, earning a well-deserved payday prior to this season.
Under Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, Middleton has been able to expand his game while employing what brought him to the dance at the same time. He’s lethal from both the perimeter and inside it as a jump shooter (51.8 percent from 10-to-16 feet, 53.8 percent from 16 feet to the arc), is reliable as a secondary playmaker and displays tenacity as an individual defender.
It’s not as if Middleton came out of nowhere. He’s not some overnight sensation or a one-hit wonder. He just kept grinding and working on his game, and the results have come from it. That, in and of itself, should be why he deserves respect from everybody.
4) Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT
Jimmy Butler’s desire to win is what makes him so special. He’s a refuse-to-lose type of player and will stop at nothing to ensure victory for his team. With him as the *technical* No. 1 option, the Miami HEAT have benefited. He’s gotten everybody around him involved while simultaneously knowing when he needs to score. If you need evidence, see Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, who have become household names just like that.
Aside from his outside shooting taking a hit this year, Butler’s efficiency has improved tremendously — he’s averaging the fewest amount of shot attempts he’s had since 2013-14. His straight-to-the-point demeanor on the hardwood has elevated his game since he entered the league, and it’s been well received in South Beach as opposed to the way things went for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The man they call Jimmy Buckets craves the pressure and the big shot. He salivates at the opportunity to get a key stop in crunch time. He loves to be a mentor to his guys. That’s what makes Butler so fun to watch, for me — his attitude.
3) Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
The basketball world needs Kevin Durant back. Forget the outside noise and just go back to watch him make magic happen on the floor — there may not be a smoother player in the NBA. We’re all anxiously waiting to see what the new-look Brooklyn Nets look like with him and Kyrie Irving paired together.
Durant’s game is an unorthodox meeting of in-your-face and finesse. He finds crevices and navigates his way to the paint with his slick handles. As soon as he sees defenders take one step back, BOOM, he’ll pull up from wherever he is at that moment. When he’s guarding you, it’s like a real-life Doc-Ock is swarming because his ridiculous length feels as if he has more than two arms. Most dangerous of all? His clutch gene. I’ve seen it live at the NBA Finals, where he put the Cavaliers away with two daggers from basically the same exact spot in nearly identical scenarios in back-to-back years.
Talk about the skills for a “small forward” who is, in essence, a seven-footer and you’ve discovered a man who has broken basketball — in a good way. And while he’ll already go down as one of the best to ever play the game, something tells me KD is going to come back with a vengeance next season. Scary thought.
2) Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Ah yes, the Fun Guy. There aren’t not many like Kawhi left in sports. He comes into work, clocks in and clocks out. No focus on “flash” and little emotion on the court. There’s a very old-school feel to his tendencies: hard-nosed, physical, deliberate. He thrives in the mid-range and can attack you in a straight line drive to get to the bucket. His other nickname is the Klaw because of his massive hands, the same hands that deflect, steal and block opponents who try to sneak by him.
When he was traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer, Kawhi got back to work and ultimately helped lead the franchise to its first NBA title. It’s easy to forget exactly how good somebody is when they’re out of the picture with an injury as he was at the end of his time with the San Antonio Spurs. He’s back home in Los Angeles now along with Paul George, where the stars truly reside nowadays on both sides at Staples Center.
As far as what he’s done this season, Kawhi is one of three players in the Association with usage above 32 percent, so he’s *heavily* depended on to guide the Clippers in the right direction. Judging by the team’s 44-20 record, his improved vision and consistent scoring output, so far, so good.
1) LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Surprise, surprise…not. It seems pretty pointless to discuss the piles upon piles of awards and accolades LeBron has earned over his historic 17-year career. Everybody knows about them, and even the most casual and laid-back fans of sports understand the magnitude he has on the world as a whole. When it comes to the hardcore NBA enthusiasts, it’s essentially split down the middle between whether or not he’s the greatest to ever play the game in comparison to Michael Jordan.
Unlike many of my colleagues, comparisons don’t suit my style. I appreciate greatness and can’t stand pitting the likes of two iconic superstars against one another. It’s simply unfathomable for somebody to believe LeBron isn’t great at this game, as it is for MJ. I know it’s fun to envision and debate, but let’s get away from that, please. It’s been around for way too long and just getting old at this point, if you ask me (or maybe I’ve become the old man yelling at a cloud).
Anyways, the fusion of magnetism, power, unselfishness, athleticism and headiness — and the sustainability of those qualities — makes up for a Megatron-like presence (MegaBron? No offense, Calvin Johnson) on the floor that can rarely be stopped. There are so many intricacies within LeBron’s game that it’s hard to know where to start regarding a full-on breakdown of what he brings to the table. His mind is almost robotic in the way he can pinpoint plays in a game at exact moments and run through them verbatim. You’ll realize that when you speak to his teammates, past or present, in any scenario.
While covering the Cleveland Cavaliers in their last two Eastern Conference championship seasons before his decision to head west in the summer of 2018, LeBron specifically mentioned watching film of Kyle Korver and where the veteran sharpshooter liked to catch the ball, with seams or without. To be able to process that in the moment during actual games and deliver that preference spot-on is nothing short of amazing — and he did it. LeBron’s continued to make the game easier on his teammates with the ball in his hands, too. He has always successfully found ways to adapt. Watch the playoffs from that year and you’ll get a stern reminder of his capabilities (or just, you know, pay attention to the age-defying season he’s having with the Lakers).
At 35 years old, LeBron is playing at an MVP level, as healthy and engaged as he’s ever been. He’s always said Father Time is undefeated, but that man has yet to put The King away.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers; Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns
That was fun, wasn’t it? As I wrote this piece, it turned into something completely different than I had initially thought. That’s the beauty of what we do right now. We can be creative in different ways and take an unconventional approach to these.
Again, small forwards weren’t an easy draw, but the eight players listed here more than deserve their due at being the best to do it at their position.
Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for more of our positional ranking series!
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.”
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