This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at the league’s most underrated players division-by-division. Drew Maresca took a look at the Atlantic Division. Then, Benny Nadeau kept up the momentum with the Northwest Division. Today we’re taking a look at the Southeast Division.
In recent years, the Southeast Division has been often critiqued for being one of, if not, the weakest division in the entire league. Last year, it really wasn’t pretty. Only one team made it to the playoffs that season – the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic – and they ousted pretty easily by Toronto. The year before that, there were two – Miami and Washington – but they were two of the three lower seeds who had a similar fate in the postseason.
When you stop to think about it, it’s been a downward trajectory for the whole division since the HEAT disbanded in 2014.
Things have been better, but not by leaps and bounds. Miami’s having its best season since LeBron James left, although they look like a team that’s a piece or two away from being a contender. Orlando was more-likely-than-not making the playoffs. Still, they have more-or-less remained the same as where they were last year: League average – and that might be giving them too much credit.
As for the rest of the division, it’s not pretty. Washington and Charlotte are pegged right at below-average currently. They’re definitely not the worst teams in the league, but pending any late-season miracles, they’re not making the playoffs. Oddly enough, the worst team in the division, Atlanta, happens to be the one team everyone’s most excited about long-term.
When you put all of that into consideration, it may seem hard to find underrated players in a division when the majority of it isn’t really that good. However, good individual performances can get overshadowed because not much team success has come from it.
Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT
When analysts discuss Miami’s major steps forward this season, they talk about Jimmy Butler’s acclamation as the team’s top dog. Bam Adebayo’s evolution into one of the league’s best young centers. Their suddenly-exciting rookie class spearheaded by Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. The one plot thread that doesn’t get enough credit is Goran Dragic’s seamless transition from starting point guard to sixth man.
Being mere weeks from turning 34, it’s clear Dragic doesn’t have the same footwork he did when he bent defenses to his will in his heyday. With him on the downside of his career, some adjustments had to be made on his part. Unlike his role in past years, he had to learn to lead the second unit.
It’s true that Dragic had that role back in his early days in Phoenix, but a lot has changed for him since then. Having to relearn a modified role such as this is much easier said than done. But in doing so, Dragic has actually had quite a resilient year compared to his injury-plagued 2018-19 season. In fewer minutes than he’s used to, Dragic has averaged 16 points and five assists on 44/38/77 splits, and it’s led to Miami owning one of the more offensively potent benches in the league.
When the Sixth Man of the Year discussion comes up, the first names that come to mind are Lou Williams, Montrezl Harell, or Dennis Schroder. Dragic’s case is simple: He thrived when confronted with the task of going from lead dog to bench spark on a team that won’t be messing around in the playoffs. For that, he deserves consideration and to be on this list.
Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards
Over the past several years, we’ve come to see JJ Redick and Kyle Korver prove how potent they can be in an offense if they are used to the fullest of their capabilities. If you have somebody so consistently money from three that the other team must gameplan to ensure that he won’t have a sliver of daylight, you’ve got a weapon at your behest.
Not that we didn’t know he could stroke it from deep before, but now, we have our newest iteration of the sharpshooter – Davis Bertans. There hasn’t been much to cheer about in regards to the basketball team that resides in the nation’s capital, but Bertans’ ascent into a three-point flamethrower has certainly been a sight to behold.
Bertans’ floor-stretching abilities have breathed new life into the Wizards’ offense. When he’s on the court, their offensive rating is 113.6, which matches the Los Angeles Clippers’ third-rated offensive rating. 77 percent of his shots have been from distance this season, which has led to him having his best season yet as a professional. His scoring numbers have nearly doubled, and he has the second-highest net rating among Wizards who have played at least 1,000 minutes.
Another reason why Bertans gets a mention here: Most of the sharpshooters in the league are either guards, wings, or a hybrid of both. Bertans is a big. He’s mainly a power forward, but Washington played him at center for 16 percent of his minutes. There are other stretch bigs in the league who share around the same three-point percentage as Bertans – Kelly Olynyk at 43.2 and Nemanja Bjelica at 42.4. The difference is, they’ve attempted eight more threes than Bertans combined. That’s how you know how dangerous Bertans is compared to them at the three-point line.
There was a reason why the price for Bertans at the trade deadline – even on an expiring contract – was two first-round picks. If Washington really is committed to getting back to what they were three years ago or even better, having Bertans stick around should absolutely be a priority.
Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic
12.1 points. 5.2 assists. 3.3 rebounds. 47/25/72 splits. 28.3 minutes a game. For any starting point guard in the NBA, those should be seen as pedestrian numbers. For Markelle Fultz, these numbers should be seen as a step in the right direction.
Fultz’s hurdles, both mental and physical, have been well-documented since he entered the league. Now that he seemingly has gotten past them, he’s making leaps toward reaching his potential as a prospect. He’s still got a long, long way to go, but at least he’s consistently on the court.
At 21 years old, Fultz is at least shown both aggression and vision when taking the court. He has good touch around the basket – shooting 65 percent from inside zero to three feet – and he played well enough to usurp DJ Augustin as the team’s starting point guard. That’s… something! Sadly, he hasn’t been getting a whole lot of attention because Orlando is a mid-tier team that may have peaked with the squad they have. Still, they should be encouraged by Fultz’s progress in his first full year with the team.
There’s still plenty of time for Fultz to improve his mechanics. In Orlando, he’s had some breathing room and, so far, he hasn’t taken the league by storm, but he has shown that he still breeds intrigue.
At the end of the day, Fultz’s numbers won’t blow you away when you factor in him getting picked number one in his draft, but we can still look at it and wonder if the best is yet to come.
Michael Carter-Williams, Orlando Magic
Speaking of players whose careers could have been in jeopardy, it’s so nice to see that Michael Carter-Williams may have found a home in Orlando. The guy was a late-season pickup last year after Houston barely used him. Now, he’s a rotation player on a playoff team.
There’s a lot about Williams that would turn teams off. That pretty much starts and ends with his jumper. It’s not ugly by any means, it’s just not very reliable. His percentages throughout his career from pretty much everywhere have been bad. Before this season, you could look anywhere he’s shot from the court outside of zero to three feet and would not come to any conclusion beyond saying uh-oh.
Yet there’s so much to like about him. He’s a 6-foot-5 point guard with long limbs, decent passing vision and the ability to be a menace defensively. Carter-Williams has picked up his efficiency from around the floor – 43/29/83 splits is a definite win for him – and has, for the most part, stuck to what he’s good at.
The only problem is, again, Orlando’s not really making much headway. No matter what direction they decide to go in, at least Carter-Williams can rest easy knowing he proves that he belongs in the NBA. Even if his stats aren’t nearly as good as they were early on in his career, Carter-Williams has found his niche.
Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets
OK, fair, we know what you might be thinking, but wait: Rozier’s performance for the Hornets is underrated for several reasons.
1. Charlotte hasn’t been good this season, that was something we all were anticipating. The difference between this year and last is that there seems to be some semblance of promise in this team. Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington and even Malik Monk seems to have made some nice progress.
Their record doesn’t necessarily reflect an improvement from last season, but their ability to stay at the same production after losing Kemba Walker is impressive. Rozier has had a lot to do with both the youth movement and Charlotte’s perseverance.
2. He’s been outshined by Graham. Graham has come back to earth after an electrifying start, but his unexpected jump overshadowed that this has been Rozier’s best season as a professional.
3. He’s given Charlotte their money’s worth, unlike somebody like Nicolas Batum, Rozier has at least given the Hornets good production for the contract they gave him. 18 points and 4.1 assists on 42/41/87 splits is strong at $19 million a year is, ultimately, not a deal-breaker. Especially when you compare him to some of their other poor contracts.
Rozier hasn’t necessarily surpassed expectations, but he hasn’t been a disappointment when many thought that he would do just that. Many have dismissed Charlotte for their front office’s mishandlings over the last several years. Perhaps the fact that Rozier has turned out better than most of their recent additions could signal a turning point.
Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks
We had to include Carter on this list, we just had to. A player with his reputation and his impact on the game of basketball deserves a shoutout as he rides off into the sunset.
We don’t have to dive into his stats because they don’t accurately reflect on what he’s done. In case it’s not clear, Carter didn’t have to choose this path to end his career. He could have ridden on James or Curry’s coattails to a ring and nobody would have blamed him. Is there a feeling more rewarding than winning a championship to finish your career? To end it all on a high note?
As it turns out, yes. Carter didn’t want his legacy at the end of his time to be defined by if he won or not. He wanted it to be defined by how he influenced the NBA of tomorrow. We know his impact on the Sacramento Kings. Not too long from now, we’ll see the kind of effect it’ll have on the Atlanta Hawks. They may not be good now, but we know the sort of ceiling they have on their hands with Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and the aforementioned Collins.
If they reach it, don’t be shocked if they give credit to Carter for how they did.
Many NBA legends have talked about the veterans who influenced them when they were young – Vince Carter believed that was what was most important. In short, making sure that these young players are on the right path from the start and not take anything for granted. Carter made a lasting impact on the NBA, and that impact should last for generations.
This list goes to show that there’s no correct way to be underrated. You can be underrated because you embraced a new lesser role. You can be underrated because you thrived in a bigger role and didn’t get noticed. You can be underrated because you made progress that no one saw coming. You can be underrated because your impact in the locker room greatly exceeds that on the court. And so on and so forth. . .
We’re still some ways from seeing this NBA season resolve, if at all, but, when it does, we’ll see these underrated players continue to shine.
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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