The NBA provides the masses great drama during nearly every month of the year — February, for many reasons, is no different. Aside from the All-Star Game-related festivities, the trade deadline is always a popular period of time for the frenzied onlooker. On the surface level, the notion of asking whether the buyers will buy and if sellers will sell seems inherently boring, but it often goes beyond that. Are teams looking to shed an albatross contract? Is a franchise moving on from a once-successful era and officially pulling the plug? What about the dark horse surprises moved to make semi-risky deals and enter the conference contender conversation?
With franchise operating under their own long- and short-term plans, the deadline is always a fascinating study, even if a number of blockbuster swaps don’t go down. But with that critical point of the campaign circled on Feb. 7, the rumors will only heat up from here on out. On Monday, Spencer Davies tackled the Central Division, then David Yapkowitz tackled the Northwest. More recently, Drew Maresca snagged the Atlantic and Shane Rhodes handled the Southwest. Today, then, is the Southeast — so let’s wait no longer!
The Hawks, of course, are sellers.
According to reports, they’d like to move on from veterans Kent Bazemore, who is owed roughly $19.3 million in 2019-20, and Dewayne Dedmon. The latter is averaging 10.2 points and 7.5 rebounds on an expiring deal worth $7.2 million, thus making him a strong candidate for a trade in the coming weeks.
Also available, potentially, is Taurean Prince, a price-controlled 24-year-old that’s tallied 14 points and 4.1 rebounds on 36 percent from three-point range so far this season. For franchises looking at point guard help, the clearly healthy Jeremy Lin — expiring to the tune of $13.8 million this summer — should eventually be on the move as well, a reliable on-court presence that can shoot from deep and operate fluidly in the pick-and-roll.
Since they began leaning harder on their collections of prospects — Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Omari Spellman, DeAndre’ Bembry and John Collins — the Hawks have actually flourished. Since Dec. 18, Atlanta has won more games (nine) than they did in the sixty before that (six), so if the youth movement wasn’t in full effect before, it certainly is now. Outside of those two groups — expendable and expiring versus the assets — there’s still Vince Carter ($1.5 million), but his veteran leadership is well-regarded within the Hawks’ locker room, so he seems like a good bet to stick around.
Atlanta has risen to 12th place in the Eastern Conference — so they’ll need to just keep doing what they’re doing: Play the kids, trade veterans for future assets and collect their next batch of impressive rookies in June. So far, so good.
As of today, the Hornets reside in the top eight — good enough, barely, for a postseason berth. Whether or not the hot-and-cold Hornets stand a chance against Milwaukee, Boston or Toronto seems irrelevant they must demonstrate to impending free agent Kemba Walker that the franchise is still in a position to build a winner. Earlier this week, the Mavericks approached the Hornets about a potential deal for Walker but were shut down quickly, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. In any case, it proves that Charlotte is in for the long haul with Walker, thus illuminating their trade deadline strategy immensely.
Recent reports noted that the Hornets would be willing to add Frank Kaminsky to any deals that included Nicolas Batum — $27.1 million player option in 2020-21 — but that’s unlikely to move the needle. Many other members of this roster have established roles (Marvin Williams, Jeremy Lamb), hold future potential (Miles Bridges, Malik Monk), own little value (Dwayne Bacon, Devonte’ Graham) or boast contracts likely too big to move (Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo). So if the Hornets are sticking with Walker, they may ultimately end up on the quiet side this deadline.
In many ways, the HEAT exist on the same plane as the Hornets, except they’re missing a true bonafide star.
Miami was sure they could compete without putting together a grand offer for the since-traded Jimmy Butler and the results have been mixed. Surely, on the cusp of February, the HEAT would’ve liked to be above .500 but, again, the Eastern Conference gives them life. Goran Dragic is expected to return around the All-Star break, which would be a huge boon but Miami will need to strengthen themselves elsewhere as well. The HEAT could be sellers, but history — led by President Pat Riley — says that is the less likely of the two fates. The only issue in improving at this deadline, naturally, remains the large deals the franchise handed out in recent offseasons, almost all of which have player options tacked onto the end.
Hassan Whiteside will make $27 million next season, while Dragic ($19.2 million) and Tyler Johnson ($19.2) aren’t exactly cheap either. Justise Winslow remains an intriguing piece, but he’s also one of Miami’s few young assets alongside Bam Adebayo, both of whom will presumably stay put down south. If there’s any consolation, it comes in the form of Josh Richardson, a 25-year-old standout that has been able to shoulder a heavy scoring load every night. Given his blossoming presence, the HEAT may be beholden to hop into the trade season craze — but Miami’s options also appear to be limited.
After a strong career resurgence last year, Wayne Ellington has contributed at a lesser extent across the board, albeit at five minutes less, but he’s got a manageable expiring contract of about $6.3 million. Still, Ellington is hitting 2.2 three-pointers per game, so a contender could certainly scoop him off the guard-laden roster for a future pick.
Elsewhere, Kelly Olynyk (9.1 points, 4.2 rebounds) would be far more intriguing if not for his 2020-21 player option worth $13.6 million. Dion Waiters, now fully healed, is in a similar situation and remains a talented piece, but a promised $12.6 million in two season’s time might be a tough pill to swallow for interested partners. Unless the HEAT take a shot at trading the farm — something like Richardson, minimally protected draft picks and cap space — for Bradley Beal or any other available stars, they, too, might be restricted to small-sided deals this season.
For this reason, there’s not a ton of actual trade scuttle surrounding the Miami HEAT at this point in time.
Even at 20-29, the Magic are well within the postseason race, but their destiny this year is up for grabs, reportedly.
Orlando is still hoping to reach the postseason, again according to Charania, but are preparing for the deadline in case they — losers of 3 of their last 12 games — continue to plummet down the ladder. If the Magic become sellers prior to the Feb. 7 date, they could be one of the most sought-after rosters in the NBA. Nikola Vucevic, likely headed to his first-ever All-Star Game next month, is on an expiring contract worth $12.7 million, while Terrence Ross ($10.5) and Jonathon Simmons ($5.7, non-guaranteed in 2019-20) could provide some much-needed cap relief in exchange for a draft pick.
D.J. Augustin — 11.8 points, 4.8 assists and 43.5 percent from three-pointer range over 47 starts — is a reasonably cheap gamble at just $7.2 million next season. Working with a baseline core of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Issac and Mohamed Bamba is a solid start, plus there’s the fate of the ever-solid Evan Fournier ($17 million through 2020-21) depending on how hard the Magic want to retool moving forward. If Fournier does reach the trade block, there will be suitors, almost definitely.
As for actual chatter, the Magic inquired about the availability of Dennis Smith Jr., but with the point guard’s return to practice, that move may not be on the horizon any longer. Should the Magic continue their postseason push, they’ll search for a younger ballhandler like Terry Rozier — who has been pursued by Orlando, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe last week. Furthermore, the Magic appear interested in Knicks’ rotation castaway Frank Ntilikina, per Stefan Bondy of NYDN — so the franchise could go either way before the deadline. Even if they’re competing, a lower-stakes deal for Ntilikina makes sense both for the present and future iterations in Orlando.
If an all-in push is more of Orlando’s style, a certain franchise-level point guard was just potentially made available. Mike Conley, 31, holds the ninth-richest contract in the entire league — at a staggering $34.5 million in 2020-21 — but he’s the type of elite centerpiece that can make a big-time difference. For now, any move for the perennially-great court general is just conjecture.
Between now and Feb. 7, all five of Orlando’s games are against playoff teams– so keep an eye on this space moving forward.
To finish up, there’s the Wizards — and, oh, boy, Washington, indeed.
Following an auspicious 2-9 opening to the campaign, Dwight Howard underwent lumbar surgery, the locker room got petty again and the Wizards tumbled to the conference basement. The news of John Wall’s season-ending operation made matters worse, well, at least initially. Since Wall last played — Dec. 26 versus Detroit — Washington has gone 7-5. It’s not a full-season turnaround just yet, perhaps unexpected given the absence of their five-time All-Star, but it’s a necessary start.
Like Orlando, Charania reports that the Wizards are waiting to see how things shake out over the next week or so before committing one way or the other. Washington made it “adamantly clear” to The Athletic that Bradley Beal, the source of many trade machine fantasies, is staying put. To back that up, owner Ted Leonsis, in London for the Knicks’ contest earlier this month, told media: “We will never, ever tank.”
Instead, it’s Otto Porter Jr — max contract and all — that Washington would like to deal, with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks (Scotto) both interested. At 13 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, the 25-year-old may just need a change of scenery — but his stretch four services would come at a hefty long-term price of a player option worth $28.5 million in 2020-21.
Jeff Green ($1.5 million) and Markieff Morris ($8.6) are on expiring deals and could help teams in a need of a veteran presence; while Howard (player option at a measly $5.6 in 2019-20) could be useful addition once he finishes rehabbing, ideally, sometime in February or March.
In any case, there’s a lot of business to handle between now and the deadline, with the Southeast Division poised to become some of the most active contributors. Without a truly elite franchise, the seventh- and eighth-placed Hornets and HEAT, unlikely to tank, must figure out what potential moves both exist and improve the roster. Whereas the Magic and Wizards, slightly further down the hierarchy, have to decide on pulling the plug entirely. Since it’s the Eastern Conference, despite their struggles, the 20-29 Magic are still just 4.5 games out of the postseason, so a crucial week is ahead for nearly all these teams.
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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