Isaiah Thomas Opens Up About Free Agency
Entering the 2013-14 NBA season, Isaiah Thomas wasn’t sure if he was going to be the starting point guard for the Sacramento Kings. The organization had just underwent a major overhaul, bringing in a new owner (Vivek Ranadivé), general manager (Pete D’Alessandro), head coach (Mike Malone) and potential starting point guard (Greivis Vasquez). Thomas, entering his third season after being the final pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, knew that his future was up in the air.
But Thomas is a fighter, someone who has always found a way to exceed expectations and succeed regardless of the obstacles put in his way. Upon learning that the Kings had acquired Vasquez in a three-team trade with the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers, Thomas immediately drove to a Seattle gym and put himself through a rigorous workout. This became his daily routine over the summer, and he was determined to return to Sacramento as a much-improved player who could battle to keep his starting job.
When the Kings reconvened for the start of the season, it was clear that Thomas’ hard work had paid off. He thrived off of the bench early in the season and then played so well that Vasquez became expendable. The Kings traded Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors in their blockbuster deal to acquire Rudy Gay. Thomas ended up starting 54 games for the Kings, averaging 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals. By the end of the season, Thomas wasn’t just the best floor general in Sacramento, he was one of the most productive point guards in the league. His 20.54 efficiency rating was fourth-best among all NBA point guards, behind only Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.
“It was great, just because the work I put in,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders of his breakout season. “I felt like if I was given an opportunity, I could be one of the top guards in the NBA. I’ve said that before and people kind of looked at me sideways. But I feel like it’s all about opportunity and taking advantage of what people give you. The Sacramento Kings and Mike Malone gave me an opportunity and I just ran with it and did the things that I know how to do.”
Now, after his breakout season, Thomas is entering one of the most important summers of his life. Once the Kings extend a $2,875,131 qualifying offer to him, he’ll become a restricted free agent who is free to meet with other franchises. The Kings can match any offer that he receives, but it will be his first time being able to meet with his teams and explore their offers. The 25-year-old isn’t sure what will happen when he hits the free agency market, but he’s ready for the process.
“I’m just going to approach it with an open mind because I don’t really know what to expect,” Thomas said of free agency. “I’ve never done it and never been a part of it. I’m just going to go in with an open mind. I’ve done the best I could possibly do and I’ve controlled what I can control and that’s by going out there and giving it my all and leaving it on the floor. The rest is in God’s hands. It’s up in the air and I know everything happens for a reason. I’m going to be alright.”
Thomas understands that the NBA is a business, so he’s not sure if he’ll be back with the Kings next year.
“You never know,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to do what’s best for yourself. But at the same time, like I’ve said since day one, I love Sacramento, I love the coaching staff, I love the new ownership. They’ve done nothing but great things for me, but you never know. With this business, anything can happen.”
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Thomas admits that he reads all of the latest NBA rumors and reports on websites like Basketball Insiders and HoopsHype, but he tries not to focus on them too much
“I read the stuff, but it doesn’t bother me because I know the business of basketball,” Thomas said. “I know one guy can say one thing and it’s not even true and it’s around the whole United States; that’s just how it is. That’s why they’re called rumors. I definitely do read it because I like to stay in the loop, but they don’t bother me.”
One team that could be an intriguing option for Thomas is the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. has just three players under contract for next season (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre), and plenty of cap space to be active in free agency. It’s well-documented that Thomas grew up a diehard fan of the Lakers since his father is from Los Angeles, and he has idolized Bryant since he was a child. When asked what it would mean to sign an offer sheet with the Lakers, Thomas admits that it would be special.
“It would mean a lot,” Thomas said of receiving an offer sheet from the Lakers. “Not even just the Lakers, but just to have other teams trying to get you, it means you’re wanted. Like I’ve said in interviews before, I just want to be wanted. I want to be wanted for being 5’9 and I want to be wanted for being a scoring point guard. That’s all that I can say. If that’s the Lakers, I’d be happy. If that’s the Kings, then I’d be happy. I just want to be wanted and I want to win.”
As Thomas prepares for free agency on July 1, he’s going to reach out to a number of his veteran friends around the NBA so that he has an idea of what to expect when the circus begins.
“I haven’t [talked to any veterans yet], but I’ll probably reach out to a few guys, especially the older guys that have been through it,” Thomas said. “I’ve been just chilling and trying to relax and not think about it too much.”
One player who Thomas will discuss his decision with is Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who is his mentor and one of his closest friends. Thomas and Crawford have known each other for years since they grew up in the same area. They even share the same agent, Andy Miller, and Thomas flew to Los Angeles to be in attendance for the ceremony when Crawford won this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Crawford is confident that Thomas will be highly coveted this summer and continue to thrive in the NBA.
“Isaiah is someone who has earned everything; he’s never had anything given to him,” Crawford said. “People said he was too small or that he wouldn’t make it to the NBA or that he couldn’t be a young star in the NBA, but he has done it. He’s a guy who is constantly working and constantly asking questions to get better. He has everyone’s respect. I couldn’t be more proud of him, and I know the best is yet to come for him. He’s one of the best free agents on the market this summer.”
As Crawford pointed out, Thomas has only been in the NBA for three seasons and it certainly seems that his best basketball is still ahead of him. Thomas agrees with this sentiment, and says that he feels he could someday be an All-Star in the NBA if he continues to work hard and lands in the right situation.
“I have a lot [of goals],” Thomas said. “I want to be an All-Star; I’ve always said that when given an opportunity, I can showcase that I can play at a very high level and numbers don’t lie. I think the next thing in my career is just winning, and winning takes care of all of the individual success. I know with the numbers that I have, if I lead a team to wins then those accolades will come. I’m just going to continue to work and continue to try to reach my goals and win. … I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of better in the last few years. I was watching actually film of my rookie year a few weeks ago and I was like, ‘I didn’t even look good!’ I felt like I wasn’t even that good. The jump that I’ve made, I think it’s going to happen every year just because of the work I’ve put in. I’m ready for every opportunity that’s thrown at me. I’m ready to show the world that I can play at a high level. This summer, I’m going to keep working too. I’m continuing to work on shooting, but also working on my off-hand passing and learning how to pass through traffic. I just want to keep getting better at being a passer and making my teammates better.”
While Thomas must weigh his free agency options and prepare for whatever happens next, he is happy with his current situation in Sacramento, where he has earned a key role as a significant contributor, gained chemistry with his teammates and grown comfortable with the city.
The Kings only managed to win 28 games last season, but they were competitive on most nights and they have a promising core that features Thomas, Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore and whoever they select with the No. 8 pick in this draft. With Gay opting into the final year of his contract, it does take away some of Sacramento’s cap flexibility but it does leave open the possibility that the Kings may be able to keep their squad intact next year. If that’s the case, Thomas believes they can make some noise in the Western Conference and possibly qualify for the playoffs.
“Assuming we all come back, I think we can be very talented,” Thomas said of the Kings. “I think a lot of people in the league know how talented we can be. The jump we made this year, it didn’t translate to wins, but we were ahead in almost every game that we played in. We don’t know how to win yet. We have to figure out how to win close games. But I think with this core group of guys, we can better our games and then make it to the playoffs.”
The presence of Coach Malone is another reason why Thomas enjoys Sacramento. The point guard and head coach became very close throughout the course of last season. Thomas believes that bond is very important, and he loves that they have a strong relationship.
“Our relationship is great,” Thomas said of his bond with Coach Malone. “Since day one, he kept it 100 percent real with me. In the exit meeting, he said, ‘Man, you turned me into the biggest Isaiah Thomas fan.’ He was the first guy that really let me be me and embraced me for being me. I can’t say enough about him, he’s a guy that knows a lot about basketball and has great knowledge of the game. This whole coaching staff, they do their part. I can honestly say that they do their part and they work so hard. They come in every single day ready to work.”
In several weeks, Thomas will have a better idea of what his future holds. This is the second consecutive summer that he is surrounded by uncertainty, but with a breakout season behind him and the opportunity to secure a lucrative new contract looming, the situation is much more promising this time around.
Blatt Will Face Former Team in NBA Debut
When David Blatt makes his debut as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new head coach, he’ll be matching up against familiar faces. The Cavaliers will open their 2014-15 preseason against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team that Blatt just left after four seasons, on October 5 as part of a Euroleague US Tour 2014.
“I couldn’t think of a better-scripted story than starting this new chapter in my life with a friendly game against my Maccabi Tel Aviv family,” Blatt said.
Maccabi Tel Aviv , the reigning Euroleague champions, will also take on the Brooklyn Nets during the Euroleague US Tour on October 7.
With Blatt leaving to take the Cavaliers job, his former assistant Guy Goodes will take over as the team’s head coach. Goodes has been learning under Blatt in recent years, and he’s looking forward to taking on his mentor in this preseason contest.
“It will definitely be an interesting game,” Goodes said. “David obviously knows Maccabi’s playbook inside and out, but the team is geared up to face our friend and mentor and will be coming out there to win. Knowing David, it’s what he would demand of us.”
This will be the fifth time in nine years that Maccabi Tel Aviv represents the Euroleague against an NBA squad during the league’s preseason festivities.
Over the years, Maccabi has played 20 games against NBA clubs, winning five. In 2005, Maccabi became the first European team to beat an NBA squad on its home court by defeating the Toronto Raptors, 105-103, in the Air Canada Center.
Maccabi’s US Tour 2014 will follow two games against national Brazilian champion Flamengo as part of the Intercontinental Cup competition.
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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