The current iteration of the Washington Wizards remains an enigma. Despite reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals the past two seasons, the Wizards failed to record a 50-win campaign during this span, suffering from unpredictable periods of inconsistency. In fact, it has been over 35 years since this franchise has recorded a 50+ win regular season. The Southeast Division has greatly improved, but the Wizards’ front office was relatively quiet during the summer. Will this Wizards squad have enough to break through and reach the Eastern Conference Finals?
Basketball Insiders previews the Washington Wizards’ 2015-16 season.
Losing Paul Pierce was unfortunate for Washington, but I loved that they were able to acquire a number of wings this summer such as Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson. Those players will add depth to this already talented Washington team and the Pierce loss no longer seems as bad. If Otto Porter can step up and play well, Washington will be in even better shape. With all of that said, the Wizards will only go as far as John Wall takes them. He is one of the best point guards in the NBA and so important to this team – on both ends of the floor – so they need him to stay healthy and continue to perform at a high level. If this team is at full strength, I think a high seed in the East and deep postseason run is very possible.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
The Wizards reached the second round of the playoffs last season for the second consecutive campaign. So the question is whether the franchise can get over the hump and make an Eastern Conference Finals run. The Wizards were relatively quiet all summer and didn’t make much noise reshaping the roster. The team lost future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce in free agency to the Los Angeles Clippers, and only added role players like Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson. The team will miss Pierce’s leadership, so Otto Porter will need to take the leap from role player to dependable starter on the wing. Bradley Beal and John Wall form one of the best backcourts in the league while Marcin Gortat and Nene provide the muscle on the inside. Expect another run to the playoffs, although their position in the Southeast Division may slip a bit.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
Thanks to Paul Pierce, the Wizards were one of the most entertaining teams in the 2015 NBA Playoffs. Now, he’s gone to L.A. to reunite with Doc Rivers, but the Wizards really aren’t any worse. John Wall and Bradley Beal are still the stars of the show here, while Marcin Gortat is the max money stud in the frontcourt. The team really juiced up their bench by adding Gary Neal, Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and rookie Kelly Oubre, so this isn’t a team short on talent by any stretch of the imagination. Last season, though, they looked relatively inexperienced and dealt with an ill-timed injury from Wall. They look for real, though, and now have enough playoff experience to make a postseason leap. They should be one of the Eastern Conference’s better teams this year.
1st Place – Southeast Division
The Wizards are one of the more intriguing teams to watch and see when they will emerge into a true title contender. They have one of the most talented young backcourts in the league with John Wall and Bradley Beal, while their frontcourt includes true bigs Nene and Marcin Gortat. Now, it’s about filling in the other pieces. Following a postseason of heroics, Paul Pierce left for the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason. Now it will be up to those he mentored to step up in clutch situations. The additions of Jared Dudley and Gary Neal gives the Wizards another set of players with postseason experience, as veteran leadership is key on a young team like this. Rookie Kelly Oubre touted his offensive abilities during the pre-draft process and he will be looking to contribute early on. Keep an eye on the progress of Otto Porter, a former third overall pick who could be poised for a breakout season.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
The Wizards are one of the younger teams that I expect to take the next step this season. I think John Wall is overlooked as being one of the better point guards in the league right now and his ability to play the game and create plays at different speeds is particularly impressive. He’s worked tirelessly on his jump shot and still leaves something to be desired in that regard, but overall, I am happy to see him fulfilling his potential. I could say many of the same things with regards to Bradley Beal, but Otto Porter is the player I am watching most closely this season. After the departure of Paul Pierce, the Wizards will not only need Wall to step up and put into practice many of the lessons that Pierce taught the young group, they will also need Porter to show that his impressive run in last year’s playoffs was no fluke and that he can be an everyday difference maker in the NBA. The Southeast is admittedly tough to predict, but I know the Wizards will be near the top.
3rd Place — Southeast Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal
Yes, All-Star guard John Wall has consistently served as the team’s leading scorer over the years. But shooting guard Bradley Beal has all of the tools necessary to ultimately lead the Wizards’ offensive charge on a nightly basis. Beal possesses limitless range from the perimeter and has greatly improved his ability to create his own shot off the bounce. The biggest obstacle holding Beal back has been his constant run-ins with the injury bug since entering the league. If Beal takes the next step offensively, there’s no reason he couldn’t develop into a solid 19-21 point per game performer.
Top Defensive Player: Committee Approach
Despite the Wizards’ success last season, the team doesn’t have a truly dominant game-changing defender on the roster. John Wall has the athletic tools to be a nightly nuisance, but he’s also burdened with a heavy load of playmaking and scoring responsibilities. Look for the Wizards to get things done defensively as a unit in 2015-16.
Top Playmaker: John Wall
In five seasons in the league, Wall has averaged less than eight assists per game just once. Last season, the guard averaged a career-high 10 assists per night. Part of the reason Wall is so effective is his ability to breakdown defenders on the perimeter, get into the lane and cause opposing defenses havoc. Wall is an elite floor general who has the rare ability to erupt for 20 points on any given night but also has no problem putting his own offense on hold to find teammates for easy buckets.
Top Clutch Player: John Wall
When the game is on the line, the Wizards will place the rock in Wall’s hands to deliver the victory. While the Wizards didn’t win a boatload of games with Wall as the lead dog when he first arrived in the league, the past two seasons have cemented the guard as a legitimate franchise player. As a reminder, being clutch isn’t just about hitting buzzer-beating, highlight-reel shots. It’s about making the right plays at critical times, generating a key steal, recognizing an opponent’s tendency at a crucial moment, knocking down a pivotal free throw or finding an open teammate for a bucket. Wall has consistently demonstrated his ability to handle this type of pressure in the biggest moments.
The Unheralded Player: Jared Dudley
Guys such as Yi Jianlian, Acie Law, Julian Wright, Al Thornton and Sean Williams were all selected before Dudley in the 2007 NBA Draft. All of those guys are no longer in the league. Dudley doesn’t have a sexy game, but the man has staying power and the unique ability to carve out niche roles in whatever environment he suits up in. With over 600 career three-pointers on his resume, boasting a 40 percent accuracy rate from long distance, Dudley will provide the Wizards with plenty of flexibility and floor spacing.
Best New Addition: Jared Dudley
As we stated earlier, the Wizards were extremely quiet this summer adding just Dudley, Gary Neal, Alan Anderson and rookie Kelly Oubre into the fold. Out of this newly acquired supporting cast, Dudley is by far the player who will make the most impact in the rotation this season.
Who We Like
Randy Wittman: The veteran coach began his tenure at the helm in Washington with a woeful 47-84 (.359) record and was placed on the hot seat watch-list by many observers. But Wittman has compiled a 90-74 (.549) record the past two seasons while leading the team to consecutive Eastern Conference Semifinal appearances. Say what you will about his coaching philosophies and stubbornness to adapt to certain principles, Wittman has weathered the storm and has the buy-in of his players.
John Wall: He entered the league with questions about his NBA readiness and whether he could be the face of a franchise. Wall has delivered and has emerged as one of the league’s best floor generals. Now, the question shifts to whether Wall can lead this franchise to true title contention.
Marcin Gortat: Since arriving to Washington, Gortat has missed just one regular season contest, posting averages of 12.7 points and 9.1 rebounds on 54 percent shooting from the floor. Gortat is a nightly double-double threat, blue-collar type who brings his hard hat to work each night.
Bradley Beal: The guard is oozing with potential and also eligible for a max-level contract extension. This could be the season Beal takes a jump much like Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler did during the 2014-15 campaign. An All-Star nod is not out of the question.
Washington finished with the fifth-best defense in the NBA last season, allowing just 100 points per 100 possessions. Also, the Wizards are armed with one of the league’s most explosive backcourts in the game today. Before his career is over, Wall should have a top five MVP finish on his resume and Beal is an All-Star in waiting. There won’t be many nights on the schedule where this duo will be the underdogs in their backcourt matchups. But the question is, can both guys stay healthy long enough to completely maximize their talent?
The lack of depth could come into play if a major wave of injuries hits this roster. The team lost future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce in free agency over the summer and it remains to be seen whether Otto Porter is truly up for the challenge as his replacement. If Porter isn’t ready, his primary backups in that role will be Jared Dudley and Martell Webster, who both have injury issues of their own. The same goes for the team’s interior depth behind Marcin Gortat and Nene. Veterans Drew Gooden, DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries would need to absorb a lot of heavy lifting if there’s an extended absence experienced in the frontline.
The Burning Question
Were the Wizards wrong for banking on internal growth to get this team over the hump?
It’s rather easy to play armchair general manager and question the Wizards’ hesitance on adding more talent to the roster this offseason. But the front office believes a healthy Beal and Wall coupled with the team’s imposing frontline has the potential for significant organic growth. However, concerns about the team’s depth are legitimate in nature. The Wizards undoubtedly have the potential for another run to the second round of the playoffs, but an Eastern Conference Finals bid will be a tough road to navigate.
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.”