Sometime in July, the internet unanimously crowned the Atlanta Hawks as basketball’s newest darlings — everybody’s favorite upstart, League Pass-worthy, fun-as-heck roster that could shock the world and make a postseason bid through high-tempo and athletically electric hoops. Although such claims may, in truth, be premature — at heart, the sport does love a good underdog story and the Hawks have all the trappings of a cult classic, sort of like NFL Odds in NJ.
Basketball Insiders kicked off its annual season previews again this week — and, as always, they’re some of the most comprehensive, detailed looks around. If you missed the grand opening, you can check out the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls already. Later on, our team will tackle the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and everybody else by the time October rolls around.
But, for now, the focus is on Atlanta, Trae Young, John Collins and the pressures of making that next big leap.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Hawks — along with the Pelicans — are the most interesting team in the NBA – to me at least. They had a great second-half of 2018-19 and should see fairly substantial gains given their youth. Trae Young lived up to all of the hype he generated two years ago at Oklahoma and he will continue to dazzle this season. The rest of their starting lineup is incredibly well-rounded and – on paper – fits together almost perfectly. The additions of De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando add significant young talent, while Evan Turner, Alex Len and Jabari Parker add more skilled veterans to the roster. And, of course, the return of Vince Carter guarantees a savvy veteran presence. The Hawks have almost too much depth.
They will continue to struggle as they grow into themselves and learn how to win at the highest of levels. But we should see considerable improvement on the 29 wins they posted in 2018-19. The main challenge for head coach Lloyd Pierce will be managing minutes and keeping his roster happy with playing time, along with the growing expectations.
3rd place – Southeast Division
– Drew Maresca
There’s a lot of expectations being put on the Hawks. Despite a record with only 29 wins, it was the perfect definition of what a developmental season should be. Trae Young started out with some struggles, but ultimately came into his own and worked his magic. When John Collins returned, he was a double-double machine. Aside from DeAndre’ Bembry, those are the only young ones left, as longtime Atlanta favorite Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince were both moved this summer. General manager Travis Schlenk decided to bring in a few veterans to help, in addition to drafting three legitimate rookies in De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando. Lloyd Pierce will continue to excel and mature his roster – and there won’t be a bottom tier finish – but playoffs aren’t quite a given for this writer.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Hawks have one of the highest upside teams in the NBA right now. Trae Young is a budding star. John Collins might be one too. Point guard is probably the toughest position in the league to play and Young has all the tools to be an elite playmaker. Collins has looming potential as an elite defensive player, but he can score the ball as well — especially with Young feeding him the ball. They had a solid draft too, and both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish should get meaningful minutes right away, but development is the key for them this season. They could fight for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, but as long as they show some true growth, that’s all that matters.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Atlanta Hawks had a busy offseason, making too many moves to cover completely in this short blurb. To keep it short, the Hawks added De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, while moving on from Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Deyonta Davis, Jaylen Adams. I like Hunter as a prospect, but I don’t think I would have traded the 17th pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ protected 2020 pick to draft Hunter fourth overall.
However, I did like Atlanta taking Reddish with the 10th overall pick since I think his game is much better suited for the NBA than it is for the college game. I’m not a big fan of the terms of the Jabari Parker contract since the Hawks gave him a player option on the second season. If Parker has a big season and passes on his player options, the Hawks have limited ability to retain him. Having said that, the team continues to add more young talent to an exciting core of prospects and will have a ton of cap flexibility next season.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Hawks have been following the Golden State Warriors’ blueprint for two offseasons now and the results have been pretty solid. The Hawks amassed a ton of assets in taking on bad cap money in order to allow themselves to cash in on draft prospects they strongly liked. This summer, not only did they get two that fit the current roster — but the additions could augment it in a way that gets them seriously in the playoff hunt this year. If Trae Young continues to figure out the NBA game, he could be a borderline All-Star, John Collins is already a borderline All-Star, but adding De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to the squad makes the future looks incredibly bright — bright enough to think maybe the Hawks could win 30 or more games this season. The Hawks are still on the outside looking in, but that might not be the case for long if the young guys gel quickly.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Hawks are the lone team in the NBA with any real cap room, at roughly $7 million (before signing Vince Carter as rumored). Look for Atlanta to shop that cap room in a trade before the season begins, possibly to take on more unwanted salary along with draft considerations as compensation. If not, Atlanta may take that space all the way to the trade deadline.
The team can sign DeAndre’ Bembry and Damian Jones to contract extensions before the start of the season. The team will undoubtedly take the team options on Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter before November. Looking forward to next summer, the Hawks could have up to $80 million in spending power to add to their emerging core.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Trae Young
According to many unfair onlookers, Trae Young was considered called a bust before he ever stepped on the court, mostly due to the hype around Luka Doncic — last year’s eventual, inevitable Rookie of the Year and the phenom that Young was dealt for on draft night. And although Young began slow, he gradually adjusted to the speed of pro-level competition, found his groove and then lit the league on fire. Following the February break, Young looked the part of a future superstar, pulling up from all over behind the arc — his money-maker during that sole stint at Oklahoma the year prior — and even made a late, legitimate push for that aforementioned award.
From Feb. 22 on, Young tallied 20 or more points in 17 of the Hawks’ final 22 contests. All in all, the soon-to-be 21-year-old finished with a promising average of 19.1 points, 8.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game.
Even better, the unwieldy, turnover-prone efforts should happen far less after his first full offseason — but never fear: Young, without question, is an offensive show-stopper with an All-Star-level ceiling.
Top Defensive Player: De’Andre Hunter
Shockingly, the Hawks’ best defensive player already may just be De’Andre Hunter, a 21-year-old, 6-foot-7 do-it-all protector. Unsurprisingly, Atlanta didn’t have a single player in 2018-19 with a standout defensive rating and most of the names high on the list either played very little or are no longer with the team. Jeremy Lin, over 19.7 minutes per game, tallied a defensive rating of 107.7 and now he’s back in China, leaving Vince Carter and DeAndre’ Bembry as the best remaining assets.
So, right, Hunter: He’s an NCAA champion, a former second-team All-American, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in both the ACC and NABC — even better, he should be ready to contribute from day one. Although his counting statistics in both steals and blocks don’t appear noteworthy, Hunter can defend in the paint and on the perimeter, able and willing to switch on screens and stick to his opposition too. For a team that bled points every night and finished with a defensive rating of 113.1 (28th-worst), Hunter is an immediate rotation piece and hopeful game-changer.
If anything, Atlanta can only go upwards from last season — that alone will give Hunter the room to shine once again.
Top Playmaker: Trae Young
Of course, calling Young one of the league’s most-impressive, young playmakers would somehow be a disservice to his penchant for bucket-scoring euphoria. Despite questions surrounding his size and efficiency — and still needing to make major strides in the latter — Young was must-watch television when he got hot. And there may be no better example than one jaw-dropping performance in which Young dropped 49 points and 16 assists on 17-for-33 from the floor and 46.2 percent from deep. A few weeks later, Young tossed 16 assists to just a single turnover; which was also his fifth and final effort with 13 or more dimes during a rookie season that only seemed to rise.
Watching Young can be an infectious activity — with speed to burn and a lightning-fast trigger finger, the ceiling is already tantalizingly grand. Between keeping opposing defenders on skates and finding the open teammate, Young is set to befuddle head coaches for years and years to come. Among all rookies, Young finished second in points and first in assists per game — furthermore, the only players in the entire league that tallied more of the latter last season were an All-Star-worthy trio of Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook.
Top Clutch Player: John Collins
For now, both John Collins and Young will share the throne in this all-important category until somebody can manage to separate themselves this season. Young, although never afraid of the big moment, had bouts of inefficiency and the Hawks trailed so often that his collegiate-level madness couldn’t peak at a consistent rate until the end of the year. But, as mentioned, that springtime star left many with a taste of just how special Young could be someday. Again, when he got hot, there were few players more unguardable than Young.
On 24 different occasions, Young hit three or more three-pointers in a contest. He scored more than 30 points nine times and was the owner of magical moments like this and this. Expand those highlights to those that made him a nation-wide hero as a Sooner and, of course, his clutch gene is undeniable. With gained wisdom, strength and an evolving supporting cast, it’s fair to expect Young to reach (and beat) even more of those high-pressure situations in 2019-20.
But Collins, too, deserves mention as one of the Hawks’ key-building blocks. Thanks to a late surge in popularity, Collins generated some deserved All-Star bid buzz and, thankfully, he should only continue to soar from here. At 21 years old, Collins is an athletic, stretchy forward with all the offensive tools of a future unicorn. The 6-foot-10 high-flyer scored 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, even expanding his three-point range to a reasonably exciting 0.9 makes at a 34.8 percent rate as well. Young’s flashier, deep-range appeal is hard to look past, but Collins’ ability to get a much-needed bucket or contest-clinching exclamation point is not something to sleep on either. Collins may be an All-Star for the next decade or so — and if he provides more moments like this, it’ll be nearly impossible to disagree.
The Unheralded Player: Kevin Huerter
It’s hard to believe that Kevin Huerter might be considered unheralded, but with Young and Collins, deservingly, in the main stage spotlights, here we are. To wit, Huerter owns the much-needed consistency trait that Young must strive to find in year two, plus a fantastic 38.5 percent mark from three-point range. Out of college, the 6-foot-7 first-rounder was pegged as the best three-point shooting threat in the entire class — so far, Huerter has begun to live up to that hype and more already.
Among rookies, Huerter’s 1.8 three-pointers per game were fourth-best, only trailing Landry Shamet, Doncic and Young. On the percentage side of proceedings, it was just Collin Sexton, Alonzo Trier and Shamet to beat him there too. Furthermore, Huerter played in 75 games and notched 12 or more points in 26 of them, topping out with a magnificent, red-hot January performance of 29 points on 5-for-8 from three-point range. Even as a 21-year-old, Huerter has proven early that he’s a shoulder worth leaning on. Comparing him to Klay Thompson is perhaps a bit too easy — since, duh, Thompson is a three-time champion, one of the greatest three-point shooters of all-time and a member of the All-Defensive Second Team currently — but Huerter has shown promise as a perimeter defender as well. As Kyler pointed out above, the Hawks have adopted the Warriors’ team-building blueprints and Huerter looks like a strong fit in that sense.
For a team that desperately needs playmakers on the defensive end, Huerter’s 6-foot-8 wingspan will make him a steady, reliable cog — if not much, much more — for years to come. If Young and Collins are the compelling forces of potential stardom, Huerter may just be the secret sauce that’ll keep it all together.
Best New Addition: De’Andre Hunter
Quickly, the focus returns to the aforementioned De’Andre Hunter, who has a special opportunity to be a ready-to-go, NBA-made contributor from day one. Over his four seasons at Virginia — capped off with a net-cutting championship last spring — Hunter became collegiate basketball’s best man-to-man defender. If that talent transfers over to the infinitely faster NBA — and it should, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound force is already 21 — then Hunter is a dose of medicine the Hawks badly need.
Last season, Atlanta owned a nearly passable offensive unit — although the league-wide rank says differently — but with Young, Huerter, Collins and others involved, that should come as no surprise. Unfortunately, the defense was beyond cataclysmic. With that downright bad rating of 113.1, the 28th-ranked squad just leaked points in every possible way at nearly every possible opportunity. Hunter can’t solve all those questions immediately, but he’ll surely help push Atlanta up toward the middle of the pack, a reasonable goal that will go far in their efforts to make the playoffs in a weaker conference. Scroll back up if you’ve already forgotten his laundry-list of collegiate honors and Hunter can flat-out defend, a trait that forced the Hawks’ hands early on in the draft.
With the other-Cavaliers, Hunter averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds on 43.8 percent from three-point range, while his size and strength should allow him to guard three positions at the professional level. During the National Championship, Hunter exploded for 27 points on 8-for-16 and thrived on the sport’s biggest stage and brightest moment. Given their imminent offensive firepower, Hunter will be concentrated mainly on shutting down the opposition’s best player — but if his collegiate resume is any indication, it won’t be long before he’s an impact player in the NBA either.
– Ben Nadeau
Who We Like
1. Allen Crabbe + Evan Turner
Clearly, the Hawks are a roster fully run by their up-and-coming youngsters — but the veterans are no slouches either. Allen Crabbe — acquired in a pre-draft move for Taurean Prince — was hurt for much of last season, but he’s the owner of multiple three-point seasons with a percentage over 37 or better — three to be exact. If he’s healthy, Crabbe will have plenty of room to let fly in Atlanta’s fast-trigger, high-scoring offense. Additionally, Evan Turner, a former teammate of Crabbe’s in Portland, has been maligned in recent years for his bloated contract, but he’ll be fine fit — 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 2018-19 — as the Hawks’ second-unit leader and floor general.
3. Chandler Parsons
Chandler Parsons is around and kicking too following his midsummer move from Memphis. Parsons, now 30, hasn’t played more than 35 games since 2015-16, but the massive deal that’ll pay him $25 million this season is set to expire next summer — so the once-uber-promising shooter will have something to prove. Giving Parsons the classic if-healthy caveat is a dangerous game — if not completely naive at this point — but we’re willing to take a final spin on the Parsons Express.
4. Vince Carter
Vince Carter, perhaps surprisingly, is returning to Atlanta for another ride this season, ready to play consistent minutes and mentor the cornerstones rather than receive spot minutes for a contender. Many playoff-ready rosters were interested in Carters’ services in July, but the will-be 22-year veteran remains in his stewardship role — a position that many, many young Hawks appreciated all year long. He’s no longer Half-Man, Half-Amazing but Carter is an important part of Atlanta’s culture and fabric, so he belongs here as much as anybody else.
5. Bruno Fernando
Cam Reddish will likely struggle as a raw, slender 20-year-old — but another rookie, former Terrapin Bruno Fernando, offers an intriguing look at the Hawks’ long-term plans at center. Albeit inconsistent, Fernando frequently put up lottery-worthy efforts over two years at Maryland — instead, the Hawks snagged him at No. 34 overall. At 6-foot-10, Fernando is another rim-protecting diamond in the rough that averaged 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks over 34 contests last season. After losing Dewayne Dedmon to the Kings this summer, Fernando is a beyond interesting watch off the bench.
– Ben Nadeau
As mentioned, the Hawks haven’t struggled to score in a hot minute — that’s never been in doubt. Although the offensive rating, likely affected by the porous defense, was unspectacular, it was head coach Lloyd Pierce’s first year on the job, flanked by impressive, but raw, talents. The Hawks’ 113.3 points per game were the 13th-highest mark in the league and their warp-speed pace of 104.56 was the fastest of any in 2018-19. Led by Young and Huerter’s combined total of 11.7 three-pointers per game, the Hawks finished in the top five in both attempts (37, third-highest) and total conversations (16.1 made, fourth-best).
In points off turnovers, the Atlanta did well too, notching a serviceable 17 points per game, 11th-highest last season — they, too, finished in the same spot for steals league-wide at 8.2 during every contest. Adding Hunter to the mix should only improve the roster in that regard and, for a team headed by four sub-22-year-olds, it’s an impressive feat no matter how you slice it.
Given the assumed progression by cornerstones like Young, Collins and Huerter — and no major offensive departures this offseason — the Hawks should continue to do just fine there again.
– Ben Nadeau
Before diving into the defensive-related worries, the turnovers were a result-plaguing issue for the Hawks too. At 17 turnovers per game, the Atlanta Hawks led the league in giveaways in 2018-19, handily beating out second-placed Los Angeles too.
Given Young’s high-usage for a rookie point guard, it’s not fair to tag him with all of the sloppy blame — but it was a concern for him out of Oklahoma as well. Naturally, those tasked with both scoring and playmaking for others will often have higher-than-usual totals — see: Russell Westbrook. However, Young tossed away four or more turnovers 42 times as a first-year professional. Worse, he reached the six-turnover plateau — with a season-high of nine — in 18 of those contests.
Only James Harden, Devin Booker and Westbrook averaged more turnovers than Young last season — two of whom are recent MVPs and certain Hall of Famers — and he struggled frequently with it in Division-I two years ago. There are great odds that his tallies, as he matures and bulks up, will subside, but it’s a clear weak spot in an otherwise promising offense.
Defensively, they’ve got plenty of room to improve, especially with Hunter now in tow. The Hawks allowed the third-most three-pointers per game at 12.4 during 2018-19 and opponents put up 49.3 points in the paint as well, meaning that they were getting scored on from just about everywhere. Atlanta’s defensive rating — as a reminder: 113.8, 28th-worst — couldn’t stop a chair from scoring on most nights and were only beat out in futility by the Suns and Cavaliers.
If they truly aspire to be a postseason-bound squad, that’ll have to improve on defense in a hurry.
– Ben Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Atlanta Hawks make the playoffs in 2019-20?
Well, probably not.
Still, even being in the hypothetical conversation is worth some points on merit alone. Thanks to some savvy front office transactions, promising up-and-comers and a modern, practical NBA offense, the Hawks are closer to that goal than ever. Even if they don’t end up in a final Eastern Conference playoff spot, reaching the ninth or tenth slot on the ladder would be a welcomed improvement. Bye-bye to the cellar, most certainly, if that’s an adequate consolation prize too.
They’ll remain exciting. Young will continue to get terrifyingly-hot and unrelentingly cold. Collins will keep reaching for rim-rattling stardom and Huerter will be the glue that makes the whole train rolling on — regardless, as of now, it’s a major ask for extra springtime games. Give Reddish, Fernando and Hunter a year to fully find their footing, let Young chop those turnover numbers in half and give Collins the freedom to do whatever he wants — then the race for the postseason will truly be on.
Ultimately, the defense will doom far too many of the Hawks’ strong offensive performances to make this question any more than wishful thinking in September. But there’s nothing that we all love more than a good story and Atlanta owns the makings of one. Come the All-Star break, or maybe even earlier, it’ll be easy to tell if the Hawks are on the cusp of breaking through or if some patience needs to be afforded.
Either way, transforming a cellar-dweller doesn’t happen overnight — however, it’s never been more obvious that the Hawks are on the right path back.
– Ben Nadeau
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.”
NBA Daily: Alex Caruso: The Lakers’ Unsung Hero
The Los Angeles Lakers are two wins from an NBA championship and Alex Caruso is just happy to play his role and contribute.
Alex Caruso has technically been an NBA player for three years now, but this season is his first on a regular NBA contract.
After going undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, he began his professional career as with the Philadelphia 76ers in summer league. He managed to make it to training camp with the Oklahoma City Thunder but was eventually cut and acquired by their the G League team, the Blue.
In the summer of 2017, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers for summer league, and he’s stuck with the team ever since. A strong performance in Las Vegas earned him the opportunity to sign a two-way contract with the Lakers for the 2017-18 season, meaning he’d spend most of his time with the South Bay Lakers in the G League.
The Lakers re-signed him to another two-way contract before the 2018-19 season. Restricted to only 45 days with the Lakers under his two-way contracts, Caruso played in a total of 62 games over those two years.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that the Lakers finally signed him to a standard NBA contract worth $5.5 million over two years. And he’s become a key player off the Lakers bench, especially in the playoffs.
Despite not getting much of an early opportunity, Caruso continued to put in the work in anticipation of when his number would finally be called. He always was confident that it would come.
“It’s been the story of my career, no matter what level I’m at, the more time I have on the court, the better I’ve gotten,” Caruso told reporters after the Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity, I was two years on two-ways…finally I played well enough to get a contract, and over the course of the year it’s the same thing, anytime I can get out there on the court, I get better.”
Caruso’s stats may not jump off the page, he put up 5.5 points per game this season on only 41.2 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range, 1.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds, but his impact has gone far beyond statistics.
His playoff numbers are up slightly at 6.8 points on 43.6 percent shooting to go along with 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds, but he’s become an invaluable member of the team’s postseason run. The defensive intensity and energy he brings to the court have been instrumental in playoff wins.
In this postseason alone, he’s seen himself matched up defensively with Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and one of the bubble’s breakout stars in Jamal Murray. Each time, he hasn’t backed down from the challenge and has even provided solid man to man defense on each of them.
“Looking and diving into the basketball aspect, series by series, just finding different ways that I know I can be effective, watching past games against opponents, just knowing their tendencies,” Caruso said on a recent media call. “The defense and the effort thing is something I’m always going to have. You can see that in the regular season when I might be more excited on a stop or defensive play on somebody than the rest of the team in game 45 or 50 in the season.”
While his main contributions have been his defense and his hustle, he’s found ways to be effective on the offensive end as well. While not shooting particularly well from three-point range percentage-wise in the playoffs at only 26.9 percent, he’s hit some timely ones during Laker runs to either pull closer to their opponent or to blow the game open.
He’s also been able to get the rim off drives and get himself to the free-throw line, and he’s made strong cuts off the ball to free himself up for easy layups. Playing with the second unit, he’s played a lot of off-ball with Rajon Rondo as the main facilitator, or with LeBron James as the only starter on the floor.
“For me, I think it’s about being aggressive. At any time I can put pressure on the paint whether it’s to get to the rim to finish or to draw fouls or make the defense collapse and get open shots for teammates, that’s really an added benefit for us to have multiple guys out on the court,” Caruso said.
“So whenever I’m out there with Rondo or with LeBron, to not have the sole focus be on one of them to create offense for everybody, it makes us a lot more balanced.”
The trust that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel and the rest of the team have in Caruso has been evident this whole postseason. Perhaps no bigger moment came for him than in Game 6 against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals when Vogel left him on the court to close out the game.
He’s also become one of the team’s vocal leaders on the court during gameplay, on the sidelines in the huddle and the locker room. On a team with a lot of strong personalities, Caruso’s ascendance as a locker room leader is something that just comes naturally for him. It’s something he’s done his entire basketball career.
“Being vocal has always been easy for me. Outside of this team, I’ve usually been one of the leaders on the team, one of the best players on my team growing up at different levels of basketball. Being vocal is pretty natural for me,” Caruso said.
“I got the trust of my teammates, they understand what I’m talking about. I say what I need to say and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. I’m really competitive and if there’s something I think needs to be said, I’m going to do it. I leave no stone unturned to get the job done.”
Now in the NBA Finals, as the Lakers seek to win their first championship since 2010 and No. 17 overall, Caruso has reprised his role as a defensive irritant and glue guy who makes winning plays. For the team to win this series, they need to continue to get timely contributions from him.
And with each step of the way, he’s just soaking it all up and is thrilled to be able to have this opportunity alongside some of the NBA’s best.
“It’s a journey I’ve been on my whole life just to get to this point. It’s really cool, I don’t know how to state it other than that,” Caruso said. “It’s just super cool for me to be able to have this experience. To play meaningful minutes and play well, and be on the court with LeBron in big-time moments.”