The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the talk of the town in the Eastern Conference. The King has left his post for a venture westward and the organization he was the face of is now on its own.
With a mixture of veterans and inexperience, it’s going to be a roller coaster season for the wine and gold, but they’ll be better prepared this time around for the departure of LeBron James.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Losing LeBron James is a tough blow (obviously) but there are still enough solid players on Cleveland’s roster to compete for a playoff seed this season. The main question is whether Kevin Love can recapture his superstar form from years ago when he was playing in Minnesota. It has been a while since Love was the go-to player on a team, so only time will tell if he is able to lead this team to the playoffs. The Cavaliers will also try to get more production out of players like Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and George Hill. These guys can produce but were inconsistent last season. My focus will be on the play of Collin Sexton, whom the Cavaliers drafted eighth overall in this year’s draft. Sexton has the attitude and talent to be a quality point guard and could be a nice sparkplug for the Cavaliers this season.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It’s hard to pinpoint which direction Cleveland is going. They actually did a pretty solid job this summer outside of losing the best basketball player of this generation. Drafting Collin Sexton, extending Kevin Love and adding under-the-radar players such as Sam Dekker and David Nwaba were sensible decisions. Sad to say, their current roster is now only good enough to be conversation for one of the lower seeds in the east. That may not be the best idea since they owe Atlanta a top-10 protected first-rounder this year. Still, there should be plenty of interesting storylines for them this year, which include how well they perform post-LeBron (again), how good of a coach Tyronn Lue really is, and what they have in Sexton.
4th Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Much more prepared for the second time LeBron James left the franchise, the wine and gold are poised to create a team-first environment with a healthy culture in the building. Kevin Love will have to take the reigns and Rodney Hood will be heavily depended on to put the ball in the basket. Larry Nance Jr. is going to be tasked with protecting the paint. Player development is going to be the sole focus, but winning is an absolute priority for the Cavaliers. Eighth overall pick Collin Sexton will have the chance to showcase his skills right away with plenty of young talent surrounding him. They’re not looking to tank as some speculated they would post-LeBron, so we’ll see if it pays off. Considering the Eastern Conference is wide open, there’s still a chance they could sneak into the playoffs.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
In their second go-round after losing LeBron James in free agency, there’s definitely hope in Cleveland that things won’t go quite so poorly for the Cavs. Last time, as many will recall, they went from the league’s best record to its worst in just a single season when The King departed. This time? There’s even playoff hope still abound in Cleveland, though whether it’s realistic or not is up for debate. Much of those hopes rest on Kevin Love, who is now armed with a new extension that’ll keep him paid through 2023. Many forget that Love was once a perennial All-Star and considered a borderline top-five player in the NBA in his Minnesota days – does he still have that level of play left in him as the lead dog? The Cavs still have solid shooting in Love, George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and others, but there are real concerns about whether this roster will have enough playmaking or defense to make any noise. Still, the relative weakness of the East makes a playoff appearance possible.
4th Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Cavaliers are going to take a huge step backward, that’s not news or shocking, but to think the Cavs will fall off the map might be misplaced. Kevin Love is an All-Star, and he still has a lot of proven guys around him. The Cavs draft pick, Collin Sexton, should get all the opportunity to be the next guy and has star potential and Ty Lue is a good player-centric coach. The 8th seed isn’t out of the question for the Cavs, and that’s not bad for a team that lost its franchise player for nothing in return.
4th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love
The five-time All-Star forward is going to have his hands full. There is no LeBron anymore. There is no Kyrie Irving anymore. Ironically, he is the last man standing out of the former big three and just signed a long-term deal this summer to be “the man” in Cleveland.
For years, basketball fans have been begging to see Love return to the same player as he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. This season, he has the opportunity to become that dominant force once again. We all know he’s a double-double machine who can stretch the floor and crash the glass, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the Cavaliers establish him on the block more often.
According to NBA.com, on a minimum of three possessions per game, Love had the sixth-lowest frequency, yet scored 0.98 points per possession in post-up situations. Only Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge were ranked above him in PPP. Last year’s offense was full of isolation and drive-and-kicks, leaving little opportunity for the 30-year-old big man to work down low.
He’s coming off his best perimeter-shooting season since 2010-11, too. It might take a few games to get re-acquainted to being the go-to guy without LeBron there, but Love will now have the chance to remind everyone that he is one of the most forceful inside-outside threats in the league.
Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.
The 2017-18 Cavaliers were an abysmal defensive team. Whether it was a veteran-heavy roster failing to get their legs under them, poor effort, flawed schemes or too much miscommunication on switches—it was not pretty.
With that said, there was a small silver lining in that ugliness, and it was Nance Jr. From challenging bigs at the rim to moving his feet and making it tough on guards, he immediately made an impact as a versatile defender when healthy. Per Cleaning The Glass, with Nance Jr. off the court, Cleveland allowed 9.9 points per 100 possessions more. Opponents’ effective field goal percentage also increased by 4.5 percent as well.
Entering his second season with the wine and gold, Nance Jr. is going to play a huge role in forcing turnovers and making it hard on his assignments. The more floor time he receives, the better he will get.
Top Playmaker: Collin Sexton
A label held by LeBron for the past four years will be taken over by a rookie. There is no replacing the best player in the world in any way, shape or form. It’s all about creating a new star, and that’s what the Cavaliers are planning on doing with Sexton.
You will find no shortage of confidence or explosiveness watching the Alabama alum play the game. Not to use NBA Summer League as the best of examples, but just go back and look at his body language during that tournament, especially against Josh Hart and the Los Angeles Lakers. He is a surefire competitor, which is exactly why Cleveland selected him with the eighth overall draft pick.
He’s able to make things happen for both his teammates and himself. Sexton can change speeds quickly and get to the rim with conviction, pass on the drive and kick and get out in transition. Getting used to the speed of the NBA level will take some adjusting, as will playing with new teammates and learning their tendencies, but the man dubbed “Young Bull” is poised to have a breakout debut year.
Top Clutch Player: Kyle Korver
Who takes the big shot at the end? Who gets the big stop? Who makes the game-altering pass? All of these questions were answered with “LeBron” in the snap of a finger before. The question now is who will assume that responsibility.
At the moment, it’s a collective team effort. One night it could be Love, another it could be Sexton. Maybe Rodney Hood even gets the ball from time-to-time in a late-game situation. The point is, we don’t know the answer quite yet.
Purely based on who had the second-highest net rating in clutch situations to LeBron in a minimum of 30 games played in crunch time, Korver gets the nod here. The veteran sharpshooter’s offensive rating and true shooting percentage were both the highest on Cleveland as well. If you get the 37-year-old the ball on the outside, he’ll likely knock down a big bucket.
The Unheralded Player: Cedi Osman
When you look at the Turkish swingman’s statistics from last year, you’ll probably question what the fuss is all about and why he is getting invited to private workouts with the likes of LeBron, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Here’s why: He has the desire to play the game the right way.
Osman is only 23 years old. He already has the potential to be the perfect glue guy in his second season at the NBA level. Something about his game just provides a spark. It might be the energy he brings to the floor, or maybe it has to do with how aggressive he is on both sides of the boards.
Playing for his country in FIBA, there’s already been an improvement with his jump shot. He’s been drilling threes, specifically on off-the-dribble and pull-up attempts. Remember, he did work with Korver last season often. Maybe the veteran’s pointers will pay off for Osman.
Best New Addition: Collin Sexton
Cleveland desperately needed to add a playmaker to the roster. They severely missed that last year without Kyrie Irving. The 19-year-old rookie is going to have his ups and downs, but more importantly, he’ll be fun to watch develop. Learning under a veteran like George Hill could do him some good, regardless of whether or not the seasoned guard finishes the year out there.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Rodney Hood
It was a difficult second half for Hood last year. Being traded to the Cavaliers at the deadline, some thought he could just fit right in and score 17 points per game as he did with the Utah Jazz. But unfortunately, the league isn’t a 2K simulation where teams can just plug and play with no issues. It took time for him to learn to play off LeBron. His usage was down nearly 10 percent as well. Year two in The Land should allow him to get back to his usual confident self. Tyronn Lue thinks the world of him, so we’ll likely be seeing a lot of trust put into Hood.
2. David Nwaba
On a one-year deal, Nwaba is looking to prove he’s worth a bigger deal in the long term. He’s only going into his third season, but since making waves a couple of years ago in the Lakers’ G-League system and on the big club, he’s been scratching and clawing his way up. He started over 20 of the 70 games he played in for the Chicago Bulls in 2017-18. He’ll likely play a key role in the second unit., but the more playing time he’s gotten, the better the production has been. Nwaba has athleticism through the roof and is already one of the top defenders on the Cavaliers.
3. Channing Frye
Frye is a fan-favorite and an important part of the team culture Cleveland is aiming to instill in the locker room. He’s the perfect person to loosen things up if they get tense, almost like a player-coach type. On the floor, he’s still going to provide valuable production offensively as a knockdown shooter. Off of it, he’ll be a mentor to his younger teammates and a calming presence to the others. That’ll be necessary for an up-and-down season.
4. Tyronn Lue
With no LeBron around, we’re going to really see what Lue is made of. There were plenty of detractors last season due to the rotations he played and the way he managed minutes. Here’s his shot at proving the doubters wrong. Losing the four-time NBA MVP is going to make life harder on everybody in the franchise, but there’s a free range of what to do with this team now. Versatility and youth are available to him now like they never have been before. The pressure has been lifted a bit with the expectations tampered down a bit. It’s time to see if Lue can walk the walk.
– Spencer Davies
The Cavaliers finally have a chance to focus on the long-term, while addressing the now. General manager Koby Altman said it himself: This organization is getting back in the player development business. With the moves they made over the offseason, that couldn’t be clearer. Players who haven’t gotten too many opportunities—Sam Dekker, Isaiah Taylor, Kobi Simmons, Nwaba—are going to have a chance to show the coaching staff what they’re made of in training camp. The youth movement started early at the deadline last season with the acquisitions of Jordan Clarkson, Hood and Nance Jr. It’s full speed ahead now.
– Spencer Davies
This team lost its best scorer, its best playmaker, its best clutch option—pretty much all of the above. Filling the void of LeBron is impossible. In one year without him, it’s not going to be pretty at times. Depending on who is starting these games, you’re going to see errors and mistakes you haven’t seen in a while with the Cavaliers. They’ll show flashes of what they can become in due time, but for the most part, there will be plenty of teaching moments. It’s not going to happen overnight. Everybody involved probably knows, but we’ll see what the reaction is once things are set in motion.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
What is the plan with these veterans and their contracts?
Cleveland has a tall task ahead of them when it comes to shedding salary. We can start off with the $19 million contract of George Hill, followed by the $14.72 million that J.R. Smith is making this season. Both of these veteran guards do not have guaranteed big money next season, though, if waived in the summer of 2019. Only $1 million of Hill’s deal is guaranteed until July 1 and $3.7 million of Smith’s deal is guaranteed until June 30, respectively. If these two are waived before said dates, a team would not be on the hook for the last season of their contracts (Hill at $18 million, Smith at $15.68 million). Because of that, those two players would likely be easier to move for the Cavaliers than Tristan Thompson, who has two fully guaranteed years left on the deal he signed before the 2015 season.
Considering the shift in direction that the franchise has made, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if at least two of these three were moved in the future. Whether that’s mid-season, at the trade deadline or next offseason, we’ll have to wait and see.
– Spencer Davies
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.”