Despite missing out on the latest installment of the NBA playoffs, there is almost too much to like about this Denver squad. It’s easy to forget about their lack of defense when you realize just how explosive they are offensively. Throw in the fact that they are one of the younger teams in the league and it becomes clear why so many people are high on their potential.
An important thing to note with this Nuggets squad: they barely missed out on the postseason last year. I can’t put enough emphasis on the word barely. Not only did a trip to the playoffs come down to the last game of the season (the Nuggets played the Minnesota Timberwolves with the winner moving on), but a win could’ve vaulted the Nuggets up much higher than just the 8th seed. That’s how close the Western conference playoff race was. Obviously, the Nuggets lost, missed out on the postseason and found themselves yet again in the lottery. But the future for this young core has never been brighter. Let’s take a look at this year’s edition of the Denver Nuggets.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Denver Nuggets are not going to be the NBA’s best defensive team next season, but their offense should be quite potent. The Nuggets didn’t add make any major changes this offseason, though Isaiah Thomas could be a difference-maker if he is at least relatively healthy. Assuming players like Paul Millsap can avoid the injury bug as well, Denver should be considered a playoff contender as we approach opening night. This is especially true when you consider that some of Denver’s key players, like Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are still young and improving. However, while I like the talent on this team and think their offense will be a matcup problem for most opponents, their defense will likely be an Achilles heel. Players like Jokic and Murray are not impact players on defense and are often targeted by opponents. If Denver can put together a league average defense, I think they have a good shot of making the playoffs.
4th Place – Northwest Division
The Nuggets didn’t make sweeping changes to any of the primary players on their roster this summer, but that hasn’t stopped some pundits from predicting big things for them in 2018-19. After missing the playoffs by just a game last year, the Nuggets will bring back much of the same crew – only with hopes for a full season of health from Paul Millsap, a potential small boost from signee Isaiah Thomas, and most importantly, some solid development from young pieces like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Denver has one of the league’s most potent offenses when Jokic is on the floor, and while they’ve struggled at times on the other end, they may only have to approach league average here to rack up a ton of wins if everyone stays healthy. At the same time, it’s unlikely they’ll break into a true tier of contention until the defensive side of the ball gets a bit more attention.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
Oh, what this team could do! Before Paul Millsap’s wrist injury undid everything last season, the bar for the Nuggets was set at the playoffs. Now he’ll be back fully healthy. On top of that, Denver’s summer can be summarized in two hyphenated words: “Low-risk” and “high-reward.” They took Michael Porter Jr with the 14th pick after many believed he could have been top-three in a loaded draft. Then they signed Isaiah Thomas, who’s only one year past his MVP candidacy. So much could go right for Denver this season that it’s actually kind of scary to think of their potential. With all they’ve accumulated, Denver has to feel good about their chances.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
One of the strongest young cores in basketball resides in the Mile High City. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris Jr. have continued to develop into a significantly productive backcourt tandem. Nikola Jokic heads into his fourth year with plenty of hype surrounding him. There’s a nice veteran presence in Paul Millsap, who can truly making an impact if he stays healthy for the majority of 2017-18. A bench featuring Isaiah Thomas, Will Barton and Trey Lyles will provide plenty of scoring as well. The Nuggets fell one game short of making the NBA playoffs last season. Mike Malone’s talented bunch won’t be missing out this time around.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
If you look at the West in an unbiased way, it’s fair to say all five teams in the Northwest could make the postseason. The division is that good. For Denver specifically, how can you not like their roster? Nikola Jokic might be the best “every category” player in basketball and he’s really just finding his way. The Nuggets’ roster is just loaded, so beyond injury, the Nuggets should be a playoff team at worst, and at best could win 45-50 games. The West is going to be brutally tough, so its not a given for anyone, but one this is as close to a lock as they come, the Nuggets look like a formidable cover every night.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic
Sure, there are multiple guards on this roster that could claim this spot. But Jokic not only averaged the most points per game (18.5), he did so with the highest efficiency. He led the team in both three-point percentage (39.6) and true shooting percentage (60.3). He also led the team in assists, assist percentage, and usage. Did we mention he plays center?
Jokic is one of those “eye-test” players that doesn’t really come off as elite to the casual fan. But make no mistake, this guy can play basketball. He just got inked to a nice, big contract. He’s only 23 years old. He’s improved his per-game points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks numbers in each of his three years in the league. Few players have done this in the league’s history.
Top Defensive Player: Paul Millsap
If there is one thing Denver has struggled with, it is their defense. Whether it’s personnel, coaching, or a combination of both, they’ve been one of the worst rated teams in the league on that end of the floor. Paul Millsap has been one of the better defenders on this roster. Standing at 6-foot-8, his elite wingspan at 7-foot-2 allows him to guard players taller than him, yet his quickness helps him stick with more athletic guards on switches. He boasts the second highest block percentage on the roster at 37.6 percent.
Another thing to note, when Millsap is on the floor, the team boasts their lowest defensive rating of 107.1. When off, it goes up to 109.5.
Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic
This was an easy choice. Although he plays the five, the offense essentially runs through Jokic. Like I mentioned previously, he leads the team in assists per game at 6.1. As impressive as it is to lead the team in assists at center, it’s very easy to see why. Jokic has a natural feel for the game and can fit passes into pockets that most wouldn’t even think about. His high offensive IQ allows him to facilitate the ball whether it’s from the top of the key, or down by the rim. He had mild success playing alongside Jusuf Nurkic a few seasons ago, but we really saw his playmaking abilities flourish as soon as he was placed next to a true stretch four in Paul Millsap.
Top Clutch Player: Paul Millsap
Although his sample size wasn’t as large as other players on the team in clutch minutes, thanks in part to missing extended time with a wrist injury, Millsap is the clear choice for this spot. Considering the fact that “clutch” minutes are the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five, no one played more clutch minutes per game than Millsap. He remained on the floor thanks in part to his veteran presence. He averaged the most clutch points, had the second highest field goal percentage and the highest plus-minus out of anyone who played in more than 10 clutch games.
He led the previous year’s edition of the Atlanta Hawks in clutch points as well, so this isn’t anything new for him. As the season goes on, look at a few younger guards to potentially take this position, but entering the season it’s clear Millsap is the best option with the game on the line.
The Unheralded Player: Gary Harris
No player on this roster has quietly improved his game the way Gary Harris has. Arguably the best shooter on the roster, he’s also developed into an above-average wing defender, and an efficient scorer from almost anywhere on the court. He finished last season with a deadly clip of 39.6 percent from three. He averaged 17.5 points per game, his highest mark to date. He turned in 1.8 steals per night as well, also a career high.
On a team that is so explosive offensively, yet lacking on the defensive end of the court, Harris is a player that stands out. Not only is he a main contributor on the offensive end, he does plenty on defense as well. The Nuggets have a positive 3.2 net rating with him on the court and a negative 2.6 rating with him off.
Best New Addition: Isaiah Thomas
There is not a single player in the NBA that has had a rougher go than Isaiah Thomas in the last few years. He played highly admirable basketball in Boston, got dealt to Cleveland while he was trying to overcome an injury, and ultimately ended up with the Lakers after another string of trades. His season there had its ups and downs, but he wasn’t really a part of the Lakers’ future. After signing with Denver in the offseason, he’ll look to get his career back on the right track.
Thomas certainly will not help Denver on the defensive side of the ball, as his sheer size essentially hinders any success on that end, but he’s only two seasons removed from one of the better offensive seasons in recent memory. His final year with Boston, he averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, with an effective field goal percentage of 54.6. If Thomas can get back to that kind of production, he’ll make an already impressive offense even better.
– Jordan Hicks
WHO WE LIKE
1 – Jamal Murray
Murray didn’t get any mentions above, but could essentially find himself in each of the aforementioned categories. It was clear the Nuggets viewed him as the point guard moving forward after dealing Emmanuel Mudiay to the Knicks. In just his second year in the league, he started in all but two games and played in all but one, averaging 16.7 points on 45.1 percent shooting, and 3.4 assists. He has incredible range from beyond the arc, and is a superb free throw shooter, finishing last season at 90.3 percent.
2 – Michael Porter Jr.
Once considered the top high school prospect in the country, a back injury caused him to miss almost his entire college season. He still entered the draft, and luckily for the Nuggets slid all the way to No. 14. Boasting a combination of elite size, skill, and athleticism, Porter Jr. could be the next big star. The only unknown currently is his expected return date, as he opted for a second back surgery not long after this year’s draft. If he can return this season, he’ll likely add instant help off the bench. But that’s a big if. When healthy, there’s no doubt Porter Jr. will contribute, but it may not be this season.
3 – Nikola Jokic
Much can be (and already has been) said about this big man. An interesting rhetoric that surrounds this team is whether or not the Nuggets can actually win a championship with Jokic at the five. He’s slow, not overly athletic, and certainly doesn’t look like an elite basketball player. But the numbers don’t lie. When he is on the court, this team is better. He has the highest net rating differential on the team at 9.9.
He got paid a lot of money this offseason, and many people are arguing that his contract is too much. Only time will tell if his on-court production is worth his max contract, but one thing’s for certain: This Nuggets team is considerably better with him on the court.
4 – Trey Lyles
Many would argue that the Utah Jazz got the better end of this trade. They gave up their 24th pick in the draft and Trey Lyles for Donovan Mitchell. We all witnessed the season Mitchell put together and no one would say the Jazz were stupid to give up Lyles. What isn’t getting enough attention is how well Lyles played in the absence of Paul Millsap. During this stretch of a little over two months, Lyles average 13 points and six boards off the bench. He did so shooting 49.8 percent from the field, and 40.1 percent from three. In Millsap’s absence, Lyles was essentially the sixth man for the squad and performed under that title commendably. In that same span he also had the fourth lowest defensive rating, something Lyles had struggled with “effort-wise” earlier in his young career.
– Jordan Hicks
One word: offense. This team can flat out score. They have the personnel to do so at the rim, from mid-range, and most definitely from three. They finished sixth last season in points per game and 5th in assists per game. Adding Isaiah Thomas to this squad will only bolster their bench’s ability to get buckets.
Another really important attribute that this team possesses is continuity. Their core four players of Millsap, Harris, Jokic, and Murray all have one season of playing together. Take out Millsap and they have two full seasons. Add in another key player like Will Barton and you can go back even further. This team clearly has chemistry on the court, and that is an absolute plus.
– Jordan Hicks
One word: defense. The Nuggets finished 26th in defensive rating, 22nd in opponents points per game, and dead last in opponent field goal percentage. They struggle mightily at protecting the rim. Jokic is better at defense than most people assume, but rim protection isn’t his strong suit. During the offseason the Nuggets seemed to have gone all out on offense, adding Isaiah Thomas. He clearly isn’t going to help the team defensively, so it appears that the Nuggets will continue to try and hide their poor defense with an even better offense.
– Jordan Hicks
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Denver’s strategy of focusing more on offense and less on defense get them to the playoffs?
This question ultimately depends on how well they do offensively this season. They have an arsenal of players that can score, create, and do a little of both. They do not have an arsenal of players that can defend.
Obviously, winning a basketball game comes down to scoring more points than the other team. If the Nuggets can do this night in and night out then they will win games. The issue falls on them being able to perform well, on a consistent basis. There are many teams in the league that can win games both on offense and on defense. The Nuggets’ success this year will rely heavily on their ability to put the basketball through the hoop. Place extra emphasis on the words rely heavily. Are they good enough to do that? The answer is probably, yes. But only time will tell if they are actually able to.
– Jordan Hicks
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.”