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NBA Daily: 50 Predictions Revisited From The 2018-19 Season

In October 2018, Drew Maresca made 50 predictions before the NBA season. Now, he’s back to lament his poor foresight by taking a look at the results.

Drew Maresca

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August is traditionally a quieter sports month, especially as it relates to basketball news. So what better time to revisit our 50 Predictions piece from 2018-19 than right now? While we typically review our predictions in late June, we decided to wait a bit longer this season in order to have a complete picture of 2019 free agency, trades, etc.

Back in October, my fellow Insiders and I made a number of predictions about the NBA season and the surprises it had in store for us. This was my first year taking over the Predictions piece from the great Joel Brigham. Having spoken with Joel, I was aware that this process would be humbling – I didn’t realize the extent to which it would be, though.

Unfortunately, narratives and rumors permeate all of our thought processes. Thus, some of these predictions were entirely my own and some were influenced by talking heads – my colleagues included – like many of the falsehoods about Anthony Davis’ all-time great 2018-19 season. But fear not, I will be better in this regard come 2019-20.

Some of my predictions were spot on – albeit not too many – and others are laughable. Either way, please read on and enjoy everything that follows – most of which will be at my expense. And now, without further ado, here are my 50 predictions for the 2018-19 NBA season, revisited:

Award Predictions:

  1. Anthony Davis will be the 2018-19 MVP – Incorrect. And I wasn’t even really that close as he didn’t even finish in the top 10. Still, I stand by this pick. He was a popular pre-season selection. Unfortunately, Giannis Antetokounmpo was the other popular pick. And he won.
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo will win Defensive Player of the Year – Incorrect, but close. Antetokounmpo finished second and was a world beater in pretty much every way. So this one nearly came to fruition.
  3. Zach Lavine will be named Most Improved Player – Incorrect. I really thought there was a chance entering December. But guys like Pascal Siakam, D’Angelo Russell and De’Aaron Fox did too much to separate themselves. And LaVine came back to earth. He averaged 28.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in October and 27 points per game through the Bulls’ first 14 games. But he settled back in to more traditional performances – which are good, but not necessarily MIP-worthy.
  4. Nikola Jokic will be finish in the top-five in MVP voting – Correct. Jokic had an incredible year and led the Nuggets to the second seed in the Western Conference. Jokic’s 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game were more than enough to generate national attention.
  5. Nick Nurse will win Coach of the Year on the back of a franchise best season – Incorrect. Mike Budenholzer was named Coach of the Year given an impressive campaign in which he modernized the Bucks’ offense and led them to an NBA-best 60-win season. Nurse finished ninth and led the Raptors to 58 wins and their first ever NBA title.

Other Individual Predictions:

  1. Anthony Davis will lead the NBA scoring – Incorrect again. Davis finished 10th in points per game and 34th in overall points scored.
  2. For the first time since 2013-14, Blake Griffin will play in 70+ games – Correct. Griffin played in a shocking 75 games this past season – significantly more than he’s played in since 2013-14 (80).
  3. Lonzo Ball will post increased scoring and three-point percentages in less minutes per game – Partially correct. Ball scored 0.3 points per game less; however, he shot better from long-range (.329 up from .304) in four minutes less per game.
  4. Kristaps Porzingis returns to Knicks lineup after the All-Star break, the Knicks play above .500 with him in the lineup and they avoid the lottery – Incorrect. Instead, Porzingis didn’t play a single game in 2018-19, demanded a trade from the Knicks and now plays for the Mavericks. Do I lose points if I’m really, really wrong?
  5. Three players will average 15+ rebounds – Incorrect. Only Andre Drummond averaged more than 15 rebounds per game.

Rookie Predictions:

  1. Luka Doncic will be named Rookie of the Year – Correct. I understood the hype around DeAndre Ayton and Trae Young, but Doncic was too good and too experienced to overlook.
  2. Trae Young will end 2018-19 in the top-three Rookie of the Year ranks with at least 16 points and 7 assists per game – Correct. In fact, Young finished second in ROY voting and averaged 19.1 points and 8.1 assists per game.
  3. Alonzo Trier will average more points per game than Kevin Knox – Incorrect. Knox averaged 12.8 points per game versus Trier’s 10.9; but the fact remains that Trier surprised pretty much everyone by carving out a role in the NBA.

Trade Predictions:

  1. Jimmy Butler will be traded before the All-Star break – Correct. Thankfully, I neglected to name a team to which he would be traded.
  2. Kevin Love will not be traded – Correct. This was 50-50 for me. I simply didn’t see a team willing to take on Love’s deal with the requisite cap space and need.
  3. Tristan Thompson will not be traded either – Correct.
  4. George Hill and Kyle Korver will be traded – Correct on both. They were the obvious guys for the Cavs to move, both of whom add significant value without being overly ball dominant.
  5. Terry Rozier is traded before the deadline – Incorrect. I couldn’t imagine a world in which the Celtics let an asset walk for nothing. This one should have happened.
  6. Damian Lillard to the Lakers rumors will persist, but a deal will not be made – Correct. With the luxury of hindsight, this one seems pretty obvious.

Team Predictions:

  1. The Raptors will win at least 60 games and finish first in the East – Technically incorrect. I should have just predicted that they would win the NBA Championship.
  2. Utah will also finish 2018-19 with 60+ wins – Incorrect. In my defense, my objectivity ceased to exist after chatting with fellow Insider Jordan Hicks, who spoke so highly of his hometown team.
  3. The Warriors will also win 60 games and three teams will finish with 60 wins – Incorrect. Only one team (Bucks) finished the season with 60 wins. And to be fair, three teams haven’t finished with 60 or more wins in the same season since 2008-09.
  4. The Nuggets will win 55 games – So close, but incorrect. Denver ended with 54 wins, which marks a huge leap for the franchise. Note: I will make this prediction again in October.
  5. The 76ers finish in the bottom five in three-point shooting – Incorrect. I clearly failed to examine rosters around the league.
  6. The Bucks will finish in the top five in three-point attempts – Correct. Lots of credit here to Coach Budenholzer, who modernized an offense that launched the second-most three-pointers in the league – up from 25thoverall in 2017-18.
  7. The Lakers will fail to make the playoffs – Correct. And this was a bold pick last October, I might add. LeBron James didn’t have enough help. And still, I was worried for a good part of the season. If James hadn’t been hurt on Christmas Day and maintained his output (27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game), I probably would have been wrong here, too. He’s still that good.
  8. The Pelicans will qualify for the playoffs thanks to Anthony Davis – LOL. Incorrect.
  9. The Hawks will end the season with the worst record in the league – Incorrect. It’s always hard to predict the order at the bottom of the league. But the Hawks were a pleasant surprise last season, playing quite well after the All-Star break.

Playoff Predictions:

  1. The Bucks advance past the first-round – Correct. They had the MVP and the Coach of the Year.
  2. The Wizards do not earn a top-four seed in the East – Correct. No one saw John Wall’s injuries on the horizon, though.
  3. And the Wizards get eliminated in the first-round – Incorrect, because they didn’t make the playoffs at all.
  4. The Pistons enter the playoffs as a top-four seed – Incorrect again.
  5. And the Pistons advance past the first-round – Incorrect yet again. I was supremely confident in Blake Griffin, who played very well. But he didn’t have enough support, and the East was even better than expected.

Coaching Predictions:

  1. Tom Thibodeau is fired shortly after the Timberwolves move on from Butler – Correct
  2. Scott Brooks is not fired during the season – Correct. But had I known how bad it would get in Washington, I might have predicted otherwise.
  3. Brooks is let go before June 1 following a first-round playoff elimination – Incorrect on two fronts. First of all, the Wizards didn’t qualify for the playoffs. But more importantly, Brooks is still their head coach – and I’m a little surprised by this. The Wizards moved on from general manager Ernie Grunfeld. And their star player is out for probably the entire 2018-19 season. Brooks enters 2019-20 on the hot seat. I don’t see Washington sticking with him if the team decides to trade Bradley Beal. So if that happens, look out.

Miscellaneous Predictions:

  1. The league-wide average will exceed 110 points per game (2017-18 average was 106.3) – Correct. The average score per game per team actually eclipsed 111 points.
  2. There will be a 10 percent increase in fouls per game due to rule changes regarding how freedom of motion fouls are called – Incorrect. The league average increased from 19.9 fouls per game to 20.9 – an increase of just over 5 percent.
  3. There will be fewer teams with 25 or less wins than there was last season in part because of the revised NBA Draft Lottery – Technically there was the same number of teams with fewer than 25 wins; however, there were more teams with 25 or fewer wins. So, Correct. And the effect of the revised draft lottery becomes even more evident when we expand the scope: nine teams had fewer than 30 wins in 2017-18, compared to only five in 2018-19.
  4. There will be at least five first-time All-Stars – Correct, but just barely so. There were exactly five first-time All-Stars this past season: Nikola Jokic, Khris Middleton, D’Angelo Russell, Ben Simmons and Nikola Vucevic.

Insiders Predictions:

Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA)

  1. The Warriors will not win the most games in the league – Correct

Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA)

  1. Eight teams will finish at .500 or one game below – Incorrect. Only one team finished with a 41-41 record and no teams ended the season with 40 wins.

Matt John (@MattJohnNBA)

  1. Kawhi Leonard re-signs with Toronto on a 1+1 – Incorrect

David Yapkowitz (@David_Yapkowitz)

  1. The Nuggets will enter the playoffs as a top-four seed – Correct

Shane Rhodes (@Shane_Rhodes1)

  1. The 76ers will enter the playoffs without securing a top-four seed – Incorrect

Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies)

  1. Tristan Thompson will average a double-double for the first time in his career – Correct

Lang Greene (@LangGreene)

  1. Carmelo Anthony will end the season with less than 13 points per game and worse than 40 percent shooting from the field – Incorrect on both counts. Anthony averaged 13.4 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting; however, he only played in 10 games.

Benny Nadeau (@Ben_Nadeau)

  1. Allen Crabbe will end the season in the top 10 for three-pointers made – Incorrect. Wrong Net, Ben. D’Angelo Russell finished ninth with 234.

Jordan Hicks (@JordanHicksNBA)

  1. Joe Ingles will lead the league in three-point percentage – Incorrect. In fact, Ingles finished 31st in three-point percentage with a 39.1 percent clip – which is worse than both of the previous two seasons.

Jordan Hicks (@JordanHicksNBA)

  1. Derrick Favors will be traded before the deadline – Incorrect, but fake bonus points because Favors starts the season with New Orleans after being traded for two second-round picks at the start of free agency.

Some of my predictions were terrible, and others were borderline prophetic. We will be back soon to see if the Basketball Insiders team and I can do better than we did last October.

For those of you keeping score, I got 19 correct and 21 incorrect, and my fellow Insiders had four correct and six incorrect. I sense major improvements on the horizon..

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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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.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

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NBA

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.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.

Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.

The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.

For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.

But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.

Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.

“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”

On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.

He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.

He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.

Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.

“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”

Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.

He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.

For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.

“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.

“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”

And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.

“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”

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NBA

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.

David Yapkowitz

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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.”

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