With the NBA’s post-season in full swing and historic playoff games being played almost nightly, there are some storylines to watch as the race to a championship unfolds.
Here are a few things to watch, especially if some of the ongoing series don’t play out as some had hoped when the season started some seven months ago:
Kyrie And The Celtics
During the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, all of the turmoil in Boston seemed to have cleared. For months the Celtics looked like a group forced together more nights than night, with All-Star Kyrie Irving looking more and more likely to exit the situation than re-sign as he had pledged to season ticket holders back at the start of the season.
With the Celtics now looking a second-round exit in the eyes, things in Boston seem right back where they were, with Irving posting arguably the worst playoff series of his career. Which re-opens the questions of will he stay or, worse yet, would it be smart for the Celtics to hitch their wagon to what’s become a mercurial player for what would likely be a new deal worth more than $200 million and five more years?
While the Celtics are never a team known to tip its hand, the vibe from around the league is still that Boston is committed to a future with Irving and surrounding him with complementary players. An early exit may change that, but there isn’t a lot coming from the Celtics to suggest they want out of Irving.
On the Irving side, there is more belief in league circles that he’ll look at his options in July rather than just re-up with the Celtics. The money will matter, especially with Irving’s injury history, but there is also a belief that he’ll want the peace of mind of knowing he looked before blindly locking in.
While the New York Knicks are often cited as a desirable situation for Irving, most NBA insiders believe he looks and listens to more than just the Celtics and Knicks and, as weird as it may seem, Irving’s renewed relationship with LeBron James could have him considering the Lakers when he takes meetings.
The idea that Irving and Warriors forward Kevin Durant have already decided on New York has been shot down by both people close to Irving and people close to the Knicks. The Knicks remain hopeful they can pair two elite stars with their promising young core, but they haven’t been given any assurances from anyone, including Irving, according to sources close to the Knicks.
The Celtics had hoped for a run at the Eastern Conference crown when the season opened, so a second round exit would be a big miss for the Celtics. That said, it doesn’t seem like they are ready to panic, but it absolutely is a situation to watch.
Kawhi and The Raptors
If you haven’t been paying attention, Kawhi Leonard has turned in an impressive performance for the Toronto Raptors so far in this post-season. The fact that he can be an unrestricted free agent in a few months continues to linger over his performances, mainly because he could very well walk away in July.
The vibe from the Raptors is one of optimism. They feel like they have done everything the right way to not only gain the trust of the reclusive Leonard, but to make sure he understands how things could play out if he were to commit beyond this season. As crazy as that seemed last summer when the Raptors obtained Leonard, it seems they may have a legit shot at keeping him.
The general vibe around the NBA is that Toronto and the LA Clippers are the front runners for Leonard, although more than a few NBA insiders believe if Leonard takes a meeting, he may listen to more than just those two teams.
Given how different Leonard’s motivations are from the average NBA player, predicting what he’ll really do is challenging, but if the tea leaves of the season are painting the picture accurately, Leonard may be a hair on the side of staying in Toronto versus leaving, and that would be a massive win for the Raptors regardless of how the post-season plays out.
One thing does seem pretty real for the Raptors, if Leonard does opt to leave, sweeping changes could hit the franchise as a result and that includes dealing point guard Kyle Lowry and shedding some of the ugly cap money on the books.
Durant and The Warriors
As much as fans bemoaned the formation of this current Golden State Warriors Super team, there is a reality that every dynasty in the NBA has ended at one point or another, and the clock on this Warriors roster looks to be winding down. The Warriors are still the prohibitive favorites to win the Western Conference, and despite how impressive the Milwaukee Bucks have been, the Warriors are still the more likely NBA Finals winner – but what’s also very real is the gap between the Warriors and everyone is not the chasm it used to be. In fact, the Houston Rockets have shown they could be the dream killer if Steph Curry can’t find his mojo.
The worst kept secret in the NBA is that Warriors forward Kevin Durant wants to look at his options this summer, and if the rumors hold true, he could be taking his talents to the New York Knicks. Sources near the situation have been emphatic that Durant isn’t talking about anything beyond the season. However the same was said back when Durant was in Oklahoma City, and he did exactly as everyone predicted he would do, which leaves a lot hanging in the balance for the Warriors.
Their number one priority is to keep this starting core intact, which means guard Klay Thompson will get a max contract offer the very second the Warriors are allowed to offer it. The Warriors will also offer the same full max deal to Durant, hoping that all of that guaranteed money will at least sway him into staying for another year or two. Warriors ownership is on the eve of a brand-new building in San Francisco, which came with hefty seat license revenue that basically fronted the Warriors the cash to eat even the biggest of luxury tax bills for the next couple of seasons.
The Warriors have a complete understanding of the Durant situation and understand he may walk. They are hoping to sway him but understand he may want precisely what LeBron got last summer – complete control of his own franchise in a major market, something the Warriors have never been able to offer with Steph Curry being the darling of the franchise. As petty as that may seem, the same thing is what ultimately drove James out of Miami — no matter how much James did personally, the fan base still viewed the team in Miami as belonging to Dwyane Wade. The same issues hold true for Durant, and with Championships and MVPs under his belt and his place in NBA history firmly secured, what more can he do in Golden State? That’s something the Warriors will have to convince him of this off-season.
It seems the end of this particular dynasty may be closer than anyone expected when Durant joined the Warriors.
Davis and The Pelicans
You have to hand it to Gayle Benson, the controlling owner of the New Orleans Pelicans — if there was a home run hire to make, she did it in landing David Griffin to run the team. Unlikely previous leadership groups, Griffin was given the proverbial keys to the franchise and empowered to do whatever he deemed necessary to place the Pelicans among the elite in the NBA. Before you giggle at that goal, did you see the Milwaukee Bucks winning the most games in the NBA this year? Things can change fast with a few great decisions.
The first big move Griffin made was to try and bridge the divide with Anthony Davis and his agent Rich Paul, who is still collecting commissions off of huge contracts Griffin wrote to his clients in Cleveland.
Sources close to that situation said Griffin pulled no punches with Paul, pledging to do whatever it took to be elite in the NBA, and wanted him and Davis to buy in. It seemed at least on the surface Griffin may have moved the needle with both, but he’ll have to back that up around the draft.
That doesn’t mean the door is closed on Davis being traded, that very well could still happen. But unlike previous leadership that had lost the faith of Davis and his inner circle, Griffin at least has credibility, which buys him a little time to work the market and see what makes the most sense.
One thing Griffin did make clear both publicly and privately — he is not open to a half-measured commitment. He is willing to pay Davis the Supermax contract he is eligible for but wants a full-throated commitment to the long-term in New Orleans.
The situation is still far from ideal given what’s been said and done, but it at least seems the Pelicans may have bought themselves a window that almost no one thought could exist at the trade deadline this past February.
LeBron and The Lakers
Are you not entertained?
The LA Lakers may be many things, but boring is not one of them. Just when you think something sillier couldn’t happen in Lakerland it does. Whether it’s Magic Johnson abruptly stepping down, the firing, then not firing, then firing of Luke Walton, to the botched interview process that led to the hiring of Ty Lue as the next Lakers head coach, to reports that Kurt Rambis will join the staff with Lue after Tom Thibodeau reportedly turned down a spot on Lue’s staff. And let’s not even get into the failure to hire the obvious choice in Monty Williams or not even reaching out to David Griffin to fill their President of Basketball Operation post.
The Lakers are a hot mess, but even that level of dysfunction hasn’t seemed to change LeBron James’ commitment to the team. Although in a recent episode of his TV show on HBO filmed just days after Johnson stepped down, LeBron admitted he felt slighted by Johnson for not even reaching out, but that hasn’t changed his commitment to being a Laker or his relentless recruiting of a second star to join him this summer.
The truth in everything about the Lakers’ issues is it’s never nearly as bad on the inside as it seems on the outside. And while it’s easy to take shots at the Lakers (they continue to provide plenty of ammunition), the storylines for them never line up with the truth.
Johnson was a part-time leader at best that was way more prone to rash reactions than measured, deliberate processes. His personnel decisions were suspect at best, and while time will tell if Rob Pelinka will do any better on his own, he at least has James in the boat.
The hiring of Lue may not have been ideal, there are a few things worth saying; Lue does have the support of James and it does seem Lue is at least trying to secure a top-flight assistant staff that will likely include former Pacer and Magic coach Frank Vogel. The Lakers do have a mountain of options come July, and they will have a reasonably decent draft pick.
All things considered, the Lakers are still in good shape and if history has taught us anything about James, he thrives in chaos.
Brooklyn, The Clippers and The Pacers
For as much fanfare as teams like the Lakers and Knicks are going to garner this July in free agency, there is a growing belief in agent circles that the LA Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, and Indiana Pacers could all be far higher on would-be free agents list than most would imagine.
The Clippers for one have done an incredible job building a team infrastructure that has caught the attention of a lot of players. The Clippers are poised to walk into July with an impressive roster of supporting players, a mountain of free agent dollars, Doc Rivers as head coach and Steve Ballmer as a passionate, committed, deep-pocketed owner with eyes on a brand-new arena. The Clippers have laid the groundwork around the league to not only get meetings with the top tier free agents, but they may even be the front runner on Kawhi Leonard and the dark horse on Kevin Durant.
Much like the Clippers, the Nets have an impressive story to sell come July. Not only do the Nets have an enviable front office, and their roster is loaded with supporting young guys that could be stars of their own. The Nets have an incredible practice facility, the lure of the New York media market and a player-first message that has caught the attention of agents and players alike. There are some that believe Kyrie Irving would look at the Nets before the Knicks, and some believe if Durant looks at the Knicks, he may listen to the Nets too.
The dark horse in free agency may be the Indiana Pacers, and they have some wiggle room to make noise and a team that made the postseason without injured guard Victor Oladipo, who is preparing to get back after it later this month in Miami once he is cleared for court work. The Pacers don’t look to be a max contract player in all of this, but Pacers president Kevin Pritchard has made it clear he is not resting on his laurels. The Pacers are a team to watch in the Mike Conley/Memphis situation.
These are just a few situations to watch as the NBA playoffs roll on. You can expect a lot more trade and free agent chatter next week as the NBA converges on Chicago for the annual Pre-Draft Combine. Basketball Insiders will be there, so stay tuned for player interviews and workout notes as the 2019 NBA Draft class starts to showcase their wares.
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.”