Competing for a low playoff seed is an oft-maligned goal in the NBA. Pundits and fans will almost always call for a rebuild if a team is seemingly heading towards the dreaded 7-11 seed in their conference.
There are a valiant few that will drown out the noise and view any playoff berth as a success. These franchises are usually in the midst of an extended playoff drought, a young team looking for proof of progress or an old team with too much pride.
This season, the Western Conference will feature a large number of franchises that will feel as if they have failed without a playoff berth.
There are, of course, only eight spots available, and those spots begin to fill up very quickly when looking at the list of teams who will be vying for them. The Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz are considered by most to be bona fide locks. The Warriors still have a perennial MVP candidate and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate that will be playing with a chip on their shoulder. Then there are the Blazers, who seem to always manage to win five more games than they’re expected to and are coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance.
This would leave only one spot for the following four teams that seem eager to chase late-April basketball: Spurs, Mavericks, Pelicans, Kings.
Those four fall across all areas of the low-playoff seed spectrum. The Spurs are trying to maintain a 22-year playoff streak, while the Kings are trying to break a 13-year drought. The Mavericks and Pelicans both are led by players pinned as future superstars and feature a deep roster with veteran talent that they hope will be enough to mobilize a next step.
Barring a seismic injury or collapse, three of those teams will not make the playoffs. Let’s take a look at how each of them could win this battle, starting at the most likely to win that spot and working down.
San Antonio Spurs
Death, Taxes and the Spurs making the playoffs, right? Last season, the Spurs clawed their way to 48 wins and once again made the tournament. They did so on the back of a bench that blitzed teams all season long, outscoring opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge were on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Spurs also were elite from deep last season, hitting 40.1 percent of their three-point attempts throughout the year. While this number remained relatively unchanged for each lineup, the frequency at which they attempted these shots jumped whenever both DeRozan and Aldridge sat, per Cleaning the Glass.
It will be interesting to see if the Spurs can keep up the production from both the bench and from beyond the arc this season. Davis Bertans, a valuable reserve who shot 44 percent from deep, is now in Washington. He will be tough to replace, but coach Gregg Popovich has a track record of maximizing his talent.
There is also the return of Dejounte Murray, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Murray, an All-Defensive Second Team selection in 2017-18, could help shore up a defense that slipped all the way to 20th in the NBA last season.
There is some mild concern here that the playoff streak could be in jeopardy. The Spurs outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when Bertans was on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. DeRozan and Aldridge continue to age, and if their production slips it might be too much for the bench make up.
That said, it still would seem foolish to bet against the Spurs. If the defense rebounds to a Spurs-ian level, it could more than offset the slight dip in three-point accuracy we might see this season.
The Mavericks will enter the season with one of the more intriguing rosters in the league. There is the precocious Luka Doncic, who could be the cornerstone of this franchise for years to come. Kristaps Porzingis is also in tow and will be playing real basketball for the first time since just before the All-Star break in 2018.
Last season, the Mavericks stumbled to the finish line after trading multiple contributors for an injured Porzingis, finishing 33-49. Now with the Latvian big man healthy – and veteran difference makers like Seth Curry and Delon Wright in the fold – the expectations have rightfully risen.
Much of the Mavericks’ success this season will come down to the health of Porzingis. Before the injury, he was scoring 22.7 points and grabbing 6.6 rebounds per game with the Knicks, while shooting nearly 40 percent from deep and providing elite rim protection. That skill set is rare, and him finding his form will both solidify a creaky defense and open up a clogged offense.
Doncic will be the first to welcome a second option like Porzingis. After the trade last season, Luka’s usage shot up to around 35 percent, and his shooting percentages cratered as a result. With a better roster around him, the 6-foot-7 point forward should find more holes in opposing defenses.
The virtuoso talent flashed by Doncic last season has many predicting a sophomore year leap. This leap could be amplified by improved roster, as Doncic may be able to increase both his raw production and efficiency.
The Mavericks lacked in both shooting and playmaking outside of Doncic last season. Seth Curry could give a nice jolt to their 34.9 percent three-point shooting, and Delon Wright will bring rock solid point guard play.
Outside of the big names and new additions, the Mavericks will also look for internal improvements from the likes of Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber. Particularly Brunson, who enters his second season after a summer spent training with the USA Select team .
It is clear the Mavericks will house a better team this season; the question is whether that improvement will be enough for them to chase a playoff seed. If they do find themselves in that position, it will likely be on the back of a sophomore year leap from Doncic and a fully healthy Porzingis. Those two “what ifs” panning out for Dallas, plus the improved roster on the margins, could make for a feisty team in April.
The Kings bring back nearly every contributor from last season in their quest to snap a 13-year streak of lottery participation. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are coming off career years. Marvin Bagley III had a promising showing with the USA select team this summer, and Bogdan Bogdanovic showed promise win his Serbian team action as well.
Fox holds the key to the Kings’ future. He is the face of the team and one of the most exciting players in the league. His ability to grab a rebound and beat all five of his opponents to the other basket is reminiscent of prime John Wall or Russell Westbrook. The Kings were about six points per 100 possessions better with Fox on the court, per Cleaning the Glass.
He is still only 21, and him continuing his trajectory towards elite point guard will go a long way in keeping this team competitive. He had a nice summer practicing with the USA National Team before deciding to head home just before the tournament began.
Buddy Hield quietly made the seventh most three-pointers in a season ever last year, behind only four Stephen Curry seasons, and both James Harden and Paul George in 2018-19. He will turn 27 this season, and it’s possible that last season will go down as his best ever. Hield getting as close as he can to replicating that production will be necessary for the Kings’ playoff hopes.
The Kings’ wing rotation is deeper than last year with the addition of Trevor Ariza. Bogdanovic is 27 but entering only his third NBA season. His electric World Cup performance has inspired hopes of a big season off the bench. Harrison Barnes will likely man the starting role, and he is coming off his best shooting season as a pro.
The frontcourt is improved with the upgrade from Willie Cauley-Stein to Dewayne Dedmon. Dedmon brings veteran defense and better spacing at the center position, and should be a better fit next to Bagley. Bagley is another who showed promise over the summer with the USA Select Team, giving credence to the projection of a sophomore year leap from the bouncy power forward.
The Kings lack playmaking outside of Fox. Cory Joseph will take backup point guard duties, but he does not bring the shot-creating ability that the Kings may need in the minutes Fox sits. Harry Giles and Richaun Holmes both showed flashes last year and could make for serviceable frontcourt reserves.
The Kings should be better a team this season. Internal improvements from the young players and a slight bench upgrade might be all it takes to get above the .500 mark. Slightly above .500 may not be enough realize the playoff dream however, as it took 48 wins for the Spurs to get in last season.
To make it to that level, it may take another slight jump from Fox and large improvements from both Bagley and Bogdanovic. The improvements would also have to come with sustained production from Hield. There is also the unknown effect that new coach Luke Walton will have on the team. If his free-flowing offense open things up a little more in the half-court, the Kings could be in the race at the end of the season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are almost a completely new basketball team. Jrue Holiday returns as the team’s captain and best player. His ability to play both on and off the ball make him an ideal fit next to first overall pick Zion Williamson. The bundle of players received in the Anthony Davis trade will also make this roster deeper than in years past.
Williamson is the crown jewel here. His all-world athleticism, solid ball-handling, feel for the game and limitless motor combine to make him one of the best prospects of the 21st century. That said, there are still concerns about his shooting and the Pelicans’ ability to space the floor around him.
Despite that, he should make an immediate impact in transition for a team that will run as much as possible under coach Alvin Gentry. His athleticism and quick feet also have him slated as a plus-defender right out of the gate.
Holiday will bring his usual elite defense and playmaking to this group. The Pelicans collapsed whenever Holiday sat last season, per Cleaning the Glass. His shooting slipped to 33 percent from deep last season, and an improvement there would add some much needed breathing room to the Pelicans offense.
Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram will also play pivotal roles after coming over from Los Angeles. There has been particular noise around Ball’s improved shooting out of Pelicans camp. He will most likely be given the backup point guard role behind Holiday.
The Pelicans are also banking on improved three-point accuracy from Ingram, who fell to 33 percent from deep after shooting 40 percent the year before. Ingram showed flashes of playmaking with the Lakers, but also displayed a penchant for contested mid-range jumpers. That will need to be rectified for Ingram to take the next step this season.
The Pelicans did well in free agency to bring in helpful veterans in JJ Redick and Derrick Favors. Redick will give the Pelicans an elite shooter to space the floor, and someone who could develop a two-man dribble hand-off game with Williamson. Favors will provide rim protection and a lob threat at center to pair next to the rookie.
It is nearly impossible to project how the Pelicans will perform next season. The height of their ceiling will come down to how quickly Williamson can acclimate to the NBA. Ingram and Ball will also need to take a step forward for this team to reach their full potential. They may struggle to score in the half-court, especially early in the season, but the fury they could unleash in transition will make them entertaining to watch.
Everything will need to go right for the Pelicans to make the final eight. Even then, they will likely need help by a collapse from a team in front of them.
While the most likely playoff scenario seems like the seven aforementioned teams plus one of these four, anything can happen in the NBA. The Warriors and Blazers may just be one injury away from sliding down a tier. The Timberwolves could be a sleeper to enter this race if they stay healthy and get a rejuvenated Andrew Wiggins.
The Western Conference will be a bloodbath as usual, and at least three teams will come away from the wreckage with hung heads as they trek to the lottery.
It will be exciting to watch it play out.
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.”