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New York Knicks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Knicks didn’t land a max-level free agent this offseason, but they did add a number of serviceable players who will help their younger players develop. Basketball Insiders previews the upcoming year in New York.

Basketball Insiders

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The New York Knicks enter 2019-20 hoping for development and cohesion. As recently as this time last year, the Knicks expected to enter the season with at least one cornerstone piece in Kristaps Porzingis, a free agent superstar and a lottery pick added to the roster. Instead, the team experienced tremendous turnover, returning only six players from the 2018-19 team.

But the Knicks can boast one thing they haven’t had in some time – a unified vision from its leadership. David Fizdale is still viewed as a player-friendly coach, and general manager Scott Perry is slowing improving the Knicks’ reputation around the league and with free agents.

The Knicks’ 2019-20 season is more of a stepping stone than it is about the end result. They must demonstrate a good culture – because they’re structured to potentially be players in free agency again in 2020.

Five Guys Think…

Coming into season two under David Fizdale, there are actually some positive vibes in the Big Apple. The Knicks have a blue-chip prospect in RJ Barrett taking over as the face of the franchise, meaning they’ll have quite the young talent to work with and develop over the season. Contrary to belief, the offseason wasn’t quite a bad one. There were plenty of forwards signed -and there will be a logjam in the frontcourt – but this team didn’t have the veterans in the locker room to show the inexperienced players the ropes. Plus, the deals are flexible enough that there are some contracts that could be moved for more assets. New York will be in the basement of the Atlantic Division due to the ridiculous amount of tough competition, but this campaign should prove to at least be a step in the right direction.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

The Knicks struck out on their top free-agent targets such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But they did sign a quite a few players, including a couple in Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson who all play the same position. Not bad signings at all, just a question mark as to how they’ll all fit together. They actually have some intriguing young talent on the team including RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox. It’s still going to be a rebuilding year for the Knicks, but if a few of those young guys pan out, there could be some light at the end of the tunnel, sooner rather than later.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Knicks had an underwhelming offseason. They expected two max-level free agents, but had to settle for next-tier players and journeymen. While they enter 2019-20 with more talent than a year ago, it’s still nowhere near enough to compete with the likes of the 76ers, Celtics or Nets. However, if you’re looking for progress, the Knicks should demonstrate a decent amount of it. Coach David Fizdale is back for his second season in the Big Apple and president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry enter their third season together. So while there is practically no continuity on the court – only six players return from last season – at least there is some in philosophy and culture. Further, rookie RJ Barrett and free agent addition Julius Randle inspire a bit of guarded optimism.

5th place – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca

Despite the hype of free agency misses, the Knicks actually came out of the summer set up smartly. They have promising young guys that should continue to see development opportunities while being surrounded by solid win-now veterans that are pretty attractive trade chips as the season plays out. Sure, many likely wanted the superstar this past July, but when you consider the modern NBA roadmap to sustained winning, the Knicks are well-positioned for the future. That may stink this season, as the Knicks may not have enough star-level talent to really compete on a night to night basis, but there is a glimmer of hope in this regards – no-name teams have done pretty well over the last decade, especially if all of those discounted veterans seize their moment in the New York spotlight. It’s likely the Knicks are lottery team, not a playoff team, but in the end, they may come out better positioned for a promising future than where they were two seasons ago.

5th place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

The New York Knicks and their fans had very high hopes entering this offseason. I won’t go deep into those details since it has already been covered in great detail and there isn’t much value in constantly reminding Knicks fans that they flooded social media with photo-shopped pictures of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson in Knicks jerseys. The more interesting discussion revolves around what the Knicks did after they missed out on their star targets this offseason. Through the draft, trades and free agency, the Knicks added RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris to the roster. Oddly enough, the Knicks put major resources into acquiring four power forwards in Randle, Gibson, Portis and Morris (though some of these players can play center as well). Individually, each move makes some sense. However, it’s unclear why the Knicks felt compelled to sign Portis to a two-year, $30.75 million contract. It should not be noted that New York has a team option on the second and final season of the contract, so there’s no long-term risk. But the market wasn’t particularly hot for Portis this offseason and there doesn’t seem to be any long-term advantage to signing him to this deal. However, the Knicks also signed most of their new players to short-term deals, so there’s no significant loss in future flexibility. This wasn’t a bad pivot from the Knicks’ front office after missing out on their key targets, but it’s just a bit confusing when you look at the structure of the roster at this point.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

From The Cap Guy

Unable to land a single superstar this summer, despite the cap room for two, the Knicks invested heavily in players on extremely friendly contracts. Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock each signed two-year deals with just $1 million guaranteed apiece for 2020-21. That’s only $4 million of a combined $29.7 million of guaranteed money. Additionally, Bobby Portis has a team option for $15.8 million.

In addition to their multiple movable contracts (along with the one-year, $15 million deal for Marcus Morris), look for the Knicks to be active in discussions leading to the NBA Trade Deadline. New York also has a couple of future first-rounders from the Dallas Mavericks to include, along with young players like Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. If a star becomes available, look for the Knicks to pursue aggressively.

– Eric Pincus

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Julius Randle

Julius Randle posted career bests last season in points and three-point percentage, and he will have far more opportunity on the Knicks as their primary scorer. Randle entered the league at essentially the perfect time – just as positionless basketball was really catching on. His ability to push the ball up the floor following a rebound is rare for his size. He is a tricky cover because he is too strong for most players his height or smaller, but quicker than most centers. Randle will be used in smaller lineups as a five and could even play some alongside two bigs. The Knicks are going to need every bit of production from Randle, though. The bar is higher this season as he enters the year as the Knicks best player And the pressure will be on immediately as New York is traditionally not an overly patient city.

Top Defensive Player: Mitchell Robinson

Robinson was one of the few positives on the Knicks last season. He oozes potential thanks to a unique combination of length, athletic ability and shot-blocking instincts.

Robinson averaged stellar per-36 numbers last season as a rookie: 12.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and an astounding 4.3 blocks. And despite playing nearly 1000 minutes less than most guys ahead of him on the blocks list, he still finished fourth overall for the entire league.

But it isn’t just blocks. It’s how and where he blocks shots. Robinson closes out on shooters, disrupting and blocking shots at an incredible rate. His instincts must improve while guarding ball handlers; and despite showing improvement regarding fouls, he must continue to improve his defensive footwork and avoid bailing opposing players out by using his hands. But the sky is the limit for Robinson, and he’ll be a huge part of the Knicks’ future.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith Jr. has been criticized for not progressing enough between his rookie and sophomore seasons; however, his play after being traded to the Knicks in February should inspire hope.

Smith Jr. is the Knicks’ best established off-the-dribble player. He seems to have improved his shooting stroke this offseason based on offseason workout videos, which will only further his playmaking abilities given that opponents will have to defend him even more closely. While he is regarded as more of a scorer than a creator, he can create for others simply by breaking down the defense and making the easy pass.

This season is a make-or-break year for Smith Jr. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with how he reacted to the Mavericks drafting Luka Doncic. He must demonstrate more maturity in New York. The Knicks just drafted a high-profile rookie (RJ Barrett). Smith Jr. must understand that he might not be the most important piece on the Knicks, but that he is still instrumental to their success. If he can accept his role and contribute whenever possible, it will begin repairing his image and – probably – benefit him on the court.

Top Clutch Player: Reggie Bullock

Bullock’s signing with the Knicks had a bit of drama. He originally signed this offseason for 2-years/$21 million; but once a health issue was identified in his physical, the deal was reworked (2-year/$8.2 million), which also allowed the Knicks to sign Marcus Morris.

While Bullock’s recovery from neck surgery will disallow him from starting the season with the Knicks, he will be a welcome addition once he’s available to them. Bullock shoots 39.2 percent from long-range for his career. He was brought on due to the fact that he’s seen as a sniper – unfortunately, injuries have derailed his career. If Bullock can get (and remain) healthy, he’ll be a fixture in the Knicks line-up in 2019-20. That is a big if, though. Currently, the timeline for Bullock’s return is undefined. He could miss the first month, or he could miss the entire season.

The Unheralded Player: Marcus Morris

Morris is the blue-collar bruiser New Yorkers have been clamoring for – only a modern version. Morris is a tough, versatile defender. He can also get the Knicks a bucket when they’re in need in a multitude of ways. He averaged 13.9 points last season and happily accepted a role with the Celtics behind Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and others. So there should be no fear in New York of Morris demanding a particular role.

He is a tough-nosed veteran who will be a leader in the locker room and on the floor. And more importantly, he will set a great example for the Knicks’ youngsters. He has been credited by opposing coaches for inspiring his team’s defense. Pacers head coach Nate McMillian said of Morris following a playoff win last April, “He’s a guy that really establishes their defense. He gets after the best player and they feed off that.” The Knicks definitely hope that he’ll have a similar effect in New York.

Best New Addition: RJ Barrett

RJ Barrett was selected third overall – shockingly, the Knicks highest draft pick since 1984 (Patrick Ewing). Knicks fans are obviously clamoring for a quick win with Barrett. Will he be able to pace himself and overcome efficiency issues with Knicks’ fans and the New York media breathing down his neck? Most rookies would struggle mightily with this – but not Barrett.

Barrett’s approach has been solid so far. Remember – it was Barrett who coyly said workout videos aren’t for him, and it was Barrett who was squarely focused on playing in New York throughout the draft process. He’s aware of the expectations and he understands the pressure. New York is an entirely different beast. But Barrett has the right mental makeup to get through all of the stressors that New York will throw at him.

– Drew Maresca

Who We Like

1. Kevin Knox

Knox struggled with efficiency last season – his effective field goal percentage was only 34.3 percent. He settled for threes when given space and he relied too heavily on runners rather than taking the ball up stronger and looking to draw fouls.

But Knox also has an incredible amount of potential. He is a well-built 6-foot-9 swingman who can score in a number of different ways. His shooting stroke was inconsistent last season, but he has good form and should show improvement now that he has a better understanding of the NBA game.

Further, the Knicks didn’t have a go-to scorer last season. So Knox came on board and was immediately among the primary focuses of opposing defenses. The addition of Randle, Morris and company will mitigate the attention on Knox, at least in the early going.

2. Elfrid Payton

Payton’s career has been a bit disappointing so far. While seen as a defensive specialist, he has underwhelmed – mostly gambling too much by jumping in passing lanes. Payton actually posted the worst defensive rating on the Pelicans in 2018-19.

But he can still contribute – especially considering the lack of experience amongst Knicks point guards. He is a solid rebounder and he creates opportunities for his teammates. He has shown flashes throughout his career – erupting for five straight triple-doubles last season.

It would be naïve to expect Payton to develop too much more at this point in his career. But his positive attributes can steady the ship when Smith Jr. has an off game and/or Ntilikina’s confidence wavers.

3. Bobby Portis

Portis is a player the Knicks might consider keeping on the roster beyond next season. He is an above-average rebounder– and most importantly, he has displayed the ability to shoot from distance. Portis shot 35.9 percent from three-point range in 2017-18 with Chicago, and he upped the ante last season connecting on 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts.

But Portis isn’t a one-dimensional offensive player. His size and athleticism enable him to score in a number of different ways. He rolls to the hoop well and can catch and shoot from the mid-range, as well.

Portis struggles on the defensive end of the court, though. And unfortunately, he is a sub-par defender in practically every way possible including pick-and-roll defense, shot-blocking. While he probably won’t improve much at this point of his career, the Knicks can mask his deficiencies by pairing him with guys like Robinson and Morris.

4. Allonzo Trier

Trier was a welcome surprise last season. But if you knew his game in college, you couldn’t have expected any less. Trier is a scorer who exudes confidence. He slowed down a bit as the season progressed last year, but that is to be expected from rookies.

Trier isolates incredibly well and gets buckets in bunches. He has a pure shooting stroke and a series of primary and secondary moves. While slightly undersized for a shooting guard, he was seen as a strong defender in college – which could help his case to carve out minutes on a crowded roster.

Trier must improve off the ball. Last season he attempted just 2.1 three-pointers per game, but converted on 39.4 percent of them. And his opportunities to play as the primary ball-handler will be limited given the number of lead guards on the roster, so it’s in his best interest to embrace his opportunity as a shooting guard.

5. David Fizdale

Coach Fizdale had a challenging first year in New York. But that had very little to do with him. Last season was about initiating a culture in the locker room. And Fizdale did just that. His “chopping the tree” mantra caught on in the locker room with players citing it time and again as the season wore on. He must continue building camaraderie in the locker room, and he must continue representing the Knicks outwardly – as the entire league will continue judging the Knicks moving forward based partially on Coach Fizdale.

– Drew Maresca

Strengths

Young talent. The Knicks have a tremendous number of recent draftees with loads of potential including Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr, Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina and Ignas Brazdeikis – all of whom have less than three years of experience in the NBA.

But youth and wins don’t go together too well.

The Knicks are going to struggle to close out games. They must focus on developing their youth, especially Robinson and Barrett – the most important duo to take the court for the Knicks since Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. They must push through the discomfort of losing games as a franchise and maintain the course. They cannot default to their veterans in an attempt to get a few more wins, robbing their young core of valuable experience in the process.

However, there is a balance they’ll have to strike. They do not want to find themselves playing meaningless basketball too early in the season. That tanking-like strategy breeds bad habits.

– Drew Maresca

Weaknesses

Point guard play has been an issue for the Knicks since approximately 2005, when Stephon Marbury famously declared himself the best point guard in the NBA – the season didn’t go as planned for the Knicks, nor have most since then.

It was widely assumed that the Knicks would acquire a lead guard in each of the last three seasons, beginning with the 2017 NBA Draft when they selected Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has looked good in the FIBA World Cup so far, even stealing starting point guard duties and drawing praise from the teammates including Rudy Gobert. But FIBA and the NBA are entirely different games, and Ntilikina’s confidence seems to wane when he’s back on this side of the pond.

The other point guard they had an eye on in the 2017 draft – Dennis Smith Jr. – is also now on their roster, and he is viewed as a more likely solution at this point than Ntilikina. Smith Jr.’s summer workout videos have been well-received by fans and the New York media, but most experts understand that those videos are engineered to build hype and are showing only highlight-worthy clips.

The Knicks also added Elfrid Payton, who is a Scott Perry draft pick from Orlando in 2014.

To summarize, the Knicks have three talented and unproven point guards on their roster – each of whom has his share of flaws. They can use 2019-20 to gauge who plays well with one another and which ones they hope to keep moving forward – if any. But don’t expect All-Star level play from any of them this season. And if that somehow happens, Knicks’ fans won’t be the least bit upset.

– Drew Maresca

The Burning Question

How will Fizdale manage the rotation?

The Knicks onboarded a number of fairly established players – Gibson, Morris, Payton, Portis, etc. He can’t play all of the new vets and continue ahead with the youth movement. And while Knicks fans and the New York media are behind the idea of a youth movement now, they will probably change their tune after falling a number of games below .500. Coach FIzdale has to strike a very delicate balance between playing his young core and keeping veterans on the court – after all, rookies and second-year players don’t usually win games.

But Fizdale also wants to get his youngsters experience playing in clutch situations. He must define lineups that complement each other deliberately while making sure to play as many of his young players as possible.

In addition to allowing the Knicks to remain competitive, playing veterans alongside younger players removes pressure from Knicks’ rookies and second-year players. Putting too much pressure on younger players can lead to poor habits and/or hurt their development.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ management and coaching staff must remember that this season is mostly a precursor to the future. While they are probably beyond tanking, they should be more concerned with developing their young talent than with wins; however if they can accomplish both at the same time, that would be best.

– Drew Maresca

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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 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 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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