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Orlando Magic 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Orlando Magic’s rebuild has been slow and painful, but after two solid years in the draft lottery the Magic might have a bright future in front of them. Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the Orlando Magic in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Orlando Magic have been in a slump ever since the departure of Dwight Howard. Since his exodus, they’ve only eclipsed 30 wins in one season and haven’t finished in the top 10 of the Eastern Conference.

They’ve seen multiple lottery picks leave the team in the that span, either by trade or by free agency. One of those players, Victor Oladipo, has already turned into a legitimate superstar.

With three young lottery picks remaining on their roster in Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and newcomer Mohamed Bamba, and a new head coach to boot, do the Magic have what it takes to make a splash in the LeBron-less East? Let’s find out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It feels like the last several summers have kind of bled together when it comes to the Orlando Magic, and 2018 was no real exception. The Magic made another coaching change, this time replacing Frank Vogel with Steve Clifford, who will become the franchise’s fifth head coach since the 2014-15 season. They locked up Aaron Gordon to a new four-year deal that seems mostly fair, plus swapped out one albatross center in Bismack Biyombo for another in Timofey Mozgov in a deal with Charlotte that also netted them Jerian Grant. And of course, they continued the franchise’s apparent obsession with drafting length, taking Texas center Mo Bamba sixth overall. It’ll be another developmental year in Orlando, one where the Magic will quickly want to get an idea of how Gordon and 2017 first-rounder Jonathan Isaac play together after Isaac barely cracked 500 minutes last season. They’ll also want to get a quick idea of how Bamba fits into the plans, plus whether or not that means they have to try and extract some value for the expiring contract of Nic Vucevic. Don’t expect a whole lot on the floor unless someone like Gordon takes a big leap, however.

4th Place – Southeast Division

-Ben Dowsett

In most cases, it would be very frustrating to watch a team like Orlando start rebuilding again since, you know, that’s what they’ve been doing since 2012. However, things just might be different this time. While the next couple of years are going to be drag for Orlando, Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon could build a glorious future in the Magic Kingdom. As for the present, not much should be expected of Orlando. The roster is promising but, even with Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, it has no stars right now. Still, the future is bright! Just don’t screw this up like last time, okay guys?

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Matt John

There is no question about what kind of team the Magic are building right now. With the exception of four players, nobody on the roster is under 6-foot-6. They are long, athletic and most importantly, defensive-minded. Steve Clifford is going to have plenty of options to tinker with as far as rotations go. Scoring will be at a premium with this bunch, but opponents are going to need a ton of luck to put the ball in the basket against the likes of rookie Mohamed Bamba and second-year forward Jonathan Isaac. It probably won’t field the best results in their first season, but pay close attention to this experiment in Orlando.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Orlando Magic haven’t been crazy in their moves, but they have taken chances, and on the surface those chances look pretty promising. The issue for the Magic is they are trapped between two teams – the team the current front office inherited, and the young team they have built and drafted. If Steve Clifford is the coach the Magic believe him to be, maybe all of this comes together into something unexpectedly special, but if Clifford is the coach he was in Charlotte, the Magic could be doomed before they get out of the gate. Its not fair to lay it all on the feet of a new head coach, but if the Magic have had a bad culture for a while, maybe Clifford is the guy that changes it enough to help the young guys flourish. If he’s not, then all of this is simply smoke and mirrors for another run through the draft lottery.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

The Orlando Magic have a decent group of veteran talent but the team’s priority should be on developing and building around its young talent. Aaron Gordon is locked up on a four-year deal and continues to round out into a very capable player. My main focus this season, however, is the pairing of Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. Both players are incredibly long, talented and mobile. I am not sure how well these two players will fit together on the floor against NBA teams but I am excited to see what head coach Steve Clifford is able to do with them. If Isaac and Bamba come even close to their respective ceilings, the Magic could have a dynamic frontcourt duo unlike any other in the league. But it’s also possible that they aren’t a great fit or they don’t allow Gordon to play enough minutes at power forward, which is where he is arguably most effective.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Aaron Gordon

Entering his fifth year in the league, Aaron Gordon has seen a substantial improvement to his offensive game. He is coming off a season in which he averaged career highs across the board, posting 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, and 0.8 blocks.

Something that really sticks out is Gordon’s work to become a modern-day stretch four. As a rookie, he shot a measly 27.1 percent from the three-point line. He’s seen a steady improvement in his ability to shoot from beyond the arc throughout his time in the league and posted a respectable 33.6 percent this last season. He started out the season red hot, shooting a blistering 42.5 percent from the three through December. He obviously cooled off the latter half of the season, thanks in part to a lackluster 20.5 three-point percentage in January.

If he can find that fire again this season, and stay healthy (a large part of his poor January shooting could be the fact that he missed seven games in December), his ability to shoot the three will give the Magic some much-needed offensive firepower. A key thing to note, in wins last season, Gordon shot 42.1 percent from the three-point line. In losses, that number was down to 30.2 percent.

Top Defensive Player: Jonathan Isaac

While the Magic added someone to their roster this offseason whose wingspan makes Rudy Gobert’s look average, we wanted to go with someone who has already had a season to prove their defensive value. The second-year product out of Florida State University, Jonathan Isaac posted a considerably lower defensive rating than anyone else on the Magic’s roster at 101.1.

Isaac still has a thin frame, which can allow stronger opponents to muscle him down low, but he more than makes up for it with his length and athleticism. It’s no surprise that he led the Magic in block percentage at 44.1, but he also led the team in steal percentage at 35.9.

Jonathan is still incredibly raw on offense. But his high defensive IQ, matched with his lanky frame, will allow him to dominate on D for many years to come. He is long enough to protect the rim, but quick enough to guard the wing, making him highly valuable in today’s game of “position-less” basketball. Give him a few more years to put on muscle and assimilate in the league, and he’ll become a force to be reckoned with.

Top Playmaker: D.J. Augustin

If there is one thing that Magic are definitely lacking right now, it is a solid playmaker. Before the trade deadline, Elfrid Payton was putting together a solid season offensively, averaging a career-high 6.4 assists per game. Once he was dealt to the Suns, the starting one position essentially fell into Augustin’s lap.

A positive thing to note regarding Augustin’s tenure post-All-Star break was his increase in assist percentage. Before the break as a backup, his assist percentage was 23.7. After taking over as lead ball handler, it shot up to 27.1 percent. Thanks in part to D.J.’s many years in the league, he also boasted a positive assist to turnover ratio of 2.36 during the post-All-Star stretch. It doesn’t hurt that he shot 41.9 percent from beyond the arc, either.

He clearly shouldn’t be their answer as a long-term playmaker. Augustin has been in the league long enough to know what you’re going to get out of him, but going into this season he is the best playmaker on the floor. It will be interesting to see if the Magic try to add a younger point guard at the deadline to help with their rebuild, or if they plan to go with Augustin for the year and begin the search next summer.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

Evan Fournier has been a solid player during his tenure with the Magic. He is an efficient scorer, and barring the emergence of Aaron Gordon, could have been considered the best offensive player on this roster. One thing that sticks out with Fournier, however, is how much the Magic go through him in the clutch. He has a 31.8 usage percentage in the clutch, almost double any other player on roster. Only 11 players who played at least as many clutch minutes and exceeded Fournier in usage percentage made a higher percentage of their team’s field goals.

He also boasts the most points per game in the clutch, the highest percentage of fields goals attempted and made, and the most minutes played. One thing that Fournier lacks in this category is efficiency. While he does score the most points in the clutch, by a considerable amount, he does so with poor field goal percentage at 38.9. Chalk this up to teams putting their best wing defender on him in the closing minutes of all close games. Teams realize how much he is relied upon in the clutch and definitely game plan around that.

The Unheralded Player: Nikola Vucevic

This seems to be a popular place for Vucevic to land, as we had him as the unheralded player last year, too. He is a talented big that somehow gets hidden on a lackluster roster. He averaged a quiet 16.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.1 blocks last year, all while averaging a career high percentage at the free throw line of 81.9 percent.

One thing that doesn’t get mentioned nearly often enough is that he has the highest usage percentage out of all the starters. This can be tied to his highly efficient post-up play and ability to finish around the rim. He’s been trying to stretch his game to the three-point line, and while his mark of 31.4 percent isn’t entirely flashy, it puts him at seventeenth in the league out of centers who attempt more than three a game.

A few more interesting numbers to prove his value are the fact that his plus-minus of -0.6 is considerably better than any other starter on the roster. He also boasts 29 double-doubles, 12 more than Aaron Gordon, and light years more than any other player on the roster.

Best New Addition: Mohamed Bamba

This pick should come as no surprise. Bamba has brought a new dimension to this league. With the sixth overall pick, the Magic introduced the largest wingspan in the NBA at 7-foot-10. ‘Mo’ Bamba has elite length, which will allow him to make an immediate impact on defense. He finished second in the NCAA in blocks per game, at a staggering 3.7. He was in the top 20 for defensive rebounds at 7.33. His stature is no joke, and the league will take notice upon the start of the season.

A dimension that he will surely try to improve is his ability to shoot. Many videos have appeared showing Bamba shooting with solid, consistent technique. This will not directly translate in game situations off the bat, as he did shoot only 27.5 percent from three in college, but the fact that he finds importance to develop this part of his game early can only be a huge benefit to the Magic.

– Jordan Hicks

Who We Like:

1. Jonathon Simmons:

After coming off arguably his best year, albeit in a new system and getting used to a larger role, Simmons is poised to make an even larger impact in his second year of the Magic. He is locked up for at least one more year with next season being non-guaranteed. This fact alone will incentivize him to string together a strong season so he can potentially make a large splash in next summer’s free agency.

He developed superbly with the Spurs during his first two years of the league, then saw career highs across the board in his first year with the Magic. Not only did he improve basic stats like scoring, rebounding, and assists, but he was also able to improve his efficiency.

He’s spent the summer recovering from a wrist injury, so it will be interesting to see how healthy he is come the start of the season. With him slated as the starting shooting guard, the Magic will definitely need him to continue his improvements if they want to add more wins.

2. Steve Clifford:

By hiring Clifford as new head coach, the Orlando Magic hope that he’ll be able to develop this young roster into a winning team. Steve has carved out a comfortable spot in the league as a defensive savant, developing his skills under both Van Gundy brothers before taking over as the coach of the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2013.

While he wasn’t able to make any deep runs in the playoffs, he did get there two out of five seasons. He never really had a championship caliber roster, but he was definitely able to coach his teams to be solid defensively.

The Magic were very strategic in hiring Clifford. As you look at their roster, three names stick out right away as defensive building blocks: Mohamed Bamba, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac. Throw in Jonathon Simmons, and you’ve got yourself quite the group. These players, as mentioned previously, boast length, athleticism, and technique. Clifford should be able to utilize these players’ unique skillsets right away to help the Magic get off to a strong start.

3. D.J. Augustin:

If there is one thing we’ve learned while watching the NBA the past few years, it is that teams can live or die by the three. D.J. Augustin was one of the best three point shooters in the league last year at 41.9 percent. The Magic weren’t flawed in starting Elfrid Payton over Augustin, as he is much younger and definitely had room to develop, but allowing Augustin more minutes per page gives the team a much better opportunity at stretching the floor on offense. D.J. is an elite three-point shooter and will keep defenses on their heels whenever he has the ball.

4. The New Frontcourt

We cannot wait to see the three-man monster lineup on defense of Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, and Mohamed Bamba. Those three players will terrorize opposing teams at the rim. Two of the three can absolutely hold their own when switching onto smaller players, as well.

As the season goes on and this group gets more and more minutes together, they are going to help the Orlando Magic morph into a defensive-minded team that this league hasn’t seen. Clifford will help put these players in the right positions. Don’t be surprised if the Magic finish as a top-five team defensively.

– Jordan Hicks

Strengths

While this team has struggled immensely since the departure of Dwight Howard, this young, raw core that they’ve pieced together over the last few years has to totally look like a bright spot. They’ve been able to draft some really intriguing pieces that all harbor elite length, athleticism, and playmaking ability.

It will be interesting to see if the new head coach can help instill a winning culture to a team that is used to losing games. Looking at the roster as a whole, Jonathon Simmons is one of the few players that has recently been a part of a winning culture. Getting a new coach in there that is used to winning a lot more games than most of the players should be viewed as a positive.

– Jordan Hicks

Weaknesses

A clear weakness is their lack of a true distributor. By waiving Shelvin Mack, the Magic no longer have anyone on their roster that can successfully distribute the ball. D.J. Augustin has always been a solid backup point guard, but he’s never been more than just that. By trading Payton and waiving Mack, they’ve handicapped themselves to a serious lack of depth at the point guard position.

Jerian Grant is coming off his best season yet with the Chicago Bulls, so it will be interesting to see what he brings to the table with Orlando. He will likely start the season as backup point guard, but thanks in part to his youth, Orlando may throw him into the starting spot if he proves he is worth the development.

While they have plenty of pieces to work with defensively, they are coming off a season in which they finished twentieth in the league in defensive rating. This has certainly been a weak point the last couple of seasons, so their recent draft acquisitions and new coaching hire have been made for a reason.

– Jordan Hicks

The Burning Question:

Can Steve Clifford Change the Losing Culture of this Young Team?

History matters with a question like this. In looking at Clifford’s track record as an NBA head coach, there is reason to believe that he can. During his first season with the Charlotte Bobcats, he led them to a 43-39 record as well as the playoffs. Their two previous years the Bobcats had a combined win total of only 28.

This shows that Clifford has the ability to make an immediate impact by employing his defense-first mentality. One could also argue that this young Magic roster has a lot more upside than the roster he took over in Charlotte. It will be interesting to see as the season progresses, but one thing is for certain: This Magic team will be exciting.

– Jordan Hicks

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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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