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San Antonio Spurs 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

For the first time in a decade, the San Antonio Spurs will field a team without one of their former NBA champions. Can the Spurs re-make themselves into legit title contenders again? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the San Antonio Spurs in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Legacy-wise, the Spurs lost so much this summer. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard, all of whom were among the best Spurs of all time, are now off the team. With the three of them out of the picture,  a historic era of basketball is now behind us. But does that mean this is the end of the Spurs’ relevancy? Not necessarily.

When you look past the legacy aspect of who they lost, the Spurs didn’t have that bad of an off-season. Ginobili and Parker were basically rotation players last season who, at their age, were impressive. Losing them at that stage in their careers isn’t that big of a loss. As for how they resolved that bizarre Kawhi situation, the Spurs may have lost an elite player but at least they got a more than proven commodity back for him in DeMar DeRozan. Plus, who knows where Kawhi’s career goes from here?

No matter what his roster may look like, Coach Gregg Popovich should never be doubted. He’s earned the status of being one of the most brilliant basketball minds of all time. Anyone that tunes into the NBA knows that he can make a playoff team out of just about anything. That is precisely why people should really keep their eye on San Antonio this season. They still have most of the same roster they had last season, but with all they lost this summer, they don’t have nearly the same continuity they once prided themselves on for years. Pop will have to do more shuffling than he’s done in years and possibly more so than he’s ever done as Head Coach.

What does he have to work with this season? Let’s take a gander.

FIVE GUYS THINK

I have predicted the regression of the San Antonio Spurs once or twice over the last couple of years and the team always makes me look foolish for it. However, this might be the year to again predict regression for this proud franchise. Manu Ginobili retired this offseason and Tony Parker has joined up with the Charlotte Hornets. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. I am a fan of DeRozan and am excited to see what he can do under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich. However, DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are going to be tasked with leading this team without the cornerstone players that Popovich has relied on for nearly two decades. I’m cautiously optimistic this team will beat expectations but I still think they are going to experience some serious issues this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

If there was ever a year to finally bet on the Spurs underachieving after what seems like a decade straight of doing more with less, it might be this year. The Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto wrapped up an unfortunate saga for the franchise, and Manu Ginobili’s retirement more recently left the Spurs without any of the mainstays we’re used to seeing in the black and grey. DeMar DeRozan is no slouch as a trade return for the Spurs, but they’re woefully short on perimeter shooting and lack the wing defense they’ve had in the past. Gregg Popovich is never short on tricks to pull out of his hat, but if he somehow drags this perimeter-deficient bunch to another 50-win season, it’ll be his most deserved Coach of the Year performance yet.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

No matter what they lose in the off-season, the Spurs should never be counted out. As long as they have Gregg Popovich calling the shots, the Spurs will always be in the conversation. This season, however, has a unique premise. With Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all off the team, the old days are officially gone and in comes a new era. Still, there is plenty of reason to think this team will be fine. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge should keep things afloat. But, the question is, do they have enough talent and continuity to compete with the league’s elite?

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Matt John

Everything left of the 2014 NBA Championship version of the Spurs is gone, so it’s off and into a new era for Gregg Popovich. He’ll have LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Marco Belinelli as his most seasoned veterans to help guide the younger talent on the roster. DeMar DeRozan is going to play with possibly the biggest chip on any player’s shoulder this upcoming year in a San Antonio uniform. Dejounte Murray will be heavily depended on as the orchestrator of the offense as he’s thrust into his most important role to date. It’s hard to picture the postseason without these guys. While many seem to believe their run is over, it will be a cold day in hell when this organization doesn’t play past mid-April.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Indiana Pacers went through a similar situation as San Antonio last year when they needed to trade their best player, and like the Pacers this time last year, the Spurs may come out of the situation with not only a star, but a star that might fit better in the big picture. Let’s be real for a minute, in every scenario you’d want Kawhi Leonard because of his tremendous two-way game, but if you have to part ways, DeMar DeRozan isn’t too shabby as a replacement player, mainly because he’s shown year after year that he can add to and improve his game. The big knock on Leonard was his reluctance to be a vocal leader, something DeRozan has proven to be more than capable of being and with Gregg Popovich in his ear can DeRozan become an MVP caliber future of the franchise guy? The smart money would be yes. DeRozan has a long way to go defensively, but it hard not to see him evolving in that area, mainly because of how good the Spurs staff and process has been with other sub-par defenders. There is no question the Spurs are a different team, but as the league trends more to offense, the Spurs may be better equipped to compete in a loaded Western Conference.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge

DeRozan’s repertoire makes a strong case for him to be the Spurs’ top offensive option. However, Aldridge gets the nod because he has more familiarity in Pop’s system and has proven he can thrive in the Spurs’ offense. Boy, that sounds weird to say remembering where the man was a year ago.

After his numbers took a slight, albeit noticeable hit in his first two years with the Spurs, Aldridge appeared ready to move on from San Antonio. After meeting with Popovich to work out all the kinks, Aldridge changed his mind, got a nice extension and had himself quite the resurgence last season.

With the offense designed more to revolve around him, Aldridge’s scoring numbers went up to 23.2 points a game on 18 shots, while shooting 51 percent from the field. Basically, he put up numbers that re-established him as one of the league’s top offensive big men. Those weren’t just empty numbers either. The Spurs were +6.0 better in net rating offensively with Aldridge on the floor. His statistical output proved that he could fit in Coach Pop’s game plan as the top offensive option.

At 33, there will be questions as to how much time LaMarcus has left as an elite offensive option. Luckily, he’s on a team that should get the most out of him while he’s still in his prime.

Top Defensive Player: Dejounte Murray

With Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson all gone, Dejounte Murray is the obvious choice for the Spurs’ top defender. His 6-foot-5 inch height combined with his absurd 6-foot-10 wingspan made him an all-around menace on the defensive end last season.

His efforts showed themselves through advanced metrics. Murray’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 3.60 led all point guards and was ninth overall among all players. Keep in mind that players who usually are at the top of Defensive Real Plus-Minus are mostly bigs and occasionally wings. Murray is the only point guard in the top ten, and the next point guard after him is Tyus Jones, who was No. 27 at 2.40.

San Antonio’s defense was also much better with Murray as their net rating defensively was +7.8 better with him on the floor. That topped the Spurs’ roster for guys who played at least 1000 minutes.

Murray’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was named to the NBA All-defensive second team in just his second year. His role is bound to expand even more for the Spurs this season. Luckily for them, he’ll be more than ready to do his part on defense.

Top Playmaker: The entire team

Sounds odd doesn’t it? At the same time, it’s not exactly a surprise either given the Spurs’ reputation for unselfish basketball. Seriously though, there really isn’t a top playmaker on this team because if you look at the stats last year, the assists numbers were pretty spread out among the players. Tony Parker led the Spurs in assists per game with 3.5. When you factor in per-36 stats, Parker had a distinguished lead, but now he’s gone. Those who came after him are so even with each other that it’s impossible to say who will be the top playmaker.

This is a good thing. It’s clear cut evidence that the Spurs run a system that everyone follows with precision. There’s no particular stand out as a playmaker because everyone plays as one unit at all times. Maybe somebody will eventually stand out, but for now, the team itself is the top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan

Aldridge may be the Spurs’ best offensive option, but DeRozan should be their go-to guy. DeRozan has a track record for hitting clutch shots in the regular season. He isn’t necessarily automatic but, at the very least, when the game is on the line, DeRozan is never afraid and doesn’t back down. He’s never even afraid to go for the highlight reel in crunchtime either. Seriously, last season he won a game off a buzzer-beating dunk.

DeRozan’s stats in the clutch last season are fine for a player of his caliber. In 41 games that featured clutch-time minutes, DeRozan averaged 4.2 points on 44.5 percent shooting, including 33.3 percent from distance in 3.9 minutes on average. The truth is, when teams are playing in crunchtime against DeRozan, they strategize to stop him primarily.

Unfortunately that track record doesn’t hold up well in the playoffs. Hopefully now that he has Coach Pop to guide him, DeRozan’s clutch play can finally translate when the stakes are much higher.

The Unheralded Player: Rudy Gay

Adding Gay to the Spurs’ roster sparked a lot of skepticism last year because of his reputation as a selfish chucker and his inability to be an effective player on a good team. Expectations for Gay were quite low, especially since he was coming off of a devastating Achilles injury. Gay was by no means spectacular. His averages of 11.5 points, 9.4 field goals attempted and 31.5 percent from three on 21.6 minutes of action are among some of the lowest since his rookie season. Despite that, Gay proved himself to be a productive player on a good team, which is something he hasn’t really done since his days with the Grizzlies.

Another reason why he gets the nod here is because now that it’s almost been two years since he tore his Achilles, he optimistically could regain more of his form. The man is only 32 years old! Also, when you take into account all that the Spurs lost, Gay should expect a more prominent role on the team. Add in his year of experience playing under Pop, and this should be a good year for Rudy Gay.

It may sound odd to say, but San Antonio should be excited for Round Two of Gay and DeRozan.

Best New Addition: DeMar DeRozan

This is an obvious choice for three reasons.

1. The Spurs’ offense was pedestrian last season. Their offensive rating of 107.9 points per 100 possessions was good for 17th in the league. Adding one of the league’s best scorers should be just what the doctor ordered.

2. As evidenced by their diverse playmaking, the Spurs hope to implement DeMar in their pass-heavy offense. Luckily for them, DeRozan made great strides in his passing game last season. His 5.2 assists per game was the highest average of his career and is high enough for them to believe that he should fit seamlessly in their offense.

3. Even without Kawhi, the Spurs managed to win 47 games and snag a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference. Now they basically add one of last season’s MVP candidates to their squad. It would be shocking if they don’t add several wins from DeRozan alone.

-Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Enough has already been said about Coach Pop so let’s just leave it at this. Besides LeBron James, there isn’t another figure currently in basketball who is as reliable and consistent as Gregg Popovich. The man is simply a basketball guru. As long as he runs the plays, his team will always be in the conversation no matter what he has to work with. People can doubt the Spurs. They can’t doubt Pop.

2. Pau Gasol

The man deserves league-wide respect. Even at 37, the future Hall-of-Famer is still chugging away. In his eighteenth year in the NBA, Pau averaged a solid 10.1 points, eight rebounds and 3.1 assists for a winning team. Better yet, he’s added a three-point shot to his skill set, shooting 35.8 percent on 1.6 attempts a game last season. Most impressive of all, Gasol has proven himself to be a positive contributor on defense despite his reputation as a defensive liability. The Spurs’ defense was +2.2 in net rating defensively with Gasol on the floor, and his individual defensive rating was an adequate 102. He should be expected to decline more this season, but Pau Gasol should be revered for both his perseverance and his adaptability.

3. Patty Mills

A shout-out needs to be made for the now longest-tenured Spur on the team. Mills has been both a good soldier and one of the league’s best backup point guards since he joined San Antonio in 2011. The Spurs were +4.7 in net rating offensively with Mills on the floor, which was second on the team after LaMarcus Aldridge. In other words, he was doing exactly what a backup point guard should do. On a team that lost a good chunk of its identity this summer, Mills is one of the few remaining remnants from the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili days. As Pop figures out who deserve minutes, he still has a dependable option in Mills.

4. Jakob Poeltl

Plenty have said it already and it needs to be repeated: Jakob Poeltl was a sneaky good acquisition by San Antonio. He’s a fantastic energy big whose only in his third year in the league and now has Gregg Popovich to learn from. It’s not just what he brings to the table. It’s how timely acquiring him right now is for the Spurs. Pau Gasol will do what he can, but his further decline is inevitable. Should his impact continue to dwindle, Poeltl can pick up the slack. Poeltl shouldn’t have too lofty of expectations, but he should help keep the Spurs on course.

5. The Spurs’ handling of Kawhi Leonard

It’s rare to see a team that has a proven method and track record like the Spurs have their best player turn his back on them. It’s also rare to see a team get good value for a disgruntled star in a situation like that. The Spurs could have waited out the situation hoping Leonard would change his mind or they could have started a rebuild. Instead, they went for the best player offered to them so they could try and continue competing in the Western Conference playoff race. DeMar DeRozan by himself was an impressive haul all things considered. With him on board, the Spurs will still be in the playoff conversation. Hats off to Spurs management for making the best of a serious predicament.

-Matt John

STRENGTHS

Coach Pop. No questions asked. Their key ingredient to their success has been and still is Pop. Besides him though, the Spurs now have two of the league’s top scorers in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. In them, San Antonio has two guys who they can go to when the going gets tough and who should make the offense more dynamic. Also, an underrated strength the Spurs have is their youth. Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl are talented young players to groom, and there’s been a fair amount of chatter surrounding Lonnie Walker IV. This may not be Pop’s most talented roster, but it’s far from average.

-Matt John

WEAKNESSES

Pairing DeRozan with Aldridge will give the Spurs two of the league’s top scorers, but it might be a challenge to run the offense through them since neither are reliable floor spacers. Much has been brought up about the Spurs losing Ginobili, Parker and Leonard, but what about Danny Green and Kyle Anderson? Anderson and Green played big roles for the Spurs, producing their third-best defensive rating last season at 104.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. Losing them could spell disaster for San Antonio on the defensive end.

-Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

Do the Spurs still have what it takes to compete in the west?

Again, the Spurs did a fantastic job in how they handled their fallout with Kawhi. Getting someone as good as DeRozan for a disgruntled player that was leaving one way or another is impressive, epecially when you consider that Kawhi may leave Toronto after this season. But DeMar DeRozan isn’t in the same league as a fully healthy Kawhi Leonard, and he likely never will be. He’s never been a solid defender and he has a long history of failing to step up in the playoffs. If he does his disappearing act again when and if the Spurs make the playoffs, that doesn’t leave them in a promising spot going forward. This is especially the case because the Warriors and the Rockets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and more challengers in the west are knocking on the door.

-Matt John

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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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