Here we go again!
Last year, this writer dove into what the association was like ten years before the incoming season. Now here we are again. We’re traveling back to the year 2010. Back when the iPad was first sweeping the nation, the economy was still in the toilet, and the Toy Story trilogy had concluded on a high note. Or so we thought.
Coming into the 2009-2010 season, it seemed the season itself wasn’t what everyone was paying the most attention to. What was on everyone’s minds was the upcoming free agency of one LeBron James.
Following Cleveland’s shocking playoff exit in the Conference Finals, there started to be rumblings that James’ days as a Cavalier were numbered. We all know what happened the following summer, which is worth discussing next year. At the time, however, Cleveland’s top competitor for James’ services was believed to be the New York Knicks.
Even though the Knicks hadn’t been to the playoffs in almost a decade, and were still washing off the stink of Isiah Thomas’ managerial tenure, they still had their prestige of being a legendary franchise by their side. Meanwhile, everyone else in the league was gearing up for an upcoming epic free agency period.
This may sound irrelevant now since we didn’t get our answer until after the season ended, but this hoopla all started circulating just before the 2009-2010 season started, and it would never go away. In fact, we saw several cap-clearing moves by teams in order to facilitate a potential deal for James, so how could it? As for the season itself, we still got one entertaining enough that James’ decision didn’t distract all that much.
Now last year, this started off by asking how well the team who won the championship in this specific year would do in the modern NBA. The Lakers repeated as champions in 2010 with almost the exact same team, so there’s not much use in asking if they could do it in today’s league, so we’re not going to start there.
Where we’re going to start, however, is the little change the Lakers made before they went on their road to repeating — Replacing Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest.
More Talent Does Not Equal Higher Ceiling
In the summer of 2009, we saw quite a few (declining) stars who went to new situations either to rehabilitate their career image and/or to get a ring. Ron Artest, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson all found new homes before the fall of 2009. It was so repetitive among aging stars that we were quite shocked when Grant Hill opted to re-sign with the Suns when contenders were inquiring about his services.
Because of this, the ceilings for all the teams involved — minus Memphis, who Iverson was employed with for exactly three games before his release — was projected to be even higher than they already were.
The Lakers were adding a 17-point scorer and a former defensive player of the year. The Celtics were adding a big who made the all-star the previous season that was coming off their bench. The Cavaliers were adding a reigning all-star and all-NBA center. The Magic were adding an electric 20-point scorer. The already elite teams managed to get better on paper.
But when they took the court, they weren’t. At least not really. The star-studded additions didn’t hurt the teams too much when their seasons ended, but they didn’t add any new dimensions.
Before coming to the Lakers, Artest was usually a focal point in the offense, so he was used to doing things his way. That’s what made him such an awkward fit in LA since the Lakers already had an established pecking order with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. They wanted Ron to be a 3&D wing, but he was used to being so much more. Artest would later hit two enormous shots in the Lakers’ playoff run, but he never really found his stride in Los Angeles.
Rasheed Wallace should have been a perfect third big off the Celtics bench. He had plenty of playoff experience, and his skillset alone should have made it easier for Boston to weather Kevin Garnett’s recovery following a devastating knee injury. Instead, ‘Sheed came into the season out of shape, played lackadaisical on both sides of the floor, and didn’t really try until the postseason came around. Though he gave his all when it counted, his frustrating play made him one of the least-liked Celtics in recent memory.
Of the stars that have been brought up, Vinsanity did the best for what his team asked him. Vince Carter was handed a bigger role than the previous two mentioned. He was supposed to fill in for the departed Hedo Turkoglu. He put up pretty good numbers, but he just wasn’t the same player at 33 nor could he do what Hedo did. Vince definitely tried, and he did an adequate job. In the end, Orlando acquired him just a year or so too late. Sadly, if it weren’t for Nick Anderson, these two free throws would have been the most infamous in Orlando Magic history.
As for Shaq’s time with the Cavs, well that deserves a conversation on its own, which leads us to our next topic.
Less (Shaq) Is More!
When Orlando proved in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals that they could handle whatever LeBron and the Cavs threw at them, it was clear they needed someone who could stop them, or more specifically Dwight Howard, in their tracks. The recently resurgent Shaq could definitely suffice.
Shaq was coming off of his best season in years, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while also staying on the court for 75 games. Even at 37, it looked as if Shaq had some juice left after all. Sure, the Suns didn’t make the playoffs, but he looked like a valuable asset to have nonetheless. Cleveland thought as much when they traded for him and, best of all, he was traded for spare parts.
Unfortunately, he didn’t bring the same production as a Cavalier. In fact, Shaq was probably the last player you’d want on that team. The early James years in Cleveland were a team that relied on running the floor. A younger Shaq would have been just fine in a system like that, but the 38-year-old iteration? Not so much. He wasn’t useless when paired with James, but he could not keep up with him.
The Cavs still had the best record in the entire league, but they actually won five fewer games with Shaq than the previous year. In the end, it was all for naught because the Cavaliers never got their rematch with the Magic in the playoffs. A few months later, Shaq would leave Cleveland for the team that eliminated them — the Boston Celtics
As for Phoenix, many thought this was the end for them. Steve Nash wasn’t getting any younger, Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract was up soon and selling off Shaq for basically nothing made it seem like the Suns were Run-n-Done.
But that wasn’t what happened. With Shaq gone, Phoenix re-discovered its style. Nash and Stoudemire were free to run their pick-and-roll game again, while Hill, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley were excellent complementary pieces on the wing. Add Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, youngsters Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez and, suddenly, the Suns had an elite squad again.
With a fully healthy season from almost everyone, Phoenix worked its way to a 54-28 record, placing them third in the Western Conference. The team managed to get past the Trail Blazers in the first round, then stunned the Spurs in a sweep in the second round. The Lakers later stopped the Suns in a hard-fought conference finals.
It’s just amazing how, when you look back at both the Cavs and the Suns in 2010, Shaq, one of the greatest players of all-time, affected both of their seasons because of how badly he fit with both of them.
It’s also depressing to note that ten years later, the Suns have yet to reach the playoffs again.
About The Label “Future Star”
The 2009 draft had some studs coming out of the woodworks. They still have plenty of basketball left in them, but Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Blake Griffin have all done enough in their careers to earn a place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Even players below their tier, e.g. DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday, have had pretty impressive careers in their own right.
But, back in 2010, not much attention was put on any of those five. To be fair, Blake was out for the season was a fractured patella, while Harden was a mere bench player for the Thunder and Curry had a satisfactory rookie campaign on a crappy Warriors squad. Holiday was just a rotation player for Philadelphia, and DeRozan was highly regarded for his highlight-reel dunks and not much else.
When the 2009-2010 season came around, the players who were believed to be the future stars from the group were Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings.
Evans had one of the best rookie seasons the NBA had ever seen, averaging 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Those were numbers repeated only by the likes of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James in their respective rookie seasons. A team like Sacramento, who needed any kind of excitement after giving away Ron Artest to the Rockets the year before, needed someone who could promise a good future. Evans was exactly what the doctor ordered.
But sadly, that first year was Evans’ peak. Injuries sustained over the years halted his progress as a player and he never approached the status of a future star ever again.
In Brandon Jennings’ case, his status as a future star was even more short-lived. Jennings, who created controversy when he decided to forego college to go play overseas before the NBA, exploded when he first arrived in Milwaukee.
His first full month in the league, Jennings averaged 22.1 points on 42/49/78 splits, which included a 55 point explosion against the Warriors. Because of that, it seemed as though that Jennings would become the player we now see in Stephen Curry.
But, as it turned out, those numbers were just a flash in the pan. Jennings didn’t come close to matching those numbers throughout the remainder of his rookie season. He had a fine year, and even finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, but Jennings failed to match the hype.
No matter how good or bad a rookie may look, we never know a young player’s future until we truly see it for ourselves. It may sound odd now, but there was a legitimate belief that Evans and Jennings were future superstars because of their performances. We now know that’s not the case but, because of their stories, patience is now preached as far as player development and growth are concerned, for better or worse.
What Could Have Been
We talked about how Phoenix and Cleveland did during the 2009-2010 season. But did you know that they almost agreed to another deal at the trade deadline in which the Cavs would have acquired Stoudemire for JJ Hickson?
James and Stoudemire would have been an interesting pairing as both were set to enter free agency. Stoudemire was an offensively stout rim runner who absolutely could have dominated the fast break with James much like he did with Nash. The Cavs opted to take a half measure by trading for Antawn Jamison and retaining Hickson’s because they believed in his potential. But we’ve already gone over what happened after that.
That wasn’t the only almost trade that could have changed a lot. Before Jamison was traded to Cleveland, Washington had discussed trading both him and Caron Butler to the Boston Celtics for Ray Allen and cap filler. Jamison and Butler would have given the Celtics a lot more scoring depth. Plus, at the time, NBA players could go back to the teams that had just traded them, so adding them and getting Ray back could have pushed them over the top. As we’ve previously established, more talent does not lead to a higher ceiling.
But enough about mega-trades that fell through. What about teams that failed to reach their potential because of unfortunate circumstances?
People forget how good the Bucks were during that season. Brandon Jennings’ strong rookie campaign helped them, but Andrew Bogut coming into his own as one of the league’s best all-around bigs as well. Add newly acquired John Salmons, and Milwaukee was a team nobody wanted to face.
That was until Bogut suffered a freak elbow injury just before the playoffs started. Before that, Bogut was on his way to All-NBA honors because of his excellent play on both offense and defense. With him gone, the Bucks never recovered. Bogut himself was never quite the same. Had that injury never happened, the Bucks could have had something special on their hands, which probably would have led to a lack of Giannis Antetokounmpo for them now.
Every year, we wonder what could have been had certain things gone the other way, and the 2009-2010 season was no exception.
There were other storylines that were going on. The NBA suffered a PR crisis after the Wizards had a gun standoff between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenden. As awful as that was, it inadvertently won them the John Wall sweepstakes. Looking back, who knows how the landscape of the NBA would look today had that not happened?
We talked about stars joining good teams, but one that falls under the radar was when San Antonio traded for Richard Jefferson. Many believed the Spurs were going to take it to a whole new level when they acquired him in the offseason, but Jefferson was bizarrely awful with Gregg Popovich. Thus, the Spurs fell apart and were swept by the Suns in the second round.
The last thing to note was that the 2009-2010 season was when Kevin Durant and the Thunder finally put it together to earn their first playoff berth. While the Lakers eliminated them in the first round, we knew that it was just the beginning for them.
Of course, everything mentioned here culminated in the infamous summer of 2010. But that will be tabled for next year.
NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers
Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.
When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.
Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.
Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.
But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.
In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.
This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.
There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.
Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.
He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.
The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.
In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.
Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.
During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.
Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.
Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.
For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.
With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.
When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.
He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.
The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.
When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.
Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.
Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.
Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.
NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee
The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.
Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.
The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.
For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.
But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.
Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.
“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”
On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.
He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.
He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.
Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.
“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”
Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.
He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.
For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.
“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.
“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”
And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.
“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”
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.
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.”