Welcome back to The ‘Shop for another week of NBA talk with Jabari Davis and Lang Greene. They’ll be joined today by SBNation’s Kofie Yeboah to discuss Houston’s chances out West and potential playoff showdowns, the exploits of the Diminutive Dynamo (Isaiah Thomas) and whether a franchise can be built around him, how the Knicks should build around Kristaps Porzingis and more.
Jabari: Allow me to welcome you to the mix this week, Kofie. We certainly appreciate you taking the time to join us. In order to add a bit of perspective and context, how about starting us off by letting us know which player(s), team(s) and eras of ball made you fall in love with the game?
Kofie: Hey guys, thank you for having me on. I grew up watching the NBA on NBC. I didn’t have cable for a long time so I used to VCR the games and then play them over and over again. I would try to imitate the moves in my playroom. I watched the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the Sacramento Kings and of course Allen Iverson. I also remember the Jason Kidd Nets and the Paul Pierce-Antoine Walker Celtics….. I need to find my VCR player, man.
Lang: Good to have you Kofie. Thanks for linking up with us. One thing I want to get your insight on is the Houston Rockets. Is this team for real? Entering the season, I believed the Los Angeles Clippers would be the sleeper team out West but they’ve been ravaged by injuries to their top guys. Houston is winning at a high level and their squad is buying into Mike D’Antoni’s system. But here’s the deal … relying on Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to stay healthy is a risky belief system. Plus their style of play, outscoring people, would work versus 95 percent of the teams in the league – but as I’ve said in the past – no one is beating Golden State in a track meet to 130 points in a seven-game series. What do you think?
Kofie: To be honest, over these last few years I had been hoping the Clippers would get over the playoff hump just so people could stop slandering Chris Paul for never making a Conference Finals. But here we are. Now, as much as I love the Rockets and James Harden, I don’t think that they are the team in the West to dethrone the Warriors. You can see how hard it is to beat the Warriors in one game; it’s even harder for a team to have to beat them four times out of seven.
I’m going to divide it like this. If these two teams do play each other, of course it’s going to be a three-point shootout.
In the first game where the Rockets won these two teams combined for 88 3PA. Eighty. Eight. Thompson, Durant and Curry combined for 10-37 from the three-point line and the Rockets won in double overtime.
In the Warriors’ 125-108 win over the Rockets, they shot 15-38 as a team from distance (39.5 percent) and the Rockets shot 20 percent from deep. As good as the Rockets have been, they’re going to have to hope that Golden State goes cold for four of those seven games but I just can’t see that happening. Curry, Thompson and Durant are such explosive shooters that it’s hard to believe that all three will go that cold. When all three of them go cold it feels like there is something wrong with the balance of the universe and that just goes to show just how good they are at shooting the rock.
I also think that against the Warriors and, in general, that too much of the offensive burden will fall on James Harden and I think that the number of explosive options that the Warriors have at their disposal will just be too much for the Rockets to deal with in a seven-game series. I am praying that everybody on both teams stays healthy and I’ll be happy for a Rockets-Warriors, Rockets-Spurs or Spurs-Warriors series. Any combination of those three will be lit.
Jabari: We dance around this subject each week, but I think we can all agree that if Golden State is healthy, you probably aren’t beating them in a series. Point blank, period. Trouble is, I kind of had that same feeling last season. Especially when they were up 3-1, but I’ll let that go at this stage. I think the Dubs win a hypothetical series against the Rockets in six games, but each one will be some of the most exciting basketball you can ask for.
Let’s kick it out to the Eastern Conference for a bit. Last week, we got into whether the Knicks would ultimately wind up parting ways with Carmelo Anthony and each determined he would likely end up outlasting Phil Jackson in New York. This story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere (admittedly, in part, due to folks just like us), so I’d like to get your thoughts on the idea of finally moving Anthony in the upcoming offseason. In particular, what type of player(s) would you like to see them put around Kristaps Porzingis?
Kofie: Man I’m a huge fan of Kristaps Porzingis taking over the reigns as the Knicks go-to player. I’m also scared that the Knicks are going to aim too high and then end up not giving Kristaps Porzingis the right amount of help that he needs.
This looks like it is going to be a lit Free Agency period.
I’m not an insider, but I do have some people that I would love to see play with Porzingis. If the Knicks want to move on from Derrick Rose at point guard, then this is the free agency class to do so. This is a strong point class that features the likes of Steph Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. Now being realistic, the names I just mentioned are most likely just going to be photoshopped into Knicks jerseys as they sign elsewhere (CAN I DREAM THO?). Looking past the 1st tier, Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday and George Hill are also up for grabs and I wouldn’t mind seeing any of them playing with Porzingod. What do y’all think?
Jabari: Keeping it in the EC, has John Wall played himself into the MVP discussion? He’s averaging 23.1 PPG, 10.1 APG and 4.6 RPG while his team is in the midst of a 19-8 stretch. They are just three games behind the 2nd-seeded Toronto Raptors in the loss column. If they can maintain this and work themselves into a three or four seed, what about Wall finally getting some love?
Kofie: I honestly think that the MVP race is already too clogged up with LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but that doesn’t mean that we need to overlook the fact that John Wall is BALLIN right now. However, John Wall is always going to get love from me because we’re from the same place (Raleigh be the city where we like to do the dance.) And yes, he dunked all over my high school.
Lang: Slow down. Slow down. Slow down. John Wall is balling, make no mistake, but he is on a different tier compared to Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Those two guys are putting up historical seasons. What Wall is doing is great, but I can’t put him in the MVP discussion. Right now, the three guys in my MVP race are James Harden, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. Yeah, I’ll go with the King to close out the top three slots. Funny how a guy averaging 26-8-8 is considered to be “saving” himself for the stretch run. Still the best player in the league, but I would give the MVP nod to … The Beard.
How do you guys feel about Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics? Obviously, we’ve never seen another guy under 5’10 put up these type of scoring numbers in league history but are you guys sold he’s a legitimate franchise player for the Celtics to build around. Meaning, he’s going to be tasked with taking out the King over the next few seasons. Is he that type of player? Or do you need more game footage?
Kofie: It’s amazing how Isaiah Thomas is so cold with it. His speed, quickness and bag of tricks around the rim are really fun to watch. The way he uses his body and the rim to get his shot off is so inspirational to 5’9/5’10 guys like me everywhere. As for building the team around him? Eh, why not?
Either way, he currently has a cast and crew with Al Horford, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder among others so it’s not like everything falls on his shoulders. Oh, I almost forgot, they get the Nets pick next year, which looks like it’s going to be pretty high up there again. LeBron is getting older … the Celtics add another potential piece in the draft. Three years down the road … who knows? I’m excited about it.
Jabari: Understanding the fact that crowded MVP discussions can be a bit unrealistic, I just feel like if we are going to praise Kyle Lowry to the point where he’s at least mentioned as a secondary thought (deserving as well), then we can still give Wall the same acknowledgement for what he’s been able to do with bringing Washington back from an early grave.
The Isaiah Thomas story is fantastic. From being the final pick in the 2011 Draft to being a likely selection for the All-Star game for the second consecutive year. On the question about being a franchise guy, isn’t there a legit argument about him being the best player on a Boston roster that features several lottery picks and another two or three guys that were first-rounders? At any size, if you’re the best player on a team that is just a half game out of the second-seed and you’re throwing up 29.1 PPG while dishing out 6.2 APG and killing it in the fourth quarter and overtime on a nightly basis, then I don’t see how we can call him anything less?
Last topic of the day, and we’ll keep it in the EC as we wrap another great week of b-ball talk. I understand what LeBron James is doing in trying to motivate his teammates while “encouraging” management to make a move to bring in an additional playmaker, but part of me has to chuckle a bit when he complains about the team being a bit top-heavy. Factual, yes, but that’s going to be the case when four of your players are making $85 million.
For the record, I actually agree he’s playing too many minutes and carrying too much of the burden. At 32, you don’t want a guy in his 14th season necessarily racking up the type of taxing minutes he’s playing. His 37.6 MPG is the most he’s played since 2013-14. While this is a burden that comes along with prolonged greatness (‘heavy is the head that wears the crown’ and such), you’re going to want ‘Bron as rested as possible when heading into that playoff push. Is there a guy out there that can pick up some of the playmaking slack for these Cavs? Let me get your best options and a quick idea of how they can actually go out and get a guy if a trade is needed.
Kofie: If LeBron says he needs a playmaker, I’m going to do everything in my power to get him a playmaker. I’m not sure who the Cavs should get, but one thing I do know is that Nate Robinson wants a phone call.
Lang: I like the position LeBron is putting management in. Let’s not get comfortable. That’s the message and the appropriate approach to have when evaluating whether a team has what it takes to win a title. We can debate if the media was the correct platform to voice his opinion, but the Cavaliers only have two guys averaging over two assists per game. Golden State has six, with Klay Thompson (1.9) and Shaun Livingston (1.8) knocking at the door. The Cavaliers’ offense absolutely stops if Kyrie or LeBron isn’t creating.
But on the flip side, I also want LeBron to understand that this is the consequence of advising management to pay everyone their money come free agency time. Pay Kyrie Irving. Pay Kevin Love. Pay himself. Pay Tristan Thompson. Heck, let’s throw J.R. Smith some big bread too this past summer. Now a few months later, hitting the media with we’re “top heavy” seems a bit weak. If you pay everyone at or near max, guess what, you’re going to be top-heavy.
A guy Cleveland should have on their radar is Ish Smith in Detroit. He filled in admirably when Reggie Jackson was hurt earlier in the year. He is a well-traveled veteran that has averaged 7.3 dimes per 30 minutes for his career. He doesn’t have a great jump shot, but analyzing how he’s bounced around the league and adapted to every situation without drama speaks volumes about how the guy might respond if acquired midseason. Just saying.
Hoop Freaks – thanks for joining Kofie, Jabari and myself this week at The ‘Shop. Make sure you hit us up on Twitter and throw some suggestions for next week’s show our way. LG. out.
Georgetown Prospect Omer Yurtseven is Ready for Center Stage
Omer Yurtseven spoke with Drew Maresca about playing for coach Patrick Ewing, training for the NBA during a pandemic and why he feels he’s the best center in the 2020 draft class.
Omer Yurtseven, the 7-foot tall, Georgetown center, posted an impressive junior season in 2019-20; he averaged 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With legitimate NBA size and skills, it’s no mystery why he’s confident. “I don’t think anyone has my combination of tools and versatility,” Yurtseven recently told Basketball insiders. But he’s also a student of the game –well aware of the game’s history and where it’s headed.
“I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of me. I haven’t seen anyone with the tools that I have. I can shoot the ball, the three-ball, and that’s where the big man is headed,” Yurtseven said.
But he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished thus far. He wants more. And he understands that he’ll have to continue working to ensure his spot in the league.
“Some guys might be more athletic [than me], but there are a lot of athletic bigs in the league who don’t stick,” Yurtseven continued. “The skillset is just as important, if not more. So is the [willingness to put in] the work. I think I’m better or as good as any other players, and my rookie year, that’s my goal, to prove that.”
Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown from N.C. State in 2018 after a successful Sophomore season in which he shot over 50 percent on three-point attempts. He sat out the 2018-19 season voluntarily to play for Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing. The opportunity to work with the Hall of Famer was too good to pass up.
“That’s what I was looking for coming in [working with Ewing]. I needed someone to see the game from my perspective,” Yurtseven said. “I was looking for that feedback and I demanded to be coached. I wanted to learn from him. The thing he stayed on me the most about was the pace of the game and how quick my moves would have to be at the next level.
“The turnaround jumper was one of his major weapons,” Yurtseven continued. “He was ahead of his time, but he wanted to see me do the same thing and give 100 percent effort every time.”
Yurtseven jumper is a major weapon in his arsenal, so a pairing with Ewing was an obvious fit. His numbers remained strong during his junior year season with Georgetown, but with one glaring drop off – three-point percentage. Ewing demanded that Yurtseven operate from the low post, a role that the prospect didn’t love, but accepted. Could a new role be to blame for a down shooting year? Yurtseven would never blame anyone other than himself, especially not Ewing. But it’s clear that he felt like he could have done even more if given the opportunity.
“The biggest thing is, I played how I played because that was the role demanded of me. All I had to do was be the inside presence, the defense collapser, and we had to stick to the strategy that coach thought was best for the team.
“I would love to have caught the ball at the top a little more,” Yurtseven continued. “But I was happy to be the post guy. I knew I had to get into my moves quick, so that’s what I did. I sacrificed what I think is my best skills for the team, and I was fine with it.”
It’s evident that Yurtseven is a team-first guy but his three-point shooting took a significant hit. As mentioned above, Yurtseven shot 50 percent on 1.3 three-point attempts as a sophomore in 2017-18, but only 21.4 percent on only half an attempt from long range per game in 2019-20. However, it’s not in his nature to look back – only ahead.
“That’s been my main focus,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “In April, I was shooting 30 or 40 percent two steps behind the college three. That percentage has added up 5 or 10 percent each month. Doing it isn’t easy, but it pays off and that’s why we do it. Now I’m at 75 or 80 percent (in practice sessions) and I’m really confident in my ability.
“And that’s the most important skill set for big men right now,” Yurtseven said. “You’ve got to be a perimeter shooter, as well as a perimeter defender, because big men are evolving away from the rim.”
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yurtseven – and all of the 2020 class – received longer than normal between the end of the 2019-20 NCAA season and the 2020 NBA Draft. And while mock drafts have slowly whittled down the number of prospects, Yurtseven is working tirelessly to improve his stock in any way possible. impressive game.
“No one knew this offseason would be so long. It’s been 6, 8 months already,” Yurtseven continued. “But the team around me has been a blessing – coordinating workouts and making sure I’m taking steps to improve, from nutrition to training lateral quickness to shooting.
“It’s speed and agility, studying the game and having the knowledge about how to position yourself,” Yurtseven continued. “It’s timing and positioning and footwork. It’s all pieces of the puzzle. But the league is another level than college. That’s why I’ve been preparing, increasing lateral quickness, strengthening my glutes, making sure my quads and hips are firing well and that my lateral push-off is explosive as I want.”
“And seeing it translate on the court in two-on-twos and three-on-threes. Switching on guards and providing I can do it to myself. It’s been really fun and fulfilling.”
Yurtseven could have opted to play professionally in Europe – he had numerous professional offers as an 18-year-old prior to coming to joining N.C. State. But Yurtseven is driven by more than money and fame. He is family-oriented and understands the long game. His parents wanted him to receive a college degree before pursuing basketball – a decision that Yurtseven is happy to have made.
“The education was the main reason [I chose to play in the NCAA]. My family’s dream was that I get a college degree.
“When I was 18, [Turkish teams] offered me a huge contract. I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” Yurtseven continued.
“Now it’s time to chase my dream. And my team, my circle, it’s our goal to find a franchise that allows me to grow into a player for 10-plus years – and I’ll never stop working at it.”
Where Yurtseven ultimately plays is anyone’s guess – but he’s already spoken with 17 NBA teams.
Whatever franchise selects the center will add a hard-working and versatile big man that looks well-suited for the modern game – or he may not be selected at all. Yurtseven is currently ranked outside the top 50 according to some mocks – but if he gets an opportunity, he knows how he’d like to play.
“My aim is to get a double-double, year one,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “And, of course, guarding 1 through 5 is another big thing that coaches are looking for. Look at the Bucks, they were ranked first in offense (in 2019-20). Most of their points come from spot-ups. Defenses collapse on Giannis and Middleton – and Brook Lopez stays alone in the corner. I think that’ll be where I get my shots, too.”
Only three rookies in the past 10 years have averaged a double-double in their first season in the league – Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton. That’s an elite club in which Yurtseven is seeking membership. Can he surprise the basketball world? Only time will tell.
There isn’t much data on him against elite big men. But there is one relevant contest worth examining: a Nov. 22 matchup against Duke and Vernon Carey, who is projected to be drafted No. 26 overall by Basketball Insiders.
Carey filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but so did Yurtseven (21 points, five rebounds and four blocks). That night, his entire repertoire was on full display – decisive drop steps, smooth turnaround jump shots over both shoulders, baby hooks, midrange jumpers and hard-nosed defense.
“He was the only true big man that I played against,” Yurtseven recalled. “He was quick and Duke did a good job putting the ball in his hands as soon as he stepped in the paint. I had to exert a lot of energy keeping him off his spot, but I adjusted quickly.
“I figured he would be very strong, but he ultimately didn’t feel as strong as I expected. My maturity and strength helped me a lot.”
Yurtseven’s skill and build render him tailor-made for the NBA. But for most, sticking at the professional peak is about more than skill and body. IQ, on and off of the floor, play a major role, too.
“A lot of guys [in this draft class] haven’t played many games,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “Having a college degree and that experience is a huge tool.
“Playing overseas as a pro is another layer of experience that I have compared to these guys. My IQ has improved. Those one-and-done guys are gonna be thrown into the fire, but I’ll be more ready.
“I saw a study,” Yurtseven explained. “Guys that come in 21-and-under stay in the league two or three years on average. Guys that come in and are 21-or-older stay seven or eight years on average. That just shows how much time it takes to mature your game.”
Comparatively, only four players were 22 or older as on draft night in 2019 – Yurtsevein is 22.
At the end of the day, it will be about how he performs on the court, and he’s comfortable with that.
“If I get drafted, I’ll be the first guy coming out of Turkey with a college degree,” Yurtseven said proudly.
“I’m ready for the next step. I appreciate everyone wishing me luck and supporting me from afar. I can’t wait to show my game’s evolution and reap the benefits of all of the work I’ve put in.”
NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers
Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.
When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.
Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.
Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.
But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.
In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.
This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.
There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.
Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.
He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.
The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.
In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.
Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.
During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.
Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.
Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.
For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.
With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.
When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.
He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.
The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.
When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.
Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.
Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.
Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.
NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee
The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.
Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.
The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.
For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.
But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.
Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.
“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”
On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.
He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.
He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.
Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.
“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”
Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.
He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.
For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.
“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.
“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”
And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.
“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”
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