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Washington Wizards 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Washington Wizards are the clear-cut front-runner to win the Southeast Division. The question is can they come together as a team to really compete for something more than that? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Wizards in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Washington Wizards are here to play solid but not spectacular basketball, reach the playoffs, win a series and then graciously bow out — just as they have in three of the last five years. More or less, the Wizards sport a former All-NBA point guard with an All-Star-minded sidekick and compete in the weaker conference, but they’ve never managed to defeat their massive second-round hurdles. To their credit, however, Washington keeps trying to improve wherever they can each offseason instead of fruitlessly blowing it all up.

Due to financial constraints, Washington could only make middle-tier moves this summer and did so by trading Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers, signing Dwight Howard and drafting Troy Brown Jr. On top of that, they added Jeff Green and claimed Thomas Bryant off waivers. Those moves won’t make them championship challengers, but there’s still hope that they’ll finally become conference contenders — a fate they’ve chased since John Wall arrived in 2010.

Supported once again by Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr., is this the year that the Wizards fulfill their destiny or will they be just another bump in the road on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals?

To start us off, here are some thoughts from the Basketball Insiders team about the Wizards’ upcoming season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green this offseason. The Philadelphia 76ers are already a top Eastern Conference team with two young stars on track to become superstars and a core of talented young players. The Boston Celtics are getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injury this season. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards acquired Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard. To be fair, Rivers and Howard are both capable players who have limitations in their respective games but could help Washington this season. However, it’s hard to argue that Washington did anything to push themselves ahead of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. For some teams that doesn’t matter a whole lot since they aren’t currently trying to contend for a championship. The Wizards are and there doesn’t seem to be any path for them to push ahead of their top Eastern Conference rivals at this point, much less the top Western Conference teams.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

John Wall and Bradley Beal should be one of the best back courts in basketball. Otto Porter Jr. should be the perfect compliment to that talented duo. The Wizards should be a top team in the Eastern Conference. But they haven’t been and it’s hard to understand why. Last season, Washington was at its best when the team lived by the “Everybody Eats” mantra. If they just abide by that, they should be able to accomplish what they want. Maybe swapping out Marcin Gortat for Dwight Howard will do the trick? Who knows, but Scott Brooks is running out of time to elevate D.C. to where it’s supposed to be. Winning the Southeast Division would be a good start.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Wizards are going all in this season. Usually, adding Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers to your supporting cast would be seen as a good thing. Instead, most NBA audiences laughed at the Wizards because of Rivers’ and Howard’s reputations as locker room cancers. That wouldn’t have been a problem if it weren’t for the Wizards having a very tense locker room situation last season. Even if Rivers and Howard are on their best behavior, there’s no guarantee that adding them will pay off. For all the talent that they have, Washington has failed to maintain any consistency in the John Wall-Bradley Beal era. If things don’t improve, this could be it for them.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Matt John

At this point, it seems like we have a pretty good idea of what the Washington Wizards are. At their very best, they can compete with nearly anyone in the East – but they’re rarely at that level for a number of reasons, and look like little but a middling playoff team in the weaker conference when they’re not on. Their offseason, which included bringing in the mercurial Dwight Howard as well as Austin Rivers, likely won’t do much to stem that inconsistency. It starts at the top with point guard John Wall, who shows flashes of greatness nearly every game…when he isn’t leading the league in time spent walking on the court, that is. Unless Howard is truly revitalized (long shot at this point) or the Wizards get major internal development from someone like Kelly Oubre or Bradley Beal, it’s hard to see them really challenging the Bostons and Torontos of the East – even if they take home another division crown.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

On pure talent, the Wizards should be among the top teams in basketball; on pure talent. The problem is there is something that’s just not right with the Wizards. Maybe they break through this year and not only stay healthy, but learn how to compete as a unit. The problem is there just isn’t enough evidence to think that’s going to happen. On talent, the Wizards should be the second or third best team in the East, but until they show they can make that happen, it’s hard to put them much higher than top four.

1st place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

With Wall on the shelf from late January to the end of March, Beal thrived in his featured role. During that period of time, Beal rang up 23.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game and earned his first-ever All-Star appearance. Despite his three-point percentage dropping from an elite 40 percent clip to a serviceable 37.5, Beal averaged 2.4 of them per contest over 82 games. In total, Beal knocked down 199 threes, even without his backcourt playmaker for half of them, and finished 13th-best in the NBA during 2017-18. When Beal is cooking, there are few players more unguardable — take, for example, the 41 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and 6-for-11 from three-point range effort he dropped on Oklahoma City just before February.

The sharpshooter even doled out a career-best 11 assists during a narrow three-point loss to the Indiana Pacers last year — so perhaps a larger share of the offensive possessions should be on the table moving forward. It’s hard to believe that Beal is just 25 years old and his best basketball is surely ahead of him, regardless of usage, role or responsibilities.

Top Defensive Player: Dwight Howard

Although Howard has become a maligned personality as of late, he’s still a capable NBA player — particularly so on the defensive end.

Almost incredulously, Wall led the Wizards in blocks per game last season at 1.1, with Gortat trailing shortly behind at 0.7. Over 14 years, Howard has always exceeded that mark, even posting six straight seasons of two-plus blocks per game from 2007-13. Those superhuman efforts are likely long gone for the 32-year-old, but his regular presence will help to mend a sub-par defensive unit. The Wizards allowed 45.4 points in the paint per game, which registered as the 12th-worst mark in 2017-18, while their 4.3 blocks were also toward the league cellar — two places Howard can definitively make a difference in.

Top Playmaker: John Wall

Headed into his ninth season, Wall remains one of the greatest playmakers this league has. Through 41 contests last year, Wall notched 9.6 assists per game, a tally that would’ve left him trailing just Russell Westbrook (10.3) had he officially qualified for the category. In the three seasons before that, Wall averaged 10-plus assists and landed in the top three league-wide each time too. In transition, defending Wall and his lightning-quick pace remains a total nightmare. Lag off and Wall will burn you, but guard him tightly and the unpredictable trailblazer will always find a wide-open three-point shooter.

Wall continues to be a frontrunner for the best point guard in the Eastern Conference and his fast-breaking distribution qualities are a huge reason why. The Wizards went just 20-21 without Wall in 2017-18, so they’ll be anxious to get a full campaign from their five-time All-Star and floor general. Quite simply, Wall puts his teammates in position to succeed — so don’t be surprised if Howard undergoes a much-needed career resurgence next to this playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Bradley Beal

Due to the extra volume Beal experienced sans Wall, this category comes out a little skewed. Undoubtedly, Beal made (38) and took (124) the most clutch-time shots for Washington in 2017-18 and converted on a 30.6 percent conversion rate. Of course, there’s room to improve, but with teams keying in on Beal, it’s a solid total for the soon to be seventh-year marksman. To put it in context, Beal was only beat out in overall clutch-time buckets by LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard — so, it’s still some great company to keep, all things considered.

In addition, a special shout-out goes to Oubre, who shot 16-for-32 in such late-game situations, including a 47.1 percent clip from three-point range as well — a promising outlook for the developing wing, but more on him below.

The Unheralded Player: Kelly Oubre Jr.

While the Wizards’ current stars and big money players earn the headlines, Oubre’s development is among the most important storylines heading into the new campaign. The merits of Wall, Beal, Howard and Porter are not up for debate but if the Wizards want to take the next step, they’ll look toward Oubre to elevate his game. Oubre, 22, can be a handful for defenders and the 6-foot-7 small forward averaged 11.8 points and 4.5 rebounds on 40.3 percent last season. When Oubre scored 14 or more points in 2017-18, Washington went 17-10 — so his consistency will be key for a bench unit that recorded only 35.6 points per game, 15th-worst in the NBA.

If Oubre can improve his 34.1 percent rate from behind the arc, there’s a chance that the potential-laden professional can breakout before he reaches restricted free agency next summer.

Best New Addition: Dwight Howard

Howard arrives in Washington this fall after being traded by Charlotte to Brooklyn, wherein the Nets promptly bought him out — so he’s officially joining his fourth team in four seasons. Even if the experiment eventually comes up short, Howard appears to be a major upgrade at center. The future Hall of Famer has averaged a double-double in all 14 years of his career and, with little competition behind him, that streak isn’t in jeopardy. Gortat was no slouch (8.4 points, 7.6 rebounds), but rolling the dice on Howard is precisely the type of inexpensive, high-reward gamble this franchise must take.

Howard has played with loads of talented point guards in the past — James Harden and Kemba Walker included — but his fit next to Wall feels like its been years in the making. Howard can still (mostly) anchor a defense and catch lobs, so what else could you want? As an above average rim protector and shot blocker, Howard effectively addresses two weakness in one fell swoop.

If the locker room stays intact, this will be a no-brainer victory for the Wizards.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Otto Porter Jr.

One year removed from matching a max offer sheet from the Nets, the return on Porter has been acceptable, if not a tiny bit disappointing. Last campaign, his averages of 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.8 three-pointers on 44.1 percent from deep nearly replicated his statistics from the season prior. That type of output is a nice sign of consistency, but it’s also not the bump the Wizards would’ve wanted after committing all that precious cap space to him.

Still, there’s plenty to like about the Washington wing as he further grows into his all-around game. For starters, the economical 6-foot-8 scorer shot 50.3 percent in 2017-18, a mark only beat out by Michael Beasley (50.7), E’Twaun Moore (50.8), Kevin Durant (51.6) and LeBron James (54.2) for small forwards. Of those four, none of them shot the three at a better clip than Porter, who finished with the third-best rate in the entire NBA.

To this point, we all know what the Wizards’ stars are capable of but if they want to get past their Celtics and Raptors-sized obstacles, they’ll need Porter to take a giant leap. As one of the league’s exceedingly efficient shooters, he’s already won half the battle — but will the volume opportunities ever be there for him alongside Wall and Beal?

2. Markieff Morris

After setting a career-bests for three-point percentage in back-to-back seasons, Morris has been a steady contributor in the nation’s capital. Now just one year away from an important trip to free agency at the age of 29, expect the 6-foot-10 stretch forward to keep the good times rolling. At 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game — and with the fifth-most technical fouls in 2017-18 — Morris will likely become the last option on offense with Howard in tow. Certainly, that’s not particularly ideal for Morris, but it’s a solid situation for the Wizards, both offensively and defensively.

Morris is not elite on either end, but he’ll adequately chip in, won’t take touches away from the stars and, importantly, cares a whole lot about winning ball games. For a team looking to compete at the highest levels, Washington could do far, far worse than the reliable hand of Morris.

3. Austin Rivers

No longer a punchline, Rivers should be a fantastic fit for Washington off the bench. As an improved ball handler, a solid defender and an even better bucket-getter, Rivers’ final efforts in Los Angeles turned out to be his best statistical outcome yet. Rivers averaged 15.1 points, four assists and 1.2 steals over 59 starts for the Clippers, even knocking down a career-best 2.2 three-pointers per game on 37.8 percent from long range to boot. Obviously, he’ll be behind Wall and Beal on the depth chart and he won’t hit 33.7 minutes per game again, but his acquisition might turn out to be one of the most consequential, under-the-radar moves this summer.

Rivers will join forces with Oubre, Brown and Green to revitalize a middle of the pack second unit — but don’t be surprised if the veteran starts popping up in Sixth Man of the Year discussions come March.

4. Scott Brooks

Heading into his third season as head coach of the Wizards, Brooks has done a fine job of keeping his roster of strong personalities content — this season, it’ll be even tougher. Howard and Rivers don’t come without their own personal dramas, but Brooks has succeeded in the balancing act thus far. Last year was tarnished by Wall’s injury, but 2016-17 saw the Wizards rank ninth in offensive rating (108.5). If Brooks can get them back to that level of execution, then Washington could be in the mix for home-court advantage in the first round.

Every conference contender needs a great coach: the Celtics have Brad Stevens, the Raptors had Dwane Casey and the 76ers have Brett Brown. Brooks frequently goes unmentioned in this category, but he’s proven himself in the postseason before — now he may finally have the roster to do so again.

5. Troy Brown. Jr.

The selection of Brown at No. 15 overall this June came as a surprise with their backcourt starters locked down for the foreseeable future. For now, Brown won’t help much in the three-point shooting department — 29.1 percent at Oregon — but he’ll provide plenty of bench versatility nonetheless. In Las Vegas this summer, Brown averaged 18.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals over five games — an exhibition of skills that’ll hopefully keep him out of the G-League and well-supplanted in Brooks’ rotation soon enough.

He’s got legitimate promise as an NBA-level scorer and at the age of 19, Brown is the fourth-youngest player in the entire league, so this might be a name you’ll see for a very long time. To start the campaign, Brown will be buried behind Porter and Oubre, but keep an eye on him. His three-point efforts will need to improve if he wants to carve out a bigger and better role this season and beyond. However, Wizards fans should be awfully excited about this rookie.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

When Wall is healthy, the Wizards often rank near the top in transition points per game, even finishing in the top four in 2016-17. Ultimately, the previous campaign was a struggle without Wall for half the year and their record — 43-39, eighth seed — reflected that. This time around, Wall is not only injury-free but the additions of Rivers and Brown, plus the furthered development of Porter and Oubre, should conceivably have the Wizards in the conversation once again.

Out on the fast break, Wall makes the Wizards a dangerous dark horse candidate in the conference without question. Both Morris and Porter will extend the floor around Wall and Beal, while Howard is gifted at cleaning the glass. Even the bench, which has been remarkably thin in recent seasons, is looking deeper than ever.

If they stay healthy and get back into their signature transition game … you’ve officially been warned.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

The Wizards made just 9.9 three-pointers per game in 2017-18, the 10th-worst mark in the entire league. Wall will get his teammates into high-value shot attempts, naturally, but the jury is still out on the point guard’s career-best 37.1 three-point percentage from last year. Rivers’ 2.2 three-pointers per game will help ease those worries, but they came with starter’s minutes, a number that’ll decrease playing behind an All-Star-worthy backcourt. The Wizards’ strongest competition in the conference all made three-pointers with success last season — Raptors (fourth-best), Celtics (seventh) and 76ers (12th) — so the D.C.-based team has some catching up to do.

Beyond that, those large personalities will need to be watched closely, particularly so after adding Howard and Rivers. In an already weirdly-contested locker room, all this has the potential to be a beautiful, unifying partnership or a regrettable mess.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the Wizards a member of the Eastern Conference elite?

While the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers have the best odds of controlling the top postseason seeds again, there’s definitely an argument for Washington to join the pack, if not for a few caveats. Again, they must stay healthy. Generally speaking, Wall has done so since 2013, but we’ve seen how average this team ends up being without him — and would be again, even with their improved depth this time around.

Furthermore, the locker room must keep it together — another gimme, clearly, but this is no cakewalk. It’ll be up to Brooks to build a rotation that caters to everybody’s strengths and weakness while also maximizing their window for success, which is obviously easier said than done. However, this is probably the most talented roster the Wizards have had in over a decade.

Unfortunately, the Wizards also must deal with the pesky Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami HEAT in the conference’s second-tier, so they’re no longer the same shoo-in they’ve been before. Washington will absolutely improve on their barely .500 record from 2017-18 and they’ve got an outside shot of competing with the very best the East has to offer.

But even with the measurable upgrades in Howard, Rivers and Brown, it’d be tough to pick against their conference rivals like Boston or Philadelphia in the playoffs.

– Ben Nadeau

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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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