Will the NBA Champion Require an Asterisk? Only If These Players Don't Play

Nekias DuncanFeatured Columnist IJuly 8, 2020

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Outside of the obvious health concerns associated with the NBA's bubble plan, the "asterisk" question seems to be the most prevalent about the restart. 

That's probably an easy "yes" on the board. This is uncharted territory—halting a season midway through because of a pandemic and then restarting it more than four months later in a neutral site with no fans. Assuming the season and postseason are completed, it will be like no other season in league history.

The better question is, what does the asterisk for this season actually mean?

I'd argue that this year's champion should be revered because of these circumstances. The physical strain this season will take—trying to recapture a groove after nearly a four-month layoff—is unfathomable. On top of that, add the toll of dealing with the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the attention and energy so many of the league's players are putting toward social justice—plus the mental and physical costs of racial injustice all around.

Of course, there's also a strong argument that an asterisk should hold a negative connotation. Key players for playoff teams—such as Victor Oladipo and Avery Bradley—have opted out of joining the bubble. Other important players, like Nikola Jokic and Malcolm Brogdon, are currently recovering from the virus. If those players (or others) can't take part or are affected during the run, it's hard to view the eventual champion as legitimately as we would under normal circumstances.

That leads to another question: Which players' absences, because of the virus or otherwise, would cause this year's title to lose its meaning?

To answer this, I narrowed the field from 22 teams to 10, using the betting odds from Caesars Sportsbook to select those with the best shot at a post-pandemic title. From there, I picked one star and one key role player from each of those teams.

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Let's dig in.

            

Miami Heat (40-1 odds)

The Star: Bam Adebayo

While Jimmy Butler was the prize of Miami's offseason, Adebayo has proved to be the team's most indispensable piece.

With Hassan Whiteside out of the picture, Adebayo stepped into a full-time starter role. He has flourished, becoming one of four players to average at least 16.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists this season. Add in a steal and a block per game, and the list shrinks to Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

There isn't much Adebayo can't do offensively. He's a dynamic roll threat in the pick-and-roll, able to sky high for lobs or make plays in advantage situations. He serves as Miami's high-post hub, either flowing into dribble handoffs with shooters or slipping them for drives to the hoop.

Adebayo brings similar versatility to the defensive end. He's stout on the interior, using his plus length (7'3" wingspan) and leaping ability to challenge shots at the rim. His mobility allows him to hang with perimeter players in a pinch, making him an ideal 5 in smaller lineups.

Adebayo unlocks the Heat on both ends of the floor. If the Heat want to play big, he has the ball skills and rim-running ability to wreak havoc alongside a spacing big. He also has the mobility to defend 4s and even guards in a pinch. If the Heat go smaller, he has the rim-protecting and rebounding chops to hold down the fort. No other big—heck, no other player—on the Heat's roster offers that type of multifaceted ability.

             

The Role Player: Duncan Robinson

Has there been a bigger "where the heck did he come from?" story than Duncan Robinson?

Once seen as a throwaway end-of-the-year signing, Robinson appeared in just 15 games in 2018-19. The marksman converted only 28.6 percent of his triples and largely looked out of place on an NBA court.

But then he had an offseason in the Heat's development program.

Robinson put on some muscle and showcased improved ball-handling and shot-making for Miami's better-than-expected NBA Summer League team. Head coach Erik Spoelstra made Robinson a full-time starter Nov. 7, and he has responded by drilling nearly 45 percent of his threes on 8.7 attempts per game.

Even those numbers don't really do him justice. He's a flamethrower from virtually everywhere, able to launch off screens, out of dribble handoffs or off the catch after relocating. Robinson is especially dangerous on handoffs. Not only does he lead the NBA in handoff points (209), but he's also by far the most efficient player in the league (1.35 points per possession) in those actions (min. 50 possessions).

Though Robinson isn't the Heat's most talented player, an argument could be made he's their most important offensive weapon. Miami's offense is 8.5 points per 100 possession better when Robinson is on the floor because of the way he bends opposing defenses. The Heat have other good shooters like rookie Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic, but neither of them strikes fear into the hearts of opponents like Robinson.

           

Dallas Mavericks (35-1 odds)

The Star: Luka Doncic

It's hard to overstate how dominant of a force Luka Doncic is offensively.

The raw numbers are absurd: 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists. He leads the NBA with 14 triple-doubles. His intersection of usage (37.0) and efficiency (58.4 true shooting percentage) is practically unheard of. Only five other times has a player had a usage rate over 35 and a true shooting percentage above 58: the last three seasons of James Harden, Antetokounmpo this season and Bernard King back in 1985.

Not only is Doncic on that list, but he's also done it in his age-20 season, five years younger than anyone else to pull it off.

It all starts with his prowess as a passer. At 6'7", Doncic is able to see over the top of smaller defenders and toss darts all over the court. He possesses preternatural court vision and can see passing windows mere mortals couldn't dream of.

While passing is his best gift, it certainly isn't his only one. He's a solid ball-handler with a tremendous sense of pace. Much like James Harden, Doncic uses deceleration to throw defenders off-balance. This allows him to set up his step-back triple or to create cleaner driving lanes to the basket.

What Doncic is doing is historic from an individual and team perspective. The Dallas Mavericks don't just have the league's highest offensive rating this season at 115.8—they have the best offensive rating in NBA history.

Head coach Rick Carlisle likes to maintain a group of capable point guards to keep his offense afloat, but it's hard to imagine this team could survive a long-term absence from Doncic.

          

The Role Player: Dorian Finney-Smith

The Mavericks have a middling defense, ranking 17th in efficiency this season. They're a bit mushy at the point of attack, an unsurprising development considering their undersized point guard rotation. In general, the Mavericks lack stoppers on the perimeter, making it even more paramount that Dorian Finney-Smith is available at all times.

He is the lone wing on the roster who can be trusted to handle tough assignments without being a zero on the other end, especially since Courtney Lee—what's left of him, anyway—is out of commission. Finney-Smith has done his usual work defending both wing positions, but he has complemented that by draining a career-high 37.4 percent of his triples. That two-way value helps explain why the Mavericks have outscored opponents by 7.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

            

Philadelphia 76ers (25-1 odds)

The Star: Joel Embiid

While Ben Simmons is one of the NBA's most versatile players on both ends of the floor, it was hard to overlook how much of a detriment his shooting woes have been in each of the past two postseasons.

Embiid has felt a bit rickety this season. He has missed 21 games and didn't play with his usual "oomph" in some of the appearances he did make. Yet he completely changes the calculus of both teams whenever he's on the floor.

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In the midst of a down year, mired by injuries and lineup changes, Embiid has slapped up a 23-and-12 season. Teams can't give him single coverage without running the risk of getting their bigs in foul trouble. Embiid has done a better job of beating double-teams with the pass, though there's still improvement to be made.

Defensively, he has averaged a career-low 1.3 blocks. Part of that is effort, but a larger part is that teams are terrified to attack the paint with Embiid on the floor. The Sixers rank sixth in defensive rating (107.2). With Embiid on the floor, that number improves to 101.4, slightly better than the Milwaukee Bucks' league-leading mark (101.6).

Simmons may be the safer bet and more valuable long-term piece, but Embiid is still the engine of this team on both ends.

            

The Role Player: Furkan Korkmaz

Five players have averaged at least 4.0 three-point attempts per game for the Sixers this season. Only two of them eclipse the 35 percent mark from three: Tobias Harris (36.2 percent) and Furkan Korkmaz (39.7). Harris feels a bit overqualified—and definitely overpaid—to be listed as a role player, so we'll roll with Korkmaz.

His three-point shooting is immensely important for this team. More specifically, his ability to space the floor for either of Philly's Big Two could potentially swing a series. It's no secret that Simmons and Embiid have done their best work without the other. A large part of that is having an extra spacer on the floor. Via PBP Stats, Korkmaz has thrived alongside Simmons (plus-8.4 in 297 minutes) and Embiid (plus-16.8 in 212 minutes).

             

Denver Nuggets (18-1 odds)

The Star: Nikola Jokic

Jokic has arguably been the NBA's best center in the calendar year of 2020. From Jan. 1 onward, he has averaged 22.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.4 steals. He has scored from all three levels, flung passes all over the lot and continued to prove he is a plus defender with his activity in ball screens.

It's no coincidence that his best run of the season coincided with getting into better shape.

Things are a bit up in the air now. On one hand, Jokic looks to be even more fit, as seen in a video that emerged about a month ago.

On the other hand, he tested positive for COVID-19 last month. Jokic has since tested negative and should join the team in Orlando soon. However, there's no telling what his actual effectiveness will be.

              

The Role Player: Paul Millsap

It's easy to trust the Nuggets on offense. The virtuosic passing and scoring of Jokic should guarantee a hard-to-stop attack. Add in the perimeter creation from Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr., and it's hard to envision the team struggles to put points on the board.

(This, of course, assumes Mike Malone trusts Porter enough to play him. We, uh, do not know that yet.)

The questions come defensively. Jokic has been (unfairly) highlighted as a weak point because of his lateral quickness in space. Beyond him, the question becomes, who can defend power wings on this team?

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Put another way: Who can guard LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard in a potential series?

The best answer the Nuggets have to that question may be Paul Millsap, the wily vet who continues to kick butt on both ends of the floor. It's a bit unfair to call him a role player; not many players impact winning as much as he does, in as many ways as he does.

Millsap has drained 44.0 percent of his threes this season, by far a career high. He still provides value as a plus passer as well as an emergency post scorer against mismatches. He's long been the most important piece of Denver's defensive puzzle, operating as the fail-safe whenever Jokic traps a pick-and-roll.

The Nuggets are better equipped to deal with a Millsap absence thanks to the acquisition of Jerami Grant, but you can't replace the combination of skill, toughness, IQ and experience Millsap brings to the table.

           

Toronto Raptors (17-1 odds)

The Star: Pascal Siakam

It was a tough choice between Siakam and the oft-disrespected Kyle Lowry, but Siakam wins out because of the offensive load he carries.

He has taken over the role of top dog from Leonard, posting career highs in points (23.6), rebounds (7.5), assists (3.6), steals (1.0) and blocks (0.9). There's been a dip in efficiency—his true shooting percentage has dropped from 62.8 last season to 55.9—but that's to be expected from such a drastic increase in usage.

Very quietly, Spicy P has been highly productive in money time, averaging 42.0 points and 11.4 rebounds per 100 clutch possessions. His combination of size, length, ball skills, quickness and touch makes him a matchup nightmare. Add in his fidget spinner style of play, and you begin to understand why his free-throw rate is so high in the clutch.

Siakam is a great defender on a team full of them, but his versatility helps unlock what Nick Nurse wants to do: a little bit of everything. He's proved he can hold his own against elite scoring wings, keep guards in front in a pinch and hold down the fort enough to play some small-ball 5. His reactivity off the ball makes him dangerous at the edge of whatever zone Nurse wants to employ.

In short: The Raptors can't afford to lose Siakam if they want to defend their title. 

           

The Role Player: Marc Gasol

Gasol was a key figure on last year's title team, operating as a spacer and high-post hub on one end and a paint protector on the other. That formula has held this year, though he has only been available in 36 games.

When he's been on the court, he's been a godsend. His 40.2 percent clip from three is easily a career high. His 6.0 assists per 100 possessions is on par with his All-Star season of 2014-15. Opponents are shooting 57.5 percent inside six feet against Gasol, four percentage points lower than their average.

Gasol's unique blend of skills looms large for the postseason. He's one of the few centers in the league who can credibly bang with a guy like Joel Embiid on the low block and then force him out of the paint on the other end. He provides similar strengths against Milwaukee, once again the (regular-season) class of the East.

             

Boston Celtics (15-1 odds)

The Star: Jayson Tatum

Before the season was halted, we were witnessing a capital-L leap.

Tatum is posting career highs in points (23.6), rebounds (7.1), assists (2.9), steals (1.4) and blocks (0.9). He is drilling 39.8 percent of his threes on 7.1 attempts, nearly doubling his attempts from the year before (3.9). His usage (22.1 to 28.6), assist rate (10.0 to 14.0) and true shooting percentage (54.7 to 56.2) have increased while his turnover rate has stayed flat (9.7). It's incredibly difficult to increase your workload and get more efficient in the process.

Tatum's shot selection has shifted to align more with the "threes or frees" ethos. His three-point and free-throw rates have increased, while the percentage of mid-range jumpers he takes has gone down. He became one of the NBA's deadliest deep pull-up shooters practically overnight.

While the offensive explosion has rightfully earned praise, Tatum's defense is just as impressive. He can credibly defend 2-through-4, though his best work comes off the ball. Not many players in the league can "split the difference"—defend two off-ball players at once—as well as Tatum can. He has a keen sense for where the ball is going in advantage situations and routinely turns those advantages into turnovers.

Tatum's growth didn't just bump him up a couple of tiers; it has helped establish the Celtics' hierarchy. He's the clear No. 1 option with Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown settling in behind him. Taking Tatum out of the equation would force Boston to recalibrate around the talented but undersized Walker, admittedly a fine option but a problematic one against bigger teams.

           

The Role Player: Marcus Smart

Could the answer be anyone else but Smart?

(Well, yes. We don't know how long Gordon Hayward will be in the bubble, and the center depth behind Daniel Theis is…questionable.)

Affectionately known as "Smarf" in certain Twitter circles, Smart is the very definition of a Swiss Army knife. He has plus playmaking chops in the pick-and-roll. He's turned himself into a credible three-point threat, having drilled 35.6 percent of his triples over the past two seasons. He's shot much better on off-the-bounce threes (40.4 percent) than he has on spot-ups (31.4 percent) this season. He can still mash smaller guards on the block when the time calls for it.

Most of all, Smart puts in work on the defensive end.

There's no player he doesn't think he can guard. In practice, there aren't many players he can't guard. His strength allows him to fight through screens or punch above his weight on the block. In addition to his physical gifts, he's incredibly instinctual. Smart seems to be everywhere at once and can guard anyone at any time.

Those are the easy things to point out, and they help explain why the Celtics outscore opponents by nearly seven points per 100 possessions with Smart on the court. But more than that, when he takes a charge, grabs a contested rebound or dives for a loose ball, it invigorates his team. The boost everyone around him gets from watching him play is impossible to measure.

            

Houston Rockets (12-1 odds)

The Star: James Harden

With all due respect to Russell Westbrook, the former MVP who is averaging 32-8-7 since Jan. 1, the Rockets go as far as Harden does. 

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He's the NBA's most dangerous scorer, a magician with a never-ending bag to pull from. His ability to get unassisted buckets forces defenses to shade toward him. Oftentimes, he's able to score anyway. If not, he has the passing chops to give his teammates advantageous situations to attack.

Teams have gotten desperate in their efforts to contain Harden. They've gone with extreme shades to force him to his right; teams have employed traps at—and sometimes even before—half court. It's almost comical to watch Harden bend defenses to the point of no return.

You can't replicate that kind of attention. Even when Westbrook gets going, teams will duck under picks and dare him to shoot. They still concede something to him. With Harden, teams have almost universally decided they'd rather bank on defending Westbrook-led 4-on-3s than play Harden straight up.

              

The Role Player: PJ Tucker

While the Rockets' moves to go center-less are centered (sorry, I had to) on spacing the floor for the Harden-Westbrook combo, that shift couldn't be made without Tucker's ability to punch above his weight.

Tucker has long been one of the NBA's best defenders, able to bang with LeBron James one night and take on Nikola Jokic the next. That kind of versatility doesn't grow on trees; it especially doesn't come in fire hydrant-like packages like it does with Tucker.

What's a bit undersold is the value he brings offensively. He's a strong center when duty calls and a timely offensive rebounder. More importantly for Houston, Tucker has emerged as the NBA's corner merchant. Over the last three seasons, nobody in the NBA has taken (686) or made (272) more corner threes than Tucker.

Losing Tucker would mean relying on a well-past-his-prime Tyson Chandler or the human dice roll of Jeff Green to log substantial minutes at the 5.

Houston would not be fond of either of those arrangements.

           

Los Angeles Clippers (13-4 odds)

The Star: Kawhi Leonard

Well, duh.

The Clippers gave up the farm—future star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and approximately 37 first-round picks—to bring in Leonard (and Paul George). They've load-managed Kawhi; he's appeared in 51 of the Clippers' 64 games, and he's averaging his lowest full-season minute load since the 2014-15 campaign.

In short, Leonard has been worth it. He's averaging a shade under 27 points per contest, showcasing the same three-level scoring that helped him bring the Raptors their first title last season. But the biggest surprise has been his development as a distributor.

The Clippers have entrusted him with more pick-and-roll reps than ever. It's been a worthwhile bet; Leonard has apparently downloaded an update that features improved passing chops.

And then there's the defense.

Leonard has probably hovered between 80-90 percent effectiveness, which still puts him in the upper echelon of defenders in the league. He hasn't defended top options as often as he did in San Antonio, but that's part of regular-season maintenance, not a lack of ability. Leonard can rev it up when he needs to.

It's always fun—and devastating for the opponent—when Kawhi enters "I hope you don't plan on scoring" mode.

Even with George and other quality pieces on the roster, losing Leonard would be devastating. The Clippers have barely broken even—a plus-0.6 net rating—with him on the bench this season. A potential Battle of L.A. would lose significant luster without him in the fold. 

             

The Role Player: Landry Shamet

Speaking of quality pieces on the Clippers roster, how about we give Landry Shamet some love?

The CliffsNotes on Shamet: He's built in the JJ Redick mold. Head coach Doc Rivers uses Shamet in a lot of the same actions as he did with Redick, and for good reason. Shamet possesses a silky-smooth jumper and does a fantastic job of squaring himself no matter how he catches the ball.

Much like Redick, Shamet can shake loose off the ball for spot-up attempts or keep the chain moving with quick-hitting pull-ups on the move.

The value of Shamet is twofold. As mentioned above, he brings tremendous value as an off-ball mover. As Leonard and George (to a lesser extent) handle a majority of the on-ball reps, a spacer like Shamet makes it hard for defenses to key in on the stars. Losing track of him could lead to three points, while giving him too much attention allows a pair of (super)stars more room to operate.

On the other side of the coin, Shamet gives the Clippers a closing option at the 2 who won't get mercilessly picked on defensively like Lou Williams will be in a postseason setting. The Patrick Beverley-Shamet-George-Leonard-Montrezl Harrell lineup hasn't played much together, though the early returns have been encouraging

            

Milwaukee Bucks (11-4 odds)

The Star: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Hot take: Giannis is the engine that makes the Bucks run on both ends of the floor.

He's the NBA's most dangerous paint weapon, a Eurostepping giant with never-ending arms and cruel intentions. Nobody has made (434) or attempted (595) more shots at the rim. Among 33 players who have attempted at least 300 shots at the rim, only five have converted at a higher rate than Antetokounmpo (72.9 percent) has.

Four of those guys—Mitchell Robinson (75.6), Rudy Gobert (74.7), John Collins (74.5) and  Anthony Davis (73.1)—are bigs. Luka Doncic has converted 73.1 percent of his rim attempts, a marginal difference on nearly 300 fewer attempts than Giannis.

The Bucks offense is still good with Giannis off the floor—Khris Middleton is good, folks!—but it becomes a well-oiled machine (112.6 offensive rating) with him in the game. Teams attempt to wall off the paint whenever he's on the floor; not only does that not work, but that extra attention also opens up the floor for everyone else.

That's both sides of the Giannis Effect in action. Three Grizzlies collapse in the paint as Antetokounmpo starts his drive from the top of the key. He swings the ball to Middleton, who's able to drive from the corner since Solomon Hill (No. 44) is out of position. The overcorrection to neutralize Middleton's drive frees up a window for the pocket pass back to Giannis, who then finishes the play with an emphatic jam.

He is also the table setter on the defensive end. His on-ball versatility is key; he's one of the rare players who can actually defend all five positions in a pinch. His size, length and strength allow him to bang with 4s and 5s, while he moves well enough laterally to put guards and wings in a box.

Where he really shines is off the ball. That same intersection of length and lateral quickness means he can never truly be taken out of a play. If either of his teammates gets beat—out of isolation, out of pick-and-roll or even after offensive rebounds—he can teleport for steals or blocks. Heck, even routine passes aren't safe with him in the vicinity.

The Bucks already have the best defense in the league, but it's nearly eight points better per 100 possessions when Giannis is on the floor. Losing him would rid the Bucks of their best off-ball playmaker, as well as their trump card on the ball.

             

The Role Player: Brook Lopez

As the NBA has become a more space-oriented league, slow brutes have lost their already limited luster. Bigs have been forced to reinvent themselves at the risk of becoming obsolete.

That's what makes the transformation of Brook Lopez so noteworthy.

Mostly known as a post technician with the Nets, Lopez has turned himself into a rare three-and-D center. He's taken 1,121 threes over the last three seasons, making him the league leader among 7-footers and one of two bigs (Lauri Markkanen, 1,050) to eclipse 1,000 attempts. 

Lopez's long-range accuracy looks underwhelming at first glance (34.2 percent in that span), but it's brought down because of how deep his attempts are. Of those 1,121 attempts, 588 have come from 26 feet or farther. He's drained 30.8 percent of those attempts, while knocking down 37.9 percent of the shorter threes.

Still, those deep shots have value. Teams normally want to keep their centers in the paint to help against Giannis drives. If they decide to play closer to Lopez, driving lanes are even more open. If they stay in the paint, Lopez has ample room to fire.

On the other end, he has quietly become one of the NBA's elite interior defenders. Opponents have shot at least eight percentage points below their average at the rim against Lopez in each of the past three seasons, including a differential of 17.3 percentage points this season.

Robin Lopez, the mascot-hating brother of Brook, provides a reasonable facsimile with a solid punch off the bench for the Bucks. However, he isn't nearly the shooter (34.4 percent on 1.6 attempts this year) or rim protector (career 1.2 blocks) Brook is.

             

Los Angeles Lakers (9-5 odds)

The Star: LeBron James

25.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 10.6 assists in Year 17. Honestly, the case could be made right there.

Maybe three other players—Harden, Westbrook and Doncic—could reproduce that stat line, and they all have far less wear on their tires than LeBron does.

This is arguably his best passing season—not just because of his career high in assists per game, but because he's had to walk a tighter rope in the half court as the Lakers employ two-big lineups much more often than last season.

He's picked up his effort on the defensive end, a welcome shift from last year's showing. While he doesn't pick up top-tier assignments as much as he did in his younger days, he remains one of the NBA's best communicators and off-ball playmakers. 

In short: LeBron is, at the very worst, the second-best player in basketball with a uniquely difficult load to carry offensively. The Lakers have Anthony Davis, conservatively a top-10 player in the league, and have still managed to be outscored when LeBron is on the bench.

             

The Role Player: Alex Caruso

To say Alex Caruso is a polarizing NBA player would be quite the understatement. His per-game numbers—5.4 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists—don't scream "super important player to a title team," much less "cult figure." That hasn't stopped him from getting that type of attention, much to the chagrin of non-Lakers fans.

If you look past the social media hoopla that surrounds Caruso and dig deeper than his base stats, you'll see why the Lakers likely can't win a title without him.

With Avery Bradley's decision to opt out of the season, Caruso claims the title as the Lakers' best three-and-D option at point guard. Honestly, that argument could've been made before Bradley bowed out.

Pick-and-roll ball-handlers generate just 0.71 points per possession when defended by Caruso. He generally does a good job of staying connected over screens and can flash his hands to make plays if the ball isn't secure. He shined as a helper, reading the flow of offensive possessions and pouncing on errant passes.

Offensively, Caruso brings more value off the ball than on it. He's converted 35.5 percent of his triples and has been able to create scoring opportunities for himself as a cutter and screener.

It's worth noting that Caruso and LeBron have chemistry. Via PBP Stats, the Lakers have outscored opponents by over 21 points per 100 possessions with that duo on the floor. Surprisingly, Caruso-sans-LeBron lineups have fared pretty well (plus-2.2 in 493 minutes). 

In the playoffs, the Lakers will need to give James some sort of rest. Staying neutral (or better) in those minutes is important. Caruso is a steady enough lead option to hold down the fort. In addition to thriving alongside LeBron, that makes him one of the Lakers' most important players.

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