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The Point: Empowered Players Know How To Be ‘Next Man Up’

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

Even though he’s considered one of the young guys, Kyle Kuzma is comfortable enough in his own skin to give you his honest take on things. And back on Dec. 22, it was Kuzma who put a different but spot-on spin on the mantra that Frank Vogel and the Lakers have leaned on throughout this season.

LeBron James had missed his first game of the season, sitting out with a thoracic muscle strain. The Lakers lost to Denver.

“It’s kind of hard to next-man-up LeBron,” Kuzma said afterward.

Make no mistake: The next-man-up belief runs deep on this team. It fits uniquely into the structure of a group built around James’ leadership and Anthony Davis’ excellence, with the other players understanding that many outsiders might think they’re all replaceable—but they carry the confidence of feeling irreplaceable anyway.

That’s a credit to the way Vogel has empowered the players in roles—and how Rob Pelinka has assembled the roster. However, it also could only happen because James and Davis have long been known to be two of the league’s most inclusive superstars.

The result is that the guys on this team feel valued, which they should because they’ve taken turns being irreplaceable in a 49-14 season. It might be more Dwight Howard’s rebounding than JaVale McGee’s rim protection on one night. More Jared Dudley’s wisdom than Danny Green’s dead shot on another. Not the next man up in some way today? You might be tomorrow. So rather than feeling like some throwaway sports cliche about stepping up or filling in, the next-man-up theme is concrete for this team. “And that’s going to continue to be the theme,” Alex Caruso said. There is sound, underlying logic to why the Lakers own that mindset when players on any team in any sport might be speaking similar but emptier words when injuries or absences occur.

The Lakers are truly confident they can win in a variety of ways. It just depends what sort of specific help Captain LeBron and First Mate A.D. need in steering the ship to shore on a particular day.

Now, if we were talking about James and Davis being out rather than Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, it’d be wishful thinking to believe the Lakers could just sail on through. But there is real confidence coming from various corners about what others can do now that Bradley has opted out of the rest of the season and Rondo has a fractured thumb.

The Lakers believe this is just another test for their next-man-up spirit—a test they can ace because of the versatility on this roster and how James does even more ball-handling come playoff time anyway.

“I definitely feel confident. I know my teammates are confident in me,” said Quinn Cook, one of the guards who could see more playing time now. “Obviously we wish ‘Do and Avery were here, but it’s always next-man-up mentality. That’s what makes this team so special. My coaches and teammates, we all have confidence in each other. We all believe in ourselves first.”

In the truest sense, the next men up are Dion Waiters and JR Smith. These guys haven’t even had a single turn. Neither has even debuted for the Lakers yet.

Their moments are coming now.

The Lakers’ upcoming scrimmages and seeding games in Florida will include unmooring Waiters and Smith in sink-or-swim situations as potential late-season replacements for Bradley and Rondo. No doubt, there is some deadline pressure here, but Waiters and Smith are coming at their next-man-up opportunities from fresh perspectives as guys who were out of the league until joining the Lakers.

“Obviously you don’t understand what you’ve lost,” Smith said, “till it’s gone.”

As much as all the Lakers are grateful for this attempt at finishing what could be a championship season, Waiters and Smith before the pandemic were in a distant place from where they couldn’t possibly get up off any bench, tear off any warmups and try to be any next man.

Now they have that familiarity again … and that opportunity again.

“It’s just still basketball, and I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Waiters said. “So it’s just being ready when my number is called, and just going out there and trying to impact the game.” Ultimately, that’s the essence of the successful next-man-up’s process: Be eager, but not anxious. Be hungry, but not greedy.

Be yourself, but serve your team.

That’s a balancing act that also means you have to accept when you don’t get to be that next man. For example: Rondo could be back for part of the playoffs, but the Lakers know that some opponents—in particular, the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley—will respond to the absences of Bradley and Rondo by picking up James full court, denying him the ball and forcing him to work just to dribble or organize the offense.

That will mean more playing time for Caruso, perhaps more ball-handling duties for Davis and Kuzma. Although Smith has a higher profile from his days alongside James in Cleveland and offers proven catch-and-shoot capability, bear in mind that the Lakers chose to sign Waiters over Smith in March in large part because of his ball handling that is even more of a need now. Waiters also just last season averaged 12 points in a major 26-minute role for Miami.

Against opponents who don’t try to ball-pressure James that way, Caruso will still be utilized, but Cook could have more chances—while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is clearly more likely to be featured. Vogel has already said Caldwell-Pope is at the front of his line because of how Caldwell-Pope delivered while the injured Bradley’s A1 on-ball defense was missing. Ever after Bradley had returned to health, Vogel was still raving: “KCP’s done the next-man-up mindset times 100. He’s done really, really well.”

At 39.4, Caldwell-Pope led the Lakers in three-point percentage for the season (not counting limited attempts by Howard, McGee and Dudley). Caldwell-Pope’s all-out defensive effort has actually been consistent all season for a defense-first team, and Caldwell-Pope (25.4 minutes per game) already played more than Bradley (24.2) as it was.

Many around the league also believe it is more urgent to have top wing defenders in the playoffs than on-ball point-guard defenders because smaller point guards are more easily game-planned against with organized double-team schemes.

It was back in 2015-16 that Caldwell-Pope first drew notice as an elite wing defender—and he thrived in the only playoff series of his career then: averaging 15 points and 1.8 steals while shooting 44.4 percent on threes and playing 40 minutes a game. The caveat is that the playoff stress then was far different than now: Caldwell-Pope’s Detroit team was the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and was predictably swept out of the first round by James’ eventual champion Cleveland team.

“My game has expanded,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I’ve grown a lot in areas that I needed to be better at. I think I’m ready for this opportunity.”

Even when no injuries or absences open pathways to playing time for the Lakers, that next-man-up philosophy still applies. Not only is Vogel welcoming to anyone scoring behind Davis and James—“I really believe our third option on this team with the many, many weapons we have, is the open man,” Vogel said—but the playing rotation is designed to be open-ended.

The final three or four minutes of each game are set up for Vogel to read the game situation and determine what Davis and James could best use to guide that ship home. Wanting an extra life preserver on defense might mean Howard instead of Kuzma. Expecting certain double teams on James might lead to a big bet on the outside shooting of Caldwell-Pope over Caruso. Individual matchups matter. Maybe a certain guy has a hot hand.

It’s part science, part intuition. Either way, Vogel has to go with something or someone he trusts to get the job done at crunchtime—and now amid playoff pressure.

That’s why it’s important to note that Vogel described Waiters and Smith as bringing “toughness and swag.” Carrying confidence is a huge part of filling the void your team needs filled, especially if you aren’t the usual one who fills it. This is a relevant time to bring up the “Playoff Rondo” reputation of a certain injured player Vogel described earlier this season as having an impact that is “measured in swag.”

Rondo already has the playoff resume that some of his teammates will be trying to build now. But part of the fun of this will be seeing which Lakers are the next men up in that way: Which are ready to step into big playoff moments and prove their worth for the first time? Which are ready to prove their worth for another time, but for the first time as Lakers and join a long line of playoff heroes for this franchise?

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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