The late, great Kobe Bryant once said “It takes a special person to want to play for (the Lakers) and take the pressure that comes along with playing for this franchise.”
Although he was referencing “superstar” free agents, this ideology is very applicable to the Lakers’ current role players.
The Lakers arguably have the largest global brand in all professional sports, and their brand was further amplified this season as they became championship contenders. But certainly not all amplification is positive. Role players on any LeBron James-led team are notorious for getting criticized. Couple this criticism with a passionate Lakers fan base and all hell will break loose when a player makes a mistake. If a player wants to be a successful Laker, superstar or not, they must have the thick skin Bryant referred to.
Understandably, James and Anthony Davis did not receive the same amount of criticism from the fans as did Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and other teammates. Although the superstar duo performed well on a nightly basis, these three role players — Green, Rondo and Caldwell-Pope — were much more instrumental in the Lakers’ championship run than people give them credit for.
It is a shame that Green’s most memorable moment from the playoffs will likely be him missing the potential game-winning shot in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The criticism of Green’s shooting was well deserved at times, as he is paid $15 million per year to make 3s, but his defensive impact and his ability to draw the defense to him are understated.
Green was clearly not the same defender as he was in San Antonio, but he still made his mark. Green registered a plus/minus of 7.9 in the playoffs, which shows he still made a positive impact on the court regardless of what the eye test suggested. To put his plus/minus into context, Davis had a plus/minus of 8.8 in the playoffs, which isn’t terribly higher than Green’s.
Of course, any knowledgeable basketball fan knows that a plus/minus does not tell the whole story and Davis was astronomically more important to the Lakers’ success. But still, Green’s plus/minus should not be disregarded. Even if Green isn’t hitting on all cylinders, defenses still respected his shooting and allowed for James or Davis to not get constantly double-teamed, as defenders couldn’t overcommit to the Lakers’ superstar players.
Understandably, the media and casual fans will likely focus on Green’s subpar shooting, but Green’s contributions, no matter how subtle, had a definite positive impact on the Lakers’ championship.
Although Rondo is not the biggest fan of the nickname, the numbers show that “Playoff Rondo” is no myth, and the 2020 playoffs only reinforced this nickname. Rondo was a steady presence throughout the playoffs, chipping in 8.9 points per game and 6.6 assists per game.
While these stats aren’t superstar numbers, fans must remember Rondo’s role: a backup point guard. These numbers don’t even take into account Rondo’s intangibles, such as his leadership on and off the court.
Furthermore, Rondo shot an impressive 40% from three in the playoffs, which is far above his career average; he also shot more 3s per game in the 2020 playoffs than in any of his other playoff runs.
Rondo’s ability to elevate in big moments was put on display once again in the Lakers’ most important game of the season — the closeout game of the NBA finals. Rondo put up 19 points on an astounding 72.7% clip from the field and shot 75% from the arc. The numbers Rondo recorded not only from this closeout game but from the playoffs at large show his impressive adaptability and why he was instrumental in the Lakers’ playoff run.
Caldwell-Pope was lambasted by Lakers fans for his shooting slumps throughout the season, but he did not let this stop him, as he was the Lakers’ third-highest scorer in the playoffs. Furthermore, Caldwell-Pope had to adapt to a new role, replacing Avery Bradley in the starting lineup. A drastic adjustment such as this usually throws a player off, but Caldwell-Pope stepped up to the plate and excelled. He shot a respectable 37.8% from three and was tied with Lebron for the most made 3s per game on the Lakers.
Furthermore, Caldwell-Pope’s defensive impact was magnified, as the Lakers’ lost arguably their best perimeter defender in Bradley. Caldwell-Pope put up admirable defensive efforts against Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler, James Harden and countless others.
Faced with tough matchups, Caldwell-Pope’s excellence on the offensive end demonstrated his persistence and will to win. The coaching staff undoubtedly knows its personnel the best, and the fact that Caldwell-Pope was third on the team in average minutes played shows how much confidence the staff had in him to perform as he did.
Caldwell-Pope also elevated his play during the finals, in which he averaged 12.8 points per game, and in the closeout championship game, he nearly matched his playoff high of 18 points. Without Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers would have had a much tougher road to a championship, and the Lakers faithful ought to fully appreciate Caldwell-Pope for the performance he delivered.