One last goodbye to Lakers champs

Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were two major Finals performers for the Lakers (Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

It seems poetic that on Kobe Bryant Day, August 24th, another champion left the Los Angeles Lakers.

Jared Dudley’s departure to join the Dallas Mavericks’ coaching staff under Jason Kidd was the latest in an exodus of players from the 2020 title team, leaving just LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Dwight Howard (after a short hiatus by way of Philadelphia) on the roster from the historic squad that won the organization’s 17th NBA championship.

This summer alone saw the departures of Dudley, Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso. The latter three, especially, were bittersweet (or perhaps only bitter) exits of three players that the Lakers faithful saw grow at different points in their careers.

Caldwell-Pope was a reclamation project when he joined the Lakers; unable to secure a long-term contract elsewhere, he signed a one-year deal in Los Angeles to recoup his value. His first two seasons were filled with frustrations, going from a “veteran” on a young team to a role player on a squad with LeBron-sized expectations.

The chaotic fastbreaks and streaky shooting did not immediately endear KCP to Lakers fans but the franchise stuck by him. Howard’s public support of the guard through early struggles became a rallying cry and a symbol of the closeness and unity of a truly special set of players. It seemed to galvanize the new Washington Wizard, as he quickly turned from an unfair punchline to the third best player on a championship team, with huge moments in the NBA Finals to seal his place in Lakers history.

Mar 12, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Indiana Pacers guard T.J. McConnell (9) drives to the basket while Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) defends during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Where Caldwell-Pope entered Lakers’ fans hearts as a young but seasoned veteran finding his place in the league, Kuzma and Caruso did so as mere rookies.

Kuzma was drafted late in the first round as a slight surprise selection. The D’Angelo Russell trade that gave the Lakers the pick to select Kuz only made it harder for fans to accept the new member of their young core. But Kuz excelled from day one, showing an almost instinctive scoring ability that none of the team’s recent lottery picks had done to that point.

Kuzma would become a victim of that early success with the hype surrounding him after that rookie season. In an ever-changing role first next to LeBron then alongside Davis, Kuzma was never able to replicate that same level of scoring in the next three years of his Lakers’ tenure.

But Kuzma grew into that role, in whatever way that was defined. Perhaps he wasn’t the scorer everyone expected after his rookie year, but he was a better player. His perimeter defense, his rebounding, his smart cutting and playmaking all made him a valuable cog in that title-winning machine regardless of the noise that surrounded him. Kuzma symbolized that Lakers’ teams ambitions of accountability, of accepting a role and playing it to near perfection so that the whole was always better than the sum of the parts.

And what can be said of Alex Caruso that hasn’t been already? Caruso joined the Lakers through the G-League more unceremoniously than even Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma. But the guard warmed himself to Lakers fans hearts quicker than most, with his effort and his hops bouncing through the television screen nightly.

Caruso kept growing into his role as well, even if the product was mostly the same: a hard-nosed defensive juggernaut that was there to be the final piece of a multi-faceted puzzle. In a short span of time, Caruso went from a G League call up endearing himself to fans to a starter in the closing game of the NBA Finals, the perfect partner in crime to LeBron – a fact that caught everyone but Lakers fans by surprise. He symbolized the grit and defense-first attitude of the squad but more than anything, he symbolized their will to win against all odds. It’s hard to call a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis an underdog but that mentality that they carried fueled their run and it started with players like Caruso who were never supposed to be there.

There is a lot of excitement around this new look Lakers team and plenty of storylines like Russell Westbrook’s homecoming for fans to attach to. But the stories of KCP, Kuzma, and Caruso will be missed. Those stories of growth and perseverance, of excelling in unexpected situations, of beating the odds to be at the top of the mountain are what makes sports great and Lakers fans were fortunate to enjoy those moments up close for the past few seasons. Even as fans of a franchise that has boasted stars from Wilt to Magic to Kobe To LeBron, Lakers fans appreciate the little guys that punch up and more than anything, they appreciate winners.

This trio of champs is no different.

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