The NBA is a star-driven league, and it’s almost impossible to win without one. But as important as they are, you still need role players to fill the gaps in between – you need an X-Factor, a player that can elevate his game either as a complement or when your stars are struggling.
So, with the season nearly underway, Basketball Insiders decided to examine a handful of those players who could have a significant impact on the success of their respective teams in the Eastern Conference. To make it more interesting, we tried to stay away from All-Stars.
Philadelphia rolls out one of the quirkiest starting lineups of recent memory. As the league trends towards downsizing, the 76ers bet big, re-signing Tobias Harris and acquiring Al Horford and Josh Richardson in the wake of Jimmy Butler’s departure. Their starting five will be (maybe) the best in the league and an absolute terror on defense.
But Richardson determines how far this team can go. While Butler was the headline exit, JJ Redick’s could be just as impactful. Outside of Redick, Philly didn’t really have any floor spacers – paramount in an offense whose two best players are Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Harris is a career 36 percent three-point shooter and he shot only 33 percent since joining the Sixers in the spring.
He shot 36 percent last season on almost nine attempts per game, a rate that was hampered by his 29 percent clip on off the dribble threes. Now on a team with more talented and versatile offensive weapons, more of his looks should come on spot-up attempts, and those pull-up three numbers should decrease.
Richardson’s biggest offensive responsibility may come in the playoffs as a ballhandler. Simmons’ lack of shooting glows in the postseason – so Jimmy Butler took the lead, operating in isolation and out of the pick and roll. Richardson was occasionally overtaxed as a playmaker in Miami. But with less of a burden throughout the regular season, he can hopefully provide it in spurts when playoff defenses load up on the non-shooting Simmons.
Cooler, he’s a stud defensively. Having him will be a welcome change from hiding Redick on that side of the ball. If Richardson can combine his defense with a portion of Redick’s shooting and Butler’s playmaking, the 76ers will find themselves in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.
LeVert was on a star-like trajectory before dislocating his foot last November. During his three-month absence, D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star and the Nets morphed into a trendy playoff team. LeVert returned in February, struggling for two months before being Brooklyn’s best player in their first-round playoff defeat.
Now, the Nets have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. With Durant set to miss the entire season, LeVert is in prime position to show whether he’s the third member of Brooklyn’s new big three, or an ancillary player for their big two.
Against Philadelphia in the postseason, LeVert was the only Net who could get anything going. He averaged 21/4.6/3.0 on 61.2 percent true shooting in only 29 minutes per game, using his length to get in the lane and challenge the bigs, something Russell was unable to do.
LeVert has the makeup of a prototypical secondary star. He isn’t a full-time lead ballhandler, but he has the talent to do so for stretches – his 24 percent usage in the regular season spiked to 26.9 percent during the playoffs – and he has the same slithery moves you see from someone like Paul George. George was a much better shooter, but his early Indiana years are comparable to what LeVert’s been able to do over the last season when healthy.
If he can stay on this path and bump his three-point percentage up to league-average, Brooklyn may have a third All-Star to join Kyrie and Durant.
If he doesn’t, the Nets will still have a good, useful player – just not one who can get them by Philadelphia or Milwaukee prior to Durant’s New York-era debut next year.
The Pacers are a mystery. Victor Oladipo is still months away from a return. Domantas Sabonis just signed an extension, but Indiana is still trying to figure out how, and if, they can play him with Myles Turner. Speaking of Turner: No one can figure out what he is, or if he’s going to make the mini-leap analysts have predicted for years.
Yet they are historically a postseason staple and they held it together without Oladipo last season. They added Malcolm Brogdon and whatever you think about his money, he’s a hyper-efficient secondary or tertiary playmaker and scorer. Between Brogdon, Sabonis, Turner and newcomer Jeremy Lamb, the Pacers boast four guys that averaged between 14.1 and 15.6 points per game. That’s not a bad problem to have, but someone inevitably has to take the reins as the go-to guy.
T.J. Warren could be the guy to do that. Over the last two seasons, Warren has averaged over 20 points per game per 36 minutes on 55 percent true shooting. After taking only 90 threes in 2017-18, Warren launched 180 from behind the arc and shot an impressive 42.8 percent. This occurred in Phoenix – so there’s a reason to believe this shooting is sustainable with more talented teammates.
There’s a chance Warren’s numbers with the Suns were empty calories on a tanking team. However, at 6-foot-8 and with improved range, Warren projects as a scoring stretch wing on a team that desperately needs it. The final piece of encouragement is this: Assuming that Oladipo comes back as some close-to form of the All-NBA player he was pre-injury, Warren only needs to be a primary scorer for two or three months.
If he manages to do so, Indiana will stay afloat and remain a playoff team. If he doesn’t, they’ll find themselves on the outside looking in when Oladipo returns.
Gordon Hayward may be the most obvious X-Factor in this group; he’s the only former free-agent darling and former All-Star. But after a disappointing 2019-20 that saw Boston win just 49 games, the Celtics may win even less without a full-year of an effective Hayward.
Outside of the top two, the Eastern Conference is wide open. Hayward’s play has the chance to swing Boston anywhere from the No. 3 overall seed to the six or maybe the seventh, contingent on Miami with Butler and pending any midseason moves. The Celtics also lost Al Horford. A tough task already, they will look to replace him with Robert Williams, Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. After a down sophomore year, it seems rash to assume Jayson Tatum will fix himself.
Hayward’s return to his former glory renders these issues void. It adds a second All-Star alongside Kemba Walker and lightens the playmaking load on him as well. It would also lessen the burden on Tatum and Jaylen Brown to produce points, a welcome addition in an offense that should have more continuity than last year.
As currently constructed, Boston has only one star. Hayward’s ascension not only gives them a second but gives Tatum more room to become the potential third. His play post-All-Star needs to be the norm if the Celtics want to remain in the top half of the conference.
These four may not make an All-Star team this season, but their performances will have just as big of impacts on their respective teams as any other players in the Eastern Conference. Thankfully, after a long, long summer and offseason — the wait is finally over. Can these players help push their respective teams over the top?
NBA Daily: The Evolution of Championship Teams
Win or lose, reaching the NBA Finals is a monumental achievement for any team. Getting to the top of the mountain is great, but staying there is the real challenge. Chad Smith looks into why the championship window has gotten even tighter for these organizations.
The 2019-20 season is rounding into form as the final two months of the regular season begin to pan out. While the natural reaction is to pay attention to the contending teams at the top of the standings, it is important to recognize the teams at the very bottom of each conference. Those teams are the Cleveland Cavaliers (16-41) in the East and the Golden State Warriors (12-46) in the West.
It is no secret what has been going on with the Warriors this year. Injuries have decimated this group, as all three of their superstars from their championship runs have gone down or went elsewhere. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both had devastating injuries in back-to-back games in the NBA Finals. Durant ultimately left the Bay Area and traveled east to Brooklyn.
The Splash Brothers remain, but Stephen Curry hasn’t played since October and the team has stated that Thompson will not play at all this season as he continues his rehab. Curry is aiming to return to the floor after this weekend, but there isn’t anything to play for this late into the season.
Similar to the Warriors losing Durant, the Cavs were dealt a major blow when LeBron James left for the second time. His move to the Los Angeles Lakers was justified after he delivered on a championship for his home city. That trophy came with a cost though, as Cleveland has been in purgatory ever since his departure.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel is one thing, but the Cavs have truly hit rock bottom. It may have been doomed from the start, as they made a surprising move in hiring John Beilein. The 67-year old coach was given a five-year contract, though he had never coached a single game in the NBA. Naturally, the fit was less than ideal and after some serious bumps in the road, the two parted ways after just 54 games.
In the four years that LeBron spent during his second stint in Cleveland, they went to The Finals every single year. In their first season without him last year, they finished 19-63, which was the second-worst record in the league just ahead of the circus in New York.
The Warriors and Cavs met in the Finals in four consecutive years from 2015-18. The Warriors made a fifth consecutive trip last year, where they fell apart against the Toronto Raptors.
Toronto had been the punch line of playoff jokes for a number of years, and for good reason. They always came out of the gate stumbling, losing their first game of a series almost like clockwork. That ended last year when Masai Ujiri made the bold move to acquire Kawhi Leonard. They understood the risk of moving one of their most beloved and loyal players in DeMar DeRozan for what would ultimately be a one-year rental.
That one year is all the Raptors needed though, as they pushed all of their chips towards the middle of the table. These types of bold and risky moves are almost a necessity in today’s game, where you need top-tier talent more than ever. Player empowerment and the “business” of the league can coexist — in the right environment.
We saw a prime example of this even before the Golden State era. Pat Riley has always held this stance and proved it in Miami. After getting LeBron and Chris Bosh to team up with Dwyane Wade, the Miami HEAT were instantly labeled a super team. The players invoked their power, but they also understood the business side of things and made it work.
Riley has swung more deals since that dynasty ended, with Jimmy Butler as his primary focus for the immediate future. Their core looks promising, but Miami will not be patient and wait for everyone to develop. Even as one of the top teams in the East, they are not afraid of cashing in these resources in order to win now, because that is ultimately what this is all about. Winning. Not in a year or two, but now.
No one needs to tell Daryl Morey that, as he has drastically re-shaped his Rockets team seemingly every year. Forget about the future, he is dealing superstars left and right, making any move necessary to prepare his team to win this season.
That approach may be something that has held the Boston Celtics back in recent years. Danny Ainge has been hell-bent on trading away their future draft picks. While incredibly enticing at the time, those picks have now flattened as the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings have improved. The hesitation to deal those future picks for win-now players in their prime may come back to haunt him.
Boston still has an exceptional team loaded with talent, but it just feels as though they are missing something. Obviously, the move for Kyrie Irving didn’t pan out, nor did the acquisition of Al Horford, but their core five players are sensational, and Brad Stevens has shown that he is capable of leading a team to the top of the mountain.
Looking at the team with the best record in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks appear to be doing things right. They have arguably the best player in the game in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is likely to have back-to-back MVP seasons in Milwaukee. They are clearly not a large-market team, but they have been operating like one. They understand the importance of all of the factors surrounding this team.
The number one item at the top of the list is to make Giannis feel like it is a place where he can win. As he enters free agency, the last thing they want him to think is that the grass might be greener someplace else. Mike Budenholzer is considered one of the five best coaches in the league. He has figured out how to use the Greek Freak to his maximum value. Jon Horst and the front office have done a marvelous job of surrounding him with the tools he needs.
The willingness to move on from such a promising young talent like Malcolm Brogdon is evidence that they understand the value of winning right now. If they can use the draft pick they acquired to land another top-level player on this roster, it will pay off in a big way. If anything else, it will show Giannis that they are committed to making any moves necessary to keep him there.
The main storyline heading into this season was the depth and the balance of the league. There were not one or two teams that would reign supreme for the entire season. The Western Conference is absolutely loaded, and things are just as competitive with the top six teams in the Eastern Conference. The area of separation is very slim. The trade deadline has come and gone, but buyout candidates and deals in the summer will be critical to the success of teams this season and next.
The win-now mentality has trickled down from front offices to the players. They each now have the power to drastically alter the landscape of the league.
No one is a safe bet anymore, not even the San Antonio Spurs and their 22-year playoff streak.
NBA Daily: 76ers Should Look To Shake Milton For Point Guard Duties
With Ben Simmons out for an extended period, the Philadelphia 76ers will need to rely on a committee of potential ball-handlers to fill those minutes. Quinn Davis looks at one of those candidates and why he should get the bulk of that responsibility.
During the Philadelphia 76ers’ first practice following the All-Star break, Ben Simmons felt some discomfort in his back. The team initially listed him as questionable for their game against the Brooklyn Nets before ruling him out after a pre-game warmup.
The official designation at the time was back tightness, a seemingly short-term nuisance. Concerns were further alleviated when Simmons was listed as probable for a showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday before starting that game.
Sixers fans’ halcyon lasted no more than five minutes, as Simmons was sent to the locker room early in the Bucks game. He was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game and reports followed saying that Simmons would be given an MRI on Sunday.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Simmons had suffered a nerve impingement and would be re-evaluated in two weeks. The actual timeframe for his return to action will likely not be decided on until that re-evaluation.
With Simmons out for an extended period, the team will need contributions from an ensemble cast of ball-handlers. Brown was asked before the game about his decision on who will take the lion’s share of those duties. He answered that it will be “by committee,” citing Josh Richardson, Alec Burks, Shake Milton and Raul Neto as possible candidates.
Out of those four, Milton may be the best option. His combination of point guard skills and three-point shooting make him a good candidate to play with the starters as he did Monday against the Hawks.
Milton’s start was not the only surprise, as Al Horford was also moved back in the starting lineup after being relegated to the bench just before the All-Star break. The decision was prudent as that group got off to a hot start and powered the Sixers to a 41 point first quarter.
Milton was asked after the game about the conversation that preceded his starting nod.
“There was no conversation,” Milton said. “He just came in and slapped my name on the board, that’s how I found out.”
Milton was then asked whether there was any specific preparation for the role.
“No, but it’s my job to be ready for whatever the team needs me to do, I feel comfortable on the ball, I feel comfortable off the ball. When someone goes down, and you don’t want to see injuries, but it’s next man up.”
Milton looked prepared enough, albeit against one of the league’s worst defenses. In 26 minutes, he tallied 7 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists while tying for a team-high plus-21.
While Milton is a riskier play than veterans Burks and Neto, he has a clear advantage in upside. He has shown an improved ability to get to the rim this season and has flashed nice passing ability in tight spaces.
One of the keys to running the offense while Simmons is out will be the ability to get the ball to Joel Embiid on time and on target. Here, the Sixers run one of their more frequently used plays with Richardson setting the screen for Embiid to roll to the rim. The Hawks get caught up on the screen, Milton recognizes that Embiid has sprung free and makes the pass. It’s a tad high, but Embiid hauls it in and gets the layup.
The Sixers also like to run dribble handoffs with their star center. None have perfected it as JJ Redick did in the previous two seasons, but Milton could be useful in this action. This was not on display Monday night, but they have run it with Milton earlier in this season. Here is an example from an earlier contest against the Hawks last month.
Damian Jones jumps out to contest the shot, so Milton finds the rolling Embiid for the dunk.
The obvious caveat here is that both of the above clips were from games against one of the league’s worst defenses. Milton will face more resistance against other teams who will not allow Embiid to get a wide-open role to the rim, leaving Milton with the task of either driving or hitting the pull-up jumper.
His proficiency in those plays will certainly be a factor in his playing time. His passing overall is solid and maybe the best out the Sixers’ backup guard contingent. He can read defenses well thanks to his experience as a point guard through college and in his time in the G League. If he begins to flash close to the pull-up scoring ability of Burks, he will quickly rise to the top of this group.
On the other side of the ball, Milton has held his own. He came into the season with defense being one of his most apparent weaknesses, but he has worked to improve on that end and was tested on Monday against some solid offensive players. While Milton isn’t close to the defender that Simmons and Richardson are, his length and effort level can make him serviceable on that end.
Milton was even tasked with guarding Trae Young for brief periods. Young can make any defender look silly, but Milton managed to play him tight. In this play, he does a good job of sticking with Young around the screen and recovering to block the floater.
Of course, things are a little easier when a player of Embiid’s caliber is patrolling the paint. The perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate has been upping his defensive intensity the last few games, and on the above play makes Trae Young think twice about going all the way to the basket or attempt the lob.
Basketball Insiders asked Brown after the Hawks game about the confidence he has in Milton’s defense.
“He comes in and plays as if he belongs,” Brown said. “He can guard better than I originally thought. He’s got some legit point guard thinking in his psyche and I think he can guard multiple positions.”
And, further, on his defensive improvement:
“Just having a year being around players who are as good as they are,” Milton stated. “When you’re going up against guys like these every day, it forces you to get better and it forces you to work harder.”
Given the success in Philadelphia’s first game, Milton will likely stay as the starter. With Simmons out for an extended period, Brown should stick with him in that spot to foster some chemistry between the young guard and Embiid.
If Milton continues to play well, he could carve out a role for when Simmons returns to the lineup. It’s certainly possible that a tightened playoff rotation leads to Richardson being the only guard on the floor when Simmons sits. If Brown feels more ball-handling is needed, though, it will likely come down to Milton and Burks for that spot.
Burks has the edge in experience, which is usually one of the biggest factors in rotation decisions come April. Burks also is a proven scorer out of the pick-and-roll, an area where the Sixers lack. With that said, Milton’s all-around play could be more valuable for a team with two stars that he will likely be sharing the court with.
There is time for those decisions, though. For now, the Sixers will need to find a way to go on a run and secure home-court without their star point guard.
Taking a chance on Milton’s upside may be their best shot.
NBA Daily: Samanic, Johnson Impressing With Austin Spurs
David Yapkowitz speaks with two young San Antonio Spurs standouts, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, about their time in Austin with the G League.
For rookies starting their NBA careers in today’s league, their journey is a little bit different than in the past.
In prior years, rookies who weren’t in the rotation immediately were often buried on the bench and relegated to garbage time minutes. It could be a frustrating and difficult situation for players used to being team focal points in college or high school.
What’s changed within the past decade is the way NBA teams have used the G League. The G League has grown tremendously to the point where almost every NBA team has its own affiliate. The New Orleans Pelicans became the 28th team to have an affiliate this season with the Erie Bayhawks, leaving only the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers without a G League team.
More and more NBA teams have begun using their G League affiliates to get their young players playing time and development that they wouldn’t receive by staying the entire season with their NBA parent club.
One team that has taken full advantage in recent years of having a G League affiliate is the San Antonio Spurs. When the Columbus Dragons of the then NBA D League relocated to Austin, Texas, they were purchased by the Spurs and renamed the Austin Toros. They’ve since changed their name to the Austin Spurs.
Throughout their team history, Austin has had several call-ups to the NBA, and San Antonio has used its affiliate to get young players seasoning and development. Within the past five years, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker, all Spurs first-round draft picks, saw extensive time in the G League as rookies.
Coming into this season, San Antonio had two first-round picks, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, who didn’t figure to be in the rotation right away. To this point, Samanic has yet to suit up for San Antonio and Johnson has played in only four games. Both have spent the majority of their time in Austin.
Samanic was an intriguing prospect with a bit of a versatile skill set when the Spurs made him the 19th overall pick in last summer’s draft. He can score in the paint, handle the ball a bit and has improving range on his jump shot.
A native of Croatia, Samanic played professionally in Slovenia and Spain before declaring for the 2019 NBA draft. As a youth, he participated in the Adidas EuroCamp, an NBA pre-draft camp, and he had a few Division 1 schools monitoring him. He opted to play professionally while preparing for the NBA.
He’s spent the entirety of his rookie year thus far in Austin, where he’s been adjusting to the American pro game.
“It’s much different. I go from game-to-game and we practice a lot so that’s made it easier,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “Being with this group has helped me a lot, too. Just being more physical, coming here and adjusting to the physicality.”
In 31 games with Austin, Samanic is putting up 15.3 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the field to go with 7.6 rebounds. He’s had several double-doubles and after struggling a little bit early in the season, seems to have found a bit of a rhythm. He’s shooting only 31.9 percent from three-point range on the year, but in January, he was at 34 percent.
He credits the staff in Austin with helping his game and getting him adjusted to NBA style play. He knows that this season is mostly about development in Austin, but he does have the goal of making a difference for San Antonio by next year.
“I can bring the same things I bring to Austin. Whatever [Gregg Popovich] needs me to do, I’ll do,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “I just want to adjust as much and as quick as possible. Get experience and then next year, I’m trying to be in the rotation in San Antonio.”
In Johnson’s case, he’s been brought up to San Antonio for a few games here and there, but has also spent the majority of his rookie season with Austin. He was a highly-touted prospect at Oak Hill Academy and played only one season at Kentucky before declaring for the NBA draft.
Once projected to be a lottery pick, Johnson has the ability to be an impact player on the wing. He can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He has a strong inside game too and has the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. He’s shown flashes in the G League of why he was considered to be a steal when the San Antonio grabbed him with the 29th pick.
He, too, credits the G League with helping him adjust to the NBA level and is confident he can contribute to San Antonio’s rotation if needed.
“I think the main things are pace and just staying in shape. Getting up down, getting my body right and eating right,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Just playing hard and playing defense. Everything else will come in time. As long as I can be myself and do what I know I can do, I’ll be fine.”
Johnson has been one of the top standouts for Austin this season. He’s started in 29 of the 30 games he’s played in the G League and put up 20 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. The one area he stands to improve upon is his outside shooting, as he’s only converting on 23.3 percent of his long-range attempts.
He was recently named to the Western Conference mid-season All-G-League team and if his performances are any indication, the Spurs could have another diamond in the rough on their hands. So far, he’s been impressed with the level of competition he’s faced up against in the G League. He knows that since he has an NBA contract, he’s getting everyone’s best shot night in and night out.
“I think it’s everything you can ask for. You’re playing against great players, night in and night out,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “You don’t get to take days off. Everybody is grinding, they’re hungry, we come in and they’re ready to play. You’ve got to be ready every night.”
The G League regular season ends next month, but Austin is one of the top teams in the league and could be playing into mid-April in the G League Finals. Johnson will likely be assigned to Austin for the duration of their playoff run, making next season his opportunity to get minutes in San Antonio.
For now, he’s continuing to work on his game and be ready for whenever his name should be called upon.
“I just want to get better and be the best Keldon Johnson I can be,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Throughout my rookie season, just staying consistent is the main thing. Just get better honestly, that’s my main goal.”