Stars are king in the NBA. Every offseason, destinations for these stars are speculated on, and the teams who do land one or multiple are vaulted to the forefront of the conversation.
It is true that a team’s title chances are virtually non-existent when they do not possess one of the NBA’s elites. The 2004 Pistons and 2014 Spurs are the most recent examples of title teams that played without a true alpha, but that Spurs team featured three aging Hall of Famers and a blossoming superstar. In today’s landscape where alliances of stars are the norm, it may be impossible to field a viable championship with just merely above-average starters.
With that said, while a star will put your team’s hat in the ring, it may be a contribution from a role player that pushes a team over the top. Kawhi Leonard had what may have been a top-five playoff run of all time last season, but does that run make it all the way to a title without the explosion from Fred Van Vleet against Milwaukee? Do Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant each have the same number of trophies without the services of Robert Horry?
In each playoff run, there are role players who make significant impacts and sway the momentum of different series. Here are a few that may provide that extra little nudge come April.
James Ennis, Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers had a notoriously shoddy bench in the playoffs last season, using only two bench players consistently. One of those two is veteran wing James Ennis, who will return to Philadelphia to reprise his role as a reserve.
The Sixers acquired Ennis at the trade deadline last season in exchange for a second-round pick swap with Houston. The 6-foot-7 forward brought the Houston ethos along with him, shooting 88 percent of his shots from beyond the arc or at the rim, per cleaningtheglass.com.
The accuracy on those shots left room for improvement, as Ennis fell to 32 percent from three after joining Philadelphia, down from his 37 percent mark while with the Rockets. A climb back to league-average from deep would ease some shooting depth concerns on the team’s bench.
Ennis’s importance is partially derived from the current landscape of the NBA, which values his three-and-D archetype, but it also comes from the dearth of veteran wing options on the Sixers’ bench. A decline from Ennis would bring with it additional minutes to the unproven adolescents, Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle. Both figures to factor into the Sixers’ rotation this season, but the team has shown a preference for veterans in the playoffs, and Ennis will be the first wing off the bench when the games are do or die should his shooting and defense remain passable.
Ennis has also shown a knack for crashing the offensive glass. With Philadelphia last season, he collected 7.8 percent of the team’s misses, putting him in the 98th percentile for his position in that department, per cleaningtheglass.com. In an interview with a few reporters last week, Ennis was asked about this talent.
“It’s just the feel of the game just seeing the shot goes (sic) up mostly,” Ennis said. “Nowadays when the shot goes up, you will see the defender turn his head and look where the ball’s going. That’s when I just come from behind and just try to grab it.”
Here’s a play where Ennis did exactly that and snatched an offensive board from an unsuspecting Abdul Nader.
If the Sixers go on a run to the title this season, we might see a clutch corner three or offensive rebound from James Ennis on the highlight reel.
Maurice Harkless, LA Clippers
Before sending shockwaves through the league with the two biggest moves of free agency, the Clippers positioned themselves as the fourth team in the Jimmy Butler trade and received forward Mo Harkless from the Blazers. Harkless has been a solid contributor for Portland over his last few years there, spending most of his time as the starting small forward. He will likely compete for the starting power forward role with JaMychal Green for the Clippers, and be mostly asked to defend and knock down open shots as the superstar duo Kawhi Leonard and Paul George orchestrate the offense.
Harkless had an alarming decline in three-point accuracy last season, plummeting to 28 percent after shooting 42 percent from outside in the 2017-18 season. Harkless will continue to get open looks next season — nearly all of his three-point attempts last season came with a defender more than four feet away — and a return to respectability on those shots will be an additional boost for this already deep roster.
Fortunately for the Clippers, they have elite spacing elsewhere. Guards Lou Williams, Pat Beverley, and Landry Shamet will all command a set of eyes when stationed on the perimeter, and both George and Leonard are elite at pulling up from range. This leaves Harkless as a likely candidate to be left alone in the corners, particularly in the playoffs, where teams go to extreme lengths to take away the paint and exploit weak shooters.
He will bring value defensively, where he can take some burden off Leonard and George by guarding opposing bigs. He also can be a frisky rim protector, which is one of the few areas where this Clippers group may be below-average. Harkless has a good wingspan and timing and can be there for a weak-side block or two when engaged.
His playoff minutes may come down to whether he can make a team pay for the disrespect. If he is able to knock down a few triples to allow the offense just that little extra breathing room, he could be a key contributor to a title run.
Ed Davis, Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz made a few key offseason moves to firmly place themselves among the projected contenders for next season. Most notably, they traded for point guard Mike Conley and signed Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency.
These additions soaked up the majority of Utah’s cap space and led to Derrick Favors taking a deal in New Orleans. Needing a backup center, the Jazz were able to find an affordable option in Ed Davis. The former Brooklyn Net will bring elite rebounding and constant effort on the defensive end to Utah’s bench.
Davis has been a menace on the offensive glass his entire career, peaking last season with a 14.4 percent offensive rebounding rate, putting him in the 97th percentile for his position, per cleaningtheglass.com. Bodies will be moved and limbs will flail under the basket when Ed Davis checks into the game, and his constant animation will invigorate his teammates and rile opponents.
Davis will also bring his lunch pail to the defensive end, where he has some eye-catching statistics. He finished second in the entire NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, behind his new teammate and two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. The Nets had a defensive rating of 105.5 when Davis was on the court at center, an elite number that would have ranked third in the league last season, per cleaningtheglass.com.
While defense and rebound are his calling cards, Davis is no stiff on offense. He is an above-average finisher at the rim and has a nifty touch with his strong left hand. He had some chemistry with D’Angelo Russell in the pick-and-roll last season. Here he catches a pass at the elbow, makes a strong move towards the rim and finishes over a taller defender.
The Jazz big man depth gets very thin after Gobert and Davis, so the health of those two players will be paramount. If the Utah Jazz is to get to the next level with this revamped roster, there will likely be quite a few putbacks, blocks, and some good old-fashioned hustle from Ed Davis along the way.
NBA PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline
The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.
As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.
Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.
If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.
Another Frontcourt Option
The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.
Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.
Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.
Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.
With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.
The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.
Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.
Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.
It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.
Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.
Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.
Depth At The Point Guard Position
With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.
After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.
Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.
That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.
That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.
Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.
If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.
General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.
We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.
Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center
Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have.
Enter: Bruce Brown.
Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury.
In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team.
Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green.
Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle.
When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn.
Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer.
“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”
Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able.
Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.
He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5.
The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends.
But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.
NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?
The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.
After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.
Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.
Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.
Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).
One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.
Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.
So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.
Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.
If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season.
Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.
If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.
There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.