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NBA PM: Role Players Who Can Have a Major Impact in the Playoffs

Jesse Blancarte breaks down five role players who could have a major impact this postseason.

Jesse Blancarte

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The NBA is a star-driven league, and that doesn’t change in the postseason. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are just a few of the superstar players that will play a huge role in how far their respective teams go in the playoffs. However, even superstars need help, which is where role players come in.

Not all role players are the same. Some are specialists who thrive in one or more areas of the game. For example, Kyle Korver is a marksman from three-point range, but isn’t quite the defender he once was. Despite this, his three-point shooting can be a game-changer for any team, including his Cleveland Cavaliers. Some role players are solid at just about every facet of the game and have no major weaknesses or shortcomings. Malcolm Brodgon is a 24-year-old rookie who has provided solid contributions both on offense and defense all season for the Milwaukee Bucks. Some are what we call “glue guys” – the player that fills gaps, does the dirty work and makes life easier for his teammates. Draymond Green is undoubtedly a star player, but his contributions for the Golden State Warriors are the gold standard of what a glue guy can do for his team. Green rarely leads his team in any major statistical category, but his screening, shooting and dives to the rim open up so many options for the Warriors’ offense, while his ability to guard all five positions gives Golden State defensive versatility that arguably no other team has.

With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to some under the radar role players who have the ability to not just have a strong impact in the first-round, but the ability to potentially swing a series.

5.  Joe Ingles – Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz are limping into the postseason with several key players struggling with nagging injuries. Derrick Favors in particular has been struggling with knee issues all season, which could be problematic since he is Utah’s best option for slowing down Blake Griffin. If Favors is unable to be a consistent contributor, Utah will have to turn to players like Joe Johnson, Gordon Hayward and Boris Diaw to play significant minutes at power forward. The Jazz could even turn to Joe Ingles, who quietly had a very strong regular season for Utah.

Ingles averaged 7.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 three-pointers (on 44.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc) per game. Additionally, Ingles hit 46 percent of his catch and shoot three-point attempts – the sixth highest percentage among all players who attempt two such shots per game. That’s right, Ingles has been one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the NBA this season and has provided Utah with the sort of floor spacing we would expect from elite shooters.

Beyond his three-point shooting, Ingles has also served as a secondary playmaker for the Jazz. This is particularly important considering the fact that point guard George Hill has struggled with injuries all season, and Gordon Hayward is often tasked with being the primary facilitator of Utah’s offense. Ingles is also an underrated defender, though asking him to contain Griffin for long stretches over a seven game series may be problematic. However, if Ingles is asked to play at power forward, slows Griffin down and continues to be a floor spacer and facilitator on offense for Utah, he could swing this series in a way few would have ever predicted.

4.  Vince Carter – Memphis Grizzlies

Vince Carter may be 40 years old, but that doesn’t mean he’s no longer a valuable NBA player. In 24.6 minutes of action per game during the regular season, Carter averaged eight points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 39.4 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three-point range.

While Carter’s box score numbers may not jump off the page, his value to the Grizzlies is apparent to anyone who has watched at least a handful of their games this season. The Grizzlies’ offensive and defensive efficiency improves when Carter has been on the court this season and he has the best net rating (+3.6) of all Memphis players who played at least 500 total minutes during the regular season.

Carter isn’t the explosive athlete he once was, but he still has some burst and the mobility to be effective on both ends of the court. In fact, Carter has been a surprisingly reliable wing defender and also has the strength to effectively defend bigger players in the post in certain situations. He isn’t necessarily a lockdown defender, but he is a valuable defensive player for the Grizzlies and will be even more so now that Tony Allen is out indefinitely with a strained calf.

3.  Luc Mbah a Moute – Los Angeles Clippers

When you think of the Los Angeles Clippers, you don’t necessarily think about Luc Mbah a Moute as being a player that could swing a series in a significant way. However, Mbah a Moute may be able to do exactly that in the Clippers’ opening round matchup against the Utah Jazz.

Mbah a Moute has a reputation for being an effective defensive player, but even many of the more dedicated of NBA followers aren’t aware of just how effective Mbah a Moute is defensively. Over the course of the season, the Clippers have asked Mbah a Moute to lock up guys like James Harden, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and many other star players. Mbah a Moute can seemingly switch from guarding an explosive point guard to a true center without much issue, and is particularly effective against comparably sized forwards. We saw this in the regular season in his matchups with Gordon Hayward.

On the season, Hayward averaged 21.9 points per game. However, in three matchups with the Clippers, Hayward averaged just 15.6 points per game and struggled to generate offense for himself consistently. Mbah a Moute stifled Hayward’s ability to attack the rim off the dribble and rarely gave him room while working off the ball to get a clean shot off. If Mbah a Moute can continue this trend while knocking down a decent percentage of his shots from beyond the arc, he could have a bigger impact on this series than many anticipate.

2.  P.J. Tucker – Toronto Raptors

One of the more interesting first-round matchups is the Toronto Raptors vs. the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee is powered primarily by budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who this season became the first player in NBA history to rank in the league’s top 20 in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. With his incredible size, length and athleticism, no one in the league can completely shut down Antetokounmpo.

The Raptors have a few players they can throw at Antetokounmpo, including midseason addition P.J. Tucker. Tucker is just 6-foot-6, but he’s built like a linebacker and is a surprisingly effective perimeter defender. Tucker doesn’t have the speed to keep up with Antetokounmpo in transition, but in the half court, he may be able to slow Antetokounmpo down. Antetokounmpo has the size and lift to get his shot off against Tucker seemingly any time he wants to, but Tucker is very skilled at bodying up opponents and keeping them off balance. Whether Tucker can adequately do this against Antetokounmpo over a seven-game playoff series remains to be seen, but if Tucker is even somewhat successful, he could effectively take away Milwaukee’s best change of upsetting the Raptors in the first round.

1.  Andre Roberson – Oklahoma City Thunder

Andre Roberson has been elite defensively this year and has had an even more significant impact for the Oklahoma City Thunder than many people realize.  As our Ben Dowsett noted in this article about Defensive Player of the Year candidates, Roberson has played extensively with teammate Russell Westbrook this season and always takes on the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s primary ball-handler or scorer. This allows Westbrook to preserve his energy for the offensive side of the court, which the Thunder desperately rely on him for.

Additionally, as Dowsett further noted, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has frequently inserted defensive oriented players around Westbrook in clutch situations, led by Roberson. In doing this, Donovan is focusing on generating crucial stops at the end of games while relying on Westbrook to generate quality shots on the other end of the court, which he has done effectively all season.

In their matchup with the Rockets, Roberson has the opportunity to make life hard for James Harden, who more than perhaps any other player in the league is the catalyst for his team’s offense. If Roberson can slow down Harden and allow Westbrook to save his energy to be the incredible offensive force he has been all season, the Thunder will have a decent shot at upsetting the Rockets.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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