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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

ICYMI: Atlantic Division

To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.

Ariel Pacheco

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Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division. 

So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.

Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate

After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.

In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.

Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?

The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.

Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.

There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.

While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well. 

Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer

After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.

Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.

Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.

Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.

They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.

Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season. 

Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.

Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.

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NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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