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NBA Daily: Three Role Players That Could Make An Impact

Every season, role players leave an imprint on a team’s chase for a championship. Here are three that may be remembered positively for their efforts in the upcoming year.

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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.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors

Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.

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The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.

Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.

With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.

After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.

Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.

The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.

Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.

After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.

One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.

While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.

As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.

Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.

As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.

Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.

Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.

Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.

Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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