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.
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