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.
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