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The Top 10 Players in the NBA: 2015

Nate Duncan ranks the top 10 players in the league, and explains why LeBron James is no longer first.

Nate Duncan

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Last year around this time, I debuted the maiden version of my top-10 players in the NBA. At that point, the top tier clearly consisted of only two players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. While Durant would go on to win the MVP, most at that time felt James was the clear best player in the league.

What a difference a year later. Seven of the 14 players in the top four tiers (including honorable mentions) have completely dropped off the list.  Of those, five have been felled by injuries.  What’s more, nobody has been as good this year as James and Durant a year ago.

Despite those disappointments, the intrigue has only grown. The 2014-15 season features perhaps the most fascinating MVP race ever, with at least five players able to make a legitimate argument.  This list features a slightly different inquiry, as less weight is provided for minutes and games played than in an attempt to measure “value” over the course of the season.

To refresh, the list is created as an answer to the following question: Which player would I pick if I needed to win a game tomorrow* with average NBA talent around him? A guiding philosophy in this ranking is that efficiently creating shots for oneself and others is the premium skill in the NBA. Defense certainly matters, especially at the big positions, but the difference between the best and worst offensive players is far greater than on the defensive end. Finally, I will rank the players in tiers to represent points in the list where there is a big drop off.  On to the rankings.

*”Tomorrow” is used a bit loosely.  If the player has a short-term injury like an ankle sprain with no indication it will have any lasting effects, that is not considered.  Longer-term injuries of course factor in much more severely.

Tier One

  1. Stephen Curry

The Warriors’ point guard has statistically been the league’s best player on a per-minute basis this year. He leads the league in RPM and Kevin Pelton’s Win Percentage, while ranking third in PER*. While he is not a lockdown defender and can be blown by in a few matchups, he is one of the best point guards at help defense and has the league’s fourth-best steal percentage.  As the point guard for what is by far the best defense in the league, it is difficult to argue he is not a good defender at this point.

*Note that these rankings only include realistic contenders for this list.  Hassan Whiteside scores very highly in most metrics, but nobody is arguing he’s anywhere near this level. Last year, we used RAPM, a regularized adjusted plus-minus system created by Jeremias Engelmann.  He and Steve Ilardi later debuted a modified version for ESPN called Real Plus-Minus (RPM), which we will use instead of RAPM this year. 

I chronicled Curry’s strengths in great detail when I made the argument he is quite a bit better than Steve Nash ever was.  Over the last two months, Curry has gone to yet another level.  He has a 64.7 percent True Shooting Percentage in concert with a 29.5 percent usage percentage over that time.  He is at 48.5 percent from three, while averaging 24 points and eight assists in only 32 minutes per game over that same time period.  For the season, the Warriors have a ridiculous 17.5 net rating with him on the court, by far the highest of anyone on this list.  His shooting off the pick and roll simply breaks defenses, as it is nearly impossible to prevent either an open shot or a four-on-three for his teammates.  And as by far the best shooter on this list, he creates tons of space for his teammates even without the ball in his hands.  What he has been able to do, dragging a team of relatively pedestrian offensive talents to near the top of the league in offense, is unbelievable.  While I fear that LeBron James could prove me wrong in the playoffs, for now Curry has surpassed him by a nose as the league’s best.

  1. LeBron James

A year ago, James topped this list. He was fresh off two straight championships in which he had proved an unstoppable all-court force, and the only wart on his resume was the fact that his defense had declined during a regular season in which he was forced to carry the load for the oft-resting Dwyane Wade.  His defense when locked in was the primary impetus for ranking him above Durant despite the latter’s explosive 2013-14.

But another year in the ledger has shown James’ defensive decline is real (and unsurprising) as he enters his 30s.  Advanced stats and the eye test the last two years have shown that James is not the night-to-night defensive force he once was.  Even in their surge the last two months, the Cavs’ defense has been only average.

Meanwhile, his offensive stats have also taken a hit. He ranks a mere sixth among realistic candidates in win percentage, fifth in PER and third in RPM. His efficiency is way down from the astronomical heights of his Miami days—his True Shooting Percentage is almost seven points lower.

Based only on his entire body of work this season, James no longer has an argument as the best player in the game.  But he still has a history of a peak higher than any other player in this tier.  Since his return from injury on January 13, James has been much better both statistically and by the eye test.

Another argument for James is that he simply is harder to stop than players like James Harden and Steph Curry due to his physical gifts.  Even at 30, no player in the league possesses his combination of size, strength and athleticism.  What’s more, he has powered the Cavs to spectacular offensive heights since his return despite their rather rudimentary offensive system (though they have tons of talent around him).  He is less dependent on teammates to affect the game than perhaps any other player on this list.

Nevertheless, James turns the ball over a bit more than Curry, and even during this post-injury run his True Shooting Percentage is not much higher than his season average.  Although he has the better playoff resume, in recent years that was compiled in Miami’s system that encouraged more ball-movement and spaced the floor with great shooters around him. We shall see whether he can reach the heights of playoffs past this year, but the regular season decline may augur he does not.

  1. Anthony Davis

In ranking Davis seventh last year, it was noted that he should be higher on the list based on his individual box score statistics.  However, he struggled to really help his team, as indicated by his miserable (for a superstar) performance in plus/minus metrics. It was also predicted that Davis would figure out that aspect of his game sooner rather than later, and that has indeed occurred.  He now ranks a healthy sixth in RPM, including a sterling performance on the defensive end.  What’s more, his clutch performance has been among the best in the league this season.

Oh, and his box score performance? Davis is on pace to be one of four players ever to record a PER over 31, in company with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and James.  He ranks second in Pelton’s Win Percentage.  He has upped his usage rate to superstar-level 27.8 percent, while also increasing his efficiency and (an oft-unnoticed factor) never turning the ball over. He has the lowest ever turnover percentage for a player with a usage rate of 27 percent or higher, a miniscule 6.4 percent.

So why is he only third on on this list?  He still isn’t quite the offensive force the rest of this tier is.  Davis scores poorly relative to his competitors in offensive RPM, ranking only 20th in the league. That makes some sense subjectively, as he less often initiates the play and finds his teammates (though his passing has improved).  And his jumpers, while automatic, do not require defenses to stick to him in the pick and pop because most teams are willing to concede a long two.  Extending his range to pick and pop from three could be the next step for him.  Defensively he scores well in plus-minus metrics this year, but overall the Pelicans’ defense has been inadequate.  He clearly has the talent to be better defensively and racks up the blocks and steals, but he has not been able to push his team to a dominant performance despite the raw tools to do so.

Still, one wonders whether the NBA community is missing the boat and Davis really is the league’s best, but is just unfairly punished for bad coaching and teammates.  However, until he at least makes the playoffs, performs well there and shows he can be a dominant force initiating plays as well as finishing them, he remains a bit below Curry and James.

  1. James Harden

Harden deserves plaudits for the improvements he has made to his game this season, vaulting him into the top-tier.  His much-maligned defense has improved mightily, although he is still “not bad” more than he is “good.”  Few would really consider him a stopper or an above-average team defender, although he does have the ability to effectively switch onto larger players in the post in small lineups and to anticipate for steals.  Offensively, he has upped his usage rate to north of 30 percent while maintaining the same ridiculous efficiency.  With Dwight Howard sidelined much of the year, he initiates nearly everything for Houston when he is on the court. He is the league leader in offensive RPM, ranking fourth in Win Percentage and fifth in PER.

But Harden has two major demerits for the top spot.  The first is that pretty much no measure indicates he is superior to Curry on a per play basis this season.  The only reason he has amassed more “value” for the season is that Curry sits out a ton of fourth quarters because Golden State is blowing teams out.

The second is his relatively pedestrian playoff performance to date.  Six-game losses the past two years to Oklahoma City and Portland have seen his efficiency crater.  Portland, a defense that was shredded a round later by San Antonio, really put the clamps on him.  He was unable to get to the rim and/or get fouled, and was forced to settle for a cavalcade of midrangers.* Until Harden shows the ability to dominate to the same level against great defenses in the playoffs, he cannot be higher on this list.

*Against Portland, Harden took only 15 percent of his shots at the rim, while 44 percent of his shots were twos outside the restricted area. 
  1. Russell Westbrook

Westbrook has always been an extremely controversial figure, often derided by the mainstream for shooting too much and taking the ball away from Kevin Durant.  With KD sidelined much of the year, it was Westbrook’s show once he returned from a broken hand.  And what a show it has been, with Westbrook currently recording the second-highest usage rate of all time at 38.4.  When Westbrook is on the floor this year, his “True Usage” (percent of the time he shoots, sets up teammates for scoring chances, or turns it over when he is on the floor) is 65 percent, over nine percent higher than second-ranked James.  During his most dominant stretch after Durant went down in February, that number peaked at 79 percent. Few, if any, players in history could carry their team like that.

The result of all this is a second place ranking in PER (a statistic particularly impressed by high usage), third in Win Percentage and seventh in RPM.  Of particular note, RPM sees Westbrook as a negative defender, and the eyes match that despite his outstanding steal rate.  He loses his man far too much, and is a mediocre pick and roll defender.

Ultimately though, Westbrook’s season skews slightly more toward impressive than valuable, though it is clearly both in spades.  His True Shooting Percentage is right around the league average.  While one could argue his high usage rate is partially responsible, he has pretty much been right at this level the last five seasons.  Some of the concern for his inefficiency is alleviated by the fact he has been a part of some great offenses, but no matter who he plays with and how often he shoots he has not shown the ability to be elite at scoring efficiently.  That and his defense keep him fifth on this list.

Tier 2

  1. Chris Paul

This year Paul occupies the second tier all by himself, and was still a tough omission from the first tier. Aside from a declining free throw rate, the Clippers’ point guard continues to defy the aging process as he nears 30 years old, putting up an overall statistical season almost identical to a year ago by increasing both the volume and accuracy of his three-point attempts.  He has now settled in as solidly above-average from deep, preventing teams from going under on the pick and roll.  Paul pilots what has been the number one offense for most of the year, and kept it at those lofty heights even while Blake Griffin missed time.

Paul only misses out on the top tier due to the fact that he just isn’t quite as dominant on a personal level.  His usage rate has been below 24 percent the last few years.  He rarely gets to the basket any longer, taking only nine percent of his shots at the rim and 19 percent within 10 feet.  And unlike the players above him, he really doesn’t have any argument for being the best player in the league, ranking fifth in Win Percentage, seventh in PER and fifth in RPM.

Tier 3

  1. DeMarcus Cousins

It may be a shock to see the Sacramento center at this level, but pretty much all the advanced statistics support it despite the Kings’ desultory performance since Mike Malone was fired.

Cousins has become an excellent defender by most metrics.  The Kings’ D collapses when he is off the court, and he ranks third among centers in defensive RPM.  Offensively he could stand to be more efficient, but the dearth of shooting and passing around him means he has to take more tough shots than optimal.  He ranks sixth in PER, seventh in Win Percentage and ninth in RPM.  While his surly reputation and the Kings’ descent into the maelstrom hurt his national perception, Cousins has earned his spot here.

  1. Blake Griffin

Griffin’s season has been somewhat of a disappointment for a player his age.  Instead of taking the next step, he has regressed. He missed time with an elbow injury after having to withdraw from Team USA with a back fracture.  Athletically, he doesn’t look quite the same. His dunks don’t detonate the way they used to, and they have declined from 2.2 per game to 1.3.  He doesn’t have quite the same explosion facing up his man from the mid-post.  While Griffin has refined his midrange jumper to his credit, and cited the desire to avoid injury in avoiding the paint more, the fact is his bread and butter is getting to the rim.  What’s more, he still is not a plus defender protecting the basket, although he is showing a burgeoning ability to switch out onto perimeter players.

In some respects, this ranking is based on a faith that Griffin can return to a similar level to last year.  Having just turned 26, the hope is that he will.

Tier 4

9.  Marc Gasol

Gasol ultimately takes this spot as likely the most valuable defender in this tier anchoring the Grizzlies staunch unit.  He has upped his usage rate this year while remaining relatively efficient, and his passing from the high post powers the Grizzlies’ offense.  Curiously though, RPM does not like him nearly so much, putting him at only 45th overall in the league.

10.  Damian Lillard

Count Lillard’s ranking in this spot as a vote for the value of being able to shoot threes off the dribble in pick and roll situations.  While Lillard is shooting only an aberrational 34 percent from three on the season, he launches them with abandon and defenses respect it. While he’s not Steph Curry in efficiency, he has a similar effect in forcing many teams to change their pick and roll coverages. Lillard also deserves credit for improving his two biggest weaknesses, defense and finishing at the rim.

Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order

All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Gasol and Lillard.

LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge is a tough case because he is not particularly efficient offensively.  But the threat of what he can do when he gets hot is perhaps more important than his actual results, as defenses stick to him like glue in the pick and pop and frequently double team him in the post.  As a result, he manages to boost Portland’s offense despite his own personal inefficiency.

Jimmy Butler

Butler has been a revelation this season as a two-way wing, and is an easy choice for most improved player in these eyes with the way he has added great footwork and midrange shooting to his individual offensive game.  But he isn’t the offensive threat many others on this list are despite his efficiency, given a mere 20 percent usage rate. That keeps him out of the top ten.

John Wall

Wall is one of the league’s best defensively at point guard, and Washington inordinately depends on him for what offense they can muster.  He is right up there among the league’s best distributors. However, Wall still is not particularly efficient and doesn’t shoot threes off the dribble, which contributes to the Wizards’ spacing problems.  It would be nice to see what he could do with more shooting around him and a more complex offensive system.

Kawhi Leonard

Leonard was perhaps the toughest omission from the top 10.  RPM loves his defense, where he ranks second among wings behind specialist Tony Allen.  He has also increased his usage to well above-average this year, though his marksmanship from downtown has declined along with his overall efficiency.  Ultimately, a preference for bigs on defense and creators on offense kept him out of the top 10, but maybe I should trust the advanced stats more than I do.

Klay Thompson

Thompson has made unbelievable strides offensively, upping his usage rate into star territory at 27.6 percent while also boosting his True Shooting Percentage by four points to 59 percent.  He is a very solid (though not great) defender on the wing as well, and his shooting in concert with Curry’s stretches the defense to its breaking point.

Kyrie Irving

Irving may be overlooked at this point.  Not a ton separates Irving from Lillard in individual statistics.  What keeps him out of the top 10? Irving continues to be a problem defensively despite some increased effort.  He also benefits from being the second option in Cleveland while playing off the ball quite a bit, a luxury Lillard does not have.  Irving is younger than Lillard and may surpass him eventually, but for now Lillard is the superior player.

Who Dropped Out

Kevin Durant would clearly be in the top tier if healthy, but after a lost year and four to six months of rehabilitation ahead of him, he has to drop out for now.  Kevin Love’s fall is perhaps the most disappointing.  He was fourth a year ago, and could not even crack honorable mention this year.  Unlike the others on this list, he does not have age or injury (though he has periodically struggled with a nagging back injury) as an excuse.  Perhaps he can rejoin this list if he plays elsewhere next year or Cleveland’s system is revamped to play more to his strengths.  Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard have all had their seasons wrecked by injuries and ailments. Unfortunately, all are of an age where we probably should not expect to see them return to this list.  And at age 36, Dirk Nowitzki has finally seen enough slippage to fall out, especially defensively.  Paul George unfortunately suffered a horrific broken leg that was bad enough that one wonders whether he can return to full health.  Hopefully he can return to this list next year.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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The X-Factors: Dallas

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at the Dallas Mavericks’ most important pieces when the NBA returns in late July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA has zeroed in on a July 31st return – and it’s barely cracked news.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s just that the confluence of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed into a supernova of stressors that seem virtually insurmountable — and together, they’ve swallowed up the entirety of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s important to note that the loss of basketball pales in comparison to the many hurdles African Americans face with varying – but almost certain – regularity. And with 80.7% of NBA players being people of color (according to a recent study by the University of Central Florida), it’s obviously an incredibly personal issue for many of us close to the game.

But back to the NBA’s return…

The NBA is set on a 22-team solution that includes returning for eight games with the added bonus of a possible play-in tournament. Further, Oct. 12 will be the latest date for a potential Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. But not only is the NBA officially returning, we now know how and when.

We also know who — and the Dallas Mavericks are in that group of teams that will return to regular season play. They are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference and they possess a 7-game lead over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That means it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need to compete in the play-in tournament, and they’ll instead focus on regaining midseason form and identifying their first-round opponent. But lots of things must work in their favor if they hope to get past that step.

The Mavericks entered the season boasting the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic – and they were finally ready to add Kristaps Porzingis back into their lineup.  But no one knew how Porzingis would look upon his return from a 2018 knee injury; and while Doncic’s rookie season exceeded all expectations, his net effect was limited as far as team success was concerned (33-49).

But despite the doubt, Dallas has looked every bit the part of a playoff team. Doncic has put up MVP-caliber numbers and Porzingis acclimated nicely. But what must the Mavericks do to continue building momentum, and maybe even deliver a first-round upset?  Let’s examine the most pressing X-factors for Dallas in their pursuit of a return to contender status.

First of all, the most important thing the Mavericks need to make a postseason run is their health. The Mavericks haven’t been entirely healthy all year. Porzingis tweaked his right knee only a few short months after returning from left knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and a half. As a result, he missed six straight games and sat out a total of 16 games in 2019-20.

While missing games was the primary concern, Porzingis’s real hurdle has been ramping up from his extended hiatus. Porzingis was clearly not his old self immediately upon his return – and that’s reflected in his averages. He averaged only 15.8 points per game in 13 games in November and only 17.2 points per game in 20 games between December and January. But he found his groove in February, posting 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. And he followed that up with 23.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game in five contests in March before the shutdown. Porzingis clearly figured out where he fits with the Mavericks; and if he continues playing like he did in March and April, the Mavericks should boast a mismatch up front on most nights.

But even at his best, Porzingis alone doesn’t elevate the Mavericks to contenders. The Mavericks need more from their role players, too. With free agency remaining closed until the conclusion of the season (although it may open before the draft this year), teams must work with what they have at their disposal. That means that any solution must already be on their roster. And while options are obviously limited, there is one player from whom they could expect a little more – Seth Curry.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Curry is simply not on his brother’s level in terms of talent, and he never will be. But considering just how special Stephen Curry is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he lacks in ability (relative to his brother), Seth Curry makes up for with fearlessness. The younger Curry has carved out a real role in his second stint with the Mavericks, taking and making shots at an impressive rate; Curry is shooting a scorching 45.3% on three-point attempts over the entire season. And looking ahead, Dallas should unleash him even more. While Curry is averaging only 12.6 points in 24.5 minutes per game, his scoring average jumps to 20.5 points on 67.6% three-point shooting when given 30+ minutes. If the Mavericks hope to be competitive (and maybe even advance) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Curry may very well be the key.

Last, but definitely not least, is Doncic himself – specifically, how in-shape he is upon his return. The Mavericks need a physically fit Doncic to return in July. And he very well may do just that. Remember, it was only about a year ago that he committed himself to lifting weights and conditioning – and this season he’s the sixth-leading scorer in the league and a (long shot) MVP candidate. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban joked about Doncic’s conditioning last Summer.

“He came (in the summer of 2019) and he was working out with coach,” Cuban said. “I actually saw an ab, so it was a step in the right direction. There may have been two. But he’s definitely in better shape (than he was last season).”

And that worked out pretty well for Dallas.

Recently, rumors have surfaced about Doncic and his physique and/or conditioning. Specifically, rumors claim that Doncic looks “puffy”, but ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the contrary.

“Anytime Luka (Doncic) goes overseas and people don’t see him there’s going to be these rumors, ‘He’s beefing up again, he’s looking puffy,’” MacMahon said. “That rumor’s out there. I asked. I was told that he looks fine on their Zoom calls, he’s been working out and he’s actually been playing pickleball over Slovenia.”

Doncic is a major wild card in that no one knows what to expect. We’ll know more soon.

Ultimately, the Mavericks are going to have a challenging time advancing past the elite teams in the league. But if Porzingis, Curry and Doncic don’t all return ready to play the best basketball of their respective careers, an early elimination is a near certainty. If they can all reach new highs, they’ll have a chance.

And that’s all anyone can ask for.

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The X-Factors: Indiana

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.

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There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.

If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.

Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.

There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.

For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.

First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.

Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.

1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver

When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.

However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!

Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.

If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.

If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.

Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.

Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.

A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.

It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.

In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.

Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.

There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?

There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.

Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.

The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.

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NBA

The X-Factors: Memphis

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.

David Yapkowitz

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Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.

Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?

We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.

Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.

Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.

So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.

After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.

Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.

While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.

The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.

Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.

Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.

Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.

Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.

But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.

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