The NBA is a league controlled by superstars. More often than not, a team with more star power will win a playoff series against a team with less star power. There are many opportunities for talented individuals to take over a 48-minute basketball game, especially in the playoffs when defenses tighten up.
That said, the contributions from role players are often very important. Take last year, for example. The Toronto Raptors’ Fred VanVleet had a nine-game stretch early in the playoffs where he averaged only 2.4 points per game on 15.9 percent shooting from the field and 12 percent shooting from three-point range. He upped those numbers to 14.7 points per game on 51.1 percent shooting from the field and 52.6 percent from three-point range in the last nine games of the Raptors’ NBA title run, giving his team a huge lift.
Which non-star players will either make or break their teams’ championship hopes this year? USAbetting breaks it down.
F/C P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets
The Rockets traded away center Clint Capela at the trade deadline in a deal that ultimately landed them forward Robert Covington. On paper, it left a major hole at the starting center spot, but it was actually Houston placing its confidence in the 6’5” Tucker’s ability to play center full time in a super-small-ball lineup that emphasizes switching on defense and taking a ton of three-pointers.
Is Tucker ready to play this role in the playoffs? It depends. He is an extremely strong, gritty player inside who boxes out well, but he can sometimes lose out on rebound battles to taller and more explosive opponents.
Tucker becomes a major difference-maker when his trademark corner three-point attempts are falling at a good rate, forcing opposing big men to step out and contest his shots. Of course, he needs to have his legs under him for those shots to drop. Tucker’s conditioning heading into these playoffs will be a major factor, because his value to the Rockets even as a role player is extremely high.
C Enes Kanter, Boston Celtics
While Tucker is an unconventional center, Kanter is cut more from the traditional center cloth. He is 6’10” and 262 pounds and he much prefers to play near the basket on both ends of the floor. He is an excellent rebounder and uses strong and crafty post moves to score over and around defenders near the basket.
One general area that has always given Kanter trouble is defense. He is not an effective rim protector and opponents frequently catch him out of position in pick-and-roll situations. For those reasons, as well as foul trouble, he has been labeled as a center who can’t play starter’s minutes on a good team.
The Celtics’ biggest weakness is at center, unfortunately. Daniel Theis is a defensive-minded role player, while Kanter is a great inside scorer and rebounder. One of them will be on the floor for Boston almost all of the time. Kanter has greater strengths than Theis, but his weaknesses are also more pronounced. This gives him, and therefore the Celtics, a wide range of outcomes when the postseason rolls around.
F Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
I’ll be honest — I’ve long found Kuzma to be an overrated player. I couldn’t help but laugh when fans and pundits said last offseason that the Lakers had formed a “Big Three” of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma just isn’t close to the level of superstar teammates. Sure, he is a pretty smooth offensive player for a guy of his 6’8” size, and he has the skills to create his own shot. But he is not super-efficient on offense, and his defense, rebounding and passing are all mediocre or worse.
On a winning team, like the Lakers, his best role is off the bench, where he has more chances to get the ball and put up shots. His weaknesses are also less pronounced playing against weaker opponents.
There is no denying that Kuzma can light up the scoreboard when he is playing well, though. He has been less explosive this season, but in his first two campaigns, he had a total of 11 games of at least 30 points. The Lakers will need a few of those hot Kuzma games in the playoffs, because LeBron and AD will need some offensive help when they face the best teams in the NBA.
G Shake Milton, Philadelphia 76ers
In the 16 games Milton has started this year, he has put up 14 points and 3.6 assists in 28.2 minutes per game on a sparkling 53.950/74.3 shooting slash. In the other 16 games, his numbers are just 4.9 points and 0.9 assists in 10 minutes per contest with a 40/36.1/81.3 shooting slash.
The other problem is that Milton has rarely started when the 76ers’ stars, namely Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, are both healthy. One of the key issues when both Simmons and Embiid were healthy this season is that they didn’t have a reliable guard who could hit outside shots and act as a secondary playmaker from the perimeter. Milton became that guy pretty consistently over the Sixers’ last several weeks of games when Embiid and/or Simmons were out.
If Milton maintains his confidence and the Sixers are able to keep getting him enough ball-handling reps and shots to stay involved in the offense, he can be a valuable No. 3 or 4 option to turn to for 12 to 14 points per contest in the playoffs.
F Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
One of my biggest worries about the Nuggets’ NBA title chances, especially under the current format, is that their offense almost relies too much on teamwork and ball movement. Normally, those principles are good, but against elite, rested defenses, sometimes you have to go off script by giving the ball to a talented player and letting him create something out of nothing.
I believe Porter is one of those talented players, even though he is averaging just 7.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in 14 minutes per game. The Nuggets have been very cautious with Porter this year because of his injury history, but the redshirt rookie has proven to be a ridiculously talented offensive option. He is 6’10” with great athleticism, ball-handling, shooting and finishing abilities. It is easy to see why people sometimes compare his game with Kevin Durant’s.
To this point, I think the Nuggets have held him back from reaching his potential. If MPJ can stay healthy in Denver’s playoff run and the team starts to give him some more opportunities, he is going to be a huge difference-maker.
C Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors
Gasol has declined significantly from the player he was about five years ago. That is understandable, since he turned 35 years old in January and has played professionally since he was 18 years old in Spain. In 2019-20, he has put forth career lows in points (7.6), rebounds (6.3) and blocks (0.9) per game, as well as field-goal percentage (41.9).
Recently, a picture has surfaced online that shows Gasol to be much slimmer than he was earlier in the season. It is clear that he has taken his health seriously over the past three months.
Toronto won’t rely too much on Gasol offensively but if he can use his improved conditioning to run just a little bit faster in transition and stay energized for his defensive assignments against opposing centers, the Raptors will make a very strong challenge for an NBA Finals spot.
F Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers
Morris played his first 43 games of this season with the lowly New York Knicks, and he led the team in scoring (19.6 points per game) during those 43 games, shooting 43.9 percent from three-point range. New York sent him to the Clippers at the trade deadline and that immediately bumped Morris to a much lower spot in his team’s offensive pecking order.
For the Clippers, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are excellent offensive players and they all average at least 18.6 points per game. There are simply not enough shots available to let Morris average 19.6 points per contest with the Clippers.
Sure enough, Morris put up only 9.5 points per game on below-average efficiency in 12 tilts with Los Angeles before the season was suspended.
Morris must find a way to adjust to his new, more limited offensive role with the Clippers. The Clips don’t need a ton of production from him, but they need him to be efficient and use his 6’8”, 235-pound size and tenacity to play hard-nosed defense against a variety of players.