Meet the Biggest Wild Cards of the NBA Playoffs

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 9, 2013

Meet the Biggest Wild Cards of the NBA Playoffs

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    There's something about the bright lights of the sports world's biggest stages that brings the biggest stars to the forefront.

    The postseason weighs heavier than any regular-season exploits in terms of defining a legacy and elevating players to legendary heights.

    But even the elite talents need help from their supporters every now and then, often from players who have been anything but reliable throughout the season.

    The playoffs bring the chance at a fresh beginning from players suffering through an uncharacteristically rough year. With the extra rest between games and the promise of a prolonged break at the conclusion, they give the opportunity for players to rewrite their bill of health.

    These 10 players could change the outcome of a playoff series, for better or worse.

Andrew Bogut (Golden State Warriors)

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    Career Stats: 12.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 32.2 MPG

    2012-13 Averages: 6.3 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 25.1 MPG


    The Golden State Warriors haven't quite punched their playoff ticket yet, but that seems like a formality.

    What's still very much up in the air, though, is whether or not they have enough time to figure out how to effectively blend Andrew Bogut into coach Mark Jackson's system.

    Bogut's prolonged battle with a nagging ankle injury hasn't helped matters. But he's looked closer to 100 percent as the season has wore on.

    Defensively, he's already made an impact, although his teammates are still hanging him out to dry with poor rotations more often than Jackson would like. Offensively, though, he still looks like a trump card that the Warriors haven't quite decided when (or how) to play. 

    The Warriors have been a strong enough regular-season offensive club (100.8 PPG) even without Bogut's involvement. But when the tempo slows in the postseason, they'll need a stronger interior offensive presence than what the undersized duo of David Lee and Carl Landry can provide.

Wilson Chandler (Denver Nuggets)

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    Career Stats: 13.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 30.9 MPG

    2012-13 Averages: 12.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 24.1 MPG

     

    Due to a crowded backcourt and a lingering hip injury, minutes haven't always come easily for Wilson Chandler.

    But with Danilo Gallinari now lost for the season with a torn ACL (via ESPN.com) there should be no shortage of playing time available to the versatile wing.

    Chandler's never been a dominant scorer, but he had posted back-to-back seasons of 15-plus points per game before taking his talents overseas and spending his lockout (and then some) in the Chinese Basketball Association.

    The third-seeded Denver Nuggets have high expectations for this postseason run. Chandler, and wing Corey Brewer, will be tasked with helping Denver realize those aspirations in the wake of Gallinari's injury.

Earl Clark (Los Angeles Lakers)

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    Career Stats: 4.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 41.6 FG%, 13.9 MPG

    2012-13 Averages: 7.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 44.7 FG%, 23.2 MPG

     

    There haven't been many bright spots this season for the Los Angeles Lakers, but reserve forward Earl Clark has been at the top of that list. He was nothing more than a throw-in piece added to the Dwight Howard trade, but he has been proven to be one of the more reliable option in coach Mike D'Antoni's system.

    He's not the prototypical stretch forward, but he's shown enough from the perimeter (34.0 percent) to make it work. Throw in his effort on the defensive end and on the glass, and it's no surprise that D'Antoni has used him 33 different times in his starting lineup.

    Clark's magical run (10.6 PPG in Feb. and Jan.) appeared to be coming to an end in March (5.5 PPG, 35.4 FG%, via NBA.com), but he has responded with double-digit efforts in each of his last three contests (via basketball-reference.com).

    Metta World Peace has followed a continuing trend in this Lakers' season, cutting a six-week timetable in his rehab from a torn meniscus in his left knee to perhaps less than two weeks (according to what he told Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com). But the uncertainty surrounding his knee and the inconsistent play of Pau Gasol (13.1 PPG, 46.0 FG%) might keep Clark as an important contributor if the ninth-seeded Lakers can sneak into the postseason.

Kevin Garnett (Boston Celtics)

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    Career Stats: 19.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 36.2 MPG

    2012-13 Averages: 14.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 29.9 MPG

     

    The Boston Celtics have shown just what kind of a team they can be with a healthy Kevin Garnett in the lineup. They have handed at least one defeat to each of the other seven teams filling the Eastern Conference playoff brackets.

    But they've shown their vulnerability without their man in the middle as well. When Garnett missed 10 of the Celtics' 12 games recently with ankle inflammation, Boston dropped eight of them, including some head-scratching losses to bottom-feeders like the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets and Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Garnett made his return on Sunday night, logging a hair under 24 minutes in Boston's double-digit win over the Washington Wizards. When the big man was on the floor, the Celtics posted a mind-boggling 84.7 defensive rating in the win (via Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com).

    There's no need to gush on Garnett's ability level; he's a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. If he's healthy, there's no telling just how far these Celtics can go.

Roy Hibbert (Indiana Pacers)

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    Career Stats: 11.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 47.3 FG%

    2012-13 Averages: 11.9 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 44.9 FG%


    Clearly the numbers haven't shown much variation for the Indiana Pacers bruiser in the middle, Roy Hibbert. 

    Considering the massive financial commitment that the franchise made in the center last summer (via ESPN.com), that hasn't been a promising development.

    Hibbert has one of the most diverse offensive post arsenals in today's game, along with the ability to find points away from the basket. So when he finished the month of Feb. shooting just 42.0 percent from the field on the season (via NBA.com), the Pacers would have been justified with entertaining any second thoughts about their investment.

    But the big man has shown new signs of life over the past month-and-a-half. He's poured in 17.7 points on 51.2 percent shooting since the first of March.

    Indiana casts its mighty shadow on the strength of its interior. If Hibbert's an active part of that front line, there may be a prolonged postseason stay in the Pacers' immediate future.

Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs)

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    Career Stats: 9.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 49.7 FG%, 27.3 MPG

    2012-13 Averages: 12.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 50.1 FG%, 31.2 MPG

     

    At times, San Antonio Spurs sophomore Kawhi Leonard looks like one of the brightest young stars in today's game.

    At other times, though, he looks like an athletic defensive specialist who fades on the offensive end.

    Well there's no more surviving from these disappearing acts for the top-seeded Spurs, no more forgiving featuring Leonard with just a 16.4 usage rate that trails nearly every other San Antonio regular (via basketball-reference.com).

    Not with Manu Ginobili recovering from a strained hamstring and Tony Parker suffering a recent shin injury that has coach Gregg Popovich "very concerned," (via Jeff McDonald of SpursNation.com).

    Leonard will shine on the defensive end this postseason regardless of which players suit up around him. But the Spurs' championship hopes will hinge on Leonard's ability to make that same impact offensively.

Kenyon Martin (New York Knicks)

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    Career Stats: 12.9 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 48.2 FG%, 31.4 MPG

    2012-13 Averages: 7.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 60.4 FG%, 24.3 MPG

     

    Kenyon Martin couldn't figure out why he wasn't on an NBA roster sooner, he made his New York Knicks debut on Feb. 27.

    Frankly, after watching him suit up for coach Mike Woodson, I can't figure it out either.

    If Tyson Chandler is fully recovered from the bulging disc in his neck that cost him the second half of March, Martin's impact may be somewhat lessened. Even if Chandler wasn't at full strength, Martin is facing his own injury bug now (via Alex Raskin of NJ.com).

    If Martin can shake his injury woes, though, he gives Woodson some badly needed wiggle room with his rotation. He's proven capable of handling a heavy workload in the paint as he did during Chandler's absence. If Woodson needs the size, Martin can line up alongside Chandler with Carmelo Anthony sliding to his natural small forward spot.

Nate Robinson (Chicago Bulls)

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    Career Stats: 11.5 PPG, 3.0 APG, 42.7 FG%, 36.1 3PT%

    2012-13 Averages: 12.8 PPG, 4.4 APG, 43.6 FG%, 39.4 3PT%

     

    Chicago Bulls guard Nate Robinson is a wild card whenever he takes the floor. Postseason play will not be changing that fact.

    When he chooses to attack, he's going to relentlessly challenge opposing defenses to stop him. Even if those stops start piling up, he'll just keep coming.

    If this doesn't sound like the ideal point guard to carry a battle-tested club in the playoffs, that's because he was never meant to fill this role for Chicago. He was nothing more than insurance, a placeholder occupying a rotation spot until Derrick Rose returned.

    But now that the postseason is breathing down their necks and Rose is nowhere to be seen, Robinson's an integral piece of Chicago's playoff plans.

    He's certainly going to cause some headaches for Bulls fans, but he packs enough of an offensive punch to cause some sleepless nights for the opposition. 

    If Chicago needs to speed up the tempo in the coming weeks, it'll lean heavily on Robinson to help force the issue.

Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat)

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    Career Stats: 24.8 PPG, 6.1 APG, 5.1 RPG, 48.9 FG%

    2012-13 Averages: 21.3 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.0 RPG, 52.1 FG%

     

    If Miami Heat fans are still getting used to seeing Dwyane Wade in a supportive role, they may be on their own. It's hard to conjure up visions of a more complete complementary player.

    Wade clearly still has the talent to lead a franchise. He's a top-10 scorer and the second-best shooter of the bunch (via ESPN.com).

    But he has the "problem" of sharing the floor with LeBron James, a superstar talent closing in on his fourth MVP award in five seasons.

    Wade's too talented to be considered as a wild card. 

    But his inclusion here has nothing to do with his talent level or his ability to use that talent in a supportive role.

    He's on this list because it's growing tougher to tell just how healthy he is. He has missed six of Miami's last eight games dealing with a nagging knee injury and may not return before the postseason (via Michael Wallace of ESPN.com).

Deron Williams (Brooklyn Nets)

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    Career Stats: 17.7 PPG, 9.0 APG, 45.3 FG%, 35.6 3PT%

    2012-13 Averages: 18.7 PPG, 7.7 APG, 43.7 FG%, 37.8 3PT%

     

    Deron Williams was barely recognizable earlier this season. And that had nothing to do with him donning the white-and-black threads of the Brooklyn Nets.

    Williams was a volume scorer for the first three months of the year, and not a particularly effective one at that. Through the first 55 games that carried him through the end of Feb., he was averaging 17.3 points and shooting a paltry 41.7 percent from the field (via NBA.com).

    But when Williams used a rare commitment-free All-Star weekend to undergo a round of cortisone shots in both ankles and platelet-rich plasma therapy (via Beckley Mason of ESPN The Magazine), he forced his way back into the elite point guard discussion.

    Since March 1, he's upped his production to 23.1 points per game on 48.8 percent shooting. He's dished out 7.8 assists per game against 2.6 turnovers over that stretch.

    The Nets have drawn some of the faintest conversations in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

    But having a healthy Williams in tow just screams of this team's postseason potential.