Ranking the NBA's Biggest Wild Cards Entering 2013 Playoffs

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2013

Ranking the NBA's Biggest Wild Cards Entering 2013 Playoffs

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    The 2013 NBA playoff field features a slew of potential wild-card figures, starting with a pair of injured playmakers who could step back on the court early on this spring.

    Meanwhile, a couple of reserve units prepare to support their championship-caliber front lines.

    Which underdog squads could mix things up in a big way? Which players are poised to be critical X-factors?

    Find out as we break down the top wild cards of the 2013 NBA playoffs. These unpredictable entities will surely have an impact on the title chase.

10. Miami Heat Bench

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    Keep an eye on: Total points scored by bench (Goal: 35-40 per game)

    Even with a hobbled Dwyane Wade, we know what we're going to get from the Miami Heat Big Three: monstrous production.

    We also know the supporting cast is much improved from a talent and chemistry standpoint. But it remains to be seen how the role players—more specifically, the bench—will perform throughout the postseason.

    Rashard Lewis and Mike Miller have both enjoyed success in their roles this season, but their shooting has been inconsistent. Chris "Birdman" Andersen was an excellent pickup, but how will he fare against the likes of Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez or Joakim Noah?

    Recent games without LeBron James and Wade show that the bench is ready to compete in the playoffs. We'll soon see exactly how effective it is.

9. Wilson Chandler

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    Keep an eye on: Shot attempts (should aim for 15 per game)

    Replacing the production of Danilo Gallinari in the playoffs will be a collective effort for the Denver Nuggets, but the one player who could help compensate smoothly is Wilson Chandler.

    The reserve forward is by no means an elite scorer, but he can hurt opponents from distance and by driving the lane.

    Denver is an uptempo, opportunistic bunch, but there will be fewer easy buckets and transition dunks come playoff time. Half-court execution will be more important.

    That's where Chandler could be pivotal. He's effective in the pick-and-roll with Ty Lawson, and according to Synergy Sports, he sinks 45 percent of his spot-up shots. 

    He's not going to single-handedly replace Gallinari, but given enough touches, he can make a big impact.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Keep an eye on: Jeremy Lin's effectiveness on both ends

    Kevin McHale's Houston Rockets will be one of the most fun wild-card teams to watch, primarily because they can pile up points at a bewildering pace.

    They feature a deep cast of shooting threats, but they also have a clear leader in James Harden. In the opening round, the tentative opponent Oklahoma City Thunder can't take them for granted.

    If Houston can maximize its defensive efforts, this could be a close series. There are plenty of scoring options to keep OKC scrambling, and Jeremy Lin may be the X-factor.

    In the Rockets' two losses to the Thunder, Lin averaged 6.5 points and 7.5 assists. In their win on Feb. 20, he tallied 29 points and seven assists.

    We might see a high-scoring series in which Oklahoma City outguns Houston in five games. But there's the exciting chance for a see-saw shootout lasting six or seven should Lin make a notable contribution.

7. Stephen Curry's Passing

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    Keep an eye on: Assist totals

    The basketball world is well aware of Stephen Curry's deadly shooting stroke and colossal scoring potential for the Golden State Warriors.

    His passing, on the other hand, isn't heralded nearly as much. He's no John Stockton, but foes must take into account he's a highly effective facilitator.

    In Golden State's 45 wins, Curry scored 22.5 points and dished 7.5 assists per game. In its 33 losses, Curry scored almost exactly the same amount (22.6 per night) but tossed just 6.1 dimes.

    When he can get one step ahead of opponents mentally and recognize the passing options his threatening jumper opens up, it's almost impossible for them to contain him.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Keep an eye on: Opponent point totals in first two playoff games

    Doc Rivers' Boston Celtics are both literally and figuratively a wild card. They're an enigma entering the postseason for several reasons.

    Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are just getting back from injury, and we don't know their level of durability for the next two months.

    Also, this is the team's first playoff run without Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo since 2007. How will the reshaped backcourt jell and compete in its first postseason together?

    Sometimes, the Celts do a splendid job of corralling potent opponents; for other stretches, they can't seem to keep anyone below 100 points.

    Will they rise to the occasion against the New York Knicks in the first round?

5. Oklahoma City Thunder Backup Guards

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    Keep an eye on: Reggie Jackson's minutes during the first round

    When James Harden was around, the Oklahoma City Thunder almost always had an All-Star initiating the offense.

    In 2012-13, when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant sit, OKC leans on second-year point guard Reggie Jackson and veteran Derek Fisher.

    Jackson's effectiveness as an attacker and decision-maker will be critical during several stretches in the playoffs. His quick first step led to 13 points and four assists on Feb. 7 against the New York Knicks, and Scott Brooks is surely hoping that was a preview of his playoff exploits.

    He and Fisher are charged with holding down the fort while Westbrook gets a breather. The goal is for Brooks to be confident every single time he turns to the bench.

4. Manu Ginobili

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    Keep an eye on: Minutes per game upon return

    According to an Associated Press report, San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili might miss the beginning of the playoffs, possibly the entire first round.

    The timing and manner of his return could dramatically boost the Spurs' championship pursuit.

    When he's dialed in as a creator and spark plug off the bench, San Antonio is a fearsome unit that can relentlessly attack opponents for 48 minutes.

    The sooner Ginobili can come back and contribute at full strength, the easier it will be for the club to take care of business in the early rounds and rest up for the conference finals.

3. J.R. Smith

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    Keep an eye on: Shooting percentage

    While the New York Knicks aren't collectively a wild-card unit, J.R. Smith is a wild card of sorts in the Eastern Conference landscape.

    His playmaking skills and athleticism make life easier for Carmelo Anthony, and more importantly, they complement the rest of the Knicks' aging roster.

    Off the bench, Smith has been outstanding in 2012-13, posting 17.8 points and 2.7 assists in 33.5 minutes per game. For the most part, his shot selection and decision-making have been superb.

    His ability to take over the offense will come in handy when the likes of Paul George and LeBron James clamp down on 'Melo.

    The key is efficiency: Will he take lots of questionable shots and jeopardize New York's season, or will he consistently find the best shot and execute?

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Keep an eye on: Pau Gasol's touches

    If the Los Angeles Lakers secure the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, Kobe Bryant will make sure their efforts to reach the postseason weren't in vain.

    Whether they meet the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder, Mike D'Antoni's boys must play their best defense of the entire campaign.

    On the offensive side, L.A. is more than just a "wild card." Dwight Howard is better, Pau Gasol is returning to his All-Star pace and Kobe Bryant is on everyone's radar.

    As in previous seasons, Gasol could be the boost necessary to threaten the rest of the West, particularly if he gets regular touches and shot attempts and passes well from the high post.

1. Derrick Rose

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    Keep an eye on: Confidence when driving, sharpness when cutting and defending

    Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune that he's still open to returning during the playoffs.

    And that makes him the ultimate "wild card" of the 2013 postseason.

    We've known for weeks that he's physically cleared to play, and we've seen him accelerating and dunking in shootarounds.

    But exactly how explosive and effective will he be if he comes back in late April or May? The actual tools are there, but he may bee too hesitant to truly influence the game.

    A strong, confident return would make the Bulls a new challenger to the New York Knicks and Miami Heat because Rose adds a whole new dimension to the offense.

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