Predicting Breakout Offensive Weapons in the 2014 NBA Playoffs
Denver Nuggets guard Nate Robinson is in the NBA for quick-strike offensive explosions at a moment’s notice. But during last year’s playoffs, Robinson—then a point guard for the Chicago Bulls—took his game to a completely different level.
In the first round, he ripped the steering wheel away from the Brooklyn Nets and completely dominated the series. Then, Robinson led Chicago to a shocking Game 1 victory against the defending champion Miami Heat. We all knew he could score, but nobody expected Robinson to be one of the postseason’s most deadly weapons.
Here are five players who could potentially fill Robinson’s shoes this year. Guys who can swing a playoff game by scoring rapidly in a myriad ways. They’re ranked on the probability they break out and give their teams even more production than should reasonably be expected.
5. Harrison Barnes
Barnes technically broke out as an offensive threat in last year’s playoffs, but his sophomore regular season was so atrocious as to erase all previous highlights from everyone’s memory.
Barnes' PER went from 20.7 in last year’s playoffs to 9.8 in the 2013-14 regular season. He struggled with his shot and never looked comfortable backing up Andre Iguodala, as opposed to starting games with the benefit of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s shot spacing.
Thanks to Andrew Bogut’s injury and the speedy style of play forced by the Los Angeles Clippers, Barnes could see major minutes as a stretch 4 in the first round, allowing him the opportunity to bully smaller wings down low, as he did repeatedly last year to Tony Parker.
After averaging 9.5 points all year, Barnes scored 14 in Game 1. He also sunk three three-pointers. He could be on the verge of a “second” breakout campaign. Hopefully, this one is worth remembering.
4. Marcus Thornton
Marcus Thornton is one of the league’s definitive heat-check scorers. As a Brooklyn Net, he shot 38 percent from deep on over five attempts per game this season. (Over half his total shot attempts were behind the three-point line.)
Thornton’s never been the most efficient scorer, but once he finds a groove, no defense can slow him down. Even though he’s most likely to attack with long jumpers, only 43.1 percent of Thornton’s made field goals were assisted this season.
He’s far from only a spot-up shooter and can punish defenses with capable ball-handling to get him where he wants to go. Playing on a Nets team that’s loaded with so many other perimeter threats (Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, etc.), the Toronto Raptors could easily lose track of where Thornton is on the floor.
If they do, he's talented enough to make them pay.
3. Devin Harris
The only player on this list who'll see the floor primarily for his defensive effort (and also the oldest candidate by far at 31 years old), Devin Harris logged 31 minutes in Game 1 of Dallas' first-round series because Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis couldn't hang with Tony Parker.
But sliding his feet on defense isn't all Harris brings to the table. He's dynamic with the ball in his hands and led the Mavericks in scoring in that game with 19 points. Harris' shooting percentages have been in the toilet all year, but he can still knife his way to the rim and finish through contact.
Here's what Vince Carter said about Harris after Game 1's explosion, per ESPNDallas.com's Bryan Gutierrez:
He does a lot for us. His quickness, his ability to shoot the pull-ups, shoot the three, get in the paint, find guys is just something we have to exploit. If we hit shots for him, that makes the game a lot easier for all of us.
Harris drained three huge three-pointers in Game 1 and finished the contest making half his 16 shots. The nine-year veteran can get to the free-throw line and doesn't take poor attempts outside the flow of Rick Carlisle's utopian offensive scheme. He has three more games, at least, to give the San Antonio Spurs a massive headache.
2. D.J. Augustin
Nate Robinson’s literal replacement, Chicago Bulls point guard D.J. Augustin saved his team’s floundering season with unforeseen scoring all year long.
His 14.9 points-per-game average in 61 games is a career-high, and his 41.1 percent shooting from behind the three-point line was as incredible as it was unexpected. Against the Washington Wizards, Augustin’s primary job won’t only be to provide offense off the bench, but he also needs to tire out whoever’s guarding him.
Andre Miller is too slow at this point to hang, and John Wall, the only other point guard in Washington’s rotation, has far too many responsibilities to worry about instead of defending the opposition’s backup ball-handler.
If Augustin starts dicing up Washington’s defense, there’s a good chance Randy Wittman puts Wall on him. Tom Thibodeau will respond by putting Wall through a ton of pick-and-rolls. Augustin’s impact won’t only be felt by how many insane driving layups he sinks in traffic.
Augustin has the potential to shift this entire series simply by doing what he did all year long. Expect him to do more, though.
1. Patty Mills
This was a breakout regular season for Patty Mills, who asserted himself as Tony Parker’s lead backup after being left on the outside of San Antonio’s rotation for the past two years.
He’s a five-year veteran, but this was the first season where Mills logged at least 1,000 minutes (1,527 to be exact). Gregg Popovich has essentially given Mills the Stephen Curry treatment—allowing him to pull up for three almost whenever he wants—and it’s paying off. He shot 42.5 percent from behind the three-point line (ninth-highest in the league) and posted an effective field-goal percentage of 56.5 percent (10th-highest).
Why is this year different than last? Allow Popovich to explain, as told to Spurs Nation’s Dan McCarney:
He was a little fat ass. He had too much junk in the trunk. His decision making wasn’t great, and he wasn’t in great shape. He changed his entire body. He came back svelte and cut and understood you have to make better decisions, point-guard type decisions. He did all those things better and he earned it. He’s been real important to us, obviously.
If anyone on this list is going to have the time, space and opportunity to make an unprecedented impact, it’s Mills.