Secret Weapons to Shake Up 2020 NBA Playoffs
So much NBA playoff analysis is dedicated to familiar faces, the superstars and fringe stars and top-shelf role players most likely to leave their imprint or dictate the terms of an entire series or postseason push. That's...fair. Playoff success is nothing if not tightly tied to the performance of the biggest names.
Postseason runs can still be enhanced, if not defined, on the margins. Shortened rotations do not mean that depth is irrelevant. And higher stakes are not only for the superstars and quasi-superstars and painfully obvious X-factors. They are for anyone who can seize the opportunity, even if it's an unexpected one.
That's the methodology we'll be using to suss out this postseason's best secret weapons. And just so we're clear: "secret" shouldn't be interpreted as "completely unknown" or "out of nowhere."
None of these players are what you'd call household names, but some can qualify as regular ol' X-factors. Others are of the traditional role-player variety. They're all in line for the chance to have bigger and better postseasons than expected—performances that won't always be reflected in the box score but are no less pivotal to turning an entire series.
Maxi Kleber, Dallas Mavericks
Maxi Kleber's value to the Mavericks has increased tenfold in the absence of Dwight Powell, even with Willie Cauley-Stein on the docket. He is now the player best suited to guard power forwards in dual-big lineups with Kristaps Porzingis, and his own 37.4 percent clip from downtown allows Dallas to get by with less shooting at other perimeter positions.
JaMychal Green, Los Angeles Clippers
JaMychal Green represents a middle ground for the Clippers, the player who most allows them to downsize up front without rolling out a wing at the 5. Neither Montrezl Harrell nor Ivica Zubac is matchup-proof, and using Marcus Morris at center, while tantalizing in theory, might verge on too extreme versus opponents who aren't the Houston Rockets.
Granted, Green has barely seen any time at the 5 spot this season. But it was the same story last year after he came to Los Angeles from Memphis. The Clippers ended up using him predominantly at center in their first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors anyway, a move that helped extend the series to six games. Depending on who they pull in this year's bracket, Green can either help them properly match up or allow them to create their own frontline mismatches.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Having another scorer who can bang in threes and manufacture shots from scratch would go a long way toward glitzing up the Nuggets' playoff profile. Michael Porter Jr. has flashed all the tools necessary to be that guy.
But the question remains: How much will head coach Mike Malone trust him when it matters most?
Terence Davis, Toronto Raptors
Terence Davis is renowned most for his shooting, acclaim that he has absolutely earned. He is converting 39.6 percent of his three-point attempts and places in the 78th percentile of spot-up efficiency on the season.
A sterling shot profile endears Davis even further to a Toronto Raptors team that has an ultra-clear pecking order. Around 90 percent of his looks come from beyond the arc or at the rim, a distribution that implies seamless integration and intense role awareness.
At the same time, Davis' value is more than that. He has both the bandwidth and license to branch out from his offensive cubbyhole. He boasts a disarming second jump when following his own misses around the hoop, knows how to capitalize on scrambling defenses and doesn't receive nearly enough credit for his passing.
Among 161 players who have finished at least 150 drives, Davis owns a top-16 assist rate, putting him right behind Lonzo Ball. His ball control can be a little iffy in the half court, and he's not the most accurate passer, but Toronto can turn to him for spot pick-and-roll playmaking in a pinch.
To what extent the Raptors will lean on Davis in high-stakes games remains to be seen. His playing time and efficiency plummeted in the two weeks leading up to the NBA's shutdown. Consistent playoff minutes will be hard to come by with Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet all in front of him, and with Patrick McCaw in the mix as well.
Still, Davis can distinguish himself by carving out actual wing minutes. He's only 6'4", but he has spent time guarding 3s without appearing hopelessly overmatched and works his butt off away from the ball. Toronto is giving up just 101.6 points per 100 possessions when he mans small forward, though these returns come off a terribly small sample size.
Plenty of other players are far more likely to shape the outcome of a playoff series for the Raptors. Between Lowry, Powell, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam, they have a nice mix of stars and high-end role players. But Davis is potentially yet another ace up their sleeve, a truly impactful player capable of clawing his way into Toronto's (probably) shortened postseason rotation.
Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks
Donte DiVincenzo isn't a secret relative to everyone else who makes this list, at least not around these parts. We have highlighted what is a stronger-than-advertised Sixth Man of the Year showing here. And here. And here. And here.
In this space specifically, though, DiVincenzo isn't being selected for his overall impact. That's certainly part of the equation, but his postseason importance is at once more exact and less obvious.
The Milwaukee Bucks didn't bow out of last year's playoffs because they lacked depth. Or because they wanted for defensive optionality. They dropped four straight against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals because their offense wasn't built for that moment.
Toronto limited their transition opportunities and overwhelmed them in the half court, where a glaring lack of outside creation came back to bite them. The Bucks averaged just 0.96 points per possession that series after the Raptors made a shot, per Inpredictable, a far cry from the 1.09 they put up in the same situations during the regular season.
On some level, this could still be Milwaukee's undoing. Giannis Antetokounmpo is more comfortable launching pull-up and fadeaway jumpers, but he's not suddenly a sweet-shooting force. Eric Bledsoe's recent playoff struggles are well-chronicled and, despite how well he's fared during the regular season, a prospective issue until they're not.
Khris Middleton will be responsible for offsetting most of the Bucks' limitations. Navigating half-court restrictions is a lot easier when their No. 2 scores like an All-NBA shoo-in. But DiVincenzo is also critical to Milwaukee separating itself from last season's functional collapse, another person with the floor game and decision-making chops to poke holes in set defenses.
He throws quick second passes, runs pick-and-rolls and flings dimes after leaving his feet. Playing next to two stars helps, but he's shown he can more independently break down defenses. The Bucks are pumping in 111.1 points per 100 possessions (52nd percentile) when he runs point without Antetokounmpo on the floor. Those minutes will be fewer and farther between in the postseason, but the crux of what they represent translates to Milwaukee's all-hands-on-deck lineups: an offense with more functional diversity than last year.
Justin Holiday, Indiana Pacers
Justin Holiday has found a wheelhouse he can own after being overtaxed as a creator with the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies last season. The Indiana Pacers have him churning through catch-and-fire threes, on which he's shooting 40.8 percent, and can allow him to focus on finishing plays rather than setting up others when the ball is in his hands.
This shift in role has served him well on the break. Over 23 percent of his offensive possessions are coming in transition, where he's shown a knack for both getting to the basket and converting threes. His effective field-goal percentage of 68.2 in these situations ranks eighth among 82 players who have attempted as many shots.
Indiana will need Holiday's utility to make a dent in the postseason. Jeremy Lamb is done for the year with left knee injuries, Malcolm Brogdon was out with a torn left quad muscle when games came to a halt, and Victor Oladipo isn't yet all the way back from last year's ruptured right quad. Holiday doesn't offset the absence or potential struggles of any one player, but his fits-all scoring is crucial to balancing out certain lineups.
His defensive role is carved out in the same vein. The Pacers have liberally thrown him on bigger wings and outright 4s, sort of like they used to do with CJ Miles.
As Tony East wrote for Forbes: "Holiday has a skinny frame, but he's figured out how to leverage his height against heavier forwards while also continuing to use his feet to contain perimeter players." He has in turn become a necessary constant in one-big combinations, sparing TJ Warren (defending well!) and Doug McDermott from select assignments and just generally giving Indiana a blueprint to pummeling opponents with Domantas Sabonis-at-center arrangements.
Derrick Jones Jr., Miami Heat
Derrick Jones Jr. can technically blow up the Miami Heat's postseason from both sides of the fence.
On the one hand, he's a distinctly negative offensive player. He can devastate in transition and when he slips through the cracks in the half court, but he's also a drain on Miami's floor balance. He's shooting just 27 percent on threes and averaging a mere 0.81 points per spot-up possession (22nd percentile).
On the flip side, Jones is not someone defenses can leave completely unattended. Giving him too much room on or off the ball opens the door for him to unwind another above-the-rm poster. He's hitting 67 percent of his two-pointers.
That's enough, let's say upside, for the Heat to keep Jones on the floor. His defense is indispensable when they play zone, and even after acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, they don't have someone with his positional range or explosive activity. Miami can count on Jones to disrupt passing lanes while still recovering hard onto shooters and has tasked him with bodying up against not just larger wings but actual bigs.
Besides, if the Heat's rotation after the trade deadline is any indication, they'll still be giving Jimmy Butler a ton of reps with Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, neither of whom is even a neutral defender. Jones both alleviates the burden atop Butler's shoulders and makes it easier for Miami to use Nunn and Robinson in places where they won't be so overmatched.
Royce O'Neale, Utah Jazz
Perhaps you're wondering whether Royce O'Neale can really be a secret after signing a four-year, $36 million extension ($29 million guaranteed). Feel free to stop. He absolutely can be.
O'Neale is still definitively underappreciated on a national scale. The breadth of his defensive workload isn't fully understood. He covers everyone from guards to bigger wings to flat-out bigs, many of whom are primary scorers and playmakers, all without appearing overtaxed. As Forbes' Ben Dowsett wrote shortly after O'Neale put pen to paper on his extension:
"He's been the primary ball-handler's defender on over 500 finished pick-and-roll plays this year, per advanced tracking data provided by a source, one of the 10 highest figures in the NBA. The Jazz allow just 0.84 points per chance on these plays, one of the five lowest figures in the league among volume defenders and easily the lowest on Utah's roster."
The Jazz don't dress O'Neale in nearly as much responsibility at the other end. Almost two-thirds of his shot attempts come without taking a dribble, and more than 94 percent of his made baskets are assisted.
Don't interpret this as a comment on O'Neale's finite offense. His role says more about Utah's increasingly concrete pecking order than his tool bag. He can pump-fake into drives off the three-point line, spray passes to open shooters while on the move and drop off dimes to those ducking in on cuts. The Jazz were a little more willing to test his pick-and-roll mettle before this season.
Everything O'Neale does—including his 41.1 percent clip on spot-up threes—will be amplified in the postseason. He was already Utah's most important wing defender (sorry, Joe Ingles) by way of positional flexibility. Bojan Bogdanovic's season-ending wrist injury only heightens how much he means to the offense—particularly if Mike Conley never finds a happy, sustainable medium.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.