2020 NBA Playoffs: We're About to See If These Role Players Can Be Stars
Stars of the moment are born every NBA postseason. Rarer is the playoff performance that marks a permanent change in status. The samples are important but incredibly small, and the stakes aren't conducive to the unknown. Good teams won't dramatically expand roles when it matters most unless something's gone wrong.
That's why, for this exercise, we're not limiting ourselves to the playoffs, but the entire Disney World experience. Most selections will come from squads that have clinched a postseason bid. Anyone who's expected to participate in the restart, though, is eligible for inclusion.
This also won't be a matter of tapping the most popular next guys up. Nor is it about identifying which newly minted stars might cement their status. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray are prime examples of players who won't be included. They are flirting with stardom (SGA) or being judged against that bar (Murray).
Players who haven't consistently generated fringe-All-Star buzz are instead the targets. Some will be a little more off the beaten path. Others will be familiar names who are just now broaching that fringe-star line.
They will all have the opportunity to leave Disney World with a far more ambitious outlook than they have at this moment.
Long-Shot-Honorable Mention: Michael Porter Jr.
Including Michael Porter Jr. without a disclaimer is tempting. He doesn't hold a prominent spot in the Denver Nuggets rotation, but he's mostly shined on offense in the time he has received.
His raw scoring totals are modest given his relative lack of playing time, but he's burying 53.6 percent of his twos and 42.2 percent of his threes. His 7.5 points per game work out to 19.2 points per 36 minutes.
The nuts and bolts of Porter's scoring profiles as exactly what the Nuggets need. He's getting buckets both within the flow of the offense and on his own accord. He's shooting 10-of-19 from deep (52.6 percent) after using two or more dribbles and 15-of-26 from two-point range (57.7 percent) inside the last seven seconds of the shot clock.
Small sample sizes can be misleading, and postseason defenses should be harder for Porter to navigate. The Nuggets shouldn't care until playing him devolves into a full-blown disaster. They need the idea of him. They're 27th in three-point-attempt rate and a so-so 15th in accuracy. Their 43.9 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers ranks 14th—good but not great.
Leaning on Porter might alleviate the burden placed upon Jamal Murray, especially during any minutes he logs without Nikola Jokic. He also, theoretically, gives the Nuggets another shot creator in crunch time, where Jokic is killing it but still doesn't provide a steady stream of face-up attacks.
Maybe playing Porter won't pan out. He's a rookie. Denver is a contender. The stakes are about to be higher. Head coach Mike Malone hasn't trusted him much before now. Is he really about to start in the postseason?
The Nuggets are vulnerable enough that it should be on the table.
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
Losing Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard could have created a defensive power vacuum on the perimeter for the Toronto Raptors. It hasn't. Meet one of the reasons why.
Acute appendicitis prevented OG Anunoby from partaking in Toronto's 2019 playoff romp, and he never really lived up to his rookie-year performance during the regular season. That down year has proved less telltale and more a matter of limited opportunity. He missed time with a right wrist injury and for personal reasons. More than that, last year's team wasn't built to broaden his role following the arrivals of Green and Leonard.
This year's Raptors haven't just facilitated Anunoby's ascent. They've needed it.
Theirs is a defense that thrives in concert. They can shape-shift depending on their opponent and have the aggregate length, speed and wit to play a hyper-aggressive style in the half-court without getting burned. Only the Milwaukee Bucks allow fewer points per possession, and the Chicago Bulls are the lone team that forces turnovers more often.
Toronto's approach is unique in that it doesn't include a consensus all-world defender. Both Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam will enter All-Defensive discussions—as could a fully healthy Marc Gasol—but they don't quite meet the criteria.
He is the Raptors' human eraser, the player they can stick on pretty much anyone, save for centers, with the intention of entirely removing them from the game. Much like Leonard last year, Anunoby feels like Toronto's best bet at guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo in a prospective playoff series. He blends the length and speed of a wing with the sturdiness of a big, making him impossibly hard to screen, go around and finish through.
Pay little mind to the Raptors allowing more points per 100 possessions with him on the court. It comes with the territory of having your minutes aligned with opposing matchup problems. Toronto's defense is still in the 84th percentile when he plays and cracks the 75th percentile during his stints at the 4. He is hell to navigate in the pick-and-roll, and Robert Covington, Justin Holiday and Matisse Thybulle are the only three non-bigs matching his steal and block rates.
Postseason-altering defense can fast-track niche stardom, but Anunoby has still more to offer. He's canning 38.1 percent of his threes and attacking closeouts more than ever. He's even shown a touch more moxie as a passer in smaller lineups.
Conventional stardom doesn't appear to be in Anunoby's future. He doesn't have the handle or playmaking instincts to pilot an offense on his own. But an exhaustive defender who knocks down threes and can put the ball on the floor is far better than an elite specialist, and there will be room for him to absorb more volume depending on how this offseason shakes out.
For now, if he just keeps doing what he's doing through the playoffs, his ceiling will need to be recalibrated to better account for fringe-All-Star outcomes.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Lonzo Ball's development has retreated into the backdrop, his play and importance obfuscated by the higher-end talent around him.
Jrue Holiday already operated on a different plane prior to this season, and Brandon Ingram, armed with better health and more offensive agency, made the All-Star leap. Then, at midseason, Zion Williamson came along with an impact as big, if not bigger, than the hype surrounding him.
Ball won't soon stop ceding status to any of his star teammates. He'd need to assume a different role altogether, one that doesn't fit his game and for which the New Orleans Pelicans don't have the functional bandwidth to offer.
That's perfectly fine. Ball isn't meant to dominate with outsized volume. His prospective stardom is more about thriving on balance—amplifying a team defense, dictating the tempo of the offense, throwing nifty passes and taking and hitting enough shots to supplement the scoring around him.
Working within that context has not always been easy. Ball spent his first 20-something games of 2019-20 struggling to find himself. He was at once overly deferential and settling for difficult jumpers. He couldn't shoot. He lost his starting spot.
Even now, the Pelicans are scoring more points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench, making this the third consecutive year—so, his entire career—in which his team's offense is better without him.
Eventually, though, Ball turned a corner. And he's yet to look back.
Since Dec. 29, a stretch spanning 31 games, Ball is averaging 14.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.6 steals while downing 41.0 percent of his threes. His improvement from deep is especially pivotal. He's letting them rip confidently and quickly off the catch.
Almost 40 percent of his field-goal attempts during this stretch are coming as spot-up threes, on which he's shooting 42.9 percent, a welcomed and much-needed development for a Pelicans team with so many ball-dominant players. His outside touch is among the many reasons New Orleans mirrors his minutes with those from Zion—73 percent of the possessions Zion has logged have come beside Ball, who has assisted on nearly one-third of his buckets—and the offense has been more efficient with him on the floor.
Much like basically everyone else on this list, Ball isn't fighting to achieve best-player-on-a-contender status. But his versatility does allow for slightly higher aims. Ben Simmons is the only other player matching his defensive rebounding, assist, steal and block rates, and Ball can shoot threes. He shouldn't be confused with just another marquee rotation player.
The Pelicans aren't snagging the West's final playoff spot, especially while potentially missing Zion for some time, without Ball carrying on his most recent balancing act. It's the role for which his game now seems built, and if it holds, it could render him second-or-third-best-player-on-a-contender material.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Looping Caris LeVert into a role-player conversation stretches the boundaries of this exercise. The Brooklyn Nets have developed—and already paid him—to be more.
And yet, there remains a significant amount of mystery ingrained into his game and future.
Limited availability is part of the unknownness. He has missed at least 20 games in three of his first four seasons, including this one. The depths of his offensive bag are just as debatable. He has flashed off-the-dribble shot-making, a tough-to-guard first step and genuine orchestration—he can throw cross-court passes on the move and toss spot-on feeds after leaving his feet—but his finishing at the rim is suspect, and he bails out on too many of his drives.
LeVert's overall efficiency this season isn't doing him any favors, either. Among 46 payers to log at least 1,000 minutes and a usage rate of 25 or higher, his true shooting percentage ranks...46th.
This isn't license to write off possible stardom—like, actual All-Star bids.
Reliable from-scratch scoring is hard to find, and he brings it. LeVert has scored more points off unassisted threes than Jamal Murray, according to PBP Stats, despite playing nearly 700 fewer minutes. Of the 60 players who have attempted at least 100 pull-up triples, JJ Redick is the only one draining his at a higher clip.
Parlaying this offensive base into stardom doesn't mandate LeVert lead his team as an alpha. But that's the opportunity he has in Disney. Spencer Dinwiddie, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are all sidelined. LeVert has the chance to establish himself independent of a safety net.
That's both tantalizing and not exactly comforting. LeVert was the Nets' best player last season before suffering a right foot injury, and he picked up the offensive slack during their five-game playoff stay when Ben Simmons deleted D'Angelo Russell from the planet. At the same time, Brooklyn's offense rates in the 10th percentile through the 650-plus possessions he has played this year without Dinwiddie or Irving.
Tasking LeVert with lifeline duty is probably an overextension. That's OK. The Nets aren't in the market for a No. 1 option. They don't even need a No. 2 option. They're on the prowl, literally, for a third star.
Whether LeVert can be that player remains to be seen. That's the crux of his intrigue. His apex is still in question. And while Brooklyn's roster isn't currently conducive to helping his case, anything he shows will go a long way toward endearing himself to the franchise as a keeper rather than a trade asset.
Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks
Donte DiVincenzo's trajectory is the toughest to reconcile among this group.
His emergence as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate is a boon for the Milwaukee Bucks, particularly on the heels of Malcolm Brogdon's departure, but leveling up to fringe-star buzz will demand opportunity. And with so much talent at the top of the roster, it isn't quite clear how much exposure he'll get in the playoffs.
But DiVincenzo doesn't need to take on a bigger role to float a higher ceiling. It just needs to be the same one.
He has spent the year filling in the cracks and crevices of Milwaukee's perimeter rotation. He has spearheaded fast breaks, initiated pick-and-rolls, improved his off-ball beelines to the basket, broken down half-court defenses, thrown assists after leaving his feet and pestered both backcourt spots, including bigger 2s.
It'd be nice if DiVincenzo could hit more of his threes. And he might. His 34.4 percent success rate on the season is unimpressive, even when measured against last year's 26.5 percent clip. But he's drilling 38.6 percent of his treys since Jan. 10, including 41.5 percent of his spot-up triples.
Milwaukee needs another layer of half-court creation in case the offense bogs down—or Eric Bledsoe struggles in the playoffs yet again. DiVincenzo might be the answer. His off-the-dribble jumper is spotty at best, but he's unafraid to fire away. More importantly, he has shown the capacity to scoot by set defenses and finish at the rim.
Among the 156 players who have burned through as many drives, only eight are matching his shooting and assist percentages: Bledsoe, Jalen Brunson, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Jordan McLaughlin, T.J. McConnell and Chris Paul.
DiVincenzo leaves just as much of a mark on the other end. As I wrote when pegging him as one of the league's most underrated players:
"His hands are agents of disorder. He contests routine passes and busts up possessions from behind while shuttling between both guard spots. Ball-handlers are coughing up the rock on 14.3 percent of the pick-and-rolls he defends, the second-highest mark on the Bucks, and he's averaging as many deflections per 36 minutes as Jimmy Butler."
Players without stat lines that leap off the page work from disadvantageous positions in this discussion. DiVincenzo doesn't have the responsibility of Caris LeVert, the higher-variance outcome of Michael Porter Jr. or the singular dominant quality of OG Anunoby. But his contributions come across the board, not unlike Lonzo Ball, albeit in smaller doses.
He is very much the swing piece for a championship-level team and someone who will command a much bigger role, either with the Bucks or someone else, if his playoff performance mirrors what he's done during the regular season.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.