The One Player Every NBA Team Needs to Step Up in Orlando
The NBA is nearly back, but for these next few months, it's going to be a different experience than what we're used to. Yes, the lack of fans in the stands will undoubtedly make an impact, but the basketball itself will be high-variance as well.
While the postseason is normally a star-driven affair, the volatile nature of personal health amid the coronavirus pandemic suggests a potentially greater dependence on depth this year. Hopefully, no one on contending teams will contract COVID-19 while in Florida, but if a player does, how will his team respond?
Today, we're looking at players on each of the 22 teams in the bubble who could capitalize on a strange set of circumstances this summer. The hierarchies we constructed last winter and spring may still apply, but a four-month hiatus combined with the pandemic could completely change the state of play.
In the best-case scenario, these players could all help their teams outperform expectations.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Smart
More than any other player here, Marcus Smart has a clear identity. He's a versatile and tenacious defender who's occasionally too in-love with his shot.
But Boston may need a lot more from him in order to compete for a title this summer.
Kemba Walker was always going to be a postseason question mark for the Boston Celtics. He's struggled in his limited playoff experience, notably shooting just 36.6 percent from the field in the Charlotte Hornets' first-round series against the Miami Heat in 2016, and he's the kind of player who will suffer with a less generous whistle.
On top of that, Walker may still be dealing with the knee issues that sidelined him before the hiatus. The four-time All-Star claims to feel great, but missed practices and a potential minutes restriction hint otherwise.
All this is to say that if Walker is not up to the task, then Boston will need an additional ball-handler to emerge, and now is not the time to try integrating Brad Wanamaker or Carsen Edwards into the starting five.
To surpass expectations, the Celtics may need Smart, a beloved and playoff-tested veteran, to play the best basketball of his career.
Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert
Barring a white-hot shooting streak from Jamal Crawford, the Brooklyn Nets will only be competitive in the bubble if Caris LeVert breaks out.
Nearly half Brooklyn's original roster is out, handing LeVert control of the offense for the time being. Given the dearth of NBA-caliber players currently on the Nets, it wouldn't be surprising to see the 25-year-old falter this summer, but he's shined when given increased responsibilities in the past.
LeVert thrived when D'Angelo Russell struggled against the Philadelphia 76ers in last year's first-round series, averaging 21.0 points per game on 49.3/46.2/72.4 shooting splits, and he has steadily increased his per-36-minute scoring in three consecutive years, albeit with diminished efficiency.
This opportunity could go one of two ways for LeVert. Either the lack of structure will contribute to an inefficient showing, or the fact there's nothing to lose will eliminate any sense of pressure, enabling him to play more freely and excel in the process.
If the latter scenario plays out and the Nets outperform expectations, then Eastern Conference opponents better look out next year when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant retake the court alongside LeVert.
Dallas Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr.
With career-best shooting splits, Tim Hardaway Jr. was amid a breakout campaign when the season stopped. Now, let's see if he can translate those improvements to the playoffs.
As a career 31.5/23.2/64.0 postseason slash line suggests, Hardaway has had his fair share of struggles under the brightest lights. But there's plenty of reason to believe he'll change his tune this summer.
First, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are two of the best teammates he's ever played with, and the defensive attention they require will continue freeing him up for open jumpers. Second, Hardaway's role on this Mavericks team is fairly simple.
Thanks to the presence of Doncic, Delon Wright and JJ Barea, he doesn't have to worry about shot creation or ball-handling at all, and he can operate almost exclusively off the ball, where he now excels.
Given Doncic's and Porzingis' youth, Dallas is playing with house money. So long as it is competitive, any result is valuable. This lack of immediate pressure could provide the perfect arena for Hardaway to continue emerging as one of the league's elite role players.
Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.
There's no more obvious choice here.
Yes, it's true. Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has been reticent to play Porter in key situations all season long. But considering the circumstances, it would behoove him to unleash the rookie.
Despite the traditional first-year struggles on defense, Porter has already looked like a dynamite scorer when given the opportunity. During the 14 games in which he's logged 20-plus minutes, the 22-year-old is averaging 15.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game while shooting 54.9 percent overall and 48.1 percent from three-point range. That quartet of statistics is unprecedented for any player who actually takes threes, let alone a rookie.
Porter is far from a perfect player, and his weaknesses may be detrimental to this particular Nuggets roster. But there's a reason teams and fans around the NBA have been holding their collective breath, waiting for him to get sustained playing time. Even this early in his career, very few non-stars have Porter's pure bucket-getting ability.
Let's hope he gets a chance to prove it in Orlando.
Houston Rockets: Ben McLemore
For the first time, a breakout performance from Ben McLemore does not require him to live up to his seventh-overall-pick billing.
After years of being called a draft bust, McLemore finally found a home with the Houston Rockets this season. With James Harden and Russell Westbrook in charge of the offense on virtually every possession, McLemore could finally focus on what he does best: stroke threes.
As it turns out, that simple directive was enough to jolt the 2013 lottery pick as he's recorded a 60.9 effective field-goal percentage (a top-50 mark leaguewide if he qualified for the leaderboard) and has made at least four threes in a game 17 times.
But as great a story as McLemore's rejuvenation has been this year, the Rockets need him more than ever now. Their current ultra-small construction only works because opponents respect Houston's spot-up shooters enough to actually defend them at the three-point line, essentially giving Westbrook and Harden free rein over the paint.
If McLemore's shot fails him in the coming weeks or months, then that thin margin for error the Rockets have been exploiting may come back to bite them.
Indiana Pacers: Aaron Holiday
The past few weeks have been chaotic for the Indiana Pacers. From Malcolm Brogdon's coronavirus diagnosis to the ongoing Victor Oladipo saga, they have had numerous stops and starts regarding their bubble personnel.
Brogdon has been practicing of late and should be available for games, but Oladipo's status remains in question (and even if he plays, he won't begin at full strength). With that in mind, plus Jeremy Lamb's torn ACL, the Pacers could be stretched thin in the backcourt, putting great responsibility on the shoulders of Aaron Holiday.
The younger brother of Justin and Jrue has been productive as Brogdon's backup, but being a starting point guard in the playoffs is a different task.
As an undersized, poor defending, not very efficient shooter, Holiday is easily exploitable. On the other hand, he put together an admirable 15-game stretch (including nine starts) earlier this year, averaging 14.1 points and 5.1 assists while making 45.8 percent of his threes and helping the Pacers to wins over the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers.
Indiana may not need Holiday to elevate his game to that degree again if Brogdon and Oladipo return to form. But if he can at least become a spark-plug sixth man and pick opposing bench units apart, the Pacers will be that much more dangerous.
Los Angeles Clippers: Joakim Noah
In traditional terms, no, Joakim Noah will not be "breaking out" in Orlando. But he's easily the highest-variance rotation player on the Clippers, a team chock-full of known quantities.
The size of Noah's role remains unclear. Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac make a solid platoon, and the 35-year old is coming off an Achilles injury. But after the Clippers signed him through the 2020-21 season, head coach Doc Rivers stated that Noah's energy and basketball IQ will help, two qualities that can translate even if the center's athleticism has eroded.
Noah's infectious enthusiasm is well-documented, and he'll provide an emotional assist to a team led by the famously taciturn Kawhi Leonard. His basketball IQ and passing acumen will also be useful as Los Angeles ranks 23rd in assist percentage and 26th in passes per game this year.
With Harrell recently leaving the bubble and Zubac yet to join it, Noah may become far more important than anticipated. But assuming they fit back into the rotation, Noah can hopefully show he's still got a few difference-making years left in the NBA and contribute to the deepest playoff run of his career.
Los Angeles Lakers: Alex Caruso
Somehow, at age 35, LeBron James remains the fulcrum upon which a title contender rests. When he is on the floor, the Los Angeles Lakers boast the third-best offense in the NBA by net rating, and when he sits, they're above only the Warriors in offensive rating.
James has played nearly 35 minutes a night this year, and he'll play even more in the playoffs. But between that worrying net rating swing and Avery Bradley's absence from the bubble, Los Angeles needs another guard willing and able to give quality minutes.
Though his reputation has been inflated by overeager Lakers fans, Alex Caruso has emerged as a genuine NBA contributor this year. The so-called Bald Mamba has proved especially valuable on the defensive end, ranking sixth among shooting guards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus, but he can knock down a shot when necessary and takes care of the basketball, recording 2.2 assists per turnover.
If Caruso becomes an integral part of Los Angeles' championship hopes this summer, it's time to worry. But if he runs a serviceable second-unit offense while continuing to grind on defense, expect the Lakers' title train to continue running on schedule.
Memphis Grizzlies: De'Anthony Melton
Despite a hyper-modern young trio, this Memphis Grizzlies team maintains the blue-collar roots that defined the team's recent Grit 'n' Grind era. One of the players who make that connection clear is De'Anthony Melton.
Like Allen, Melton is forgettable on offense. The guard isn't an efficient shooter and can't create shots consistently against NBA defenses.
However, also like The Grindfather, Melton is a menace on defense. Count on him to swallow up the opponent's best perimeter scorer while also wreaking havoc in the passing lanes.
Along these lines, Parker Fleming of Grizzly Bear Blues writes: "This season, he ranks eighth among all guards in DBPM (+1.8), and he's also in the 97th percentile in steal percentage (2.4%). Among players that have played at least 35 games this season, he ranks seventh in deflections per 36 minutes at 4.5."
While Melton might be a disadvantage for Memphis on offense, he makes up for it on the less glamorous end. In this scenario, where players may be especially rusty on offense, the former USC Trojan could eat opposing guards alive.
Miami Heat: Andre Iguodala
We'll put Andre Iguodala in the same category as Joakim Noah, but with a higher ceiling.
The 36-year-old has looked his age this year, recording the second-worst net rating on the Miami Heat roster and the worst player efficiency rating (PER) of his career. While it's possible that over 40,000 total NBA minutes are finally taking their toll, Iguodala's regular-season statistics have declined for years, and he always shows up in the playoffs.
Miami's offense is headlined by two subpar shooters in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, so scoring may be tough to come by in the postseason. But a flailing offense is acceptable if the team's defense is suffocating enough to grind opponents down, and if we know anything about Heat Culture, it's that defensive intensity is required.
It helps to have players as versatile and pedigreed on that end as Butler, Iguodala and Adebayo, a defensive trio with few equals.
Unlike LeBron James or even Chris Paul, Iguodala has shown significant signs of decline, so the end is likely nigh no matter what. But it would be exciting for him to leave everything out on the floor alongside a cadre of like-minded teammates.
Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo
Donte DiVincenzo was having a breakout season before the NBA's hiatus, but with a glut of shooting guards on Milwaukee's roster, it felt muted. However, with Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver a combined 72 years old and easy defensive targets in high-level playoff series, DiVincenzo is set to become the Bucks' unquestioned starting 2-guard.
Last year, the Toronto Raptors flustered Giannis Antetokounmpo by packing the paint with their fleet of long-armed big men, forcing him to rely a great deal on his supporting cast. While DiVincenzo is a slightly-below-average shooter, making just 34.4 percent of his threes this season, he'll be able to help Giannis out in most other ways if such a defense is deployed again.
The former Villanova Wildcat is a solid secondary distributor, a much better athlete than you might expect and a smart team defender. In other words, he's a perfect low-maintenance role player.
It seems like Antetokounmpo wants to stay in Milwaukee past next summer. But until that contract is signed, you can never be sure, and a standout performance from DiVincenzo in the bubble could be icing on the cake that is Giannis' long-term commitment to the Bucks.
New Orleans Pelicans: Lonzo Ball
Because he wasn't a star right away, Lonzo Ball has quietly receded from national headlines, but the predraft expectations that he'd be a triple-double threat have nevertheless borne out. The list of players to match his rebounds and assists per game at age 22 or younger is an illustrious one, and he remains a surprisingly disruptive defender.
And the best part? The fun is just beginning.
When the Anthony Davis trade went through, New Orleans Pelicans fans began salivating over a Lonzo-Zion Williamson alley-oop connection, and as soon as Williamson returned from injury, that fantasy became reality. Provided that all is well with the big man's family and he returns to play this summer, we'll get to see the continued development of a devastating two-man unit. In 437 minutes, lineups that feature Ball and Williamson posted a 15.2 net rating and recorded assists on 70.8 percent of their possessions, two marks that would lead the NBA by a country mile.
Between the Grizzlies, Trail Blazers and Spurs, the Pelicans face tough competition for the West's final playoff slot. But with Ball to lead a run-and-gun offense and quarterback a stout defense, everybody else might be playing for ninth.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Andre Roberson
Andre Roberson last played an NBA game on Jan. 27, 2018, right in the midst of Zion Williamson's final season at Spartanburg Day School. But after numerous setbacks in his recovery from a ruptured patellar tendon, it seems Roberson is finally ready to go. Oklahoma City Thunder teammates Dennis Schroder and Luguentz Dort both claim he looks great, and coach Billy Donovan stated he may be available to play in the bubble.
Now, this may just be talk. Even if Roberson looks normal in five-on-five practices, NBA game speed is a different beast that will require an adjustment period. But a full-strength version of the former all-league defender could be game-changing for the Thunder.
Playing Roberson alongside Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort gives Oklahoma City a bulletproof perimeter defense and presents the team with even more intriguing lineup combinations. Just imagine Roberson at center surrounded by Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Schroder and Danilo Gallinari.
We shouldn't get overly excited. Even on his best day, Roberson is highly flawed. But the mere presence of someone with his skill set makes the Thunder an even more dangerous opponent, one with serious upset potential.
Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon
Aaron Gordon has been hyped up as a breakout candidate for years. Although that big explosion hasn't occurred yet, that doesn't mean it won't.
While Gordon deserves some blame for stalling out over the past few seasons, the Magic's overstuffed frontcourt feels largely responsible for his underwhelming performance. We saw a glimpse of what's possible for the forward in a better-structured system when Jonathan Isaac went down with a knee injury in early January. In 29 games following Isaac's injury, Gordon put together a stat line matched only by five of the league's brightest young stars.
Even if Gordon continues to perform at that level, there's only so much he'll be able to do. Orlando still claims one of the worst point guard rotations in the NBA, and the team's calling card of versatile defense is far less imposing without Isaac to patrol the back line. Their season likely ends in a five- or six-game first-round defeat to a more talented team.
But sustained improvement from Gordon will hopefully make the Magic's future a bit brighter and clearer.
Philadelphia 76ers: Shake Milton
Given that he's replacing $109 million man Al Horford in the Philadelphia 76ers' starting lineup, there's plenty of pressure on Shake Milton to make waves this summer. But in limited opportunities, the 2018 second-round pick has shown he might be Philly's skeleton key.
After moving into the rotation in January, Milton hit his stride, averaging 14.1 points and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 50 percent on threes in 14 starts. In addition, at 6'5" with a 7'0" wingspan, the former SMU Mustang fits the Sixers' mold of long, versatile defenders.
While he's not as big nor as dynamic a distributor as Ben Simmons, Milton's shooting acumen and knowledge of his skill set will aid a lineup that has struggled to space the floor and maintain a consistent offensive hierarchy.
Given the pedigree of Philly's original starting five, it would have been easy for coach Brett Brown to stand pat and bet on sheer talent. The fact that he decided to eschew optics and substitute Milton for Horford shows a willingness to adapt to new information, and it could be the difference between a disappointing first-round exit and a deep postseason run.
Phoenix Suns: Mikal Bridges
Yet another player who was hitting his stride before the season stopped in March was Mikal Bridges. In Phoenix's final seven games pre-hiatus, the wing averaged 13.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 steals per game while shooting an eye-popping 56.1 percent overall and 42.9 percent from three.
It's easy to say Bridges won't sustain the uptick in production, but part of the reason he began flourishing was because Kelly Oubre Jr. sat out those games after tearing his meniscus, and Oubre may not be cleared to play in the bubble. In that case, Bridges will once again be the Suns' starting small forward and can hopefully replicate his increased offensive efficiency to go with an already stellar defensive reputation.
As one of the weaker teams in the bubble, Phoenix doesn't have much to play for. But if Bridges can continue climbing toward the Robert Covington or peak Otto Porter Jr. class of three-and-D wings over the next month, then Phoenix can comfortably slide him alongside Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton as a player worth investing in through the team's future playoff berths.
Portland Trail Blazers: Zach Collins
With all respect to Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., it would be journalistic malpractice to choose anybody other than Jusuf Nurkic or Zach Collins for the Portland Trail Blazers. At 22 years old, Collins has far more room to grow than his Bosnian counterpart.
Expectations have long been high for the former Gonzaga Wildcat in Portland. Damian Lillard even called him a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2018. While that's a high bar for Collins to reach, he has stepped into the starting power forward spot once again, and all signs point to a smooth return from shoulder surgery.
At a recent press conference, coach Terry Stotts said of Collins and Nurkic: "Zach was full of energy. You couldn't tell either one of them missed time. It was very encouraging."
Even at full strength, Collins will be a questionable fit alongside Nurkic. He's a natural center and potentially excellent rim protector, so they'll need to figure out how to co-exist. But between Collins' more modern skill set and the fact that his separated shoulder isn't as severe an injury as Nurkic's fractured leg, he'll likely get more opportunity as Portland chases its seventh consecutive playoff berth.
Sacramento Kings: Harry Giles III
It's too bad the Sacramento Kings are playoff long shots because Harry Giles III might finally have the opportunity he's been waiting for.
The Duke alum has had a tough go of it in the NBA, playing just 96 games through three seasons thanks to a host of injury troubles and load management. However, he's ready to go now, and just in time for Sacramento.
Harrison Barnes and Alex Len contracted the coronavirus, Marvin Bagley III recently injured his foot and Richaun Holmes broke quarantine, leaving Giles as Sacramento's final available big man. As such, he's getting plenty of opportunities. Coach Luke Walton said of Giles: "Harry's been one of our better players throughout camp. I think Harry did a really nice job of showing up here in Orlando in game shape and ready to compete."
Because of the stop-and-start nature of his career, Giles hasn't had much opportunity to show his expansive skill set. But from February 2020 onward, he showed he can be an NBA contributor, averaging 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21.0 minutes a night over a 16-game stretch that saw Sacramento go 10-6.
The Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber comparisons that made sense for Giles in high school are likely too ambitious now. But the big man seems to be in a groove of late and may continue to get opportunities even as his position-mates return from the sidelines.
San Antonio Spurs: Jakob Poeltl
The San Antonio Spurs lacked big-man depth even before LaMarcus Aldridge underwent shoulder surgery, so losing him may doom the franchise's 22-year postseason streak. However, Jakob Poeltl is becoming one of the league's best backup centers, and more opportunity could both boost his individual status and help the Spurs return to the playoffs.
Poeltl is a classic example of the player who's better than his stats suggest. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor recently gushed about the 2016 lottery pick:
“The Spurs are really freaking good with Poeltl; they outscored teams by 4.5 points per 100 possessions when Poeltl was on the floor without Aldridge, and they were outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when Aldridge was on the floor without Poeltl. ...
"Poeltl is a reliable, physical defender who blocks a lot of shots, and on offense, he's a lower-usage player who scores off cuts, rolls, and rebounds.”
From Rasho Nesterovic to Fabricio Oberto to Tiago Splitter, Gregg Popovich's clubs have thrived with a center who takes pride in doing unflashy tasks. Provided Poeltl sticks around—which is not a guarantee—he could be next in that line, helping the team transition out of its golden era.
Toronto Raptors: OG Anunoby
Between Marc Gasol's weight loss, Nick Nurse's hints at new offensive wrinkles and a week of extra practices, Camp Raptors has been full of good news lately. Let's add another reason for fans of the North to get excited: OG Anunoby was scary good over his last 15 games.
Year three has been a revelation for the wing. After two injury-plagued seasons, Anunoby has been mostly healthy (a welcome source of stability for the injury-plagued Raptors) and, as such, has shown clear improvement. He averaged 11.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 56.8 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three after Feb. 1.
Could that stretch just be a hot streak, one not easily continued after four months off? Certainly. But the more Anunoby improves, the more his ceiling feels like the 2013-14 version of Kawhi Leonard, a borderline star who still won a Finals MVP Award thanks to brilliant defense.
If Anunoby can capture that kind of energy over this postseason run, Toronto may very well keep the Larry O'Brien Trophy for another year.
Utah Jazz: Tony Bradley
Even at full strength, the Utah Jazz lacked size beyond Rudy Gobert this year, so when Bojan Bogdanovic underwent season-ending wrist surgery during the hiatus, it put the team in a bind. But fear not, Utah fans—Tony Bradley is here.
After playing just 12 games through his first two seasons, the former North Carolina Tar Heel became Gobert's chief backup this year, posting 15.7 points, 14.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 66.5 percent from the floor.
Bradley maintained this breakout-season energy through the last several months, reporting to the bubble with added muscle. He has garnered praise from coach Quin Snyder and Gobert, who stated, "He's going to be one of the keys for us in order to go as far as we want to go."
When a two-time Defensive Player of the Year is your rim protector, defensive regression is expected whenever that player sits. But if Bradley continues to fine-tune his skill set and play hard, then that gap between him and Gobert may not be as notable, and his performance could help raise the team's ceiling.
Washington Wizards: Rui Hachimura
Without John Wall, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura is the best offensive player left on the Washington Wizards.
Despite solid production, Hachimura wasn't the most efficient scorer for Washington, recording a 50.0 effective field-goal percentage and making just 27.4 percent of his threes. But he was famed at Gonzaga for year-over-year improvement and seems to have approached the NBA's hiatus similarly.
Per Wizards coach Scott Brooks, Hachimura reworked his jumper to give it more arc and added muscle to his frame.
Brooks' comments could be the kind of generic platitudes we always hear before a season starts. But thanks to their place in the standings and lack of quality players, the Wizards have less to play for than any team in the bubble, and they may use this time to get Hachimura as many scoring opportunities as possible.
Against a slew of playoff-caliber teams, it probably won't be successful or pretty, but for a team with a future as tenuous as Washington's is, investing as much as possible in a recent lottery pick is the smart way to approach this experience.