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5 unsung players who could decide the NBA playoffs

·16 min read
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Our look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.

Four Quarters
Four Quarters

First Quarter: Five unsung players who could help decide the playoffs

Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

We’d be talking more about the versatile Harris’ 52-40-89 season if he were more assertive, but that would disrupt what Philadelphia has going with Joel Embiid as a centerpiece. Being back with head coach Doc Rivers means he’s in a comfortable place, and he’s easy to overlook given his own demeanor along with playing next to Embiid and Ben Simmons. But with Simmons’ reluctance to shoot, it puts Harris back into focus. Embiid will draw so much attention, he’ll need another shot creator to release the pressure.

The 76ers have the shooters in Seth Curry, Danny Green and Furkan Korkmaz, and they’re a respectable 13th in 3-point percentage even though they’re in the bottom five of attempts. But none of those guys are supreme at getting their own shot.

Tobias Harris #12 of the Philadelphia 76ers passes the ball against Dillon Brooks #24 of the Memphis Grizzlies at the Wells Fargo Center on April 4, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
76ers coach Doc Rivers may have to unleash Tobias Harris, or even force him out of his 14-15 shots per night range during the playoffs. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

This is where Harris comes in.

Harris is a matchup nightmare because he’s quicker than the bigs and can play bigger than most wings.

Rivers may have to unleash Harris, or even force him out of his 14-15 shots per night range. Harris hasn’t made his mark individually in the playoffs yet, but he may be called on to do more to get through a treacherous Eastern Conference.

Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks

Holiday does not think he’s gotten his just due as one of the league’s best defenders; he will have his chance in the spotlight — or the hot seat, depending on one’s view, playing for this version of the Milwaukee Bucks.

There’s a lot riding on this playoff run, starting with (possibly) head coach Mike Budenholzer’s future. The Bucks model themselves like the 20-year consistent run of the Tim Duncan-Spurs, but the NBA’s world turns in two-year intervals (example: Boston Celtics), and Holiday’s acquisition and subsequent contract extension is proof of that urgency.

Holiday is a marked upgrade over Eric Bledsoe, who couldn’t seem to live up to playoff pressure the last couple seasons. Giannis Antetokounmpo took the biggest share of criticism, as two-time MVPs tend to, but Holiday should provide relief as a better playmaker, shooter and defender than his predecessor.

After a bout with COVID-19, Holiday returned to make all the pieces fit for a suddenly under-the-radar team. His scoring and aggressiveness has gone up since May, and assuming there’s a Bucks-Nets second-round matchup waiting, he’ll have to continue that and attempt to slow down Kyrie Irving.

In Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Khris Middleton, it’s three guys who can score 25 and slow down your best players. Usually, that should be a recipe for a Finals berth. Holiday could be that missing piece.

Rajon Rondo, Los Angeles Clippers

Playoff Rondo has arrived to a team in desperate need of whatever good karma it can conjure, and he’s been slowly integrated into the system, playing under 20 minutes a night.

It’ll be a struggle for Clippers coach Tyronn Lue to balance Rondo, Reggie Jackson and Pat Beverley’s minutes with the matchups, considering they’re all so different. But the Clippers clearly needed an on-floor general, which Rondo is and presumably, can help fill their biggest blind spot.

The Clippers shoot a league-best 41.5% from three and routinely hit tough mid-range shots. But just when it seems like they’re turning the corner and shaking off the years of being the Staples Center stepchild, they kick themselves in the rear end: When the jumpers stop falling, there’s no counterpunch.

Rajon Rondo #4 of the LA Clippers drives to the basket against the Toronto Raptors in the first half at Staples Center on May 04, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Will Playoff Rondo show up for the Los Angeles Clippers? (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

They’re 28th in free-throw attempts, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combining to get to the line less than 10 times a game. By comparison, Atlanta’s Trae Young gets there nearly nine times on his own.

The Clippers don’t make defenses uncomfortable, and cannot manufacture points — which seems like death in the playoffs as games tighten and defenses get more freedom.

When Rondo’s a whirling dervish of activity, he’s impossible to game plan against and gets easy shots for bigs along with creating order at the right time.

But that’s if he can do it, because what he provided for the Lakers in the bubble last year is different than what the Clippers need from him now.

If he can’t, it’ll be another sea of bricks on the way out of another early exit.

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

In a perfect world, Porter Jr. would be the burgeoning third option giving the Nuggets the last perimeter option they need to make a legit title run.

But he’s been thrust into a greater role with Jamal Murray’s ACL tear, and the results have shown maybe this is the role he truly needs, as Nikola Jokic’s co-star. Small sample size but putting up 25.4 points on 58% shooting and 51% from three in 15 games makes him legit while also making it a bit unfair to place him in the unsung category.

Michael Porter Jr. has been thrust into a bigger role after Jamal Murray's ACL tear. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Michael Porter Jr. has been thrust into a bigger role after Jamal Murray's ACL tear. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

But he’s in his second full season and the Nuggets have slow-walked him after his collegiate back injury red-flagged him, enabling the Nuggets to grab him at No. 14 in the 2018 draft.

If the Nuggets are to exceed the modest expectations, it feels like it’ll be because Porter can keep up with Jokic. He can both play off Jokic and get his own shot with not much issue at 6-foot-10. He got a taste of the playoffs last year, but Murray was the prime-time player in fourth quarters as Denver bounced back from two 3-1 deficits.

Defenses will load up on Porter, and perhaps force him to be a passer when he hasn’t shown to be much of a playmaker yet. He’s been focused on establishing himself, and if not for the back injury, he’d be some other team’s franchise player — maybe one in the lottery or just crawling to the playoffs. But he’ll have to manage that appetite while being just enough of what the Nuggets need with his scoring and rebounding in what could be a true coming-out party for the 22-year-old.

Goran Dragic, Miami Heat

Speaking of young, Dragic ain’t exactly it. He turned 35 last week and his production is slightly off last year’s pace. He turned it on in last summer’s playoffs after Kendrick Nunn’s illness, helping the Heat to the NBA Finals.

Can that type of lightning strike twice? It’s important to remember, Miami was hot after another thirtysomething, Kyle Lowry, at the trade deadline but Toronto’s price was too high. Doubtful it was a sign of management no longer believing in Dragic but it definitely looked at his position as one in need of upgrade — and with the recent news on Victor Oladipo needing surgery, it puts more pressure on Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

And Dragic.

Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat in action against the Houston Rockets during the fourth quarter at American Airlines Arena on April 19, 2021 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
When Jimmy Butler plays for the Heat this season, they’re 32-19 and when Goran Dragic plays, they’re 29-19. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Nobody’s expecting the Heat to make another miracle run through the playoffs, not with Brooklyn and Philadelphia looking so strong. But Dragic can shoot (37% from three), is rarely rushed when running the offense and has the trust of coach Erik Spoelstra and Butler, the team leader.

He’s shown some signs, with a three-game stretch of scoring 18 or more being his best of the season, as Miami hasn’t overused him in preparation for the long game.

Miami is probably the hardest team to peg in this playoff scenario, with its 24 starting lineups and general upheaval. When Butler plays, the Heat are 32-19 and when Dragic plays, they’re 29-19.

That’s not to say he’s as important as the best player, but clearly he means a lot to a team that expects to make another deep run in the playoffs.

Second Quarter: The impact of the Marcus Graham Project

The iconic 1992 film “Boomerang” holds a special place in the Black community, with Eddie Murphy putting together nearly an all-Black cast centered around working at a high-level marketing firm.

Murphy actually took some criticism, creating an image that “wasn’t realistic” but it was an inspiration for Larry Yarrell and Lincoln Stephens, co-founders of the Marcus Graham Project — named after Murphy’s character.

The nonprofit, Dallas-based MGP is one of seven organizations the NBA Foundation first selected in December, committing $2 million in grants as part of its initiative to drive economic empowerment in the Black community.

The MGP aims to develop more Black minds in marketing and advertising, an area that’s been largely underserved, especially in sports. So many of the marketing campaigns aim to a Black audience but rarely have representation in the room — hence the sometimes corny or dated or even co-opted phrases and ideas from the culture used without credit and with no actual connection to the community.

It’s hard to tell from “Boomerang” given the characters ranged from executives to entry-level employees and were all Black.

“I think that's a utopia Wakanda of marketing. We saw a movie,” Yarrell told Yahoo Sports. “For us, what we saw was something completely opposite. Yeah. And so I think the drive for us is how do we create that utopia? At least to look more like, what the country looks like.”

Before starting the MGP, Yarrell and Stephens were trying to find their way in the marketing industry, noting how sparse the diversity was.

(Photo courtesy The Marcus Graham Project)
The nonprofit, Dallas-based Marcus Graham Project is one of seven organizations the NBA Foundation first selected in December, committing $2 million in grants as part of its initiative to drive economic empowerment in the Black community. (Photo courtesy The Marcus Graham Project)

Estimating around 500 employees, Stephens says the total amount of Black people was “less than two hands.”

“You know, so, you know, you're talking about 1% or so,” Stephens said. “When I worked at a Black-owned agency, it was all Black. So it did reflect, and it did look like a 'Boomerang' looked like.”

They wanted to create a network for mentorship and development, so the MGP was founded in 2009. The MGP became involved with the NBA through a marketing project with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Hennessy seven years ago, with the Cavaliers extending their agreement after seeing the success from its workshops.

“Because it had gone so well, built an ecosystem of talent that now runs in Cleveland, hence, running through the Cavaliers,” Yarrell said. “So every year, they're hiring three, four individuals that come out of that workshop.”

The existing relationship made it easy for the NBA to choose the MGP, given the evidence. And it’s imperative the NBA keep its commitment to the foundation as time moves on, not just in the moment of so-called social justice reckoning that started with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“The players take an active approach. Of all the leagues,” Yarrell said. “The NBA is, I won't say that none of them are doing [it], but I think the NBA takes it to another level the way that they listen to their players.”

Detroit is a stop on their 10-team tour. Twenty young professionals attended the four-day workshop, being divvied into groups to create ideas to present to the Pistons’ marketing team.

“Why not Detroit? There’s a great campaign that says ‘Detroit is the New Black’,” Yarrell said. “And I love that. There's so much culture and history, like American culture that influenced by African American history in this city.”

The Pistons’ practice facility sits in the New Center area, less than a mile away from the historic Motown Museum, “Hitsville,” where so many hits and albums were recorded during its heyday.

“Everybody's done stuff in New York, L.A., you know, Chicago,” Yarrell said. “But what we don't realize about those places is that they're so heavily influenced by the smaller cities in the country. Yeah. That's what makes those places so great.”

Third Quarter: How the MGP helps identify talent in Detroit 

If Yarrell and Stephens are Marcus Graham, it could be said Pistons senior VP of marketing Alicia Jeffreys is Lady Eloise, or Jacqueline Broyer, two powerful characters in “Boomerang” played by Eartha Kitt and Robin Givens, respectively.

No word on whether she walks through the halls of the Pistons Performance Center growling or bellowing, “Marcus, darling.”

But as a Flint native, she knows Detroit is a hidden gem for young professionals and soon-to-be college graduates. The MGP gives her a leg up and some face time with prospective employees — even if they don’t realize it.

“We know that there's ridiculously talented people in Detroit. And this type of program allows us to add to our talent bench,” Jeffreys said. “And so we have a pipeline of people that when I have an opening, or a position in marketing, I don't have to look far.”

Jeffreys is wrapping up her 19th season with the Pistons, spending nearly half her life with the franchise. The Pistons always get thousands of candidates for marketing positions — most professional franchises do — so the last thing Jeffreys is looking for is a “homogenous environment,” in her words.

“You got to have diversity of thought, you got to have men and women and all ethnicities and experiences, socio-economic [backgrounds],” Jeffreys said. “I grew up in Flint, I bring that with me. It's a whole part of who I am, and what I contribute.”

What one of the groups was trying to contribute was an after-school idea. The room ranged from college-age students to older professionals, socially distanced and passionate about a way to involve middle school kids in activities when things return to some level of normalcy.

It’s highly doubtful they were paying attention to the bigger picture of the workshop — they just wanted to impress the Pistons and the MGP.

 General view of the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center on April 28, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The NBA recently announced the possibility of re-opening team practice facilities as early as May 8. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The MGP gives Pistons senior VP of marketing Alicia Jeffreys a leg up and some face time with prospective employees — even if they don’t realize it. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

“I think once they get through the workshop, and they realize the networking power that it has, and the connections that Larry and Lincoln who are the founders have opened for them, they're gonna then see the impact of like, the four days that they spent with us,” Jeffreys said.

Alina Freeman was one of the voices in the room debating ideas. She’s not a Detroit native but just received her master’s degree from Michigan State. It’s a door opening to a potential pipeline her schooling didn’t offer.

“My grad program was very theoretical. I didn't feel like I got a lot of tangible experience to be able to put marketing ideas into play and see how they might live in the real world,” Freeman said. “And there was nothing sports-related in my specific program, even on MSU. This was a chance for me to actually like, see what sports marketers do and kind of how they think through different things.”

The MGP has a great service as an incubator, not only the great networking opportunities for someone like Freeman but also a chance to be more forward-thinking once the workshop winds down.

“It has been helpful to kind of see what's possible. Like they have an influencing manager. I didn’t know the Pistons had that,” Freeman said. “So just like learning about the different things. Their HR department has a DEI [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion] person. It's important for me, I felt like to understand that those things exist.”

She admits finding a network has been difficult, even with her credentials. But being in this workshop and the people she’s met has shown her she doesn’t have to fit into a box to get noticed.

“Programs like this are very helpful because there's a majority people of color and so they're willing to help me,” she said. “I don't feel like I have to perform or be a certain type of Black person to be a mentee or to be helped. I can be myself.”

Fourth Quarter: Tell 'em why you mad, Jerry

Jerry West is insulted, and he should be.

Lakers governor Jeanie Buss left him out of her top five Lakers when asked on the spot by “All the Smoke” hosts Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson.

West, with his career as a player and later, executive, is arguably the greatest figure in Lakers history given his proximity to all the winning.

 LA Clippers executive Jerry West prior to a NBA basketball game between the LA Clippers and the Sacramento Kings at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Thursday, January 30, 2020. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
This might have been Jerry West's reaction when he heard Jeanie Buss left him out of her top five Lakers of all time. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

“I saw the other day Jeanie Buss made a statement, the five most important Lakers, one of the most offensive things I’ve ever heard in my life. I was there a lot of times, had a lot of success,” West told longtime writer Peter Vecsey on his “Hoop Du Jour” podcast. “Be curious to know if they would have had that success if I hadn’t been there.”

Zing!

Only Magic Johnson has a better case for greatest Laker — only because West preferred David Greenwood in that 1979 draft but was overruled by team owner Jerry Buss. West recruited Shaquille O’Neal and swung the trade for Kobe Bryant in 1996.

His hand was in the identity of the Lakers and the championships.

Perhaps Jeanie Buss had an absent mind when omitting West, but he should be one of the first to come out of anyone’s mouth when bringing up the greatest Lakers of all time.

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