Regular-season NBA action returns from the All-Star break on Thursday. Contenders have as few as 26 games left to secure playoff positioning over the next eight weeks. With the championship field as open as any season in recent memory, here are nine players who will shape the playoff picture.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
It’s not every day a player realizes his All-NBA potential before your eyes. Take Toronto Raptors counterpart Pascal Siakam, for example. He has used the past two summers to make his leaps from helpful reserve to bona fide second option to fringe MVP candidate. Tatum burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old rookie on Boston’s run to the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, took a step back last season and started this one searching for a high level of efficiency and consistency.
Tatum has been one of the league’s most underrated defenders all season, but over the past month he has been like a young Jedi mastering his control of The Force. The 21-year-old is beginning to understand that he can just about be the best player on the floor on either side of the ball and get whatever shot he wants whenever he wants it. In his last 10 games, Tatum is averaging 26.8 points (on 49/46/73 shooting splits), 6.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.4 combined blocks and steals in 33.6 minutes. His ceiling is being raised from perennial All-Star to future MVP in real time.
If that version of Tatum shows up for the rest of the season, the Celtics are legit contenders.
Andre Iguodala, Miami Heat
Anyone who tells you he or she knows what to expect from Iguodala down the stretch is lying to you, unless the veteran swingman tells you himself, and I am still not sure I would believe him. He is 36 years old and looked the part when last we saw him on the Golden State Warriors. And he just took eight months off.
This is no knock on what Iguodala brings to the table. He looks to be in phenomenal shape, which was to be expected from the consummate professional. The former All-Star and All-Defensive talent who won Finals MVP on a run to three championships is a generational basketball mind and served as the key that unlocked one of the most devastating lineups in NBA history. Iguodala brings his experience, awareness, versatility and remaining skill to a team looking to turn heads in the East.
Whether that is enough to elevate the Heat from scrappy overachiever to prize fighter remains in serious question. With the additions of Iguodala and Jae Crowder, Miami improved its ability to counter most situations as coach Erik Spoelstra sees fit, vacillating from offense- to defense-first lineups, small ball to bully ball, or somewhere in between all of it. But for those to operate at the level it would take to navigate the East, they need the Iguodala of his earlier 30s. Does he still exist?
Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers
Horford has to be wondering what he did to deserve the past two years of his career. After leading the Celtics to consecutive Eastern Conference finals as a wildly underrated two-way fulcrum, his hopes of adding an NBA championship to his list of career achievements were derailed in Boston last season, when Kyrie Irving clashed with his young teammates sowed the seeds of destruction.
So, he jumped ship to the Sixers for $100 million and a chance to win alongside rising stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Instead, he finds himself inside another highly combustible chemistry experiment in Philadelphia, on another team falling well short of expectations. The jokes that he is the root cause come easy, but Horford is a pro’s pro. He executes his role to the best of his ability.
But we do have to wonder about his role and ability. Sixers coach Brett Brown recently benched Horford in favor of starting Furkan Korkmaz, a sharpshooting wing who creates a hole on defense. It is worth a shot. Horford is shooting 32.7 percent on 4.4 3-point attempts per game, by far his worst clip since he began shooting them in earnest five years ago. If he is not spacing the floor for Philly, he is an awkward fit in a half-court motion offense crowded by Simmons and Embiid — to say nothing of Horford’s waning athleticism on the defensive end as he has aged into his mid-30s.
Horford has consistently elevated his game in the playoffs in recent years, but there is so only so much elevating you can do when your already limited role is further restricted. The Sixers must find a way to extract the value they allocated to Horford or else there is little sense in having him at all.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
It would be easy to forget just how good Oladipo was before last season’s knee injury. His All-NBA effort during the 2018 regular season translated to the playoffs, where he pushed LeBron James to the brink in the first round. Oladipo was becoming the sort of offensive creator who would reliably close out postseason games and inevitably carry the right supporting cast through multiple rounds.
He has that ensemble around him now, but he has understandably not been anything close to that type of player in his seven games since returning from surgery. After a year’s worth of rehab, it will take some time for Oladipo to regain his feel for the game both mentally and physically, and it may take longer than the two months he has left to get himself right for another tough first-round series.
But what if he taps back into his rhythm? Oladipo, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis could pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll anyone into submission. However unlikely that is to happen, it still may not be enough to survive the entire East gauntlet of Boston, Toronto, Milwaukee, Miami and Philadelphia, but the Pacers sure could knock off a would-be contender earlier than expected.
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
With the Lakers striking out at the trade deadline and still scouring the buyout market, Kuzma is becoming more critical to their success than they should have hoped at this point. The Lakers have long overvalued the 24-year-old forward, and you wonder what playoff roster-bolstering deals they might have turned down in favor of holding onto him, but what is done is done. He is theirs now.
Theoretically, he has the skill set to fill a need for the Lakers. He can score in bunches, and they can hide his defensive limitations on a team with unlimited rim-protecting bigs. LeBron and Anthony Davis are the foundation of everything the Lakers do. Beyond them, Danny Green is as close to a reliable safety valve as they have, so coach Frank Vogel will ride the hot hands of Kuzma, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo as best he can in close games.
LeBron and Davis may be enough to win most games, series and maybe the whole damn thing on their own. It is a tall order, even for them, and reliable minutes from Kuzma would make scaling that mountain much easier. Consistent efficiency is a lot to ask from a guy who has struggled with both for three years running, but if there ever were a time for Kuzma to stay hot, this spring is it.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets needed the best out of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray against the Portland Trail Blazers last season, and it still was not enough to survive the second round. Jokic is rounding (or slimming) into form after a
fat flat start, and Murray has bounced back from a nasty ankle injury. With them at the helm and a deep roster to make the regular-season ride a little smoother, Denver is back riding shotgun as the No. 2 seed, but the Western Conference playoffs are a different animal.
The Nuggets sure could use a third threat to run their offense through, especially on the nights when Murray does not have it, and Gary Harris has not been that guy for two years now. Enter Porter, the former top high school prospect whose back problems caused him to fall to Denver in the draft and sit all of last season. Nuggets coach Mike Malone has eased him into action this season, but perhaps it is time to unleash him, at least once Porter’s right ankle heals.
We have seen flashes of what made Porter such an intriguing prospect. He can score from every level and reads the game well on both ends. There will be rookie mistakes and defensive lapses, to be sure, but there is a real chance for growth over the next two months. Porter has played 20 or more minutes just 15 times. In those games, he is averaging 14.7 points (on 55/51/81 shooting splits), 7.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.7 combined blocks and steals in just 24 minutes of action.
Call me crazy, but that seems like a guy you might want to see more of down the stretch.
Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers
Morris was the best player on a dreadful New York Knicks team, shooting 44 percent on six 3-point attempts per game en route to 20 points a night, if only because somebody had to score. And Morris is not shy about filling that void. He can be a ball stopper, but the Clippers need him to be anything but if they want to work in a rotation with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Lou Williams.
Morris has also filled the role the Clips will be asking of him, playing physical defense, ruffling feathers, spacing the floor and serving as an emergency option when plays break down. He was all that and more for the Celtics team that came within six minutes of the 2018 Finals. That was a young roster that needed his guidance and guile in big moments, and these Clippers are not that.
How quickly he adjusts from headliner to supporting actor in L.A. will go a long way in determining how dominant the Clips can be. Same goes for how infrequently Morris takes possessions away from Leonard, George and Williams. The potential for that group — with Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Ivica Zubac and Reggie Jackson rounding out a rotation — is frightening, and Morris holds the key to the Clippers’ best lineups, big and small, offensively and defensively.
Mike Conley, Utah Jazz
Looking back on Utah’s trade for Conley, it actually surprised me how much the Jazz gave up for the 32-year-old point guard. They traded what amounts to three first-round picks — Grayson Allen (the No. 21 pick in 2018 and admittedly no longer considered a first-round talent), the 2019 pick that the Memphis Grizzlies turned into Brandon Clarke and their protected 2020 pick — along with Jae Crowder, whom the Grizz just swung in a package to land Justise Winslow. Hindsight is 20/20.
Conley will try not to look back. He has had a dreadful start to his Jazz tenure. Utah’s championship hopes rest on the possibility of his premier backcourt partnership with Donovan Mitchell, but Conley’s shooting woes and injury concerns have yet to meld their abilities to play off each other.
Relegated to a reserve role, Joe Ingles struggled to start the season, but he emerged once Conley’s hamstring injury thrust him back into the starting lineup. Jazz coach Quin Snyder brought Conley off the bench upon his return, keeping Royce O’Neale in the starting five before finally settling on the lineup that everyone thought could kill in the playoffs: Mitchell, Conley, Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert. That quintet has a negative net raging in only 186 minutes together this season.
Conley holds the key as the most unheralded two-way point guard in the league over the last decade. He seemed to be emerging just before the All-Star break, averaging 20-5-5 on 47/50/77 shooting splits over a four-game stretch before falling ill. That is the guy that means the difference between the Jazz being vulnerable in a first-round 4-5 series and contending for a championship.
P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets
Houston’s full-on embrace of small ball has put an awful lot on Tucker’s broad shoulders. With Clint Capela shipped to Atlanta in favor of Robert Covington, the Rockets are challenging the 6-foot-5 Tucker to fight for every inch against a host of West contenders with mammoth front lines. He is willing and better be able with Isaiah Hartenstein and a 37-year-old Tyson Chandler as his backups.
Tucker may have missed only nine games in eight seasons since returning from the NBA from overseas, but he is nearing his 35th birthday and has played almost 8,000 minutes over the past three seasons — nearly as many as fellow mid-30s modern medical marvel LeBron in that span.
The Rockets have outscored opponents by six points per 100 possessions with Tucker manning the center position this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, so betting on that lineup is a sound proposition. But betting your season on one man being able to hold up against an assembly line of bigs six inches taller for 40 minutes a night in the playoffs seems like a long shot. Houston is letting it ride on whether Tucker can withstand the pounding that is surely coming for him.
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