Star players don’t win titles by themselves. It takes a team effort in order to complete an 82-game season, win four best-of-seven series and cap the year off in celebratory mode, popping champagne bottles. While superstars can at times carry teams on their backs, you can always count on an unlikely hero to emerge at a critical juncture during a championship run.
They don’t offer the same appeal as a LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, but they play monumental roles on winning teams. These are the guys who will be called upon to make big plays throughout the season and be relied on at times during the playoffs. The players like Bruce Bowen—a three-time champ who was essential to the Spurs’ success with his elite perimeter defense. Or Robert Horry, who won seven titles in 16 years and earned the nickname “Big Shot Rob” for his consistent ability to score timely buckets. Perhaps Andre Iguodala, who helped the Warriors create a dynasty with his energy off the bench and defensive effort against some of the game’s elite stars.
There are six teams I believe have true potential to get to the Finals and win it all in 2019-20. Let’s name one player from each of those squads whose impact will be imperative in order to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end.
Tobias Harris, 76ers
The Sixers had one of the most successful offseasons across the NBA, despite parting ways with Jimmy Butler. In losing the four-time All-Star in a four-team trade, they were able to acquire Josh Richardson, a young three-and-D wing player who led the Heat in scoring at 16.6 points per game in 2018-19. Then they went out and grabbed Mr. Consistency himself, Al Horford, in free agency.
But Tobias Harris is the one player the Sixers will need efficient output from this season. I expect Joel Embiid to make another leap and become an even more dominant force. Ben Simmons should continue to improve as well (hopefully on his jump shot). But it’s Harris who will be one of the team’s best shooters now that J.J. Redick is in New Orleans. And it’s Harris who is capable of putting up 20-plus points any given night (he averaged 18.2 points and 7.9 boards in 27 games with Philly last season).
Harris is an ascending player who just seems to add a little bit more to his game each year. He could very well be an All-Star as soon as this season. His offensive production is going to be extremely important if the Sixers have championship aspirations, even with Horford and Richardson on the roster.
Eric Bledsoe, Bucks
We all know what reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo brings to the table, with the many ways he can impact the game. Khris Middleton has become his running mate in recent years, providing stability as a second scoring option. He was named to his first All-Star team last season. But Giannis needs more out of his supporting cast if Milwaukee wants to capture its first NBA title since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was leading the way in 1971.
So, for me, it’s Eric Bledsoe. When he plays well, it elevates this Bucks team. He struggled at times when going up against Kyle Lowry in the Eastern Conference Finals this past season, and he did the same when Milwaukee lost to the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs the previous year, as Terry Rozier got the best of him.
Bledsoe is a strong defender and serious athlete, but his jumper is average at best, and his shot selection is questionable. George Hill has been a solid security blanket in moments when Bledsoe wet the bed, but for the Bucks to take that next step and get over the hump, the first-team All-Defensive point guard has to be a consistent third option behind Giannis and Middleton—especially now that Malcolm Brogdon is in Indiana.
Lou Williams, Clippers
Lou Will. Period. Montrezl Harrell could also be thrown into this conversation, as his inside presence will be vital. But the Clippers need Lou to remain himself. He’s the type that you can’t limit or hold back—it’s what has allowed him to become one of the top sixth men in NBA history.
Williams is smart enough to know when to take a step back, now that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are in town, but his impact off the bench is what makes the Clippers look so dangerous on paper. He’s an All-Star caliber player who is unstoppable when he gets going offensively. When Leonard and George are taking breathers, Williams is the one the offense has to run through.
The 14-year veteran has won back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year awards, averaging over 20 points in each of those seasons for the first time in his career. He may not need to put up 20-plus on a nightly basis now that Kawhi and PG are around, but he has to continue to attack and strike fear in opposing defenses with his scoring ability.
Kevon Looney, Warriors
Following a postseason where he began to grow up right before our eyes, the Warriors signed Kevon Looney to a three-year, $15 million deal over the summer. His rebounding, big man wits and presence in the paint were all on display throughout the playoffs.
With Kevin Durant—and Andre Iguodala—gone, the Warriors will lean heavily on the Splash Brothers (once Klay Thompson is healthy). D’Angelo Russell, who made his first All-Star appearance this past season, will have to alter his game a bit to fit into the Warriors’ ball-movement-based system, and Draymond Green will continue orchestrating things both offensively and defensively.
But Looney will be paramount to their success this season. His ability to create second-chance opportunities, and his defense against the top big men in the Western Conference, could keep the Warriors in the championship mix. Expect Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot energizer bunny, to complement the role of Looney. But I believe the 23-year-old Looney, who averaged 18.5 minutes per game in 2018-19, will see an increased role in his fifth NBA season.
Kyle Kuzma, Lakers
Kyle Kuzma. No question about it. He’s bluntly stated that he wants to be the team’s third scoring option behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and he’s already shown flashes of being a consistent offensive threat during his short career. Entering his third season (he’ll be fresh off playing with Team USA this summer), the 24-year-old Kuzma should be more mature and more seasoned of a player.
A strong case can be made for Danny Green here, too, who is one of the NBA’s ultimate role players with his three-and-D ability, but he’s another year older and won’t have the type of expectations of Kuzma, who averaged 16.1 points per game as a rookie and 18.7 in Year 2.
Following an unfortunate ACL injury to DeMarcus Cousins, JaVale McGee’s role will be heightened. But Kuz, now that Brandon Ingram is no longer on the roster (it always seemed the Lakers only needed to move one of those two), could take his game to another level. LeBron and AD can more than shoulder the load—they’ve proven that throughout their careers—but Kuzma is the one who could help separate the Lakers from the crowded Western Conference pack.
Clint Capela, Rockets
I consider the Rockets a fringe championship contender. They were on the cusp of beating the Warriors in a playoff series each of the past two years, and now they replace All-NBA point guard Chris Paul with Mr. Triple Double himself, Russell Westbrook.
In my opinion, this makes the Rockets a slightly better team—but it all depends on the chemistry between James Harden and Westbrook, who are both ball-dominant guards. Clint Capela has been one beneficiary of the Rockets’ iso-ball style of play. Though he’s not much of a shooter, he excels in pick-and-roll action and has been on the receiving end of endless alley-oops from Harden and Paul. He shot 64.8% from the field last season, which was second in the NBA, and there has been a constant rise in his performance throughout his five-year career. He had his best season yet in 2018-19, averaging a double-double of 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. With the attention Harden and Westbrook will attract, those numbers could jump even more in 2019-20.
P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon are, of course, important pieces to the Rockets’ puzzle, so is Austin Rivers, but I’m going to say Capela is the most valuable non-superstar player on the team. He can switch out on the perimeter to check quick, shifty guards, and he’s a rim protector who has the ability to patrol the paint. He’ll likely be tasked with manning up Anthony Davis, Utah’s Rudy Gobert or Denver’s Nikola Jokic, which could give the Rockets an edge if he’s able to help neutralize some of those elite big men night in and night out.