Updated: Aug 6, 2020
Author: Joey Spathis
Lakers: Danny Green
Danny Green knows a thing or two about being a role player on a Championship winning team. After playing a massive part in the Spurs 2014 rout of Lebron’s Heat in the NBA Finals, Green found himself again hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in Toronto in 2019. The Lakers will need Green’s veteran IQ, shooting, and wing defense down the stretch in Orlando. Expect him to take on an even bigger role with Avery Bradley’s absence in Orlando. The veteran SG boasts the 3rd best +- on the Lakers, behind only AD and Lebron. If Green’s well-known 3 point shooting shows up down the stretch, the Lakers will be a tough-out. They were 16-4 in the regular season in games where Green scored only 10 points.
Clippers: Montrezl Harrell
The Clippers are led by Paul George and reigning finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and likely boast the deepest roster in the NBA as well. The Clippers averaged the most bench points and minutes out of any team in the NBA in 2020. The success of LA’s second unit rode mostly on the backs of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Each embraced their role off the bench and provided the Clipper’s with consistent scoring every night, averaging over 18 PPG. However, it is Harrell’s defensive prowess and efficiency that gives him the edge on this list. 2020 has been Harrell’s best career season offensively; he’s been able to maintain solid efficiency (58% FG) while posting a career high in PPG (18.6). Even more impressively, he’s done all of this in limited action, averaging well under 30 minutes per game. Harrell’s statsheet per 36 minutes (24 PPG, 9.2 REB) is up there with some of the best players in the league. The Clippers are simply better with the former Cincinatti Bearcat on the floor (5.2 +-). Harrell’s big frame and quick feet make him versatile on the defensive side of the ball and gives the Clippers another chess-piece for the impending battle with LeBron James and the Lakers.
Nuggets: Paul Millsap
The oldest player on the Nuggets roster by five years, Mike Malone will rely on the veteran stability of Millsap to help guide Denver through Orlando. The 35 year old is shooting the ball from outside better than any point in his career, evidenced by his 44% clip from 3 this season. Millsap is an extremely efficient shooter and when he produces at a higher volume the Nuggets are tough to beat. They were 12-4 in games where Millsap hit at least two trey-balls. The defensive aspect of Millsap’s game is really where he proves to be indispensable for the Nuggets. Millsap has the best defensive rating out of any qualified Nuggets player which has helped him secure the highest +- on the team as well (5.4). He’s holding opponents to a field goal percentage (44%) slightly lower than the league average. The Nugget’s lack wing defenders off the bench and will surely need Millsap to show up if they want to do damage in Orlando.
Jazz: Jordan Clarkson
Justin Zanik’s midseason acquisition of Clarkson has clearly rejuvenated this Jazz squad. The Jazz went on a tear after the deal, winning 14 of their first 18 after acquiring Clarkson from Cleveland. Since the former Missouri Tiger joined the Jazz, they have increased their winning percentage significantly (.657), are outsourcing teams by almost 4 more points/game, and are scoring 7 more points/game total. Clarkson is a more efficient scorer than ever with Utah, putting up similar numbers on less shots and the highest FG% (48.2%) and true shooting % (58.3%) of his career. Clarkson has primarily come off the bench for Utah, helping provide a spark to a bench unit that ranked 29th in scoring prior to his arrival. However, a season ending injury to Bojan Bogdonavic will surely result in an increased role for Clarkson and can possibly push him into the starting 5. Per 36 minutes, Clarkson has been an extremely impressive scorer, averaging over 22 PPG. Clarkson’s microwave scoring will continue to prove huge for a Utah team that too often relies on Donovan Mitchell to create and can easily become stagnant on offense.
Thunder: Dennis Schroeder
A year removed from trading two of the biggest names in the league, the Thunder find themselves in a place nobody expected them to be. OKC’s inability to move Chris Paul and the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have allowed the Thunder to remain firmly afloat in the Western Conference playoff picture; in a year many thought they would be rebuilding. That, and Dennis Schroeder turning in one of the best seasons of his career. Schroeder is still shooting the ball, a lot, but at a more efficient rate than ever. The veteran point guard is averaging a FG% (46.8) and True Shooting % (57.3) much higher than any other point in his career. More impressively, and perhaps more importantly, Schroeder’s 3-point percentage is the highest of his career as well (38.1%). This is especially important for a Thunder team in the bottom half of the league in 3’s/game. Schroeder has also put his best foot forward defensively ,evidenced by a career high +- and his strongest defensive rating since 2015 (103.1). If Schroeder is at the top of his game in Orlando the Thunder possess one of the strongest backcourts in the West.
Rockets: PJ Tucker
Regardless of his impact before, the importance of PJ Tucker increased exponentially after Daryl Morey’s decision to deal Clint Capela to Atlanta. Tucker has become an essential piece in Houston’s puzzle of playing without a traditional center. The former Longhorn is being asked to do more on the glass and he has answered the call, pulling in a career high 6.7 rebounds/game and keeping the Rockets in the top half of the league in terms of rebounds/game. Tucker is Houston’s most valuable and versatile defender, holding together a unit that is already bottom 10 in the league. Offensively PJ continues to improve, earning a reputation as one of the strongest corner shooters in the game and is posting a career high in True Shooting percentage and one of the highest offensive ratings of his career. Tucker’s shooting allows the Rockets to stretch defenses razor thin, and realistically is what likely gave the Rocket’s front office the confidence to go all in on their small ball experiment. Houston went 19-7 in games where Tucker hit at least two threes. Tucker will need to continue to step up and do it all for the Rockets if they want to make another deep run in the Western Conference.
Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Somewhat of an afterthought in the deal that brought Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas, Tim Hardaway Jr. may prove to be one of the most important players on the Mavericks roster in Orlando. Hardaway, a well-known sharpshooter since helping lead the Michigan Wolverines to a national championship berth in 2013, has been stroking it better than any other season of his professional career. His True Shooting and 3-point percentages are both at career highs this season. Hardaway has flourished in the Mavericks offense that shoots the second most 3’s/game in the NBA. All season Hardaway has capitalized on his opportunities, allowing Luca and Porzingis to draw the attention of opposing defenses, and making them pay from deep. THJ has been one of the best in the league at scoring off catch & shoot opportunities this season, averaging the 10th most PPG off C&S chances. Hardaway has also been solid defensively this year, evidenced by the third strongest defensive rating and best +- of his eight year career. The Mavericks lack quality wing defenders and will need Hardaway’s strong defensive play to continue in Orlando.
Grizzlies: Dillon Brooks 23-10 when he converts more than 5 FG
Most of the attention and credit for the Grizzlies re-emergence in 2020 is credited to Rookie of the Year hopeful Ja Morant, and rightfully so. But few realize the extent of the jump Dillon Brooks has taken in his third season in the league. Offensively, Brooks is showing flashes of becoming a legit 3rd option for a competitive team. The former Oregon Duck has more than doubled his scoring output from last season, jumping all the way to 15.7 PPG. His volume has increased significantly, he’s taking nearly double the shot attempts, yet his efficiency hasn’t tailed off. He shoots well from deep as well, averaging 2 threes a game. Brooks has microwave scoring ability and can create good looks for himself, over 40% of his FG attempts come on pull-ups. Brooks’ aptness to get a bucket will be valuable for the Grizzlies as defenses key in on Ja Morant in a seven game series.
Pelicans, Blazers, Kings, Spurs: Brandon Ingram, Damian Lillard, De'aaron Fox, Demar DeRozan
The remaining teams are simply too far back with only eight games to play to rely on role players. These teams will need big performances from their stars and a fair bit of luck if they want to lock up the eight seed in the West.