Updated: Aug 6, 2020
Author: Joey Spathis
Milwaukee Bucks: Kris Middleton
I know he’s an All Star; bear with me. The Bucks enter Orlando touting the best regular season record, the best defensive rating of the season, and with the likely back-to-back MVP leading the squad. Despite all of this, it is a forgone conclusion that without an inspiring playoff performance from Giannis’ supporting cast, the Bucks will not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2020. This may seem obvious, but, as far as the Buck’s supporting cast goes the conversation must start with Middleton. After a breakout 2018 campaign that saw him named to his first All-Star team and a hot start to the 2018 playoffs, Middleton hit a major snag in the ECF vs Toronto. Middleton was an 18 ppg scorer in the regular season, and averaged 19+ in the first two series of the 2019 Playoffs. However the Raptors stingy defense, led by Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leanord, and Pascal Siakam, held Middleton to a mere 13 ppg in the series, as the Raptors disposed of the Bucks 4-2 en route to an NBA Title. Middleton has bounced back strong thus far in 2020, earning another All-Star bid behind stellar numbers. Middleton has taken a big step forward as someone who can create his own shot, something the Bucks desperately need beside Giannis. Middleton is 13th in the league in points scored on dribble pull-ups per 36 min (8.4). He is shooting over 40% from behind the arc and is boasting a career high in true shooting percentage (61.9%). Middleton’s defense has been above average as well, evidenced by his .172 defensive win shares/game, good enough for 3rd in the NBA. The Bucks are simply better Middleton on the court, his 9.0 +- is 2nd best in the league. The Bucks won’t win the Finals, let alone make it out of the Eastern-Conference, without Middleton playing at his absolute best.
Honorable Mention: George Hill
Toronto Raptors: Norman Powell
The defending NBA Champions haven’t missed a beat since former Raptors frontman Kawhi Leonard’s decision to leave for Los Angeles. Much of this has been due to the emergence of Fred Van Vleet as an all-star caliber player. The Raptors haven’t gotten great contributions from their bench, in fact they’re 3rd to last in bench minutes in the league. One player who has contributed consistently off the bench for the Raptors has been Norman Powell. Leonard’s departure has opened the door for Powell to step into a bigger role for Toronto, he’s averaging 28 minutes/game (10 minutes more than any other season in his career), Powell has flourished in his expanded role. Powell’s consistent shooting (39.8 3P%, 50.2 FG%) has helped him double his career high in scoring (8.6 → 14.4 PPG). Toronto was 8-1 in games where Powell scored 25 points. Powell also provides versatile defense off the bench for the Raptors, averaging over a steal a game in limited minutes. Powell is an important piece for a team that will likely go into the playoffs with a 7-man rotation.
Honorable Mention: OG Anunoby
Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward
A devastating injury led to a tumultuous start to his tenure in Boston, but Hayward has quietly returned to form in 2020. Hayward has once again become a trusted cog in Brad Stevens’ rotation, playing almost 8 more minutes/game than last season. Hayward has regained his confidence on the offensive end, shooting the ball at a significantly more than last season (8.8 → 13.5). This increase in volume hasn’t damaged the former Butler Bulldog’s efficiency at all; in fact, his FG% is up from 46% to 50% and he’s approaching a career high in True Shooting%. Hayward is also more comfortable creating looks for himself, scoring consistently more on dribble pull-ups and unassisted buckets this season. When Hayward is scoring, Boston is winning. The Celtics are 13-5 when he scores more than 20. Hayward’s defense has been solid as well, boasting the 4th highest Net Rating among qualifying Celtics. Since the All-Star break, he even has the highest +- of any player on the Celtics roster. Hayward’s veteran status and ability to distribute and protect the rock (career high AST/TO) make him a reliable option for Brad Stevens and will prove increasingly important as the Celtics look to make a run to the NBA finals.
Honorable Mention: Marcus Smart
Miami Heat: Duncan Robinson
The story of this season for the Heat? The 3 ball. Miami has lived and died beyond and arc this season. The Heat ended the regular season with the highest 3P% in the league, shooting over 38% on nearly 35 3-Point attempts/game this season. In wins this season, the Heat lit it up from deep, hitting 41.8% of their 3’s. In losses, that percentage plummeted to 32.6%. Clearly, the 3 is a critical part of Miami’s attack; they went 39-11 in games in which they shot over 35% from deep. The player most responsible for this 3 point barrage has been Duncan Robinson. In only his sophomore season, the former Michigan Wolverine has been one of the best shooters in the entire NBA, hitting almost 45% of his 3’s. Robinson also leads all qualified players in percentage of points off 3’s; over 88% of his points are on triples. He is the best catch and shoot player in the league this season, averaging almost 10 PPG on spot-up opportunities. He’s also shooting over 90% from the charity stripe this year. After playing only 10 minutes/game in 2018, Robinson has carved himself out a 30 minute/game role in his second year in Miami. His +- has improved dramatically from -2.2 last season to 4.8 this year. That 4.8 +- is the highest of any player on Miami’s roster this season. The Heat’s net rating improves from -4.6 when Robinson is on the court to 7.7 when he is on the floor. If Robinson is draining from 3 Miami could be a very tough out in Orlando.
Honorable Mention: Goran Dragic
Indiana Pacers: TJ Warren
TJ Warren is quietly establishing himself as a reliable 3rd-4th scoring option in today’s NBA. He has continued to score the ball efficiently in his first season in Indiana, posting career highs in FG% and True Shooting %. Warren’s ability to score from all three levels comes as a premium to the Pacers, a team who has struggled to consistently score in 2020 (22nd in PPG). The Pacers were 22-5 in games where Warren had 21+ PPG. Although Warren struggles somewhat defensively, the Pacers still come into Orlando as the 7th best defensive team in the NBA. Indiana went 42-18 in games where they scored over 100 PPG. 100 points is over 11 points under the league average. If the Pacers can score their defense is good enough to take them the rest of the way. Warren doesn’t rebound particularly well for his size (4.0 RPG), an area where the Pacers are in the bottom 7 teams in the NBA. However, the Pacers lack of depth and wing-defenders amplify Warren’s importance to the team. With a healthy Victor Oladipo, it’s tough to count out this Pacer’s team that’s only two years removed from forcing a Game 7 vs LeBron and the Cavs.
Honorable Mention: Malcolm Brogdon
Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris
It seems like eons ago that the 76erspushed the Raptors to the brink of elimination only to be tragically eliminated by Kawhi’s series ending buzzer beater. Kawhi’s, bouncing, fading, seemingly gravity-defying shot foreshadowed a difficult year that would ensue in Philly. Injuries to both Simmons and Embiid, as well as Al Horford’s struggles in his first season, have shook the 6ers locker room and fan-base. Winning only 39 games a year removed from a 51 win season has fans and analysts alike are questioning whether GM Elton Brand should consider trading one of their franchise center-pieces. It will almost certainly be Brett Brown’s last year in the City of Brotherly Love. If the 76ers have any shot at recapturing the mojo of last season and making a deep playoff run in the East, they’ll need Tobias Harris to show up every night. Harris’ performance this season thus far does not suggest he’s worth anything near the $180 Million the 76ers shelled out for him last June. The former Clipper’s efficiency has dipped from the field, behind the arc, and from the free-throw line. Still, Tobias’ ability to get a bucket and create his own shot is huge for his team. Similarly to the Pacers, Philly is a team that dominated defensively and struggled to find their rhythm on offense. Tobias has shown the ability to stretch the floor effectively which is important for a team that has two of the most dominant interior scoring options in the league. Tobias needs a standout postseason performance to prove he was worth the max deal. If not, he will surely face some scrutiny from the most unforgiving fan-base in the sport.
Honorable Mention: Jason Richardson
Brooklyn Nets: Spencer Dinwiddie
This should come as no surprise. Dinwiddie has been one of the Net’s best playmakers all season. If Kyrie does indeed opt-out of the NBA restart in Orlando, the Net’s will have to rely on Dinwiddie to run the offense. The Net’s don’t have great backcourt depth, furthering the importance of Dinwiddie’s role. The Nets were bad with both guards off the court this season, with a negative +- in those situations. Dinwiddie has made plays all season, but will need to limit turnovers in Orlando if he wishes to lead the Nets as their lead guard. He’s amongst the top-30 players in TO/game, at 2.7. Also, Dinwiddie will need to be more efficient. He’s shooting only 41.5% from the field and 30% from 3, one of the worst figures of his career. Dinwiddie’s offense will need to show up in Orlando if the Nets want to have a shot.
Honorable Mention: Caris Lavert
Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac
The Magic have been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA all season, holding their opponents to the 4th fewest PPG. A lot of this has to do with this the tenacious defense of Florida State alumni Johnathan Isaac. Isaac’s defensive versatility, especially when paired with that of Mo Bamba, allows the Magic to stifle opposing offenses. At 6’11” with a 7’1” wingspan, Isaac is athletic and quick enough to guard multiple positions. Isaac has one of the best defensive ratings on the Magic and grabs boards well when he’s on the floor (17.4% DRB). Isaac is also scoring more (12 PPG) and more efficiently (46.3%) than ever in his career. Isaac’s defensive contributions will be a deciding factor in how far the Magic can go.
Honorable Mention: Evan Fournier
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal
Without John Wall and Davis Bertans, the Wizards will need a historic performance from Bradley Beal if they want to make a run in Orlando. Hell, they’ll need a historic Beal performance just to make it to the playoffs. The Wizards are 24-40, 16 games behind .500, and 6 games behind the Magic for the 8th seed in the East. Beal is having a career year; averaging a career high in scoring (30 PPG) and free throw shooting (84%) while maintaining his efficiency at all spots on the floor (45.5 FG%, 35.5 3P%). Beal is scoring at an elite-rate; but it would be nearly impossible for him to lead this Wizards team into a deep playoff run.
Honorable Mention: Thomas Bryant