Which non-stars could shape each first-round series in the NBA playoffs?

Michael Grange sat down with Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to discuss his season and approach to the playoffs.

For most NBA teams, the heights they can reach in the playoffs are dictated by the caliber of stars on their roster. But even the most dynamic star can’t win a championship alone. Their ceilings can either be restricted or removed by the pieces filling complementary roles and, in the end, winning is still a team endeavour.

Here’s a look at the non-stars who could decide each first-round NBA playoffs series.

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez

Brook Lopez led the league in contested shots per game and held opponents to just 51 per cent shooting at the rim. His success in large part is due to playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who enables him to sit back and focus solely on protecting the paint. The Bucks’ eight most effective defensive lineups feature Lopez manning the paint, with the most effective holding teams to just 93.5 points per 100 possessions (Pts/Poss). Given the Pistons’ top-two players are nominal big-men, controlling the paint will be essential to Milwaukee’s game plan.

Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson

Reggie Jackson is frustrating. Injuries and inconsistency have plagued his career but with Blake Griffin‘s status up in the air heading into Game 1 due to a knee issue, he’ll be leaned on to maintain the career-best shooting efficiency he’s had this season. Jackson is particularly good from long-range where he connected on 38 per cent of his shots — all while his career-low usage rate of 25.7 per cent takes a jump. Stealing even one game from the Bucks is a long-shot, but for the Pistons to do so they’ll need Jackson at his most consistent and efficient.

Brooklyn Nets: Spencer Dinwiddie

Dinwiddie was dynamic for the Nets off the bench all year, averaging a career-high 16.8 points per game on 44.6 per cent shooting from the floor in just over 28 minutes of action each night. He’s even more impressive when he spends time with the Nets’ starters. The combination of Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, DeMarre Carroll and Jarrett Allen held teams to just 82.7 Pts/Poss while scoring 111.1 — a staggering 28.4 Pts/Poss differential. Making the most of that lineup and Dinwiddie’s depth off the bench will be essential for a Nets team looking to upset the star-studded 76ers.

Philadelphia 76ers: J.J. Redick

Philadelphia’s oldest starter also serves as one of their most important. About 57 per cent of Redick’s shots come from downtown and he converts 40 per cent of them — including 44 per cent from the corners. On a team whose three best players all operate best inside the arc, Redick’s consistent floor spacing will play a pivotal part in keeping the real estate open.

Indiana Pacers: Bojan Bogdanovic

The Indiana Pacers managed to secure the five-seed in the Eastern Conference thanks, in no small part, to Bogdanovic’s scoring. In the 34 games after Victor Oladipo got hurt, Bogdanavic averaged a little over 20 points per game, and shot 53 per cent on corner threes on the season. He’s less sneaky on the perimeter than someone like Redick, but his combination of size and shooting make him the Pacers’ best threat.

Boston Celtics: Terry Rozier

The injury to Marcus Smart will force a brighter spotlight onto all of the Celtics’ perimeter players. Kyrie Irving will shoulder most of the scoring burden and Rozier won’t fill Smart’s shoes on defence. But after a season in which Boston scored 7.6 fewer Pts/Poss with Rozier on the court than when he sat, and shot worse from everywhere on the court except on corner threes, positive contributions during Rozier’s minutes will be pivotal.

Toronto Raptors: Danny Green

Green’s consistency on defence has given the Raptors another option on the perimeter they’ve sorely needed in years past. On the other end of the court, his resurgent long-range shooting has hit career-high efficiency levels, averaging 46 per cent in non-garbage time minutes according to Cleaning the Glass — a nine per cent increase over his performance last year on the San Antonio Spurs.

If Green can maintain anywhere near that efficiency — especially against an Orlando squad featuring talented defenders on the perimeter — then the floor opens up for the rest of the Raptors to exploit the Magic’s poor interior defence which allowed opposing teams to shoot 62.6 per cent at the rim.

Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac

Isaac is Orlando’s preeminent perimeter defender and consistently had Pascal Siakam‘s number throughout the regular season. Of all of Siakam’s offensive matchups this season, he’s seen Isaac the second-most, but has been stymied to the tune of 21.4 per cent shooting against him. Assuming Isaac is healthy — he was recently sidelined with a concussion — then he’ll serve as Orlando’s best shot at mitigating Toronto’s rising star.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Clippers: Lou Williams

Picking a single, most important non-star on a team composed entirely of non-stars is a a futile exercise, but among the masses Lou Williams certainly stands out. He led the Clippers in both points and assists per game off the bench, and not a single bench player created more points off assists. Lou Will getting hot is the Clippers’ best chance to stopping all of the Warriors’ stars.

Golden State Warriors: Andre Iguodala

Iguodala enjoyed a resurgent 2018/19 campaign in which his long-range shooting ticked back up to 33 per cent — a vast improvement over last year’s abysmal 28.2 per cent — as did his two-point shooting, which rose to 65.2 per cent from 56.7 per cent the year before. Maybe it’s no surprise he helped unlock the Warriors’ best offensive lineup — featuring Iguodala alongside Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson — which scored a blistering 132.5 Pts/Poss.

San Antonio Spurs: Rudy Gay

Gay is coming off the most efficient regular season of his career, shooting 52 per cent from two-point territory and 40 per cent from three. But he’s shone on the defensive end as well. Both of the Spurs’ most effective defensive lineups feature him and he ranked fifth among small forwards in defensive real plus-minus. Neither the Spurs nor the Nuggets played particularly fast this year — both teams ranked in the bottom third for pace in the league — making efficiency on both ends, like Gay provides, paramount.

Denver Nuggets: Will Barton

On the whole, Barton saw his shooting averages slide backwards this season — dropping off from 37 per cent in 2017-18 to 34.6 per cent — but on just catch-and-shoot threes, the kind that invariably occur when playing with an incandescent playmaker like Nikola Jokic, he’s shooting a more than respectable 36 per cent. When facing a Spurs team that was, at best, average at preventing teams from launching from long-range, Harris will have plenty of opportunities to showcase the damage he can do from distance.

Portland Trail Blazers: Enes Kanter

With Jusuf Nurkic out for the season due to a horrific leg injury, Kanter will be relied upon to fill some of the void around the basket for the Blazers. Since joining the team, his usage rate has stayed similar to what it was with the New York Knicks, but his points per shot attempt rose from 1.17 to 1.23 — a number that appears small at first glance, but vaulted him from league-average to the top 25th percentile of all big-men. He’s also been a terror on the offensive glass, rebounding about 15 per cent of Portland’s missed shot attempts, or almost four per game.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams

Kanter, for all his offensive upside, is decidedly limited on defence. The overwhelming majority of Adams’ contributions on offence come around the basket, connecting on 60 per cent of those shots. When he’s shooting near the basket, his shooting percentage rises the less time he spends with the ball in his hands — skyrocketing from a 50 per cent success rate when he holds it for six or more seconds, to 62 per cent when he holds it for less than two. If Adams feasts on offensive rebounds, put backs and lob passes, the Thunder’s chances to go to Round 2 rise exponentially.

Utah Jazz: Joe Ingles

Ingles assisted on 26.2 per cent of his teammate’s made shots, more than almost any other wing player in the NBA, while also posting a 57.1 per cent effective field-goal percentage, making him one of the more central components to what the Jazz do on offence. Of note: the distribution of his passes is fairly even among players he typically shares the court with. About 19 per cent end up with Ricky Rubio, but the next four players on the list received 14-15.5 per cent of his total passes, meaning his offensive involvement engages several players as opposed to one go-to option. That diversity will be essential when the Rockets key into shutting down Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert every time they touch the ball.

Houston Rockets: P.J. Tucker

Tucker rarely shoots, and when he does it only goes in 39.6 per cent of the time. But with James Harden operating as an offensive strategy unto himself, the Rockets don’t need Tucker’s offence, they need his defence. He ranked in the 95th percentile among big-men this season with a 2.1 per cent steal percentage, a contributing factor in why opponents coughed the ball up on about 16 per cent of possessions with him on the court. He’s also a mobile defender for a nominal big, as players shot about five per cent worse when he guarded them 15 feet or more away from the basket.

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