These NBA contenders will need to win with depth when the playoffs come. That means these key role players need to be better.
For many teams, this last stretch of the season is about fighting for a playoff (or play-in) and trying to confirm advantageous seeding. But for the aspiring NBA contenders, the real work starts when the playoffs begin and a few of those teams have key role players who have been struggling.
For teams like the Warriors, 76ers and Cavs, these last few weeks are about getting everyone on the roster playing at their best.
Who are the key underperforming role players for these NBA contenders?
3. Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers
I looked at Okoro a few days ago in a Cavs-focused examination of role players who need to step up but it all bears repeating. The Cavs current crop of small forward options — Cedi Osman, Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro and Lamar Stevens all offer offensive and defensive trade-offs to varying degrees. Okoro is the most impactful defender of the bunch and they’re really going to need him in potential matchups against the 76ers or Celtics. But his offensive struggles have been so severe at times it’s been really hard to keep him on the floor.
Okoro is shooting a somewhat reasonable 35.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers but no one really bothers to guard him and even when shots are going in, he can be a drag on Cleveland’s spacing.
Okoro has the ability to contribute on offense in other ways — he’s a good passer and can finish. But he’s also aware of his shortcomings and it affects his confidence. If he can bump up his 3-point percentage down the stretch and get a little confidence attacking with the ball in his hands it could really help Cleveland down the road.
2. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
There was a time when Tobias Harris was the second fiddle in Philadelphia’s offense. But the arrival of James Harden and the emergence of Tyrese Maxey have moved him down the list of offensive priorities and he’s become a firmly complementary offensive threat. A higher percentage of his shots are 3-pointers this season than at any other point in his career and 93.3 percent of his makes have been assisted, by far the highest percentage since he joined the 76ers.
The good news is that he’s largely been a plus in this reduced role — shooting 38.2 percent beyond the arc with a true shooting percentage that’s near his career high. The bad news is that he’s been absolutely terrible this year in games against the other top teams in the East, and likely playoff opponents for the 76ers.
In 11 games against the Celtics, Bucks, Cavs and Knicks, Harris has averaged 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, shooting 44.2 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. The 76ers are just 4-7 in those 11 games and have a negative point differential with Harris on the floor.
The 76ers are going to need to be firing on all cylinders against their toughest competition and that means Harris showing up for the big games, something he hasn’t done consistently yet this year.
1. Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors
During last season’s championship run, we got a first-hand look at just how essential Jordan Poole could be to the current iteration of the Warriors. And this year, we’ve had a good look at what happens when he isn’t able to put it all together.
With Steph Curry so often injured, Poole has had slightly more opportunities to act as the primary initiator and creator and his efficiency in those settings has cratered, in large part due to his propensity to settle for pull-ups.
The number below may not seem like a huge difference but he went from completing nearly two drives for every pull-up jumper during the playoffs last year, much closer to one-to-one. Between that and his shooting slump, it’s no wonder his efficiency has bottomed out. Poole isn’t a shooter on the same level as Curry and Klay Thompson but he makes up for that with added value as an on-ball creator. This season he’s struggling but also giving away significant advantages in his shot selection.
If the Warriors are going to make a deep run, they need Poole to play like he did in last year’s playoffs — not just in regards to how often his shots are going in but also in how and where he’s finding them.
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Ranking the most competitive possible first-round series
The NBA Draft Lottery won’t lock in the draft order until the middle of May, which leaves a lot more time for hypotheticals and imaginings. Here is a quick look at how the 2023 NBA Draft lottery could play out, based on a Tankathon simulation of the order and my own picks:
- Washington Wizards — Victor Wembanyama (scouting report)
What a win this would be for Washington, a foundational building block to kick off a new generation.
- Oklahoma City Thunder — Scoot Henderson (scouting report)
Henderson is an elite talent who could help share playmaking duties with SGA and Josh Giddey and add another perimeter scoring threat.
- Houston Rockets — Amen Thompson (scouting report)
Amen Thompson and Jalen Green would give the Rockets perhaps the most athletic and explosive backcourt in the league.
- Detroit Pistons — Brandon Miller
There are questions about Miller as a primary creator but next to Jaden Ivey and Cade Cunningham, his shooting and complementary scoring would be perfect.
- San Antonio Spurs — Ausar Thompson (scouting report)
Falling to No. 5 would be a blow for the Spurs but Ausar Thompson could still turn into a two-way star on the wing.
- Charlotte Hornets — Nick Smith Jr. (scouting report)
Smith Jr. has the potential to be a dynamic three-level scorer and both he and LaMelo Ball would benefit from the playmaking and gravity of each other.
- Orlando Magic — Keyonte George
George gives the Magic a dynamic scorer and shot-creator in the backcourt, who can play off their other young talents.
- Indiana Pacers — Jarace Walker (scouting report)
Walker could be the long-term answer for the Pacers at the 4, an elite multi-positional defender who benefits from the playmaking and shooting around him.
- Orlando Magic — Cam Whitmore (scouting report)
Whitmore would be a complementary piece with upside — a defensive wing upgrade who will have time to grow into his offensive skills with the creators around him.
- Portland Trail Blazers — Anthony Black
Black can offer a bit of everything on the wing and would make an interesting long-term partner for Shaedon Sharpe.
- Toronto Raptors — Gradey Dick
The Raptors need perimeter shooting in the worst way and Dick is among the best movement and spot-up shooters in the class.
- Utah Jazz — Jett Howard
Howard’s shooting and budding creation ability make him an interesting long-term fit next to Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton.
- New Orleans Pelicans — Cason Wallace
The Pelicans get a vicious point-of-attack defender and someone who can play off the ball if necessary with Zion, CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.
- Los Angeles Lakers — Dariq Whitehead
Whitehead may have untapped star potential but, at worst, he’s a nice complementary wing who should be able to contribute at both ends of the floor.