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The 15 Most Important Eastern Conference Players for the Rest of the Season

Dario Saric, Paul George, Otto Porter Jr., and the other beasts of the NBA’s East who will shape the stretch run

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The NBA season is two-thirds over but there is still a lot of basketball left to be played. The trade deadline shook up rosters and even on teams that are outside of playoff contention there’s plenty to be learned. Over the next two days, we’re looking at the most important player on each team over the second half of the season, starting today with the Eastern Conference:

Philadelphia 76ers: Dario Saric

With Joel Embiid sidelined because of a knee injury, Saric is making a run at Rookie of the Year. Over his past seven games, the forward is filling the box score by averaging 20.3 points, nine rebounds, and 2.9 assists. If you have concerns about Embiid’s health, Saric is starting to look like the surest thing from the Sam Hinkie era.

Tune into almost any Sixers game and you’ll witness Saric’s filthy behind-the-back passes, fiery effort, and feisty rebounds. With timely blocks and steals that lead to transition offense, Saric is showing the same promise he did while playing in his native Croatia and in Turkey, where he was a superstar forward; over the past seven games, the Sixers are 25.8 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor, per NBA.com.

Saric competes hard on defense and has high potential as a shooter; there’s an argument to be made that he’s a better prospect than Ben Simmons, whose absence could be a blessing in disguise for Saric’s progression. If Saric continues to shine, the onus will be on Simmons to learn how to play with Saric, rather than the other way around.

The question should not be how Saric will fit with Simmons and Embiid, but rather how Simmons will fit with Saric and Embiid. The pairing of Saric with Embiid is not an issue; though Saric is shooting just 31.9 percent from 3 this season, he steadily improved each year playing in Europe as he adjusted to the line and revised his mechanics. That type of progression is projectable for Saric in the NBA, too.

Over recent weeks we’ve seen signs of what he could be. Saric won multiple championships and MVPs playing overseas, and if the season ended today he might just add another award to his trophy case: 2016–17 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Indiana Pacers: Paul George

George’s 2015 return from a compound fracture in his right lower leg was remarkable; he averaged 27.5 points over the first 20 games of the 2015–16 season, and looked better than he did prior to the injury. But he didn’t maintain that level of play. Since 2013 (and not counting his injury-shortened season), George has averaged 22.2 points per game on 17.1 shots per game. That is great, but it’s not extraordinary; 22 points on 17 shots are Joe Johnson–type numbers, not franchise cornerstone averages. The best NBA superstars consistently average 25-plus points per game, and George has done that only in spurts.

A big problem for George is his inability to consistently get to the line; of players to average at least 17 shots per game since 2013, George’s free throw rate and scoring efficiency are both average. George is still young (he turns 27 in May), but he hasn’t shown that dynamic next-level ability that we’ve been teased with.

Last week, Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird listened to trade offers for George. None of them were acceptable, and Bird was right to wait until the summer to find something better. He will demand a huge return for George, and maybe he’ll get it, but smart teams need to be cautious about going overboard.

The Pacers are average but not good, and maybe that’s because George is terrific but not transcendent. Right now the hype exceeds reality when it comes to George’s stardom. The microscope will be on George more than ever. With the potential for a trade, eyes will be on his body language, effort, and every word he speaks to the media. It’s time for him to rise to the next level. If he does, and he achieves All-NBA honors, the Pacers will be able to pay him a mega-extension that could increase their chances of retaining their star.

Miami Heat: Dion Waiters

Waiters calls for the ball whenever he’s open and shoots whenever he gets a touch. Sometimes he does catch fire, and right now Waiters is hotter than ever. The Heat have the NBA’s best record (16–2) since January 17 and Waiters is averaging 20.6 points with a 57.4 effective field goal percentage over that stretch. Watch Dion Waiters with a candle burning and you will see the entire future.

That’s all fun, but will Waiters move past being a meme and become a real, valuable member of a playoff team? Waiters is still only 25 years old, and it’s certainly possible the feature role he’s running with in Miami has unlocked a dimension of his game that made him a top-four pick in 2012. It took playing with LeBron and J.R. Smith to go from chucker to contributor, but maybe what Waiters needed was opportunity in a place void of stars.

Milwaukee Bucks: Thon Maker

The Bucks struck gold with a core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Jabari Parker (despite a second torn ACL), but something’s missing. Antetokounmpo is the only superstar on the roster, and they’ll need another one to emerge if they want to become contenders. They created cap flexibility by dealing away the overpaid Miles Plumlee, but there are no guarantees that a star player wants to play in Milwaukee. The hope might lie within the current roster.

Maker’s high school mixtapes made him a viral YouTube star, but he was met with antihype as the draft approached. The Bucks shocked the basketball world when they drafted him with the 10th pick last June. However, Maker has excelled when provided the opportunity this season. I’d be lying to you if I said that I didn’t laugh about the pick; Maker is so raw that he was a home run swing. But I’ve come to realize it’s what the Bucks needed to do.

Maker has a long, lanky body like Kevin Garnett, and shares the same ability to score from outside. The 20-year-old is hitting over 50 percent of his 3s and does a good job of attacking closeouts. He’s still learning the complexities of NBA defense, but he has the potential to switch screens, too.

Maker’s progress is important. If he keeps getting better, he can turn himself into the complementary star they need, or he can be a highly valuable trade asset the Bucks can use to trade for the star they need.

Boston Celtics: Avery Bradley

Isaiah Thomas is having an MVP-caliber season with 10.6 of his 29.7 points per game coming in fourth quarters. No player has averaged more fourth-quarter points since at least 1996, which is as far back as NBA.com’s database goes. But this phenomenon is a blessing and a curse; the Celtics are so reliant on Thomas that defenses will focus all their attention on the 5-foot-9 point guard once the playoffs roll around. The Raptors beat the Celtics on Friday by smothering Thomas with multiple defenders and making others beat them.

Thomas’s teammates weren’t up to the task, and Boston looked like a fringe playoff team. Who will step up? The player who most needs to rise to the occasion is Bradley, currently out with a strained Achilles. Bradley is a terrific shooter off the catch and a secondary pick-and-roll threat who can help alleviate some of the pressure that’s on Thomas. The Celtics need him to stay healthy to have any chance of making noise in the playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks: Tim Hardaway Jr.

Since dealing Kyle Korver on January 7, the Hawks are 11–10 with a minus-2.6 net rating. Hardaway is one of the bright spots. Over that time frame, the Hawks are outscoring teams by three points per 100 possessions when the fourth-year guard is on the floor, compared to being outscored by 11.8 when he’s on the bench. It’s the widest disparity of any primary rotation player on the team, which is surprising since he is making only a moderate impact, scoring 15.3 points per game.

According to NBA.com, this season the Hawks have a 111.9 offensive rating when Hardaway shares the floor with Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, and Dennis Schröder, but when Hardaway is off the court, the Hawks have a 97.2 offensive rating with that same starter trio on the floor. Hardaway might not be a dynamic scorer, but he’s well rounded and opens the floor. As the season comes to a close, I’ll be watching to see if the Hawks start feeding Hardaway more buckets.

Toronto Raptors: Serge Ibaka

Ibaka’s debut against the Celtics offered a glimpse at how the Raptors will use their new acquisition. He will start games at power forward but finish at center. Toronto played the final 7:30 of its win with a small-ball unit featuring Ibaka at the 5, which locked down Boston’s high-powered scoring attack by switching virtually all screens.

Ibaka lets the Raptors take on different personae, depending on the opponent. They can go small, and they can go big by plugging in Jonas Valanciunas or Patrick Patterson next to Ibaka. If Ibaka defends like he did on Friday, the Raptors will be a postseason force.

Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James

We have written a lot about LeBron recently, but let’s say just a bit more. The Cavs are 4–19 since 2014–15 when LeBron sits. They’re now 0–4 this season after getting trampled by the Bulls on Saturday. When Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving share the floor with LeBron, the Cavaliers outscore teams by 9.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, but when LeBron’s riding the bench they get outscored by 0.6 points per 100 possessions.

James led the Cavaliers to the 2015 Finals with Love and Irving hampered by injuries, but that duo wouldn’t be able to do the same without King James.

Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert

In an /r/NBA thread titled “Being hopeless,” Reddit user Cloone11 wrote, “As a net fan I cannot believe that one gm could screw our future so badly … Like what’s the point of even following this team. I am but it just hurts … It sucks. It’s painful. It’s hell.” Look to rookie LeVert for hope. He likely would’ve been a lottery pick if it weren’t for concerns regarding his foot. Nets general manager Sean Marks needed to take calculated risks, and LeVert so far is looking like a shrewd one.

At 6-foot-7, LeVert has the size of a wing with the passing vision of a guard, which makes him a mismatch in the pick-and-roll. The rookie generates an effective 1 point per possession on pick-and-roll shots, passes, and drawn fouls, per Synergy Sports.

LeVert’s body control, feel, and improvisational skills are reminiscent of a prime Jamal Crawford; he knows how to slow down and rev up, a skill most guards don’t develop for years. When he penetrates the lane, he throws dart passes. LeVert has the tools to be a glue guy who makes his teammates better. The Nets have two late first-round picks in the 2017 NBA draft, and with those selections, Marks should look to take a few more swings on high-upside players who drop due to auxiliary concerns.

Chicago Bulls: Bobby Portis

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Jimmy Butler is a goner if the Bulls don’t right the ship by the time he hits free agency in 2019; that time could come this summer if their young core doesn’t start showing signs of growth now. Bulls general manager John Paxson claims one reason they made the Doug McDermott trade was to get guard Denzel Valentine and power forward Portis more minutes (um, couldn’t you have done that before the trade?).

That’s a good thing. The Bulls need the kids to develop. Portis moves like a deer on ice skates when defending on the ball, but in college he was excellent at switching pick-and-rolls and sliding his feet on the perimeter. The time is now for Portis and the others to make strides, or else they face a long, painful rebuild.

Charlotte Hornets: Cody Zeller

On New Year’s Eve, the Hornets were 19–14 and the Eastern Conference 4-seed. Since then, Zeller has missed 16 games due to a concussion and a quadriceps contusion. Charlotte has lost 19 of 25 games. Only the Nets have been worse. Yikes! Is Zeller that important? Yes. He makes others better with his rib-shattering screens, hard sprints in transition, and reliable rim protection. Kemba Walker is the Hornets’ best player, but Zeller is their only hope of making the playoffs.

Detroit Pistons: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Caldwell-Pope will be a restricted free agent this summer and could demand a maximum contract. With that on the horizon, the Pistons listened to trade offers for KCP, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The 24-year-old has scored 20-plus points 16 times this season, and those flashes are a reminder of why he was the eighth pick in the draft.

Inconsistency is a hallmark trait of Caldwell-Pope, and he’s averaging only 14.5 points per game. Is this recent scoring surge for real? KCP chases the opponent’s best player, but is that enough? Does dipping into the luxury tax to pay a complementary player make sense? The Pistons need to answer these questions in the second half of the season. “You know what’s coming in terms of finances and where that puts us on our roster,” Stan Van Gundy said prior to the deadline. “We know exactly what’s coming and we’re making informed decisions.”

Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon

The Magic traded Serge Ibaka, unclogging their big-man rotation and freeing minutes to play Gordon at power forward. This lineup change is what virtually every basketball analyst was hoping for prior to the season; Gordon is a 6-foot-9 athletic dynamo whose advantages are minimized against wings and highlighted against slower-footed forwards.

After Gordon scored an easy 18 points on seven shots Saturday, Magic head coach Frank Vogel said: “Everybody’s now in their right position, quite frankly. I think Aaron being a four is better for him. He did well at the three defensively, but he’s better at the four.”

My unprofessional reaction:

My professional reaction: The trade for Ibaka never should’ve been made last summer because it flubbed up Orlando’s roster construction. It’s a good thing they’re trying to salvage that now. Gordon’s shot likely won’t get better until he puts in work during the summer, but hopefully for the Magic the rest of his game can open up until their season ends in mid-April.

New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis shouldn’t have deleted this tweet:

The image is a reminder of the reality that greatness can be achieved only after fighting through adversity. It’s a long and winding road to superstardom, and the giant Latvian is on the right path.

The Knicks have failed to meet expectations, but all that really mattered this year was Porzingis’s development. Despite an injury-riddled season, Porzingis has made strides. Last season, per Synergy, he scored 0.92 points per possession, which has increased to 0.99 this season. Porzingis’s shooting percentages have improved, and he’s developing into a terror in the pick-and-roll.

The Knicks have major problems with ownership, and management, and an aging superstar with a no-trade clause. But they do have Porzingis, and if he continues to shine, it’ll be easy for players to look at New York as an appealing destination.

Washington Wizards: Otto Porter Jr.

Porter was a career 31.5 percent shooter from 3 entering the 2016 All-Star break, but since then he’s gone full Korver, draining 48.3 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s an excellent finisher on cuts near the rim, he can pull up to shoot over screens, and he’s a super-competitive defender. Porter is the third wheel that John Wall and Bradley Beal needed.

But what if this near 50 percent rate ends up being just a hot streak? It’s a legitimate question. I have no doubt Porter has improved as a shooter (experience and reps help!), but I’m skeptical that he’s this friggin’ awesome. Porter’s mechanics haven’t really changed, as I wrote before, so this streak smells unsustainable.

Since the 2016 break, Porter has attempted 362 triples, which is an average sample size. It takes roughly 750 3-pointers before a 3-point percentage crosses the “reliable” threshold, according to a Nylon Calculus study. The next few months, and next season, will be revealing for Porter. If he maintains this production, it’s a positive indicator that he’s turned into a knockdown shooter. If not, then the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Porter will be a restricted free agent this summer, and the chances are the Wizards will match any offer for him. They better hope his stroke is the real deal.

Statistics are current as of Sunday morning.