It’s almost postseason szn. But before those games begin, we have 32 days of regular-season basketball left to figure out who will make it there. Here are the 16 players we think could have a big say in how the standings shake out.
Anthony Davis, Pelicans
Paolo Uggetti: Some of Davis’s most eye-popping performances have come in close games when the Pelicans have needed him most. As a result, the team has ripped off 10 wins in a row and is currently in fourth in the West. Spoiler alert: The roster around Davis isn’t great, and the load The Brow has carried while the Pelicans play at breakneck pace without Boogie is nothing short of gargantuan. Davis might be more important to his team than anyone not named LeBron. This is why Davis’s availability both down the stretch and in the playoffs is paramount. Davis had two injury scares in two games in a row (his ribs and ankle). The MRI came back negative both times, though he is officially doubtful for New Orleans’s game on Friday against the Wizards with what is being called a left ankle sprain. Even though the Pelicans’ odds of making the playoffs are climbing, they still can’t afford to lose him.
James Harden, Rockets
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Obvious, right? But so long as Harden continues playing out of his mind, the Rockets are set up to secure the 1-seed. He sets up his surrounding cast by being a threat from both the perimeter and driving to the paint. From there, a possession can go in endless directions. It could be fed inside to Clint Capela, dished out to a wide-open Eric Gordon, handed to fellow elite driver Chris Paul, and so on. Harden is the difference-maker.
Andre Iguodala, Warriors
Uggetti: It turns out that for a 34-year-old wing in his 14th NBA season, the All-Star break is like getting an all-expenses-paid vacation to a beachside hotel with the spa upgrade included. Since getting a few days off in mid-February, Iguodala has been a new player: He’s shooting 69 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3 while averaging five rebounds and 3.5 assists in 25 minutes a game. Iguodala is the Warriors’ glue guy, and has been since he joined the team in 2013, but his mediocre first half to this season was one of the only holes in the Golden State machine. For now, that’s no longer the case. Iguodala is expected to miss Friday’s game with a wrist injury, but a healthy and revived Iggy can be the difference in the Warriors’ push for the 1-seed in the West.
Marcus Smart, Celtics
O’Shaughnessy: Smart has filled his role as a reliable defender off the bench, but he should also receive credit for being a major part of the offense not falling off when the second unit enters. (Before you roll your eyes, I’m not talking about his 3-point shot, a dream he will never give up on.) He’s averaging 4.7 assists per game in 29.8 minutes, taking care of reserve bigs Daniel Theis and Greg Monroe, and forming a surprisingly effective partnership with fellow guard Terry Rozier.
OG Anunoby, Raptors
Uggetti: Anunoby doesn’t just have a cooler first name than Drake. The first-year player is quietly having one of the more underrated rookie seasons in the league—especially when you consider that he’s been thrust into a starting role for the 1-seed in the East after suffering an ACL tear at Indiana. Anunoby is an athletic, defensive-minded freak who may still be raw in a lot of areas, but has thrived in Toronto’s system because of his 7-foot-2 wingspan and his ability to make 3s at a decent rate (35 percent). He’s missed the past four games because of an ankle injury, and Toronto’s youthful depth has been able to cover for that. But his presence on the court takes the Raptors to another level—an effect that they hope carries into the playoffs.
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
O’Shaughnessy: If the Spurs centerpiece really does return “soon,” as he claims he will, San Antonio changes from respectable to alarming for the competition. Part of the reason the Spurs have been such a pleasant surprise is not because they are fun to watch (I’m sorry, but come on), but because they were able to adjust without Kawhi for so long. San Antonio is still in fifth, even though Leonard has played just nine games this season. If he does wind up playing this season next to this version of LaMarcus Aldridge, no team is safe.
Larry Nance Jr., Cavaliers
Uggetti: Nance is letting LeBron know what it’s like to play with someone who is in a similar athletic stratosphere. The two have played a total of 156 minutes together, and in that time, the Cavs are outscoring opponents by a whopping 58 points. The more their chemistry develops, the better the Cavs will be come playoff time. Nance, who has started the past two games, isn’t going to win you a playoff game, but he can help LeBron carry the Cavs there.
Myles Turner, Pacers
O’Shaughnessy: Injury issues limited Turner’s exposure and backtracked his production this season. After being expected to be the Pacers’ main man, Victor Oladipo stepped in as a Hoosier blessing. That being said, Dipo is afforded nearly double the field goal attempts per game as Turner. Indy Cornrows’ Jesse Smith pointed out this month that Turner is a more efficient scorer when he shoots more (an excellent problem for the Pacers to have).
Jusuf Nurkic, Trail Blazers
Uggetti: Nurkic averaged nearly 30 minutes a game in the month of November and averaged 16.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. Since then, Nurkic’s production had dropped, but his shooting efficiency has increased in a diminished role (in March, he’s averaging only 21 minutes a game). Where does Nurkic fit on a Blazers team that has shot up to third in the West? Zach Collins has been getting a lot more minutes recently and played well during that time. The Blazers know that Collins is their future, and they know that they’ll only go as far as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum carry them. But finding the right role for Nurkic, and getting the free-agent-to-be to buy into it, might be just as important.
Tomas Satoransky, Wizards
O’Shaughnessy: The less recklessly Satoransky performs, the more Bradley Beal can catch his breath. The second-year guard has filled in for John Wall at point guard during Wall’s now-17-game absence, and is doing a commendable job. But Beal was forced to take over after Satoransky got into foul trouble against the Pacers two games ago. It left Beal gassed, and coach Scott Brooks admitted after the game that he had to “do a better job” finding minutes to rest Beal. That’s also on Satoransky, who has to stay on the court and produce enough to let him take a breather.
Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves
O’Shaughnessy: I feel like a disappointed mother every time I get on this tangent, but what a disappointment Wiggins has been this season. After signing a massive contract extension before the season, some of Wiggins’s woes were hidden by Jimmy Butler’s ability on both ends. Without the swingman by his side, Wiggins is struggling to find the consistency the Wolves need from him. “He just has to want to take over the game,” teammate Taj Gibson said on Wednesday. That means wanting to go off every night on offense, and also showing more effort in areas he typically leaves to others—like looking for the extra pass and assists, and knowing the challenge ahead of him each night on defense without Butler.
Montrezl Harrell, Clippers
Uggetti: While Blake Griffin struggles to carry the Pistons into the playoffs, Harrell has stepped into the void and brought the edge the Clippers were missing. Harrell, who is averaging 14.5 points per game since Griffin was traded, is part of a Clippers contingent playing above their pay grade and keeping the team right in the middle of the playoff race. Harrell has scored in double digits his past seven games, and the Clippers are three points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court than when he’s off. It’s hard for Clippers fans to miss Griffin when things are going about the same without him.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
O’Shaughnessy: The Joker balled out against Cleveland on Wednesday, but the outing came after four games of struggling to readjust to life with Paul Millsap on the court. I wrote Thursday about the issue being more on coach Mike Malone, not Millsap, and the former reverting back to the half-court, defensive-focused system he’s always wanted. Even if the heavy play-calling continues, Jokic has to bring the energy and effort he did last month for the Nuggets to squeeze into the playoffs. Maybe, if he’s lucky, Malone will meet him halfway.
Whoever Starts at Shooting Guard, Thunder
Uggetti: Look, we all know Russell Westbrook needs to take fewer shots, Paul George needs to be more aggressive, and Carmelo Anthony needs to stay a little less Melo. But with Andre Roberson out for the rest of the season, OKC’s hole at shooting guard is a conundrum Billy Donovan is still trying to solve. Josh Huestis has been mediocre at best, shooting 34.1 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3 through the Thunder’s past 13 games (nine of which he started). Donovan turned to Corey Brewer, whom OKC added from the buyout market, to start Thursday’s game against Phoenix. Here’s where I remind you that Brewer is 32, in his 11th season in the league, and hasn’t averaged double digits in points in three seasons. Neither Huestis nor Brewer will be able to replicate Roberson’s defensive impact on the floor, but even just a small uptick in offensive production could go a long way for an OKC team that finds itself in seventh place.
Joe Ingles, Jazz
O’Shaughnessy: When Ingles is at his best, so are the Jazz. His stats don’t do him justice, but he was shining in box scores during Utah’s showstopping 11-game win streak: 15.9 points, 53.4 percent overall, and 54.2 from deep. On Wednesday, in a win against Indiana, he dished out a season-high 10 assists. He’s always been important to this season’s defense, but Utah becomes all the more sound if he can elevate the offense (all while teaching algebra as a side hustle).
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Uggetti: The Bucks need early-season Giannis, destroyer of worlds, to turn the engine back on. Since his hot start to begin this season, the Greek Freak has cooled off a bit. The Bucks have, too. Milwaukee is in eighth place in the East, and though the Pistons are a distant five games behind, their spot in the conference is not commensurate with their talent level. The problem is that the Bucks might not want to move up at all. Would they rather face the Raptors or one of the Celtics and Cavs in the first round? Regardless, they’re in need of a boost in the final month of the season, one that only a 23-year-old who loves smoothies and pranking his teammates can provide. What a world.