In ancient Greek mythology the Fates – or Moirai – are a group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. Their names are Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Alloter) and Atropos (the Inflexible). Together, the Fates decide the destiny of all mortal men. In the NBA, though it is a star driven league, success or failure many times falls to whether a few role players can knock down critical shots, in critical moments.
NBA history is littered with examples of role players – or second or third options – raising their level of play to help propel their team to the championship. Just last year in the Finals Fred VanVleet elevated his level of play – after some ups and downs during the Eastern Conference rounds – to help the Raptors capture their first ever title. Though he was probably at best the fourth option on the team, he averaged 14 a game with shooting splits of .44/.40/.86 and came up big in the series clinching game scoring 22.
Though we are in uncharted waters with the NBA Bubble, you can be sure that the teams who have their second, third, or even fourth options elevate their level of play will see greater chances of playoff success. So here are 12 players who could prove to be “fate deciders”…
- For the Milwaukee Bucks, we know Giannis will need to be dominant for them to win and that Kris Middleton will need to prove his 11 trillion doubters that he is in fact a quality number two. But Eric Bledsoe is the guy that can elevate them. His dogged on ball defense is critical to the Bucks elite number one ranked defense. He’s strong at the point of attack, adeptly fights over ball screens (critical to their drop scheme), and holds up well when switched onto larger wings. For the Bucks to be true title contenders they will need Bledsoe to be a true offensive threat. Statistically he’s performed about the same offensively this season as last. In the playoffs last season his shooting fell off a cliff (23% from three). If that happens again the Bucks odds of representing the East in the Finals take a major hit. He will need to shoot his average (35% from three) or better if the Bucks hope to emerge from the bubble champions.
- Following Kawhi Leonard’s departure this off-season nobody foresaw the Raptors notched in at the 2 seed come mid-March. Though Leonard is gone, the team has kept on chugging, marching to a tune of opportunistic defense – diamond full court press anyone – and offensive unselfishness. Lowry has continued to do what he’s always done – including the flopping. Siakam has somehow elevated his game for a third straight season. VanVleet has upped his game as well. Yet their fate deciding player might just be the guy that missed the playoff run last year. OG Anunoby. Sliding into Kawhi’s spot in the lineup Anunoby’s shooting as been crucial to allowing Siakam, Lowry, and VanVleet probe and penetrate defenses. However, it will be his defense that ultimately will be the deciding factor. With Siakam tasked to guard typically larger wings or bigs, Anunoby will need to be up to the challenge defensively to guard the oppositions best guard. This will include the likes of Middleton, one of – Tatum, Brown, or Hayward -, Butler, Bogdan or Oladipo (maybe?), and should they make the finals possibly Lebron, Kawhi, or George. If he’s up to the challenge the Raptors will be a real threat. If not their hopes of a repeat might not be realized.
- Of all the teams in the bubble the Lakers might be one of the few teams worse off since the March shutdown. Avery Bradley elected courageously elected not to go Rondo broke his hand – though he is expected back. This leaves them without their 2 primary defenders for guards. With them sidelined KCP becomes monumentally more important for their success. Yes, Alex Caruso, Dion Waters, and JR Smith will be given this task as well but KCP will be the guy in their starting lineup. He will get the majority of the minutes on the opponents best guard. He provides quality shooting on a team in need of it – 39% from beyond the arc – and has shown promise with his on-ball defensive. If this is the KCP that has made it to Orlando the Lakers will be able to mitigate the loss of Bradley.
- While you can argue the Lakers are worse off as we approach restart than in March, you can’t make that argument about the Clippers. They’ve got everyone healthy – Kawhi’s thighs rested…check, PG’s shoulders…check, Pat Bev’s knee…check – and no longer have to worry about Laker fans taking over Staples in a LA v. LA series. On a team with few holes or question marks, there is one large question still remaining. Can Paul George rise to the moment in big-time playoff moments. We know his running mate Kawhi can, as he showed his playoff balls last year. But even as Kawhi was leading the Raptors to the title his 2 sidekicks in Siakam and Lowry carried the Raptors at times – Lowry’s 15 in the first quarter of Game 6 comes to mind. George will have to carry the Clippers offense at times and will need to knock down shots late in games as defenses look to load up on Kawhi. His ability to do this will decide just how “for real” the Clippers are.
- Since suffering one of the most gut wrenching injuries on opening night 2 seasons ago, Gordon Hayward has only flashed glimpses of his Utah Jazz days. This season we’ve see more flashes and more. For several stretches of this season Hayward has displayed the skills that made him such a coveted free agent in the summer of 2017. On the surface his statistics look good, in particular his shooting splits (.50/.39/.85). Yet, at times he still displays an uneasiness when trying to finish around the rim and a reluctance to attack strong downhill. This is no shot at him as its 100% normal for him to not be able to play with the same level of reckless abandon as prior to his injury. For the Celtics to be the threat in the East that their fans and some in the media believe them to be Hayward will have to show more than flashes of his former self. Particularly in those bench lineups where he’s the primary ball-handler and pick n’ roll threat.
- Very few in the national media had the Miami Heat situated as a top 4 seed in the East, though many in South Florida believed. Culture-stans argue this might be the most hashtag culture team of any. Led by a star that has run himself out of town more than once (allegedly) and a 6’9″ Power Forward, Center, and Point Guard all in one they’ve outperformed nearly all expectations. Not to mention unheralded and undrafted guys like Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro. Just as South Floridians were right about quality of this Heat team they’re also right in that Bam is their best player – just ask Jimmy. With that being said Jimmy will be their fate decider. His 6 assists a game are a career high and capture some of his ability as a facilitator and offense initiator. His defensive tenacity and his free safety like reads in the passing lanes remain his hallmarks. The lone aspect of his game that has abandoned him is his three ball (25%). By far the worst of his career. If the Heat hope to challenge the Bucks in a potential second round matchup, Jimmy will have to be able to knockdown jumpers as he will get a heavy serving up teams going under pick n’ rolls and off coverage.
- In last years playoffs the Denver Nuggets lost in 7 games to the Portland Trailblazers after beating the San Antonio Spurs in 7 games. In the 14 playoffs no player decided their success or failure more than Jamaal Murray. If he shot efficiently from the field and scored over 20 points they won – except for games 3 and 6 vs. the Blazers. If he struggled from the field, especially from 3, and he was held to under 20 they lost – except for game 5 vs. the Blazers. Yes, Jokic is the fulcrum of the offense and the unquestioned leader of their offensive attack but Murray is their lead perimeter threat. As the game slows down in the playoffs, possessions go deeper into the shot clock more often than not it falls on a perimeter player to make a play. Murray will be that player. The Nuggets will need to get the Murray who went 10/20 from the field to the tune of 34 in game 4 against the Blazers. Should the Murray who went 2/6 for 6 points in game 3 against the Spurs show up the Nuggets won’t be hanging around Orlando very long.
- No team is worse off than the Utah Jazz following the 4 month layoff. Their 2 most dominant players, Mitchell and Gobert, have been having “relationship problems” though they appear to have an uneasy truce. More importantly their most important wing defender and 3 point threat in Bojan Bogdanovic had wrist surgery and won’t be playing. Bojan is also one of the most underrated secondary playmakers in the NBA which was critical to the Jazz’s offensive success. Without Bojan their most critical player will be Mike Conley. Saying Conley has struggled this season would be an understatement. Though he is hitting 38% of this 3’s, his 40% from the field mark is the lowest of his career. Additionally, his 4.3 assists are the lost mark since his second season in the NBA – not factoring in his 12 game season in 2017-2018. For the Jazz to have any hope of getting out of the first round and making a playoff run Conley will have to look more like the 28 year old version of himself, not the 32 year old who was moved to the bench at times this year.
- For the Indiana Pacers this time in the bubble could impact their franchise for years to come. Though when healthy Victor Oladipo is their best player by far, he hasn’t been that since injuring his quad muscle back in the 2018-2019 season. In the 13 games he played this year, he was struggled to return to form. Averaging just 14 game and shooting a paltry 39% from the field has caused him to question if he should even play in the Orlando restart. If you look closer, it would appear Oladipo was beginning to find his legs. In the last 5 games before the shutdown, Oladipo averaged 19 points while shooting 48% from the field. If Oladipo decides to play – he’s made comments hinting at reconsidering his sitting out – and he builds on those 5 games in March the Pacers will be a tough out. Should he sit out or struggle to be his former self the Pacers could find themselves sent home early and contemplating a roster overhaul.
- No team has been more tantalizing in their potential and also so frustrating in their inconsistently than the 76ers. Uneven roster construction aside, they have better talent than their record and 6th place standing demonstrate. Over the last week, the Sixers have been the talk of NBA circles as Bret Brown has moved Ben Simmons to power forward and inserting Shake Milton to the starting lineup. This move has pulled all the Ben Simmon’s believers back out of the shadows and into NBA fans’ faces. A more explosive Draymond? AD lite? USA Siakam? Less-jacked Bam? Ultimately the comparisons won’t matter. What will matter is if this move opens up the clunky Sixers offense. Whether that happens or not will depend on how well Simmons plays in his new role and maybe…just maybe…some three point attempts. It will be up to Simmons now.
- No team has been as good in close games as the OKC Thunder this season. Over the last five minutes in games with a point differential of five points or fewer, the Thunder are 29-13. There best lineup, by far, features their three-headed guard monster of Paul, SGA, and Schroder. OKC has outscored its opponents by an incredible 28.6 points per 100 possessions in 401 total minutes with the three guards on the floor. While all this is good and well, come playoff time and they turn to this lineup, it will be on SGA to hold up guarding wings that will have a height and significant weight advantage on him. He’s by far the biggest of the 3 guards and Gallo isn’t fleet of foot enough to hang with the likes of Paul George, Kawhi, and Lebron. So if the Thunder hope to make a run that could fall on the ability of SGA to hold up against the bigger wings of the Western Conference.
- The Rockets 2 most important offensive players are James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Now that we’ve established the obvious we can discuss how it will be Eric Gordon who will determine how much success the Rockets experience in Orlando. Gordon only showed glimpses of the player that was so critical to the Rockets success the past few years. He was limited to only 34 games this year due to having his knee scoped. Since returning the results have been mixed. Outside of a 50 point outburst against Utah, it’s been more miss than make. He’s shooting a career low from 3 (31%) – not counting his 9 game season in 2011-2012. If the Rockets hope to be the disruptor in the West they believe themselves to be it will be up to Gordon to recapture his offensive prowess…finding his flamethrower from 3 would help.
- BONUS…Tim Hardaway Jr. has quietly had a tremendous season for the Dallas Mavericks. With so much attention – and rightly so! – going to Luka and to a lesser degree Porzingis, Hardaway hasn’t been talked about enough. He’s shooting a career best 40% from 3; his previous high was as a rookie (36%) on half the volume. Hardaway is also a staple in each of their top 6 lineups. He’s flourished as an above average secondary attacker and a spot-up shooter. Playing off Luka’s play-making and the attention that Porzingis warrants, Hardaway has excelled attacking closeouts and in pick n’ roll situations. The Mavs have to be one of the most dangerous 7 seeds in recent memory. Though Luka and KP haven’t played playoff basketball to this point Hardaway got his feet wet while on the Hawks in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. For the Mavs to pull off an early round upset they will need Hardaway to continue his exceptional season on the offensive end and even more critically he will have to guard on the other end.