10 NBA players who could be big factors in the playoff race
The playoff races are well underway in the NBA, and things are very competitive in both conferences. It looks likely that only a handful of games will separate fifth from eighth in certain cases, and the margins between making and missing the playoffs will be small.
Most contenders have key figures who will have a big say in where their teams land. These aren’t always the obvious stars, but a key name who’s returning from injury or picking up the slack at the right time. Here are 10 key players who will have a big say in the playoff races.
10. Buddy Hield, G, Kings
Hield has had a breakout year this season, but he hasn’t always been in the good graces of coach Dave Joerger, much to the frustration of some other players. The Kings are very much in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, and they’ll need Hield to play fearlessly — and have the trust of his coach — down the stretch. If he can play to his capabilities — like when he made 53.4 percent of his threes in January — the Kings will have a huge weapon as they chase a playoff spot.
9. Myles Turner, C, Pacers
Many left the Pacers for dead when Victor Oladipo went down for a season-ending injury, but the supporting cast has stepped up to ensure that they haven’t really missed much of a beat. Turner has been right at the heart of that supporting cast. He’s averaging about 13 points and six rebounds per game, as he has in his career, but has seen his blocks jump to nearly three a game. He’s a huge factor for an Indiana team that is still shooting for home court through at least the first round.
8. Donovan Mitchell, G, Jazz
Mitchell has followed up his outstanding rookie season with a sophomore year that is essentially the same, but slightly better in key statistical categories. The back end of the Western Conference playoff race is a real dogfight, but Mitchell is a supreme talent — perhaps the best among any team competing for one of the final three playoff spots in the conference, excepting James Harden, of course. Mitchell is a star, and he’s the main man on the Jazz at this point despite Rudy Gobert’s notoriety.
7. Caris LeVert, G, Nets
LeVert is back in action after a long injury layoff and is clearly adapting and getting back up to game speed. His shot seems to be the last thing to come back after the injury, but as long as it does come back, the Nets will have a very potent weapon as they try to lock down a playoff spot. This was, after all, a guy averaging over 18 points per game when he went down with his injury. As long as he gets back into game shape before the end of the season, he should lead Brooklyn to the postseason.
6. Gordon Hayward, F, Celtics
Hayward was supposed to be the Robin to Kyrie Irving’s Batman, but he had a gruesome injury in year one and simply hasn’t been the same player in year two. Even some opponents have called him a liability. He’d actually been quietly growing in stature in February, averaging 14 points per game, before an ankle injury sidelined him. Hayward has scored 15 points or more just 14 times this season, but the Celtics are 12-2 in those games. If he can merely contribute that much, the Celtics will be that much tougher to deal with down the stretch.
5. Clint Capela, C, Rockets
James Harden had essentially been carrying the Rockets on his own, but Capela is back from an injury layoff to give both Harden and Chris Paul some help. His numbers are up across the board this year, averaging a career-best 17 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. That’s a valuable third option in addition to the dynamic guard combination. The more help Harden gets, the tougher the Rockets will be to beat, making them a real threat in the Western Conference.
4. Paul George, F, Thunder
Russell Westbrook is still the face of the Thunder, but George is probably their most important player at this point. He’s posting career bests in both points and rebounds, and has even fashioned himself into an MVP candidate. George’s emergence as a legitimate superstar, if he wasn’t one already, ensures that the Thunder have to be taken seriously in both the Western Conference playoff race as well as the playoffs. OKC has one dangerous two-headed monster.
3. Blake Griffin, F, Pistons
Griffin has quietly been playing some of the best basketball of his NBA career in the new year as he tries to carry Detroit to the playoffs for the second time in the last decade. He is the unquestionable leader of the team, having become the veteran who holds his teammates’ feet to the fire. He’s backed it up by averaging nearly 26 points per game, the best mark of his career. The Pistons have a real chance to back into the Eastern Conference playoffs, and if they do, they’ll have Griffin and his production and leadership to thank.
2. Lonzo Ball, G, Lakers
LeBron James remains the most important player on the Lakers, but the defensive importance of Lonzo Ball has been made quite apparent in his injury-related absence. The point guard still appears to be several weeks away from a return, and the Lakers can only hope that won’t come too late for their playoff chances. For the criticism about his shot and offensive capabilities, there is little doubt that he’s an outstanding defender, a glaring need for the Lakers as they give up 100 points game after game. They need Ball back, and soon.
1. DeMarcus Cousins, C, Warriors
Cousins has fit into Golden State’s equation seamlessly. He has sacrificed some shots, as one would expect, and his minutes have been limited so far. That restriction should soon be over, and Cousins provides a dimension that will be very, very tough for foes to cope with — a center who can stretch the floor while simultaneously dominating the post. He’s a matchup nightmare and a game-changing talent on a team filled with them already, and he may be a standout presence during Golden State’s playoff run. He has been targeted on defense by some opponents, but he may end up being the difference between the first and second seed in the West playoffs.