NBA Playoffs, Philadelphia 76ers

Five NBA role players to watch in the Eastern Conference

As the NBA restarts in Orlando, these five role players on contending teams could have a lot to say about the state of the Eastern Conference.

The NBA will finally return on Thursday, and with it, the myriad storylines, trends, and stakes of a season nearly five months in limbo. Along with the return of the game’s familiar rhythms will also come changes for many teams — in style, feel, appearance, and tactical alignment. As rotations shift — and eventually clarify — the following five players could find themselves in expanded and critical roles for teams with lofty ambitions inside the bubble.

In the most ballyhooed lineup move of the pre-restart period, second-year guard Shake Milton replaced veteran center Al Horford in Philadelphia’s starting five — at least to start the bubbled season — and Ben Simmons would move to power forward. The semantics of positional designations aren’t as important here as the practical effects the shake-up will have on Philly’s offense; the Sixers won’t funnel all of Simmons’ responsibility and opportunity to Milton simply because he’s the “point guard,” nor will Simmons’ playmaking capabilities be reined in because he now plays “power forward.” More than anything else, this tweak is simply about getting a dynamic creator and shooter on the floor next to Simmons and Joel Embiid. Milton can alleviate the pressure on those two stars and afford them more space to roam in an evolving offense. Simmons may wind up working more off the ball or as a roll man as a result, but this move should serve to augment his impact, not diminish it.

Before the NBA shut down in March, Brown had already begun experimenting with bringing Horford off the bench, using Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Glenn Robinson III, or Matisse Thybulle as a second guard in a still-massive starting lineup. Milton started 16 of the Sixers’ last 19 games before the hiatus. Horford can be and has been, among the most dynamic bigs in the NBA, but his connective skills only shine in environments with room for him to operate. From the start, Horford never had that luxury as a Sixer. The 33-year-old is at his best as a decision-maker in dynamic and democratic offenses that push and pull defenses around the floor until a player finds an advantage. In Philadelphia, his quick ball reversals and cagey dribble-handoffs lost some of their sting without the requisite movement and floor spacing to muddle opposing defenses.

When the Sixers signed him last offseason, they bet on the dexterity and malleability Horford showed in Boston translating to tighter confines taken up by more prominent centerpieces. Viewed optimistically, the collective passing, shooting, and ability to pressure the rim would compensate for the absence of a knockdown shooter or high-level pick-and-roll operator, and Horford’s ability to work in nearly any capacity from anywhere on the floor would be the piece that tied everything together. Instead, the offense was static and clunky, even as the defensive payoff met expectations. The Sixers managed just 101 points per 100 possessions with Horford and Embiid on the floor, which still yielded a negative point differential despite a robust 102.5 defensive rating.

In hindsight (and even at the time), signing Horford represented another failure by Philadelphia’s front office to surround its two best players — both of whom are aged 25 or younger — with appropriate complementary talent. In the modern NBA, doubling down on size at the expense of perimeter skill doesn’t often produce positive results. Ideally, Simmons and Embiid would play alongside three dangerous shooters — one of whom would also run secondary actions when an All-Star didn’t have the ball.

Pivoting to Milton represents a step toward that ideal. He isn’t as good as Horford in a vacuum, but his particular combination of skills is a more natural fit around Philadelphia’s existing infrastructure. He not only creates space on the floor, but attacks it — a welcome change for an offense that too often stagnates. Milton has the ball-handling chops to attack closeouts, initiate offense in the pick-and-roll, and, occasionally, collapse a defense in isolation. He offers a quick, decisive north-south punch Horford simply can’t, which should improve Philly’s shot quality:

Perhaps most importantly, Milton gives the Sixers a shooting threat opponents must respect. Nearly half of his shot attempts this season came from beyond the arc and he shot over 45 percent from deep. Most of those looks came directly off the catch, per, but Milton was also a dangerous pull-up shooter on a limited (10-of-19) sample of attempts:

It’s unclear how sustainable that shooting — and his overall play, for that matter — will be. Milton’s best game of the season came on March 1 against the Clippers — a game neither Simmons nor Embiid played. (The lineup of Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Simmons, and Embiid has yet to share the court.) He’ll need to adapt to playing alongside those larger offensive cogs, and vice versa, and will have to further prove himself in the playoffs, but if Milton’s hot shooting continues he may be the only player in the Sixers’ rotation worth chasing over ball screens.

Defensively, Philadelphia’s starters will be weaker with Horford off the floor. The veteran remains one of the smartest and stoutest interior defenders in the league, and he and Embiid protected the rim as well as any duo outside Milwaukee. But Milton more than holds his own on defense, using his length, strength, and smarts to switch across several positions and disrupt passing lanes. Philly’s hope is that the offensive boost will outweigh any defensive slippage.

Anunoby was one of few constants in Toronto’s rotation this season, playing in 63 of 64 games while almost every other key Raptor missed extended time due to injury. The 23-year-old started 62 of those contests and had the best season of his career on both ends of the floor — a key to Toronto’s success even without all of its catalysts available. His game will come under greater scrutiny in the playoffs when Anunoby will defend some of the league’s best wings as opponents make him prove himself offensively.

The Raptors were the NBA’s second-best defense this season, and by far its most creative. Nick Nurse’s tactical flexibility and his roster’s ability to shapeshift on the fly could make Toronto the most fearsome playoff defense in the bubble, and Anunoby is central to that prospect. The team’s on/off splits suggest Gasol was the most important piece of the Raptors’ second-ranked regular-season defense, but that sample sells short the importance of rangy, versatile wing defenders when the game slows down late in the playoffs. As the value of self-creating scorers goes up, so too does the value of defenders who can slow them. There isn’t much that scheme or help can do against a superstar pulling up from all over the floor — a fact the Raptors know better than anyone. Elite postseason defenses typically have a counter to those sorts of players, and Anunoby is Toronto’s.

Anunoby has long been an impressive isolation and pick-and-roll defender, but this season he surged into the upper crust of perimeter defenders in the NBA. He covers massive amounts of ground with long lateral strides and uses his sturdy chest to absorb contact and contain drives. His balance and agility prevent him from losing connection with his man or being baited into cheap fouls. Post him up, and Anunoby won’t easily give up ground. In most cases, he’ll be the Raptors’ best option against Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and potentially LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, or James Harden.

Offensively, Anunoby must pose just enough of a threat to keep the machine moving. He shot 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, but opponents may still dare him to shoot when the ball finds him in order to take away more potent threats like Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry. The forward has improved his decision-making and off-the-bounce game to the point of attacking closeouts and making the right move, but remains a limited playmaker; smart teams will find ways to put Anunoby in more of those situations. What he makes of them could have a profound effect on his team’s possibilities.

The Celtics abound with smart, rangy wings with supreme versatility on both ends of the floor, but force them into keeping bigger lineups on the floor, and they become slightly easier to tackle. Daniel Theis was a reliable anchor for the league’s fourth-best defense, but his limitations could become more damaging the further Boston advances in the postseason. Enes Kanter and Robert Williams, while effective on offense, become liabilities when opponents can construct gameplans that target their defensive weaknesses. If Vincent Poirier or Tacko Fall find their way onto the court, something has gone very wrong.

That leaves Grant Williams as one of few trustworthy center options on Stevens’ bench, and the rookie could find himself anchoring second-unit defenses with Theis off the floor. Few first-year players come into the NBA with the kind of command and intuition Williams has on defense. Though undersized for a center, he gave Boston serviceable play on that end of the floor from the start of his career, making up for his lack of length and explosiveness with expert positioning and anticipation. He’s quick to grasp coverages and adjustments without making mistakes — a trait often rewarded in the playoffs, when faults and blunders are magnified, then ruthlessly exploited.

It’s partly because of their lack of size that the Celtics likely hope Philadelphia — the lone lower-seeded team capable of dominating with brute force — rises out of sixth place in the East. None of Boston’s centers, especially a 6-foot-7 rookie, are equipped to defend Joel Embiid (though the Celtics will likely send multiple bodies at the Cameroonian All-Star regardless of his primary defender). Barring a matchup with the Sixers, the Celtics may not need to rely heavily on Williams, and could instead unveil the hyper-small lineup of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward.

Williams’ unreliable shooting could limit his effectiveness to the point of becoming a liability. His man — likely an opponent’s best rim protector — will shade away from him on the perimeter in order to shield the rim. Williams is smart and active enough to avoid being totally left alone (he makes simple passes, screens, and cuts that keep Boston’s machine moving), but he poses a threat neither as a shooter nor a finisher around the rim. But the Celtics will always sacrifice efficacy in some area of the game with their backup centers on the floor. Williams at least allows them to trust in what he does well and live with his limitations.

Mike Budenholzer rarely dusted off ultra-versatile lineups with Giannis Antetokounmpo this season, instead keeping a Lopez brother on the floor at nearly all times. Marvin Williams, who the Bucks acquired on the buyout market in February, could help unlock the most effective version of those lineups. He and Antetokounmpo played fewer than 90 possessions without another big man on the floor, but the Bucks eviscerated opponents in that time and have reason to expect sustainable success in that alignment.

Williams didn’t shoot well from 3 in 11 games with the Bucks, but has proven himself a reliable floor-spacer in his other NBA stops (37.5 percent from 3 since the start of the 2014 season) and may even be a better option than the struggling Brook Lopez. At 6-foot-9, Williams is a smart, versatile defender made better by sharing the frontcourt with Antetokounmpo, who almost single-handedly makes a great defense. The Bucks have other potential configurations with Giannis at center — Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova — but Williams likely gives them the best balance between offense and defense.

It’s unclear whether Milwaukee will ever need to downsize for heavy minutes — there may not be a contender in the East capable of playing Lopez off the floor — and Budenholzer isn’t liable to abandon his stylistic norms. But championship teams must be adaptable and multi-faceted, and the next month could offer an opportunity to find out whether the Bucks have the option at their disposal.

Chief among the Heat’s goals for the eight upcoming seeding games should be finding clarity on who should close games when the stakes are highest. At times, that has given Erik Spoelstra the luxury of optionality. At others, it has left Miami wanting for more punch at the end of games. The Heat have the wherewithal to assemble stingy, versatile defensive units, but those units will need to score enough to stay afloat on the other end. Both of Miami’s best players — Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo — are non-shooters, and Andre Iguodala may soon regress toward career norms from beyond the arc. That places greater import on Duncan Robinson’s all-world marksmanship, but still leaves the Heat with precious little gravity on the perimeter without another reliable catch-and-shoot gunner.

Goran Dragić and Derrick Jones Jr. will be candidates to fill the fifth spot, though the former leaves the Heat vulnerable at the point of attack on defense while the latter further cramps the floor on offense. Kenrick Nunn, one of Miami’s most consistent players this season, will have his chances as well. But because of his passable shooting and defensive versatility on the wing, Jae Crowder could be the piece that ties together Miami’s most dynamic lineups featuring Adebayo at center. Butler, Adebayo, and Iguodala have, in theory, enough collective playmaking ability to do without a traditional point guard on the floor, and the boon of being able to switch across four positions might be enough to sway Spoelstra into playing more lineups without Dragić or Nunn on the floor.

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