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The Players To Watch On The NBA Teams Just Trying To Hang Around

Twelve NBA teams have already clinched their place in this year’s playoff field, but 10 others made the trip to the league’s Orlando bubble with the hopes of playing their way into the four remaining unfilled spots. Some of those bids have a better chance than others; for instance, our prediction model thinks the Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic have effectively zero chance of missing the playoffs, no matter how the restart goes. For the other eight teams, though, there are at least some stakes in the prelude to the postseason, even if they’re mostly along for the ride.

[Related: Our NBA Predictions]

With that in mind, let’s highlight the players on those eight clubs — the Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards — who rate highest this season according to our RAPTOR player ratings1 and who might have the biggest impact on the pre-playoff bubble action.

[Related: Who’s Who In The NBA Bubble: The Teams Just Along For The Ride]

Damian Lillard

PG, Portland Trail Blazers

RAPTOR plus/minus: +5.9 points/100 possessions
Team playoff odds: 12 percent

Will the restart be Dame Time? RAPTOR thinks Lillard is the best player among all the playoff hopefuls,2 after yet another outstanding season that saw him rank sixth among all NBA players in RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR). Despite maintaining a usage rate north of 30 percent, Lillard also set a new career high in true shooting percentage — 61.9 percent — thanks in large part to his glossy conversion rates from 2-point (51.8 percent) and 3-point (39.4 percent) range. Add in a career-best assist rate of 34.1 percent, and Dame is an incredible offensive machine, even if RAPTOR considers his defense (-2.0 points/100) subpar. Lillard has been hobbled in practice with a foot injury, but reports are that he should be ready when the real games tip off — essential news for an offensive-minded Portland team trying to gun its way into the postseason.

Other Blazers to watch: C Hassan Whiteside (+3.2 RAPTOR); SG CJ McCollum (+1.4)

Jrue Holiday

SG, New Orleans Pelicans

RAPTOR plus/minus: +4.8 points/100 possessions
Team playoff odds: 45 percent

What, were you expecting Zion Williamson here? It’s true that Zion has been a revelation for the Pelicans since his debut on Jan. 22, posting a RAPTOR of +2.4 points/100 in 19 games. But the rookie might not hit the ground running in the restart; he hasn’t been practicing with his team over the past few weeks because of a family emergency (though he has now cleared quarantine in the bubble). And besides, Holiday has been better according to RAPTOR anyway, with a +4.8 rating per 100. That might be surprising, but Holiday has rated better than +4.0 per 100 in each of the past three seasons, making him one of the more underappreciated two-way players in the league. Only four players this season3 — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Holiday — have a RAPTOR offensive and defensive rating of at least +2.0 points/100. And that might actually understate the breadth of Holiday’s contributions, between his mix of efficient shooting from the field,4 low-turnover playmaking and disruptive perimeter defense. Without question, the Pels need Williamson at his best to crash the playoff party, but they also need Holiday to keep up his quiet brand of all-around excellence in order to have a chance.

Other Pelicans to watch: C Derrick Favors (+3.4 RAPTOR); PF Zion Williamson (+2.4); F Brandon Ingram (+1.1)

[Related: Which NBA Contracts Were Gems This Season, And Which Were Stinkers?]

Patty Mills

PG, San Antonio Spurs

RAPTOR plus/minus: +3.5 points/100 possessions
Team playoff odds: <1 percent

Mills doesn’t even start for San Antonio — in 63 games, his lone appearance in the opening lineup came in late November. But he has still managed to make his presence felt this season, leading San Antonio in RAPTOR WAR (4.6) despite coming off the bench. Mills has long been an unsung player for the Spurs, dating back to their dynasty days. But at age 31, the creaky veteran still scores plenty (18.5 points/36 minutes), knocking down nearly 150 3-pointers this year (at a 38 percent clip) while almost never giving the ball away (7.6 percent turnover rate). The Spurs have little chance to make the playoffs, sitting four games out of the West’s No. 8 seed with four teams ahead of them and highly paid big man LaMarcus Aldridge out for the year. But they are a markedly better team with Mills on the court, evidence of his value even in a down year for coach Gregg Popovich’s crew.

Other Spurs to watch: C Jakob Poeltl (+3.3 RAPTOR); SG Derrick White (+2.6); SF DeMar DeRozan (+0.1)

Jonas Valančiūnas

C, Memphis Grizzlies

RAPTOR plus/minus: +2.7 points/100 possessions
Team playoff odds: 34 percent

Guard Ja Morant has had a fine debut season (1.8 WAR) and is overwhelmingly likely to win Rookie of the Year honors, but the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft was not RAPTOR’s pick as the best Grizzly of 2019-20. That distinction goes to Valančiūnas, who’s enjoying an outstanding year in his second season with Memphis, posting a career-high +2.7 RAPTOR (including a +2.2 mark on defense). Valančiūnas has been at his hyper-efficient best all season, ranking 12th in the league in effective field-goal percentage while averaging 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and playing tough D. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Memphis’s defense allowed 109.2 points/100 with Valančiūnas on the court, 3.0 points/100 fewer than when he sat — a big part of why Memphis is even here. (Its defense is exactly average, while its offense has been 1 point/100 worse than the league norm.) Valančiūnas has looked good in warmup games, so watch for more efficient play from him if the Grizz are going to hang onto the eighth seed in the West.

Other Grizzlies to watch: PG De’Anthony Melton (+2.5 RAPTOR); C Gorgui Dieng (+2.3); PF Brandon Clarke (+1.2); PG Ja Morant (-0.8)

[Related: Who’s Who In The NBA Bubble: The Inner-Circle Contenders]

Jarrett Allen

C, Brooklyn Nets

RAPTOR plus/minus: +1.9 points/100 possessions
Team playoff odds: 95 percent

The Nets have been absolutely devastated by injuries, opt-outs and COVID-19 diagnoses, costing them Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler, among others. However, Brooklyn does have a couple of solid RAPTOR-rated starters left over in Allen (+1.9) and guard Caris LeVert (+1.3), plus a six-game buffer to work with over the No. 9 Washington Wizards to avoid being in danger of missing the playoffs. The 22-year-old Allen has been one of the most improved players in the NBA this season, following up a dreadful -4.3 RAPTOR in the 2018-19 regular season to post a rating 6.2 points/100 better this year. The improvement came mostly on defense, where Allen went from -2.8 to +2.5 points/100, with much better numbers in our player-tracking measures like shot defense and opposing matchup performance. Allen’s offense is still negative (-0.6 points/100), but he did improve his true shooting percentage, turnover rate, offensive rebound rate and fouls drawn per 100 shots this season. In tandem with LeVert’s scoring and passing skills and forward Joe Harris’s shooting, Allen leaves the Nets with at least some productive options in the bubble going forward.

Other Nets to watch: SG Caris LeVert (+1.3 RAPTOR); SF Joe Harris (-0.5)

Ricky Rubio

PG, Phoenix Suns

RAPTOR plus/minus: +1.8 points/100 possessions
Team playoff odds: <1 percent

The Suns have a good ensemble cast of starters, so a few of them could make a case as Phoenix’s player to watch. But the team’s best RAPTOR rating (+1.8) belongs to Rubio, whose arrival via free agency last summer helped the Suns improve enough to even be in this position. With Rubio on the court, the Suns score 6.7 more points/100 than when he sits, and they allow 3.3 fewer points/100 — meaning Phoenix’s overall performance is about 10 points/100 better when Rubio is in the game. Why? Rubio has great chemistry with running mates Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr. — two strong scorers — because he is such a good facilitator, leading the team in assist rate (39.9 percent), and his ability to draw fouls makes him an efficient fallback option on offense. Defensively, Rubio’s RAPTOR has slipped some this year (from +1.2 last regular season to +0.1 points/100), but he still ranks among the league leaders in steal rate (2.3 percent), long one of the “hidden” ways Rubio’s value exceeds his reputation.

Other Suns to watch: SF Mikal Bridges (+1.7 RAPTOR); SG Devin Booker (+1.0); C Deandre Ayton (+0.8); SF Kelly Oubre Jr. if healthy (+0.6)

[Related: Who’s Who In The NBA Bubble: The Potential Party-Crashers]

Richaun Holmes

C, Sacramento Kings

RAPTOR plus/minus: +1.5 points/100 possessions
Team playoff odds: 9 percent

Holmes isn’t exactly a household name,5 but in the restart, he’ll lead a crop of six Kings who have played at least 1,000 minutes with a positive RAPTOR this season. Holmes had spent the previous four years of his NBA career carving out a niche as a shot-blocking big man with good finishing ability around the rim, but this year he’s upgraded his rating from -1.3 to +1.5 points/100 — a huge improvement. Fueling the change has been a career-best true shooting percentage (fifth-best in the league) and slightly expanded shooting range, plus improved defensive numbers in terms of both RAPTOR’s on-versus-off court and player-tracking categories. Before the season was put on hold, Holmes had just returned from an injury that sidelined him from early January into March; now he should be one of the best-kept secrets of the playoff chase, even if his Kings are up against long odds to snag the No. 8 seed and extend their season.

Other Kings to watch: PF Nemanja Bjelica (+0.8 RAPTOR); PG De’Aaron Fox (+0.6); SG Bogdan Bogdanovic (+0.3); SG Buddy Hield (+0.2)

Isaac Bonga

SF, Washington Wizards

RAPTOR plus/minus: +1.2 points/100 possessions
Team playoff odds: 5 percent

With high-scoring guard Bradley Beal (+1.5 RAPTOR) sitting with a shoulder injury and efficient forward Dāvis Bertāns (+2.4) opting out of the bubble,6 the Wizards are running low on decently rated players for the restart. According to RAPTOR, their only above-average guys left are center Moritz Wagner (+0.6), who has logged just 707 minutes this season, and Bonga (+1.2), who may prove to be Washington’s under-the-radar MVP if it manages to overcome the Nets or Magic to make the playoffs. Bonga doesn’t produce big numbers; he’s averaging just 4.6 points per game this season. But he is efficient with what chances he gets — producing 121.4 points per 100 possessions he personally ends — and he’s been stellar when he gets corner threes, on which he’s gone 11-for-23 this season. On defense, Bonga creates havoc with both steals and blocks, and the Wizards play more like a competent NBA defense with him on the court, a huge bonus for the league’s worst defensive team.

Other Wizards to watch: C Moritz Wagner (+0.6 RAPTOR); PG Shabazz Napier (-0.1); C Ian Mahinmi (-0.1)


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Footnotes

  1. Among players who’ve played at least 800 minutes, with the exception of a certain high-profile rookie for the New Orleans Pelicans.

  2. Again, excluding the Mavs and Magic.

  3. Playing a minimum of 800 minutes.

  4. Fifty percent on twos and 36 percent on threes.

  5. Who on the Kings is?

  6. To say nothing of the long-injured John Wall.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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