The NBA's plan to resume the 2019-20 season in Orlando continues to move forward despite a contingent of players opposed to the idea. That doesn't mean the 22 teams invited to Orlando will show up in whole. Individual players are free to make their own decision with regard to entering the bubble and playing. If they don't play, they won't be paid, but they do have that option. If a player does intend to opt-out, he must inform his team by June 24.
So far, no player has officially done that, so we'll continue to assume each of the 22 teams headed to Disney World will be at full strength sans any injured players.
In many ways, this particular postseason feels nearly impossible to project with so many traditional factors having been altered or altogether erased from the equation. No home-court advantage. No fans. Teams and players arriving in Orlando in varying degrees of condition and rhythm. Still, at least one certainty of NBA postseason basketball remains: Superstars have to play like superstars if they're going to win a championship.
In other words, if LeBron James, by some once-in-a-blue-moon chance, plays like garbage in Orlando, the Lakers aren't going to win it all. The same goes for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers and James Harden and the Rockets. For players of such disproportionate hierarchal standing within the context of their respective teams, an extremely high level of production must be, and largely can be, assumed.
Perhaps Harden could be considered more of a wild card among superstars for his (at times) relatively inefficient playoff past and perceived tendency to wear down late in series, but all told he's still been a remarkably productive playoff performer. Besides that, the Rockets were one half of historically inept 3-point shooting from making the 2018 NBA Finals, and likely winning it all, despite Harden shooting 41 percent from the field, 29 percent from beyond the arc and getting to the free-throw line fewer than eight times a game over the course of that postseason.
Translation: Harden's voluminous production, and the trickle-down effect it creates, can sustain the Rockets at a high level even in relatively inefficient times. Besides that, with close to five months of mid-season rest before games resume in Orlando, we should be able to assume an All-NBA-level Harden, at the very least, will be on display. If he's not that, there's no reason to talk about the Rockets anyway.
Which is to say, if Houston is going to make significant postseason noise, let alone threaten to win a championship, it'll likely be the other guys, the less-predictable variables, that swing the tide -- hello Russell Westbrook and, to a lesser degree, P.J. Tucker. These are the guys in which I'm most interested, the second and third options and second-tier stars and even the specific role players who can feasibly become the fulcrum on which their teams' prospects swing.
With that in mind, and in no particular order, here are 10 of the most pivotal players heading to Orlando.
Davis is the best player on this list that has the luxury of not having to be the best player on his team. As long as LeBron is LeBron -- which, again, we're going to assume -- Davis doesn't have to be outrageously great by his standards, but he becomes arguably more pivotal than LeBron in a potential Western Conference clash against the Clippers.
In Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris, the Clippers have individual and team-based options to at least match up with James on paper. But they have no answer for Davis, who can ruin the Clippers whether they stay big with Ivica Zubac or go small to close games with Montrezl Harrell and potentially Lou Williams trying to guard LeBron/Davis pick-and-rolls.
Against any other team in the West, a great LeBron and an average Davis can be enough for the Lakers to prevail. But against the Clippers, and the Bucks if that matchup happens, Davis has to be great.
Daryl Morey shipped out Clint Capela and brought in Robert Covington almost entirely for the purpose of bringing out the best in Westbrook, who was already playing arguably the best basketball of his career from Jan. 1 on before the hiatus began. Now that the lane is open, Westbrook is trading impulsive 3-point attempts for penetration, and he's shooting career-highs from both the field overall (47 percent) and on two-pointers (52 percent), per Cleaning the Glass.
As mentioned above, Harden is perhaps a bit more volatile than LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, but he's a superstar, and as such his having to be great is no different than LeBron or Kawhi or Giannis having to be great for their teams to win. It's not even worth talking about, really. Westbrook, the No. 2, is the swing player. As he goes, so go the Rockets.
It's been that way Westbrook's entire career, even when he was playing alongside Kevin Durant. Consider: Westbrook has shot 50 percent or better in 21 career playoff games, and his teams are 15-6 in those games. He has shot 45 percent or better 33 times, and his teams are 25-8 in those games. He has shot 40 percent or better 52 times, and his teams are 37-15 in those games.
It's when Westbrook dips below 40 percent that problems arise. That's happened 46 times in his career, and his teams are 14-32 in those games. That's enough of a sample size to draw a pretty clear line: If Westbrook shoots well, with volume, preferably somewhere north of 45 percent from the field with discretionary 3-point attempts, the Rockets are going to be dangerous. If he doesn't, they could be out in the first round.
Butler is having a strange season in Miami in that he's been undeniably great -- probably a third-team All-NBA lock -- while having, all things considered, the worst shooting campaign of his career. Specifically, Butler is shooting a paltry 25 percent from beyond the arc, per CTG, and has shied away from even taking 3-pointers with any sort of consistency. His 47.9 effective field goal percentage is his worst mark since 2013-14.
Earlier this season, I asked Heat coach Erik Spoelstra about Butler's struggles.
"It's early in the season, it will level out," Spoelstra said. "It's all about efficiency. I don't even look at that field-goal percentage number. If you factor in free throws, his percentage, he is one of the most efficient offensive basketball players in the league -- points per touch, things of that nature. He's extremely efficient. You don't have to know anything about analytics, you just watch him play, it's a very coherent, stable, playoff-ready game. And you darn well know that he has the respect of the opponents that we play against, particularly when you get down the stretch."
It's true that Butler has a playoff-ready game built on toughness and pick-and-roll production. He's been an awesome distributor this season. Spoelstra was wrong that Butler's shooting number would even out, but he was right that Butler was getting to the free-throw line like crazy when the season halted -- his 9.1 charity attempts per game are by far a career-high. He's also getting fouled on over 24 percent of his shots attempts this season, an absurdly high rate that puts him in the 100th percentile among players at his position, per CTG.
That said, it's never a guarantee that officials are going to reward players with playoff whistles with the same frequency they do in the regular season, and even if Butler does keep getting to the line at the same or a similar rate, sooner or later he's going to have to make some shots outside 15 feet with consistency.
If he does, Miami is a legit threat to make the conference finals and a long-shot threat for the Finals. If he doesn't, they could be out very early depending on if anyone else picks up the slack and/or who they end up matched up against in the first round.
Since we're talking shooting, Hayward is quietly having one of the most accurate campaigns of his career -- 39 percent from 3-point land with a career-best 56.4 EFG, per Cleaning the Glass. One source close with the Celtics told me earlier this season that Hayward, at times, can be a "whichever way the wind is blowing" player, which is to say when the Celtics are humming and in rhythm, so is he, but when they're not, Hayward can have a hard time finding rhythm on his own.
Good thing for Hayward, the Celtics are frequently in rhythm as a top-five offensive team pretty much all season, and Hayward is a fixture on Boston's most lethal lineups. So long as he's alongside Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis, the Celtics have a double-digit plus-net rating whether Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart becomes the fifth. if you want offense, the Brown lineups deliver, while the Smart lineups lock you down defensively.
When Hayward is clicking, he's a plus pick-and-roll initiator in Boston's interchangeable offensive system, a smart cutter and a terrific floor spacer. He's a better defender than he gets credit for and arguably Boston's best facilitator. He's gotten lost in the conversation of All-Star players, but he's still that kind of producer over consistent stretches.
Tatum and Kemba Walker have become the Celtics we rely upon for consistent star-level production, while Hayward is the quintessential X factor. If he finds his top gear in the playoffs, Boston goes to another level.
Siakam is the best player on a fringe-contender Raptors team that was supposed to fall off the map after losing Kawhi Leonard. He has sufficiently proven he can be a No. 1 guy in a collective attack, but being that guy in the playoffs, and leading your team into deep rounds, is a different ballgame.
For the Raptors to make real noise, they'll have to do it together. Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, they'll all have to be really good to great. But you need a star to go deep in the playoffs. Can Siakam be that guy in his first year of trial?
Milton Mania has overtaken me during this hiatus. I have watched as much film on him as any other player, and I'm convinced this is not a flash-in-the-pan situation. He's for real. And he's going to play a hugely pivotal postseason role for the Sixers, who remain desperate for whatever shooting and half-court creation they can muster.
Milton provides both. He's slithery off the dribble and a dead-eye shooter -- 43 percent from deep for the season. Over his last nine games, before play was suspended, Milton averaged 19.4 points per game while shooting a certifiably silly 60.5 percent from 3-point range. He can shoot off the catch, he can pull up off the dribble, he can space the floor; these are all things Philly absolutely has to have with the ever-present Ben Simmons factor dragging down their half-court and late-game prospects.
If Milton provides a hot streak of shooting/scoring, we know this Sixers team is stacked and healthy pretty much everywhere else and could be a real threat to make a run that belies their current No. 6 seed.
Conley's first season in Utah has been a bust to this point, a few stretches of old-self vibes notwithstanding. But all can be erased with a big-time postseason showing. With Bojan Bogdanovic out, there's just no way around it: Conley has to step up for the Jazz to have any chance of even getting out of the first round.
When Bogdanovic was still around and Conley was coming off injury, there was controversy over who would move to the bench as Joe Ingles and Royce O'Neale had both thrived with the starters. Now that's not a problem. Donovan Mitchell -- assuming he opts to play -- will start alongside Rudy Gobert, Ingles, O'Neale and Conley, and that's still a legit lineup if Conley can produce.
And I emphasize produce. This is no longer an intangible request for Conley to provide "leadership" or "take some of the pressure off Mitchell." He needs to score. He needs to shoot and create and defend. The Jazz don't have enough firepower to keep up with the best teams in the West, or perhaps any team in the West, unless all cylinders are firing. Conley needs to bring it.
I think we're already at the point where we can assume All-Star level production out of Zion Williamson. We know Jrue Holiday is solid. We know JJ Redick is going to shoot. Brandon Ingram has earned enough equity as a top-notch scorer that even a slight playoff decline might be manageable.
Lonzo is the X factor. And it comes down to the shooting.
Before the suspension, Ball was having a breakout shooting campaign after straightening out his funky form, which quickened his release and opened up more shots from more angles. He was shooting a career-high 39 percent from 3-point range, and 61 percent at the rim, through March 11, per CTG.
Whether Lonzo will pick up where he left off with his shot is a total wild card. We just haven't seen enough of a sample size to be entirely confident in what he's going to bring as a shooter. But if he does keep knocking down shots, given all the other things he brings to the table and the talent surrounding him in an up-tempo attack, this is a New Orleans team that could definitely get in as the No. 8 seed and maybe even give the Lakers a little scare in the first round.
Like Westbrook, Tucker is a major swing player for the Rockets, but for an entirely different reason. Tucker, at 6-foot-5, is the guy who now has to battle opposing bigs in Houston's super-small starting lineup. He's a tank of a man, but nonetheless, fighting above your weight class for entire games and series, potentially deep into the playoffs, is exhausting.
How Tucker can hold up from a strength and conditioning standpoint while still having enough legs to be a dependable corner 3-point producer will go a long way in determining Houston's viability as a contender.
With due respect to Eric Bledsoe, Middleton is the only Bucks player who can consistently create playoff offense without the help of Giannis. The Bucks are as transparent as any team in the league in what they do offensively. Giannis attracts a ton of attention going downhill, and shooters space the floor all around him. But that attack becomes vulnerable if Giannis isn't finding his way through and around the walls that are inevitably going to be formed in front of him, and Milwaukee's stable of good-but-not-great shooters aren't making 3-pointers.
Middleton is the antidote to this potential weakness. He's had a checkered postseason past, scorching the nets in Milwaukee's seven-game loss to the Celtics in 2017-18 while being more up and down last season, particularly against Toronto in the conference finals when he failed to score in double-digits twice in six games and posted no higher than 14 points in three other games.
That said, Middleton shot over 43 percent from 3-point land in last year's postseason after shooting 61 percent from deep in 2017-18. The lights are clearly not too bright for Middleton, who, if we assume MVP-level production from Giannis, becomes Milwaukee's biggest swing player. Given Giannis' inability to shoot consistently, it's hard to imagine the Bucks winning a championship if Middleton isn't knocking down a lot of shots.