The NBA is currently about six weeks away from its official return, but the race to make it to (and through) the Western Conference playoffs was already gaining traction before the league went into hiatus. If and when the season starts back up, there are certain guys beyond the front-and-center star names that need to step up for their respective teams. Here are the players that could push the needle for each current playoff team in the West.
8. Memphis: Jonas Valanciunas
After the Grizz moved Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala to Miami, Valanciunas quickly became the elder statesmen in Memphis. The longest tenured player in the NBA on the roster, Valanciunas can rely on his playoff experience with Toronto to help lead the younger Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke. The young guys are going to be expected to carry a lot of the load, but Valanciunas will be key for Memphis’ potential run.
7. Dallas: Dorian Finney-Smith
Everyone knows about the European dynamic duo of Luke Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas. Outside of those two, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry provide an additional scoring/shooting spark. The Achilles heel for the Mavs is their defense. This is where Finney-Smith will be key. He can guard multiple positions in the modern NBA in order to take pressure off of the top guys. Finney-Smith’s ability as a combo forward is critical in the West.
6. Houston: Danuel House Jr.
In Houston’s signature small-ball style, House is more of a stretch-four rather than a prototype wing player. With PJ Tucker taking on more responsibility at center defensively, this allows House to be a 3-and-D player against small and power forwards. He can also take pressure off of James Harden and Russell Westbrook by guarding their man if necessary. House’s shooting and defense this summer and fall will be important to the stretch run.
5. Oklahoma City: Nerlens Noel
With Steven Adams holding down the defensive anchor at center for the starters, Noel will be of the utmost importance coming off the bench. OKC’s rebounding has been a low point throughout the season for such a dynamic offensive team. Since Adams, Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will not be playing all 48 minutes, Noel needs to provide a defensive spark while Dennis Schroder handles the offense off the bench.
4. Utah: Mike Conley
Utah moved Ricky Rubio and replaced him with Conley, believing it was getting an upgrade at point guard. Conley has yet to live up to his expectations in Salt Lake City, which is a bit of a problem. With some time to recharge, Conley will be heavily relied upon as veteran leadership so that Utah can take the next step as a team. If he improves his game, the Jazz will be golden.
3. Denver: Jerami Grant
If it weren’t for the Clippers' entire bench being great, Jerami Grant would be a more bonafide Sixth Man of the Year candidate. When he is playing for a competitive team and getting minutes as a starter or off the bench, Grant can put up efficient scoring and rebounding numbers. His 40% clip from range may be a bit bloated by a lack of attempts, but his scoring and defense will help Denver mightily.
2. LA Clippers: Marcus Morris
While Lou Williams or Montrezl Harrell are the easy answers, everyone in the basketball world knows what they are capable of for LA. Morris is still relatively new, being that he came from the Knicks at the trade deadline. Morris has struggled a bit compared to his numbers with the Knicks, but that comes with the territory of taking a lesser role. If Morris can work well with the bench unit, look out for LA.
1. LA Lakers: Avery Bradley
Bradley has made his bones as a 3-and-D guard for the last decade. He will need to revert back to that form for the Lakers to make the run they want to. While 36% shooting from three is solid, Bradley needs to up his percentage to help take pressure off of the main stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Bradley’s decision to play the rest of the season remains up in the air, though, making his potential impact (possibly by creating a vacuous hole) all the more important.