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5 Supporting Casts That Could Change The 2023 Playoffs

Courtesy: Getty Images


The NBA playoffs can be just as much about your supporting cast as it can be about your enigmatic superstars. Just ask Grant Williams and the Boston Celtics last season. In order for a team to be adequately prepared for a deep postseason run, depth and maybe more importantly, reliable depth, is a huge swing factor in any 7-game series.

When teams are countering, scheming out your favorite pet play, icing out your superstar, throwing multiple defensive coverages your way, and being malleable and flexible all comes down to how versatile and adjustable you can be.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” – Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee was spittin’ man.

Taking that famous quote and applying it to basketball and the conventions that form the beautiful game we watch today, it is crucial that a team in the playoffs “Be like water”. Teams that oftentimes are too reliant one way or another end up handicapping themselves, becoming one-track-minded and inevitably turning into the worst thing you can possibly be in professional sports… predictable. Every supporting cast is going to be important come mid-April. How the Nuggets survive with Nikola Jokic off the floor is going to be indicative of how far Denver can go. How much juice the Warriors can squeeze out of their rotation players and if they can stay healthy will also prove vital to the defending champs’ chances. We know what the Bucks and Celtics’ second units are going to give you.But this piece isn’t about those supporting units. This is about the key role players that could potentially change the complexion of the playoffs. The guys who you may not see coming at first, but could make a name for themselves when the lights are the brightest. Or the guys who have the most boom or bust potential in the playoffs. Whatever way you want to phrase it… these are the supporting casts that can shake up playoff brackets the most. Maxey, Tucker, Melton and the Sixers rotating 5th Starter   Courtesy: Jesse D. Garrabrandt / Getty Images   When Tyrese Maxey returned from an injury in late December, Doc Rivers was quoted saying that the Sixers would officially have 3 different starting lineups, presumably talking about a lineup that included Maxey as the 5th starter next to James Harden, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker while also being able to put the more defensive-minded De’Anthony Melton in instead of Maxey or run a 3-guard lineup with Maxey, Melton,

and Harden with Tucker coming off the bench. That malleable approach was a surprise to hear from Rivers. But it hasn’t really come to fruition.

For the most part, Doc has stuck to Melton as the starter with Maxey coming off the bench and rarely throwing out the 3-guard lineup to start. Those 3 lineups, however, are the only ones that have played over 100 minutes together for the Sixers this season and have all boasted very positive results. The Sixers are +14.3 with Maxey in with the regular starters. They’re +7.6 with Melton as the 5th guy and they’re +5.4 with the 3-guard lineup. That bodes extremely well for the postseason.

Being able to intrinsically switch your style on any given night is going to be important, especially when it comes to playing the top dogs in the East in Milwaukee and Boston. If Boston or Milwaukee go small? You can throw out the 3-guard lineup and apply pressure at the point of attack with both Maxey and Melton being used as release valves next to Harden and Embiid. Maxey’s potency off the bounce was evident last post-season when he destroyed the Raptors as a movement shooter, attacking closeouts and putting pressure on Toronto’s point-of-attack defense. Whereas against Miami in the 2nd round, Maxey didn’t have the same success exposing the perimeter defense of the Heat and maybe Melton’s 2-way ability would have been more advantageous. Perhaps more importantly the play of the veteran Tucker will determine how the Sixers will do when the Bucks or Celtics decide to go extra big. If Boston throws out Robert Williams and Al Horford or if the Bucks play with Brook Lopez and Giannis, how big Tucker can get will be pivotal. The Sixers have a lot of malleabilities when it comes to playing small, and their roster inevitability gives them an advantage when teams go that direction – but when teams decide to play big, as Milwaukee and Boston tend to do, Tucker is the dam holding the fort together.

How much success Philly has against those 2 Eastern Conference juggernauts ultimately does depend on their respective stars showing up, but Maxey, Tucker, and Melton have the ability to potentially swing any one of those series, with the versatility they provide Doc Rivers and the Sixers.

If Doc just so happens to use that to their advantage.

Quickley + Hart & the Knicks point-of-attack defense

Courtesy: Canadian Press

Josh Hart has been exactly what the doctor ordered for this Knicks team. Sometimes all it takes is one player to make your rotations work and Hart has been the connective glue that has accomplished that for the Knickerbockers, serving as a connector on offense, who has been much more potent as a shooter since arriving at MSG (knocking down over 50% of his threes) and as a sound point-of-attack defender, hounding ball-handlers and what not. What’s intriguing is his connection with Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley, who has been overbearing as a point-of-attack defender, using his length to lock-n-trail opponents while guarding the pick-n-roll on-ball, his quickness helps him navigate and fight through screens and off the ball, he can roam the weak-side prowling and anticipating a cross-court pass.

Put those 2 together? That’s one fun defensive backcourt off the bench. Hart + Quick is +11.9 in 349 minutes together this season, the 2nd-best among all 2-man lineups for New York. Hart is a pretty steady role player who you know what you’re getting out of (depending on if that shot is falling or not), but Quickley is the ultimate X-factor for this Knicks team in the post-season. Much like Maxey for the Sixers, Quickley has the potential to explode offensively in any given playoff game, providing an extra scoring punch off of the bench all season for the Knicks. New York is all but guaranteed to play the Cavaliers in the 1st round and if they want to pull off an upset, it’ll be because their depth is far superior to that of Cleveland’s and it starts with these two. Moreover, an in-rhythm Quickley, or a trigger-friendly Hart can be the difference between the Knicks being a frisky second-round team and potentially pulling off a major upset against one of the East juggernauts. Crazier things have happened in the postseason and the Knicks are in line to make some serious noise if their 2 bench guards rise to the occasion. Monk + Huerter + Keegan for the Kings   Courtesy: Rocky Widner / Getty Images  

Many people around the league are assuming the Kings are a paper tiger, fueled by a dominant regular-season offense and a lackluster defense that just doesn’t bode well for post-season basketball. While there is some merit to that theory (the Kings don’t have a ton of size on the interior and don’t have as many wing defenders as you need to guard the West’s elite forwards) there is a way the Kings can win one, if not a couple playoff series: Out-score everybody. After all, that’s what they’ve been doing all season on a healthy diet of DHOs
with future All-NBAer Domantas Sabonis, Pick-n-Roll opportunities between Sabonis and their All-Star guard De’Aaron Fox and of course, a supporting cast that can shoot the lights out. The offense the Kings run is very Warriors-esque in the sense that it relies on a ton of ball movement, side-to-side actions involving multiple ball handlers, and a heavy dose of spacing. On nights when Fox isn’t his usual clutch self or when Sabonis isn’t feasting on the interior, it’s the Kings supporting cast of Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray that has stepped in to fuel the #1 offense in NBA history.

If Monk, Huerter, and Murray can all apply pressure on defenses with their 3-point shooting (like they’ve been doing all season) then the Kings’ offense can keep them competitive against the best of them. But as we know, shotmaking, especially from a cast of inexperienced players (23 total playoff games played between the 3, all of them coming from Huerter’s time in Atlanta) is always going to be a question mark going into the postseason.

If the Kings supporting cast knocks down their shots at the same clip they have all season, they’re not going to be the paper tiger people expect them to be. But it’s a lot to ask when the lights are at their brightest.

The Suns 5th Starter:

Courtesy: Getty Images At face value, everyone knows how dangerous the Phoenix Suns can be. When you have Kevin Durant and Devin Booker manning the wings, Deandre Ayton in the middle, and Chris Paul as your floor general, it’s hard to worry about how this team will look in the postseason. If there is any concern, it’s with their supporting cast and how much juice they can squeeze out of the bottle. From the very small sample size that we’ve seen of this new-look Suns team with Durant in the lineup, we can already draw conclusions on how opposing teams will try to stop them: load up on Booker and Durant, force Paul to shoot, and put the onus on anyone outside of the Suns’ two enigmatic wings to score the ball.That’s why that 5th guy in the Suns‘lineups will be so crucial. It was Josh Okogie for all 3 games with Durant in the lineup, a defense-first player who can help crash the glass for a Suns team that is lacking in that department and who has become a more commendable shooter this season in Phoenix. Okogie has been awesome this year but ultimately, teams are going to be more than comfortable with him shooting the ball.

The same applies to Torrey Craig, who is also an improved shooter this season, knocking down nearly 40% of his threes on low volume, but again… you’re living with that 10 out of 10 times if you’re a playoff team facing the Suns.

Could T.J. Warren be an option? He’s a much better shooter than either Okogie or Craig but not the defender either of them is. It’ll be a trial-n-error situation for Phoenix as they try to figure out who they are on the fly but what they can muster up from a meh supporting cast will be the difference between them being a good playoff team this year versus the sure-fire favorite to come out of the West.

Westbrook, Mann And The Clippers Guard Rotation:

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To my surprise, and to the surprise of many, the Russell Westbrook experiment with the Clippers has worked beautifully. The former MVP is setting more screens than he ever has, he’s rolling to the rim, making good decisions, and playing well next to LA’s incumbent stars. At some point, though, especially in the playoffs, Russ is going to do what Russ does. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, what he does as far as rim pressure and playmaking is exactly what the Clippers need… but in moderation. How much are they willing to dial it back if they need to? How willing will Russ be to sit out 4th quarter? The early observation is that Westbrook has sat out some close games and played in others and the results have still worked in favor of the Clippers.
But there has to be a willingness from Ty Lue to change things up if it’s not working, something that has become somewhat of a calling cardfor him in his early career as a Head Coach. Whether that means playing Terrence Mann more or playing more Eric Gordon or Norman Powell over Westbrook – these are the sort of tough decisions that lie ahead for the Clippers. And it could mean the difference between them being a wholly confusing team (as they’ve been all season) and a potential Finals contender. In the end, with all 5 of these examples, one thing remains true: you have to be malleable in the playoffs. A lot of that is based on the personnel you have at your disposal as a coach, but it’s also on the coaching staff to recognize what is and isn’t working in the pressure-cooker, every-possession-matters moments in the playoffs.
Whether it be Doc Rivers deciding which 5th starter to play, or the Suns trying to maneuver through a rotating cast of wings, or the Knicks, Kings, and Clippers asking for more out of their second units – the onus ultimately comes down to the willingness to try, the willingness to adapt, to not be assertive but to adjust to the object as Bruce Lee said many years ago. That is the calling card of a truly potent playoff team. A malleable supporting cast.