Now that the All-Star Break is in the rear-view mirror, the NBA’s focus turns to the final several weeks of the regular season. More so than in previous seasons, pretty much everything is still up in the air as crunch time itself gets going. Toronto and Boston are battling for the top spot back east. Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets are giving the defending champion Warriors a run for their money out west.
At this latter point in the season, less than a dozen teams are pretty much out of the playoff race. In the Western Conference, a total of three games separate Minnesota at No. 3 from the Denver Nuggets as the eighth seed. Back east, the Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves currently as the third seed. They are also just 4.5 games ahead of Miami for the eighth spot.
It’s in this that we must take a deep look at the players that are most important to their teams over the final several weeks of the season. We’ll include former MVPs and likely MVP favorites in this article. We’ll also take a look at some up-and-coming players that are in the midst of career seasons. Here’s a look at the 16-most important players for the end of the NBA regular season.
DeMar DeRozan, guard, Toronto Raptors
Toronto heads into this weekend’s action as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and with a 43-17 record. Though, only a half of game separates the Raptors from Boston for that top spot. With only half their remaining games against teams currently in playoff positioning, DeRozan and Co. should be in a good position as the regular season draws to a conclusion.
It really is going to be up to this All-Star to continue shouldering the load up north. In games that DeRozen has scored 25-plus points, the Raptors boast a 24-6 record. In all other games, the team is 19-11. That’s going to be the biggest key. Getting consistent high-scoring performances from DeRozan. Should that happen, Toronto could very well earn the top seed back east.
Jamal Murray, guard, Denver Nuggets
Don’t look now, but this second-year player is quickly becoming a superstar for the Nuggets. With Paul Millsap having missed the past three-plus months to a wrist injury, Denver needed its perimeter game to step up a great deal. Murray has been a major catalyst there. He’s averaging 16.4 points on a .585 true shooting percentage. That’s some solid stuff right there.
What makes Murray so important to a surprising Nuggets team that’s currently eighth out west is his wide-ranging ability to impact the outcome on both ends of the court. After all, Murray actually ranks at a better clip than a higher-profile youngsters such as Jayson Tatum and Andrew Wiggins in PER this season. Should he continue this upward trajectory, the Nuggets won’t just make the playoffs, they’ll be a force in the early rounds.
Carmelo Anthony, forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
We know what Russell Westbrook and Paul George are going to give on a nightly basis. They’re among the top-10 most consistently good players in the Association. That will be good enough for Oklahoma City to potentially make a deep run into the playoffs. But if the Thunder are going to surprise the masses and come out of the west, they need a better all-around performance from this future Hall of Famer.
Anthony actually ranks 64th among NBA players with a 14.4 PER on the season. That’s most definitely not going to cut it. His ability to put the ball in the bucket also correlates with team-wide success. OKC is 16-8 in games that Melo scores 20-plus points. It’s just .500 when he doesn’t reach that plateau. In a Western Conference that includes Houston and Golden State, this scoring will be extremely important come playoff time. Anthony needs to prove his worth as the regular season draws to a conclusion.
Blake Griffin, Forward, Detroit Pistons
After seeing his new Pistons team start 5-0 after they acquired him from the Clippers, this squad is 2-6 on its past eight games. That has Detroit on the outside looking in back east as the ninth seed. Now 2.5 games behind Miami for the final playoff spot, the time is now for this team to make its push.
Unfortunately, the Pistons’ struggles have coincided a great deal with Griffin’s own issues on the court. He’s shooting at just a 38 percent clip while averaging a paltry six rebounds per over those eight games. If Griffin can’t act like the All-Star Detroit acquired him to be, this team will not come close to the postseason. And in reality, that would be a major disappointment for both the player and the team.
Kawhi Leonard, forward, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard is expected to return at some point this month after playing in just nine games earlier this season due to a quad injury. This comes on the heels of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich openly questioning whether the star wing would return at any point this season.
For the Spurs, it’s a necessity to get Leonard back on the court and at 100 percent. They’re currently the fourth seed out west with a very un-Spurs-like 36-26 record, just three games ahead of the Clippers for the final playoff spot. Even if San Antonio were to make it to the postseason with Leonard sidelined or not at 100 percent, they wouldn’t go far. It’s in this that he not only needs to return, but needs to return at a high level. Should that happen, fresh legs for one of the best two-way players in the game would be a major boon for San Antonio.
Kyrie Irving, guard, Boston Celtics
We can talk all we want about how well youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have played. And they’ve been a huge part of Boston’s success this season. None of that will matter in the playoffs should Irving fail to perform up to the MVP level that we have seen thus far this regular season. In his first stint with the Celtics, Irving is averaging 24.9 points with a 49 percent mark from the field and a ridiculous .609 true shooting percentage.
Battling with Toronto for the top spot back east, home-court advantage throughout the playoffs would be huge for Boston. With 11 of their final 19 games against teams currently in playoff positioning, the stretch run won’t be easy for the Celtics. This is where they need Irving to maintain his otherworldly level of performance.
Joel Embiid, center, Philadelphia 76ers
The correlation between Philly’s success and Embiid’s on-court performance is real. He currently ranks ahead of stars Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan and Paul George with a 23.8 PER on the season. That goes to show us just how darn well the young center has played. And in games that Embiid has posted 25-plus points, Philly is 16-6. The team is 17-21 when he doesn’t reach that plateau.
Philadelphia heads into the final six weeks of the season as the sixth seed back east. While a playoff spot is almost assured here, head coach Brett Brown and Co. would love to somehow earn a top-four seed. After all, the Sixers are much better at home than on the road. That’s par for the course for a young team. With this still within earshot, Embiid’s performance to close out the regular season will be huge.
Andrew Wiggins, forward, Minnesota Timberwolves
Wiggins just isn’t a good all-around player. Maybe, he is simply what he is at this point. But let’s just hope for the Wolves’ sake he finds a way to pick it up with All-NBA performer Jimmy Butler sidelined indefinitely. More so than Karl-Anthony Towns dominating inside, this is going to be the biggest key for a team that heads into this weekend’s action as the No. 3 seed out west.
Sure Minnesota would love to see Wiggins pick up his game on defense. Now in his fourth season, that’s unlikely to happen. Instead, it’s all about him doing what he does best — scoring — and a lot of it. With less shots to go around, Wiggins is averaging less than 18 points per game. He’s also not performing at a better level of efficiency than we’ve seen in the past. That’s troublesome. In order for Minnesota to hold on to a home court in the first round, Wiggins is going to have to score, and score at a more efficient clip. If that doesn’t happen, we could be looking at a bottom-end playoff team in the Twin Cities.
Victor Oladipo, guard, Indiana Pacers
The awe-inspiring performance from Oladipo in his first season with Indiana has been one of the most understated stories of the season. He has his Pacers as the fifth seed, just two games behind Cleveland for a top-three spot back East. The still-young 25-year-old guard is averaging 24.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists and an NBA-best 2.2 steals while shooting at a splendid 48 percent mark from the field. He’s also 14th among NBA players with a 23.4 PER and just outside the top 20 in win shares. When on the court, Indiana boasts an offensive rating of 112.6. To put that into perspective, Cleveland’s offensive rating is 112.0 on the season.
Following the trade of Paul George to Oklahoma City, most figured Indiana was going into an era of rebuild. The major cog coming back in that trade, Oladipo has helped expedite this process. The team now has a real chance to do damage in the playoffs. It’s now all about closing out the regular season season. And in reality, that starts with this first-time All-Star performer.
Anthony Davis, center, New Orleans Pelicans
With DeMarcus Cousins lost for the season to a ruptured Achilles, the onus is now really on Davis to hold the team together and lead his Pelicans to the playoffs for the first time in four years. Proving himself to be a legit MVP candidate, that’s exactly what this big man has done. In the 11 games since Cousins suffered his injury, Davis is averaging 34.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. He’s shooting at a 50 percent mark from the field and boasts a .643 true shooting percentage during that span. It’s not necessarily a surprise that the Pelicans are now riding a seven-game winning streak.
In no way does this mean a playoff spot is secured. New Orleans is currently just four games ahead of Utah for the 10th spot out west. More than half of its remaining games come against teams that are currently in playoff positioning. Simply put, Davis must continue this utter brilliance if the Pelicans hope to break their playoff drought. Once again, the fate of the franchise is completely on him. How fun.
Dwyane Wade, guard, Miami Heat
Just when it looked like Wade might not fit into the Heat’s system after a trade from Cleveland last month, he took to the court to do D-Wade things. It came Tuesday night against the very same Sixers squad Miami is chasing in the playoff standings. It came in a game-winning step-back jumper to give what has been a struggling Heat squad a must-needed win. This is the type of performance Miami will need from the future Hall of Famer off the bench down the stretch.
We’re not looking at Wade averaging north of 20 points per game. He’s nothing more than a role player at this point in his career. Instead, it’s all about Wade acting as a veteran presence and taking to the court at crunch time. Should he live up to this role, it would not be a shock to see Miami earn a surprise visit to the playoffs.
Damian Lillard, guard, Portland Blazers
Utterly ridiculous. That would be the best way to describe Lillard’s performance of late. In helping his Blazers to a 6-1 record over the past seven games, Dame is averaging 37.2 points on 52 percent shooting with an absurd nine made free throws per game. He’s not just settling for threes. Instead, Lillard is making the plays for himself up and down the court. It’s a change of the guard so to speak. In the midst of a playoff run, this All-Star is changing the entire dynamic of his game. And that could have wide-ranging ramifications for the Blazers moving forward.
Portland is currently a top-five seed out west and just a half game behind Minnesota for the third spot. Needless to say, Lillard’s performance has been the biggest reason for this success. After all, he does rank in the top 10 among NBA players in PER. With 10 of their final 20 games coming against current Western Conference playoff teams, the Blazers are going to need to see this version of Lillard continue moving forward on the regular season.
Bradley Beal, guard, Washington Wizards
Let’s check in on what the Wizards have done since John Wall went down with a knee injury late in January. The team boasts a 10-4 record with wins over Toronto, Oklahoma City and Cleveland during that span. To put this into perspective, Washington was 26-22 when Wall was sidelined. Now a top-four seed, this squad really has a chance to make a major push back east. And in reality, it’s been all about the performance of Beal. Here’s a guy that’s averaging 22.5 points and 6.8 assists while shooting 48 percent since Wall was sidelined.
Sure the Wizards want to get Wall back and health prior to the start of the playoffs. They’re not a better team with him off the court. But the emergence of Beal has been absolutely extraordinary. Should that continue once Wall returns, it could lead to a deep playoff run for Washington.
Chris Paul, guard, Houston Rockets
Here’s a stat. Houston boasts a 37-6 record in games that Paul has played in this season. It is 11-7 in games that the injury-plagued veteran has been sidelined. Talk about making a major difference in his first season with the Rockets. Paul’s importance isn’t necessarily about him playing at a high level. We already know that’s going to be the case on a consistent basis. Instead, it’s all about him actually remaining healthy and being that running partner for MVP favorite James Harden. And that right there is what makes Paul more important for Houston than Harden moving forward.
Despite Houston boasting an absurd 48-13 record on the season, it is tied with Golden State in the win column out west. There’s not going to be a real opportunity to rest Paul moving forward on the season. And given that he has missed about a quarter of his team’s games over the past two seasons, it’s now all about Paul actually remaining healthy. Should that happen, Houston stands a fighting chance to earn the No. 1 seed out west.
LeBron James, forward, Cleveland Cavaliers
We can talk about the additions of George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood until we’re blue in the face. That’s fine. They’ve helped Cleveland turn the corner. But it’s all about James and his ability to continue dominating that has the Cavaliers thinking they can earn a fourth consecutive Eastern Conference title after struggling for a vast majority of the season.
James is coming off a month of February that saw him average a triple-double. He’s averaging what would be a five-year high 26.7 points to go with 8.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game. James also boasts a solid .621 true shooting percentage. But his importance to the Cavaliers is about a lot more than simple stats. He’s a catalyst for the team’s newest members. He’s a leader on the court. They will continue to follow his lead. That’s huge when a team has an in-season turnover at the clip we saw from Cleveland during the trade deadline. It’s going to be vital for James to continue this, especially considering Cleveland is barely holding on to a top-three seed back east.
Stephen Curry, guard, Golden State Warriors
It seems to be a bit absurd that a two-time MVP is flying under the radar, but that’s exactly what we’re seeing with Curry this season. Maybe he’s being overshadowed by Kevin Durant in Oakland. Then again, the otherworldly performances we’ve seen from Harden and James makes them talked about figures. Either way, Curry is having himself one heck of a season.
He’s averaging 26.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Curry is also shooting at a 49 percent mark from the field with an NBA-best .671 true shooting percentage. These numbers have been taken to an entirely new level since Curry returned from an ankle injury he suffered in early December. In 21 games since, he’s shooting at a 52 percent mark from the field with a .692 true shooting percentage and an absurd .457 mark from distance. Curry’s importance to the Warriors is his ability to completely take over a game. More so than at any point over the past couple seasons, he’s doing that right now.