Five NBA players are set to carry their franchise down the stretch of the 2014-2015 campaign, hoping to lift their respective team into the second season in pursuit of an NBA championship.
The list of athletes is limited to playoff-contending teams, and the players mentioned will likely represent the difference between his squad making or missing the postseason.
Injuries—whether to the player or a teammate—were a common factor in determining who would be included.
Anthony Davis, Power Forward, New Orleans Pelicans
The San Antonio Spurs are slowly distancing themselves from New Orleans, so the Pelicans must set their sights solely on the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are only up one game and without Kevin Durant.
For New Orleans to reach the playoffs, however, Anthony Davis must continue putting the franchise on his back. The 6’11” power forward has racked up 24.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.5 steals and a league-leading 2.8 blocks per outing. Plus, his on-off splits are ridiculous.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ratings systems, it means the Pelicans are a total of 10.8 points per 100 possessions better when Davis is on the floor.
With games against the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and other top Western Conference teams remaining, Davis must be the chief producer in order to help New Orleans catch the Thunder.
Goran Dragic, Point Guard, Miami Heat
“Slow and steady” may have allowed the tortoise to beat the hare, but the Miami Heat were a mediocre 23-30 in a molasses-like offense. Erik Spoelstra’s crew had compiled the league’s slowest offensive pace at 92.1 and a 101.6 rating through 53 games, per NBA.com.
The defending Eastern Conference champions then traded for Goran Dragic at the deadline, adding him to a lineup in desperate need of a point guard alongside Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside.
Since acquiring Dragic, though, the offense have raised its pace to 97.0 and rating to 103.3, per NBA.com.
The Heat are 4-3 during that time.
Miami is clinging to one of the Eastern Conference’s two sub-.500 playoff berths, but a strong performance from Dragic down the stretch will allow the franchise to clinch its seventh straight postseason appearance.
Pau Gasol, Power Forward, Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls will be without Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler for a few weeks, which means power forward Pau Gasol must lead the team through March.
Gasol tallied 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first Rose- and Butler-less contest, grabbing 10 rebounds and propelling Chicago to a 97-92 victory over the Washington Wizards on March 3. The win helped the Bulls grab the No. 2 position in the East, but they’ll be hard-pressed to retain that spot.
Following a midseason slump that coincided with LeBron James’ absence, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been the hottest team in basketball since Jan. 13. Chicago is likely to slide behind the Cavs, but Tom Thibodeau’s squad can holds its spot above the reeling Toronto Raptors.
However, the Bulls will be relying on Gasol to keep them out of the fourth seed and away from a second-round matchup with the surging Atlanta Hawks.
George Hill, Point Guard, Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers played 42 of the first 46 season games without both Paul George and George Hill, opening the campaign an abysmal 16-30.
While the former George works back from a knee injury, the latter—Hill—has returned to the starting lineup, where he’s guided the Pacers to an 11-5 record, including a victory in nine of their last 11 showings.
More importantly for Indiana, the team has ascended from fourth-worst in the East to a half-game outside the playoff picture, many thanks to Hill. He’s registered 13.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game.
The Pacers finishing their rise from the depths of the conference into the playoffs is largely dependent on Hill maintaining his all-around production.
Russell Westbrook, Point Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
Four straight triple-doubles is perhaps the greatest impact any player has provided in the league this season. Russell Westbrook has been on nothing short of a historical tear since Kevin Durant underwent another surgery on his injured foot.
Westbrook, who leads the NBA in scoring with 27.0 points per outing, boasts an unreal 43.0 percent usage rate when his MVP teammate is sidelined, according to NBA.com. In other words, nearly half of OKC’s possessions end on a Westbrook-related event.
As mentioned earlier, the Thunder are a single game above the Pelicans for the final Western Conference playoff spot, and the franchises don’t play each other during the rest of the regular season.
Consequently, Oklahoma City’s postseason fate rests squarely in Westbrook’s capable, perhaps MVP-winning hands.
Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of March 5.
Photo: USA Today