The parity in the NBA this season has made the post-All-Star break schedule much more interesting than usual.
In the East, the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics are neck-and-neck for the No. 1 seed, while the Brooklyn Nets are trying to avoid dropping into the play-in bracket and the Washington Wizards are attempting to hold off the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers for the final play-in spot.
The West is even more interesting, with nine of the 15 teams entering Tuesday with 30, 31 or 32 losses.
Obviously, staying out of the play-in is paramount for teams hovering in the middle of each conference. But once there, feeling good about your roster heading into the postseason may be more important than seeding. After all, in the West, where teams can move four spots in two days, it would be hard for any team to maneuver into a matchup it wants anyway.
The tops of most rosters are set. Yes, we know the Los Angeles Clippers must have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for a potential playoff push, but there isn’t much to analyze there. Either they’ll be mostly healthy and playing heavy minutes in the playoffs, or the Clippers won’t be around very long.
But the minutes next to the stars and off the bench are still up for grabs for most teams, and could still make a huge difference come playoff time. Remember Gary Payton II’s huge minutes as a defensive guard for the Golden State Warriors on their title run last year? Or Grant Williams hitting seven 3-pointers against the Bucks to win a Game 7 for the eventual Eastern Conference champion Celtics?
Every team is looking for those kinds of contributors, and coaches will use the last 20-25 games to evaluate who should be in their rotations and who should get big minutes. So we’ve decided to examine the biggest rotation question for each top-four seed in the West. Each of these teams should be a shoo-in for the playoffs, but still has some issues that the last part of the season will help answer.
Denver Nuggets: Is Christian Braun Playoff Ready?
The Nuggets have to be pleased that they got a player with the 21st overall pick who has already shown flashes of being a competent role player in his rookie season.
But it’s hard for a first-year player to be a significant part of a championship contender’s playoff rotation. It seemed like the Nuggets were prepared to make Braun a locked member of the rotation before the All-Star break. He averaged 25.3 minutes per game in February (up from 12.0 per game in January), and he was acquitting himself well. He entered the break with a career-high four assists in his last two games.
But the addition of Reggie Jackson seems to have squeezed Braun out of the rotation. Braun played just eight minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Jackson’s first game with the team, and 12 of his 21 minutes in the second game after the break came in the fourth quarter of a blowout.
It’s understandable why Mike Malone would prefer a veteran over Braun. Braun’s been good defensively, but he’s still a rookie. You see the occasional rotation mistake or missed pass at the right time that a veteran wouldn’t make. He’s shot the 3 well (39.1%) on a low volume, but his free-throw shooting has been just 58.5% on a low volume as well. His usage rate is in the 10th percentile for all players who have played 500 or more minutes.
But it’s not as if the Nuggets need a ton of usage around Nikola Jokić, Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray. They need someone who can knock down jumpers, move the ball, and play solid defense. Odds are that Mike Malone may use him at least for certain matchups in the playoffs, and he’s the No. 1 in-case-of-emergency option off the bench. But for Malone to trust him, Braun has to make the most of any opportunities he gets toward the end of the season.
Odds are, with the top seed well in hand, the Nuggets might do some strategic resting down the stretch. If players miss games or have minutes reduced, Braun will the beneficiary if he’s not already back in the rotation. And if he can show he’s a confident shooter, ball-mover and defender during those minutes, he’ll at least prove to Malone that he’s an option come playoff time.
Memphis Grizzlies: Can Luke Kennard Play in Crunch Time?
The Grizzlies didn’t make a huge move at the deadline, but they did fill a need in acquiring Kennard from the Clippers.
The Grizzlies needed shooting, and Kennard adds it. Kennard led all qualifiers with a 44.9 3-point percentage last year and he’s been even better a 46.2% in 2022-23. In his three games with the Grizzlies so far, Kennard has gone 7 of 15 from 3-point range. But if the Grizzlies are going to make a deep run this postseason, Kennard might need to be more than just a bench shooter.
As talented as Ja Morant is, the Grizzlies offense has been bad for most of the season. Memphis ranks 20th in the NBA in adjusted offensive rating, and lack of space is a huge issue. The Grizzlies are 24th in the league in 3-point percentage and one of only two top-six seeds in either conference to be in the bottom 10. The New York Knicks are 23rd in 3-point percentage, though they make up for it in volume as they rank in the top 10 in attempts per game. The Grizzlies, however, are 18th.
So the Grizzlies don’t shoot a lot of 3s and when they do pull the trigger, they don’t hit them very often. Enter Kennard.
The good thing about Kennard is he’s more than a shooter. He’s a quick catch-and-go player that will function well in the Grizzlies offense, which is about making the right pass at the right time.
Kennard could fit like a glove next to Desmond Bane and Morant on offense, but the questions come on the other side of the ball. Kennard isn’t a great defender (he has the third-worst defensive DRIP on the team), and will be targeted relentlessly if he sees crunch time minutes.
But the Grizzlies lead the league in adjusted defensive rating, which measures how many points per 100 possessions better or worse teams are compared to the league-average club during that season.
If Jaren Jackson Jr. stays out of foul trouble, he’s one of the most impactful defensive players in the NBA at sixth in the NBA in defensive DRIP (D-DRIP). With Steven Adams (assuming a healthy return) ranking second in the league in D-DRIP, Memphis has a terrifying duo for teams that try to drive inside.
Is there enough defense on the perimeter in lineups with Kennard and without Dillon Brooks – the Grizzlies’ chief agitator? It’s a look Taylor Jenkins might be forced to try just to give the Grizzlies more options on offense. Brooks has seen his efficiency drop on that end. He’s shooting under 40% from the field this year and averaging 14.6 points on 14.1 shots. He’s a willing shooter, but not a very effective one.
Brooks obviously gives the Grizzlies more of an edge (as if they need it), and is a relentless defensive player. He’s going to be a factor in the playoffs. But if the Grizzlies can survive on defense while sacrificing some of Brooks’s late-game minutes to Kennard, it gives them a different look late in games that could become important.
Sacramento Kings: How Many Minutes Can the Kings Get from Their Bench?
The Kings have been the feel-good story of the NBA, sitting third in the West. On the backs of stars De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, the Kings are poised for their first playoff berth since 2005-06.
Usually, depth plays a huge part in the success of a team that comes out of nowhere, but that hasn’t really been the case for the Kings. Sacramento doesn’t play its starters enormous minutes, but all five starters have averaged 29 or more minutes and the team hasn’t produced as well when the bench plays.
Of the nine players who have logged the most minutes for the Kings (and who will likely be in the rotation in the playoffs), Terence Davis leads the team in point differential per 48 minutes. Davis has hovered between fringe player and rotation player for most of the season, but he’s solidified himself in the rotation with 51.3% shooting and 47.9% 3-point shooting and 10.1 points per game in February. Still, even in February, Davis is only playing 17.3 minutes per game.
The next five leaders in plus/minus per 48 among the nine rotation players for the Kings are starters. This isn’t a death sentence or anything – plenty of teams are much better with their starters on the floor. And Trey Lyles is really close to Keegan Murray in plus/minus. The Kings have been fine with Lyles in with the starters.
Chimezie Metu is another frontcourt option currently on the fringes of the rotation. The team has played well when he’s been in the game, but he’s only broken 20 minutes in one game this season and doesn’t offer much offensive skill.
The real problem lies in the backcourt. Davion Mitchell is the only rotation player with a negative plus/minus on the team. He’s an excellent on-ball defender, but his size limits his defensive impact against certain teams and his offense hasn’t progressed much. He’s more efficient this year in a reduced role, but he still can’t shoot 3s. Teams will help off him with reckless abandon in the playoffs to contain drives by Fox and dig on posts by Sabonis.
Malik Monk’s surface-level stats are fine, but his 3-point shooting has dipped this year to 34.4% compared to 39.1% last year. He’s not a good defender with the second-worst D-DRIP on the team and is undersized as well. Teams will look to exploit him in the postseason and he’ll need to score a ton to make up for the lack of defense.
And Monk can score when he’s hot with the third-best offensive DRIP on the team. He’s the typical microwave scorer off the bench that can change the game – a good thing to have. But with the Kings’ roster construction, unless Davis truly breaks through in increased minutes, Monk needs to be the best player off the bench in the playoffs for the team to make a run. It’s a lot to ask.
If Monk has off-games, the Kings might just have to ride their starters as long as possible. They do have a young lineup, with Harrison Barnes being the only 30-year-old starter. But foul trouble or minor injuries could cost the Kings more than it costs other playoff teams.
Phoenix Suns: Is the Josh Okogie Breakout for Real?
The Suns are much closer to the pack of teams vying for the play-in than the three teams ahead of them in the West. Three games separate the Suns from the Kings in third place and three games separate the Suns from the 11th-place Portland Trail Blazers.
But the Suns are getting a reinforcement that’ll bolster their playoff odds just a tad in Kevin Durant. So counting them among the playoff teams, if even remotely healthy, feels safe.
When Durant finally does take the floor for the Suns, it might send Okogie to the bench. But Okogie could remain a big part of the Suns’ rotation if his breakout this month is legitimate.
Prior to this month, Okogie failed to crack 20.0 minutes per game or 9.0 points per game for a month all season. But in February, everything clicked. He’s averaging 16.1 points while shooting 50.6% from the field and 46.2% on 3-pointers. That average is propped up by a career-high six 3s against the Clippers on Feb. 16, but Okogie has made multiple 3s in five of seven games this month.
Monty Williams has rewarded Okogie with a ton of playing time. He’s averaging 32.6 minutes per game in February and has played at least 30 minutes in each of the last six games after playing 15 minutes in the first game this month.
Obviously, his minutes will go down, but if Okogie can be a difference maker in a small role for the Suns, it’ll make them even more deadly. Okogie has always been an electric athlete, but his lack of shooting and creativity has held him back. With his latest shooting surge, his 3-point percentage on the season is up to a passable 34.5%, which is the first time he’s made over 30% in his career.
If Okogie can be any type of factor in the half-court offense, he should find himself some playing time. He’s only 6-foot-4, but he has a massive 7-foot wingspan and defends really well. And his main offensive skill lies in the fact that he keeps going until someone makes him stop.
The Suns are going to slow things down in the playoffs and play a ton of half-court basketball. If healthy, they’ll be really good at it. But if Okogie can get them just a couple of easy looks a game by continuing to run, it’ll add another wrinkle to an already potent offense. And with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Durant on the floor, the defense might lose Okogie in transition a lot. And he will run enough to make them pay.
Of course, Okogie needs to have a much larger sample size before teams respect his offensive game. But he’s still only 24 and he’s shown the most confidence of his career this month. If his uptick is more than a mirage, the Suns got another weapon at their disposal.
And that should scare the rest of the league.