The NBA has never been as deep with talent as it is now.
When you take the league on a team-by-team basis, it becomes evident that there are fewer automatic wins on the schedule than there used to be. And, consequently, the playoff push in both conferences will be extremely competitive, with the likelihood of some good teams on the outside looking in come the end of the year.
With that in mind, we decided to take a look at the players most likely to decide the playoff race from borderline playoff teams. We’re not looking at star players or potential breakout players because of course injury or underperformance by any star in the league could torpedo a playoff hopeful. We’ve also ruled out rookies, as we already ran a tremendous Immediate Impact series highlighting some rookies who could make a difference right away.
This isn’t simply an exercise with the greatest boom-or-bust players on each team. Rather, it’s a look at role players who have a wide range of outcomes and will be counted on to hit closer to their ceilings for their teams to thrive.
With that in mind, here is a list of swing players on Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls.
Saddiq Bey, Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks finally traded John Collins this offseason, netting a second-round pick and Rudy Gay, who was then packaged in a deal for Patty Mills. Both of these trades were seemingly done primarily for financial reasons, and it’s opened up a lot of minutes on the wing for a franchise in win-now mode.
The Hawks undoubtedly expect a couple of young players to step into key roles in AJ Griffin and Jalen Johnson, but a lot of the burden will fall on Bey.
Bey looked to be a core piece for the Detroit Pistons after being drafted, but he never took the step forward the Pistons were hoping for before they traded him to the Hawks in a three-way deal to acquire James Wiseman. He wasn’t efficient, his playmaking regressed, and his defense was subpar.
The efficiency, at least, took a big step forward in a 25-game sample with the Hawks. His 3-point percentage in 52 games with Detroit last year was 34.5% and that jumped up to 40.0% with Atlanta. His 2-point percentage also jumped from 46.0% to 55.2%. This could be a small sample of excellent shooting, or it could be a sign that Bey is more comfortable in his role in Atlanta getting good looks off of Trae Young bending the defense at will.
One thing Bey does extremely well is run the floor in transition. As soon as his team grabs a rebound, he sprints to the corner. It doesn’t seem like much of a skill to run hard to a spot on the floor, but you’d be surprised how often the simple act of running with purpose gets Bey a great look.
Atlanta needs decisive tip-of-the-spear players to go along with Dejounte Murray and Young, and Bey is that player. He also has more dynamism than the average spot-up shooter, capable of running a pick-and-roll when necessary or beating a scrambling defense off the dribble.
If Bey proves his efficiency gains are real, the biggest question will be his defense. Most metrics portray him as a negative defender, and it’s easy to see why when he’s on the floor. He hasn’t shown mastery of any defensive system yet, not forcing players into his help or making the correct reads off the ball. He’s not hopeless in any area, but he doesn’t have a calling card defensively, either.
That needs to change this year. Young already has massive limitations on defense, the Hawks can’t afford to play negative defenders alongside him very often. If he can take a step forward defensively, it could go a long way toward Atlanta having the rebound season they’re expecting.
If not, they’ll have to hope the development from Johnson and Griffin comes quickly.
Bruce Brown, Indiana Pacers
With the cap rising, there were a lot of players who signed contracts that gave the public sticker shock. Perhaps the biggest surprise in average annual value was Brown signing a two-year deal worth $45 million. It made more sense when it was revealed the second year was a team option, and the Pacers maintained financial flexibility moving forward.
Lost in all the contract talk was the fit of Brown on the Pacers. He instantly becomes the best wing defender on the team even at 6-foot-4 and his intuition on offense will fit well with the vision of Tyrese Haliburton as it did with Nikola Jokic.
Offensively, Brown’s 2021-22 season when he shot 40.4% on 3-pointers was probably an aberration, but he’s a capable shooter who is adept at making defenses pay when he is left alone. He’s an elite cutter and solid secondary ball handler, something Rick Carlisle will love.
Indiana is counting on him taking nothing off the table on offense, but the team needs him to be a true difference-maker on the defensive end. The intuition that allows him to space the floor properly and cut at the right time offensively pays off on the other end as well, as he’s one of the best in the game at knowing when to gamble and when to throw an off-script double team at a star, and when to help.
Normally, helping off Anthony Edwards to contain a drive by Kyle Anderson is not a well-advised play. But Brown is a quarter-step quicker than most players and it usually pays off. Even when he doesn’t accumulate steals, he often flusters opposing players and blows up offensive sets.
Will there be a transition period for Brown as he acclimates to a new group of teammates? He’s on his fourth team in his six-year career, so he’s used to adjusting, but he played with a group that really hit its stride in being in the right places on defense last year.
Brown’s ability to trust his teammates to be in the right spots on the floor will be crucial to whether he’s as valuable for Indiana as the Pacers hope he can be.
Coby White, Chicago Bulls
The player with the widest range of outcomes for the Bulls this year is Patrick Williams and a step forward from him this year could be a crucial long-term win for a team that seems stuck at the moment.
But in the short term, the Bulls desperately need a point guard to replicate some of what they’ve been missing on offense since Lonzo Ball was hurt. Ball was really valuable on both sides of the ball, but the Bulls have been able to mitigate losing him on defense so far, with Alex Caruso’s unparalleled doggedness being a primary reason why. But the offense has cratered even with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, finishing 21st in offensive efficiency last year.
While White will never reach Ball’s level of passing as a connector (very few players do) in the half court, he showed improvement in that area last year and showed even more improvement as an on-ball passer.
White got the first chance to start in the preseason in his competition with Jevon Carter and Ayo Dosunmu for the starting point guard job, and the results were encouraging. He needs to continue to evolve as a playmaker to give the Bulls a much-needed jolt in the half court.
Besides the playmaking, the Bulls lacked the ability to get any easy points last year. Chicago was below average or worse in free throw rate, 3-point rate and transition points. It’s too hard to score consistently without getting easy points. The Bulls need to improve in some of these areas to have a functional offense.
Dosunmu is the best option for pushing the pace but won’t be a high-volume 3-point shooter. Carter’s 3-point rate was actually higher than White’s last year (.596 to .579), but he doesn’t have the same north-south quickness as White does, which should be a boon for the Bulls, nor does he have as quick a trigger.
The best version of White seems like the best fit for the Bulls as starting point guard in the short term. If he stalls out as a playmaker or shooter, the Bulls are likely going to have the same offensive issues as last year.
Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets
The real swing player for the Nets is Ben Simmons, but, as he’s been an all-NBA player before and is still just 27, his peak feels overqualified for this list.
So the choice comes down to Thomas and Lonnie Walker, as the Nets need one of these players to play consistently well this season. The team has the mercurial Simmons at point guard, a whole bunch of talented wings led by star Mikal Bridges and a defensive anchor in Nic Claxton. But the team needs a little more juice offensively, and, while it could come from Walker IV sustaining an improved level of play from last year, Thomas turning his flashes into actual production would be even more beneficial.
Thomas improved his 3-point shot from 27.0% in 2021-22 to 38.3% last year, and it made an already aggressive Thomas even more trigger-happy. When Thomas gets a big switched on him, his teammates might as well go in for the rebound because the ball isn’t going anywhere but toward the net.
There aren’t many players who play under 20 minutes per game that can match the talent of Thomas, but his shot selection has to get better. His usage rate was tied for 28th among players who played at least 700 minutes last year with Kyle Kuzma and Russell Westbrook and ahead of DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Jokic. And he had the worst assist rate of the players ranked in the top 40 in usage rate last year.
The Nets need him to be a gunner, but not to the extreme that he was last year. Thomas can take a big step forward this year by simply taking better shots and making the easy pass when presented. This step is a common one early on in talented scorers’ careers, and should he take it, the offensive boost it would provide the team would be critical.
Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
The Magic have so many talented young players that there are a lot of options for this list, but Suggs is at a critical juncture of his career.
Suggs had a disastrous rookie season on offense but did bounce back somewhat last year. He still hasn’t shown enough to prove he can stay on the floor when the Magic start playing big games and this may be his last opportunity to showcase what he can do on offense.
He does have a quick release on 3-point attempts and, after some improvement last year, another modest gain in 3-point percentage would open up the floor for him in a big way.
Suggs does his best work in transition or semi-transition. When the defense is on its heels, Suggs looks like a former highly touted prospect.
When the defense is set, he doesn’t appear able to gain leverage himself. If his long-distance shooting can get up to league average, defenders would have to guard him more closely, which may allow him to use his burst and strength in the half court more often.
The Magic could really use a version of Suggs that isn’t a non-factor in the half court, because his defense is excellent, and that type of player would be a great complement to both his backcourt mates of Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris and Cole Anthony and the frontcourt starting trio of Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr.
If Suggs struggles to start the season, he could find himself out of the rotation quickly with the talented Anthony Black likely to siphon some playing time in the backcourt.
Dennis Schroder, Toronto Raptors
Schroder is the obvious choice for this as the Fred VanVleet replacement, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s not worth analyzing.
The Raptors suffered a disappointing season in 2022-23, and are running back most of the same rotation, with Schroder and newly drafted Gradey Dick as the exceptions.
Schroder had a solid season last year, as he showed a willingness to channel his aggression at the right times with the Los Angeles Lakers, as opposed to trying to do too much. Schroder had a .187 usage rate last season, the lowest of his career and a far cry from the .306 usage rate he had for a career-high in 2017-18. He also was the go-to guy on Germany’s FIBA World Cup gold medal squad this summer.
How much of Schroder’s willingness to play within a system will transfer to Toronto? The Raptors have talent, but they don’t have the larger-than-life LeBron James running the show and keeping everyone in line. And Toronto struggled with team identity last year, so will they be able to rein in Schroder when he tries to do too much?
The trick is the Raptors don’t want to tell Schroder not to trust his instincts at all, because the team needs more out of him offensively than the Lakers did. Schroder’s ability to get into the lane and dish out assists at the last second should be a welcome help for a team that didn’t get the defense moving enough last year.
Balancing Schroder’s offensive aggression to the right level will be key for a Raptors team hoping for a rebound. Schroder will almost certainly get a lot of playing time even if he struggles. But the Raptors need him to have one of his best seasons if the team is going to get back to the playoffs.
Isaiah Hartenstein, New York Knicks
We took the teams projected to finish 6-12 in the East since the top five teams of each conference are all heavily favored to make the playoffs and the bottom three have much longer odds. But the Knicks have the highest floor of any of the remaining teams in the East and seem like a good bet to at least make the play-in.
The team showcased great depth last year and returns that depth at point guard and on the wing. Immanuel Quickley, Josh Hart and newly acquired Donte DiVincenzo are all starting caliber players if there is injury or underwhelming play from one of the starters.
The frontcourt depth is more of a question mark, especially at center. Hartenstein was a bit underwhelming in his first year with the Knicks, as he struggled to display his talents in the New York system.
Tom Thibodeau hasn’t asked his centers to do much offensively except screen and be in the right spots, and it left Hartenstein feeling a bit underutilized. He’s a great passer for a big, but his assist rate cratered from 20.5% to 8.3% last year, as he wasn’t put in a position to do any playmaking. His usage fell from 18.4% to 11.2% as a result.
Hartenstein did improve as an offensive rebounder as the year went on, doing a good job of sealing defenders who helped the helper after his man went to contain a drive. He had a career-high offensive-rebounding rate of 14.1% last season.
Perhaps the Knicks could meet Hartenstein in the middle this year, mostly asking him to do the dirty work on offense but also utilizing his quick decision-making with the ball more as well, especially when Julius Randle isn’t on the floor.
If the team can unlock his skill set and turn him into the above-average backup center he is capable of being, the depth gets that much better. If not, he’ll continue to split time with Jericho Sims, and the Knicks will likely have a hole in their rotation.