With the All-Star break over, teams in both conferences have a big couple months ahead. The fate of some of those clubs may come down to the performance of a single contributor. We’ll take a look at four of those players (or coaches!) in each conference. First up, the Eastern Conference.
1. Blake Griffin - Detroit Pistons:
Make no mistake about it, when Stan Van Gundy traded for Griffin it was playoffs or bust for Detroit. And despite a promising 4-0 start, the Pistons are currently 5-3 with their new superstar in the fold. As of right now, the Pistons are a game and a half back of Miami for the last spot in the Eastern Conference. Whether they catch the Heat will have everything to do with Griffin -- which is good considering the early signs.
The early returns on Griffin may not look too great on the surface. He’s shooting just 40.6 percent from the field and only 29.4 percent from beyond the arc. Both those marks are drastically lower than Griffin’s season totals with the Clippers.
Yet where it really counts -- his overall impact -- Griffin is hitting all the right marks. Overall, Detroit is just over eight points better when Griffin is on the floor (+4.8 to -3.4). Both the team’s offense and defense jumps when he’s in. And the vaunted pairing with Andre Drummond -- the whole hope for a bright future -- is off to a solid start as the two big man are outscoring opponents by 6.6 points when they’re on the floor together.
In general, the starting lineup -- long a sore spot for the Pistons -- a lineup leak for the past few season, is finally holding court. The reasons for Detroit’s ho-hum record has been their bench. Pretty much every bench-heavy lineup since the Griffin trade has taken a beating. But that’s actually good news!
With Reggie Jackson cleared to run again, the Pistons should hopefully be able to move current starter -- Ish Smith -- back to the bench again. All season long, Smith has been a positive force for the Pistons and, before Jackson’s injury, had a stellar plus/minus while featuring in those bench heavy units.
With Smith anchoring the bench again, the Pistons could finally have some much needed balance. But that all depends on how Griffin continues to bond with his current starters and, most importantly, Jackson upon his return. If Detroit’s new star continues to produce good results in those spots, it could save Van Gundy’s job and put the Pistons back into the playoffs.
2. Tomas Satoransky - Washington Wizards
It’s been quite the season for Satoransky so far. Entering the season, he was a forgotten man, slotted behind journeyman point guard Tim Frazier as an emergency third point guard. But as the season unfolded, Satoransky went from the bench, to the backup, to the booster shot for a lethargic club.
The latter part of Satoransky’s season arc has come over the past nine games that star point guard John Wall has missed due to an injured left knee. During that stretch, the Wizards have gone 7-2 with an impressive point differential of +6.3. It’s been quite a surprising development given the team seemed to be on the verge of imploding just before Wall’s injury.
Obviously, this kind of thing screams “fluke” given that Wall is an All-Star and Satoransky wasn’t even an established NBA player at the start of the season. But when you dive closer into the Wizards lineup data, this surge might have some staying power.
Though they’ve played half the minutes of Wall and Beal, Satoransky and Beal have actually been a better duo over the course of the season (+9.7 per 48 versus +6.1). It’s pretty obvious as to why. While Beal and Wall can get into a tug-of-war over the ball (exacerbated by Wall’s shot selection), Satoransky happily orchestrates the offense and gets out of the way -- the latter part helped by his improved 3-point shooting.
In the nine games Wall has missed, Satoransky and Beal have played 27.3 minutes together. That’s nearly triple their season average, per NBA.com. While there may be some underlying numbers that cause concern, that boost alone probably means that this Wizards run sans Wall isn’t some flash in the pan.
And if Satoransky keeps this up, it’s going to bring about some interesting questions for Washington going forward.
3. Bam Adebayo - Miami Heat
After spending the end of 2017 acclimating to the NBA, Miami’s young big man is starting to make an impact. Since January 1st, the Heat have been just as good with Adebayo on the court as they’ve been when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. That’s a hugely promising development for a 20-year-old averaging 20.6 minutes a night on a team in the hunt for the playoffs.
Especially with the Pistons ramping up their playoff push with the Griffin deal, the Heat are going to need Adebayo to continue to produce. But in order to do that, he may need a little help.
Though he’s been a net-neutral contributor overall, Adebayo hasn’t exactly lit it up with all his teammates. The combination of Hassan Whiteside and Adebayo has been blitzed by opponents in the 45 minutes they’ve played together in 2018. The same goes for when Adebayo and James Johnson join forces. In the 159 minutes those two have played together, Miami has been outscored by 9.4 points per 48 minutes.
The promising thing is that as bad as that duo has been, Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk have been equally awesome. In the 243 minutes that Adebayo and Olynyk have shared the floor since January 1st, Miami has smacked opponents by 10.3 points per 48. And it’s not hard to see why that’s the case.
Olynyk and Adebayo arguably form one of the tallest, longest and most mobile backcourts in the entire league. The benefits of that on defense go without saying. And offensively, Olynyk and Adebayo have skill sets that complement each other well. Olynyk is obviously most threatening near the perimeter while Adebayo has had his share of highlight reel dunks this year. Yet both players can switch roles and not see the offense suffer because of it.
As the playoff race heats up (no pun intended), it’d be smart of Miami to continue to lean on their precocious big man. But in order to make sure Adebayo stays a helpful cog, those minutes should come handcuffed to Olynyk as much as possible. And the more minutes those two play together, the more space that could develop between the Miami and their potential playoff challengers.
4. Joe Prunty - Milwaukee Bucks
It’s been almost a month since Milwaukee fired Jason Kidd and the Bucks are on a roll. After going 8-3 post Kidd, Milwaukee sits just a game out of a top four spot in the East (and the home-court advantage that comes with it). At the same time, the Bucks also have just a four game lead over the Pistons in ninth place. In other words, the narrative around Milwaukee could wind up in two wildly different places depending on how the couple months play out.
At the center of all that will be Prunty, Milwaukee’s interim head coach. In the 11 games under Prunty, the Bucks have made some marked improvements in both their defensive rating (107.5 under Kidd to 100.0 under Prunty) and overall point differential (-1.3 to +5.3). On the surface, those numbers obviously paint a rosy picture for Milwaukee moving forward.
Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Prunty benefitted from taking over the Bucks during a very soft stretch of their schedule. Only four of Milwaukee’s games since Prunty’s takeover have come against playoff teams. The Bucks went just 1-3 in those games with their sole win at home against the Sixers.
On top of that, Prunty’s defensive renaissance has benefitted from a little bit of luck. Milwaukee’s opponents are actually shooting more 3-point shots against them under Prunty (29.2 per game versus 26.1) but making far less of them (31.8 percent undery Prunty versus 38.1 percent under Kidd). Given that 3-point defense is notoriously fickle, the Bucks defense might experience the ugly side of variance at some point soon.
That doesn’t mean that Milwaukee is due for an epic fall from grace. The teams right in front of them in the standings -- Indiana and Washington -- have tougher schedules on the way in. And even though the Bucks defense is experiencing some good fortune in terms of opponents missing shots, their defense under Prunty has eliminated over six shots a game from the free throw line. That’s a big deal for a team that has one of the worst opponent free throw rates in the league, per NBAminer.
And despite injuries and the tricky task of re-integrating Parker into the fold, Prunty has done a good job maintaining a consistent rotation (typically sticking with nine players a night). It’s hard to pinpoint the exact, tangible benefits of this now, but two key contributors -- Eric Bledsoe and Thon Maker -- have seen their numbers jump after being freed from Kidd’s random rotation patterns. If Prunty can keep that up while easing Parker into a role, it will be big boost for Milwaukee’s stretch run.