There is no hiding in the NBA playoffs. As we have found out in past years, nothing brings out a team or player’s flaws or highlights their hidden strengths like a high-stakes, postseason games. That’s why it feels like we learn as much about teams dynamics in a seven-game playoff series as we do during an 82-game regular season. And just as we are set to find out what these 16 NBA playoff teams bring to the table, there’s been another club already helping us understand the value of skill integration: FC Barcelona.
Even if you don’t follow soccer, you’ve surely heard of Lionel Messi. Given Messi’s reputation, it wouldn’t shock you to find out he has his Barcelona club on pace for an undefeated season in La Liga (the Spanish soccer league). Like with basketball, a superstar leading a dominant team to a title isn’t some new fangled development. What links Barcelona to these upcoming playoffs isn’t the idea of having a Messi-type figure on your team, it’s how their dominance came from how they slotted in the talent around him to achieve this level of success.
If you wanted to boil Barcelona’s return to the top of La Liga down to one player, it wouldn’t be Messi or any of his other iconic teammates. As Mike Goodman detailed here at The Ringer, a big part of the club’s success this season was due to an unheralded Brazilian midfielder who had already failed in one of the sport’s bigger leagues. Though this next bit may seem meant for the soccer wonk, pay attention to Goodman discusses Paulinho’s skill set:
“If there’s one thing Paulinho does well, it’s run into the box and score goals. With Messi on the ball and [Luis] Suárez occupying the back line, Paulinho’s primary job at Barça has been to charge forward from midfield into space and make runs that have the same kind of effect on a defense that a winger’s might…..However, with Paulinho providing that extra body in the box, it’s now possible for Barcelona to repurpose a player to occupy the right-side attacking space. Leave the left wing for [Jordi] Alba (with help from Andrés Iniesta) and play a right winger in front of the more-reserved [Sergio] Roberto at right back.”
To translate that into generic sports terms, Paulinho’s skill set -- one that exiled him to China before this season -- put other teammates in positions to be successful while allowing the stars, like Messi, the platform to do their thing. Barcelona could have went with a ‘better’ player than Paulinho when overhauling their team this summer, but instead sought one with the best skill set. That choice has them poised for yet another title.
So with the NBA playoffs beginning, which of these teams may already have a Paulinho on their roster and which ones could suffer an early exit because they don’t? Let’s take a look and find out:
Houston Rockets: Luc Mbah a Moute
It was a huge blow that Mbah a Moute suffered a shoulder injury in the Rockets' penultimate regular season game. Now expected to be out up to four weeks, Houston will likely be without him until at least the second round. The fact that this is a big deal for the Rockets tells you just how much a player whose off-season addition was an afterthought means to the team.
Throughout his career, Mbah a Moute has floated between rosters due to his defensive versatility. For a Houston team looking to get past a Golden State team out west, a player with Mbah a Moute’s skill set couldn’t be more valuable to their chances. In addition, playing alongside two elite stars, a host of perimeter shooters and for head coach Mike D’Antoni has forced opponents to account for Mbah a Moute’s improved offensive contributions.
If there’s a role player that could make or break a title run, it’s likely Mbah a Moute.
Golden State Warriors: Quinn Cook
For over two years, any NBA team could have put Cook on their roster. Yet it wasn’t until finding his way onto the Warriors that Cook found his NBA footing.
Often disregarded because he lacked a true position, Golden State offered Cook a unique opportunity. For the most part, Cook does one thing well on a basketball court: shoot jumpers. On a lot of NBA teams, a 6-foot-2 jump shooter doesn’t work. But the Warriors aren’t like other clubs.
On Golden State, Cook is surrounded by better talent in a system that encourages and facilitates open jumpers. The aspects traditional point guards bring to the table in terms of playmaking and running a team aren’t necessary in Golden State. Draymond Green functions as the team’s primary playmaker and head coach Steve Kerr implements a college-like motion offense at times with lots of screening off-the-ball.
Because of this, Cook has fit in perfectly and helped the team withstand long absences from Steph Curry. Should Curry’s health continue to be a problem, Cook will could become a crucial rotation member -- even if most other NBA teams wouldn’t have him on their roster.
Boston Celtics: Greg Monroe
After being traded from Milwaukee to Phoenix, the Suns couldn’t find a single taker to flip him as they aggressively looked to acquire any type of asset for Monroe. Upon being bought out by Phoenix, Monroe signed with Boston -- a move that at the time seemed rather strange. Yet now with Kyrie Irving joining fellow star Gordon Hayward on the season-ending injury list, Monroe’s addition seems prescient.
Even before Irving went out for the year, the Celtics were a middling group when it came to scoring points. Without him, Boston has even less offensive punch. That means Monroe may become hugely valuable as the Celtics start their playoff run.
Because of the game’s shift toward the perimeter, defensively challenged post-brutes like Monroe have seen their value plummet. Yet for a great defensive unit like Boston, a team that employs a ton of switch-y wings and is extremely well-coached, Monroe’s defensive shortcomings can be somewhat mitigated. And on a team starving for offense, especially during a grinding playoff series, Monroe’s post game may be a lifeline for hybrid or reserve lineups that lack any good options.
If Boston is going to continuing surprising the league, Monroe’s postseason contributions will be a big reason why.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Jeff Green
Team after team has been frustrated by Green’s inability to turn potential into production. Despite always seeming a jumpshot away from being a hugely impactful player, Green never has become the fully-realized hooper GMs employing him have wanted. Yet in Cleveland, this “unfinished” version of Green is working just fine.
Playing with LeBron James often is a boost for role players, something Green has settled into at this stage of his career. In particular, the cerebral nature of James’ game combined with his passing ability has been used a tool to mitigate Green’s non-threatening perimeter jumper. During his time in Cleveland, Green has become a rather fearsome cutter, using movement off the ball to catch a laser from James to drop in a bucket on opponents.
Then on the other end of the floor, Green’s ho-hum defense works just fine when you remember that Cleveland’s primary goal is to keep James’ energy level high enough to carry the offensive load. By those standards, a team doesn’t need to worry that Green isn’t the lockdown defender his frame and athleticism have always suggested. He just needs to put forth effort on that end so James, well, doesn’t.
Utah Jazz: Jonas Jerebko
To be clear, Jerebko isn’t some plus/minus darling fueling Utah’s second half surge. In fact, the Jazz are almost three points better when he sits than when he plays. Yet Jerebko is hugely valuable to this club for one reason: he keeps them afloat while pairing in the frontcourt when one of Derrick Favors or Rudy Gobert head to the bench.
For a team like Utah, who lacks solid frontcourt options, Jerebko has been a massive frontcourt find. On other teams needing more punch, Jerebko’s glue-guy routine of moving the ball, playing with effort and occasionally knocking down an open shot would be found lacking. Yet the Jazz operate a bit differently.
With so many players in the backcourt and on the wing capable of creating offense, a ball-moving, selfless screener is ideal. And any minute the Jazz can hang with an opponent while Favors and Gobert sit, is a huge win. So if Utah is going to make a deep postseason run, Jerebko will be a huge part of it.