Welcome to the third annual All-Bullseye Team, which highlights five players who will be facing immense scrutiny during the upcoming playoffs. Be sure to check out the 2014 and 2015 versions of this list.
It’s certainly tempting to view the next three months as an extended, jubilant coronation. The Warriors’ absurd 54-5 record and Stephen Curry’s mind-boggling ascension seem worthy of that level of respect. But that’s an early March thought, not a late April one. Come playoff season, the teams that are currently staring up at the Warriors (and the Spurs and Cavaliers) will be shifting gears, first hoping to spring an upset and then weighing their off–season options should they fall short.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five players whose situations set them up for life under the microscope during the 2016 playoffs.
Isaiah Thomas, Celtics
Boston entered the 2015 playoffs playing with house money, thanks to a strong late-season push following the Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green trades, and then promptly went broke against Cleveland in the first round. There’s a totally different dynamic at play this season: The Celtics are on track to enter the playoffs with home-court advantage (although the East is tight enough that a late–season swoon could have disastrous consequences) with a roster that didn’t see any major midseason movement. Since January 1, Brad Stevens’s team has played like it's a No. 3 seed, posting the conference’s third-best record (18-11) and third-best point differential (+4.3). This is a squad whose performance deserves expectations: These guys should win a series, despite the many young faces that pepper the rotation.
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A similar story applies to Isaiah Thomas, Boston’s leading scorer (21.4 PPG) and assist man (6.8 APG). Last season, the 5'9" Thomas was simply the bearer of good vibes, arriving at the trade deadline and helping push the Celtics into the No. 7 seed. He found the playoffs to be much tougher sledding, as the Cavaliers’ long and quick backcourt defenders harassed him into 33.3% shooting during Cleveland’s four-game sweep. There was really no skin off his back: This was Thomas’s first exposure to postseason basketball after spending his first three seasons with the perpetually lottery-bound Kings.
But Thomas, who was selected to his first All-Star team this season, should welcome increased individual expectations this time around. Unlike last year’s 40-42 squad, Thomas will lead Boston into the playoffs with a clear identity: The Celtics play at the league’s third-fastest pace, they have forced a league-leading number of turnovers, and they have tabbed him as the clear No. 1 scorer.
Although Thomas’s shooting numbers aren’t sparkling (42% overall and 34% from deep), it’s worth noting that he’s often operating under duress given Boston’s shortage of playmakers and that he’s compensated from an efficiency standpoint by getting to line a career-high 6.2 times per game. He’s also posted strong numbers in clutch situations. This year, Thomas is shooting 47.2% overall and 37.5% from deep in games that are within five points in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime, putting the 2011 second-round pick among the league’s leading clutch scorers.
2015–16 Clutch Scoring Leaders
Reggie Jackson, Pistons: 141 points
Kemba Walker, Hornets: 129 points
Isaiah Thomas, Celtics: 128 points
James Harden, Rockets: 128 points
Paul George, Pacers: 127 points
Kevin Durant, Thunder: 126 points
Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves: 107 points
Dwyane Wade, Heat: 107 points
Stephen Curry, Warriors: 107 points
Russell Westbrook, Thunder: 106 points
Nevertheless, Boston has dealt with its share of inconsistency in close games this season, posting a 17-17 record in games that go to “clutch” situations. If the Celtics are going to play to their potential in the postseason, Thomas will factor heavily in their late-game success. And, because he’s undersized and his presence therefore poses problems defensively, it’s even more imperative that he find ways to get it going.
At his best, Thomas is an entertaining and devastating weapon who is blessed with a great handle to create looks for himself and a natural scorer’s instinct and touch.
Here, Thomas gets a switch onto a longer, slower defender, expertly milking the advantage in space before racing to the basket for an and-one.
On this one, Thomas sizes up a strong defender, Draymond Green, before catching him off guard with a burst to the basket for a clean lay-up late in a close game. Beating Green on a key play in a tight game is no small achievement.
This third clip shows Thomas using a beautiful stutter-step move to freeze Utah’s defense and set up another point-blank basket that proved key in a tight, tense contest that Boston wound up winning.
It’s too early yet to play the matchup game, as Boston’s playoff positioning has yet to fully shake out. Regardless of who the Celtics draw, and which defenders Thomas will face, the playoffs should serve as Thomas’s longest and most important “alpha dog” audition yet.
DeMar DeRozan, Raptors
Before the All-Star break, SI.com examined Toronto’s strong, steady season, noting that the playoffs have make-or-break potential for Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, and have big implications for Kyle Lowry, whose case to be included among the NBA’s top five point guards could really use some postseason success. Toronto has gone 4-2 since the All-Star break, highlighted by a home victory over Cleveland that saw Lowry deliver a career-high 43 points and the game-winner. With 11 home games in March, the Raptors should have every opportunity to set a new franchise record for wins (surpassing last season’s 49) and finish with a top two seed. Life is good in The Six.
For DeMar DeRozan, the 2016 playoffs will be more about bolstering his reputation than maximizing his earning potential. The 26-year-old wing has made the most of his contract year, scoring a career-high 23.1 PPG, getting to the line a career-high 8.2 times, dishing a career-high 4.1 assists, shooting a career-best (and almost passable) 34.3% from deep, and posting a career-best 21.1 PER. He's set to hit the market this summer as the top unrestricted shooting guard, and he has every reason to believe he should command a max contract, whether in Toronto or from outside suitors. The shortage of in-their-prime scoring wings on this summer’s market should guarantee DeRozan a hefty pay day and his next deal could push into nine-figure territory thanks to the rising salary cap. Ca-ching.
Still, that reputation needs bolstering and the time is now given Toronto’s record relative to the rest of the East (the Raptors are 4.5 games up on the No. 3 Celtics). DeRozan has done well to work around his lack of range this season, attacking deep into the paint, making strides as a drive-and-dish guy and cutting down on his long twos this season (just 24.3% of his shots are long twos this year, the first time in his career he’s been under 31%). Nevertheless, there are fundamental questions: he creates the vast majority of his shots for himself (which can lead to pounding, ball-stopping and settling), Toronto has defended far better with him off the court (95.9 defensive rating) than on (104.5 defensive rating) this season and he proved to be surprisingly easy to shut down during the 2015 playoffs.
In a four-game sweep at the hands of the Wizards, DeRozan shot just 40% from the field, got to the line just 4.3 times per game, and struggled to generate high percentage looks against a defense playing at playoff intensity. What’s more, he didn’t hit a single shot during clutch situations during the series (within five points, in the last five minutes of regulation or overtime).
Here’s a look at a few of his clutch misses from last year’s playoffs. Note that he’s creating for himself, as he generally prefers to do, and that the one-on-one play kills the team flow and leads to contested looks that defenses love.
Unfortunately, Toronto’s big win over Cleveland produced a minor dose of DeRozan-related déjà vu. Playing through an illness, DeRozan shot just 1-for-11 from the field. DeRozan deserves a pass given the health-related circumstances, but the rough showing during a high-intensity, playoff-type game was a reminder of last year’s disappointment. Plus, tough matchups with the likes of Indiana’s Paul George or Chicago’s Jimmy Butler could be waiting in the first round. It’s not that hard to envision either George or Butler taking DeRozan out of his game with their ball-hawking perimeter defense. That would seriously impact Toronto’s ability to deliver on its advance-or-else expectations, wouldn’t it?
There are max contracts that teams can’t wait to hand out, and there are max contracts that teams offer through gritted teeth. A big showing in the postseason, perhaps with some memorable late-game heroics, could help land DeRozan in the former category, rather than the latter. But another first-round flop might leave him trending towards a Joe Johnson-like existence.
Harrison Barnes, Warriors
Rick Reilly’s cover story for this week’s Sports Illustrated illuminates the care-free feeling to Golden State’s title defense and run at 73 wins. One recurring theme from the story: Historically great runs never last forever.
It would be a major mistake to look past the Warriors’ current success simply to agonize over the future. Why wait for decades to witness this level of greatness only to dwell in its eventual demise?
However, there are practical concerns for the Warriors as they approach the playoffs, whether or not they eclipse the 1996 Bulls. Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli are set to become restricted free agents. The salary cap is set to spike this summer, helping Golden State keep its super team together or helping it build an even more talented version. Kevin Durant rumors are already flying. There are other issues down the road: Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala will be in contract yea