The NBA’s top talents will be on full display in the second round, with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard both looking near the peak of their powers. But the league’s superstars may not decide the 2020 postseason. The right role player can change a series in serious fashion, whether it be as a three-point specialist or defensive ace. Fred VanVleet emerged as a Finals hero in 2019. Matthew Dellavedova shut down Stephen Curry for significant stretches in 2015. Put a nonstar in the right situation, and he can thrive.
So which role players could make a major imprint on the title race in 2020? Let’s sort through the candidates.
Fred VanVleet, Raptors
Perhaps VanVleet is a bit overqualified for this conversation considering his 2019 Finals heroics, but it’s clear he needs to be the catalyst for Toronto as it struggles to stay alive against Boston. Pascal Siakam has been neutralized by Boston’s impact wings. Marc Gasol is struggling to produce against Daniel Theis. The Raptors’ clearest advantage lies in its dynamic backcourt, but neither Kyle Lowry nor VanVleet have held up their end of the bargain.
VanVleet has particularly struggled vs. Boston. He went 3-for-16 from the field en route to a game-worst minus-28 in Game 1, and he missed nine of 12 threes in Game 2. We shouldn’t bury the champs just yet. But without a revival from VanVleet, this series will end sooner than later.
Gary Harris, Nuggets
Denver survived a late surge from Utah in Game 7 on Tuesday as the franchise advanced to Round 2 for the second straight year. What’s the Nuggets’ reward for dispatching the Jazz? A date with Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers.
Perhaps Los Angeles will struggle to contain Nikola Jokic to a degree, but it’s likely the Clippers will run roughshod over Denver’s poor defense. Jamal Murray is expected to be hunted in the pick-and-roll, and Michael Porter Jr.’s minutes could be severely limited if he has to guard Leonard or Paul George. Perhaps Harris can shoulder the defensive burden. The Michigan State product appeared to be a rising star after 2017–18, but his production has cratered across the last two seasons. Harris isn’t the largest wing in the world, but he’s dogged and quite intelligent. If he shoots well enough to stay on the floor, perhaps Denver has a fighting chance of making this a series.
Goran Dragic, Heat
Dragic spent much of the season relegated to a bench role as Kendrick Nunn assumed starting point guard duties, but the playoffs have necessitated a key change for Erik Spoelstra. Nunn’s inexperience has led to a significant cut in minutes, and Dragic is thriving in his increased role. Miami’s point guard has averaged 23.6 points per game in five playoff contests, including a 27-point effort in a Game 1 win over the Bucks on Monday. Milwaukee doesn’t have the personnel to contain Dragic if Eric Bledsoe remains hurt. And even if Milwaukee’s point guard returns, Bledsoe doesn’t exactly have the most sterling track record. If Miami pulls of the upset, expect an impressive series from Dragic.
P.J. Tucker, Rockets
The Rockets haven’t advanced to the second round as of Wednesday morning, but Tucker’s potential task against Anthony Davis is too juicy not to discuss.
Tucker is perhaps the toughest rim protector in the league, and, paired with Robert Covington, the Rockets have a formidable frontcourt. But Anthony Davis is a true outlier. It’s hard to see him bothered in the post by James Harden, and he can rise up over nearly any player in the NBA. But perhaps Tucker is well suited to slow Davis. Tucker has no problem sacrificing his body for a charge, and he understands personnel better than nearly any defender in basketball. The Rockets will be significant underdogs vs. Los Angeles if they beat the Thunder, and rightfully so. But Tucker will make things tough on Davis.
Dennis Schröder, Thunder
Let’s imagine the flip side of Game 7 on Wednesday as the Thunder advance to a series with the Lakers. Danilo Gallinari won’t be able to feast against smaller wings, while Chris Paul remains overqualified for an appearance here. But his fellow point guard is perhaps the best pick for a second-round x-factor.
Schröder has torched the Rockets for much of the first six games in Round 1, and he could provide a similar edge vs. Los Angeles. The Lakers are bereft of backcourt pieces following a string of injuries and an opt-out, and it’s hard to see Alex Caruso containing Schröder’s speed. It’s been a delightful revival for the former Hawks points guard. Perhaps his magical run could continue against LeBron and the Lakers.