"The Point Forward All-Stars" will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. This week: five up-and-coming guards who have a chance to break out in the 2014 playoffs.
Previously: The All-Grateful Team | The East's All-Letdown Team | The All-Atrocious Team | The All-Ignored Team | The All-Stocking Stuffer Team | The All-Recalibration Team | The All-Payday Team | The All-Gridiron Team | The All-Sanctioned Team | The All-Dunk Contest Team | The Non-Champions | The All-Gold Strike Team | The All-Tank Team | The All-Bullseye Team | The All-Four-Year Team | The All-Lifeline Team
Those are the two words on the lips of most NBA observers right now, as the playoffs sit just a few weeks into the future, teasing us. Although the league's entire 16-team postseason field isn't set yet, we're getting closer by the day: eight teams are already in for sure and others are nearing the prized "x" designation in the standings.
The epic Memphis/Phoenix/Dallas three-way death-match at the bottom of the West still needs sorting, and Atlanta faces late challenges from New York and Cleveland for the East's final spot. Prevailing in these tense bubble races will almost certainly need to be a self-standing accomplishment. Sneaking in on the fringes of this year's playoffs means a first-round match-up with one of the San Antonio/Oklahoma City/Miami/Indiana fab four, and that could certainly mean a quick exit.
As we continue to enjoy the blood pressure-spiking intrigue that will define these races, it's also worth casting an eye towards the developing field. The East will likely have three new teams this year (Toronto, Washington and Charlotte), while the West will have at least one (Portland) with the possibility of two others (Phoenix and/or Dallas). That new blood means there's the potential for new standouts: last year's playoffs produced increased profiles for Stephen Curry, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, among others, and this year's field will welcome multiple first-time All-Stars and a host of other up-and-coming talents.
The Point Forward has previously discussed the potential for Wizards guard John Wall to take the next step reputation-wise during the playoffs, and noted that Pacers guard Lance Stephenson could set himself up for a financial windfall in free agency if he rises to the occasion during a long playoff run. Here are five more young perimeter players who could help write this year's postseason story, while adding chapters to their own books.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
It's hard -- no, impossible -- to be the "Next Stephen Curry" when the man himself is still alive, kicking and draining gorgeous game-winners with total ease. But there are enough similarities between Blazers guard Damian Lillard and Curry to justify a comparison, at least one with qualifiers.
Both are fearless, both have deep range, both are willing to pull the trigger from anywhere without a second thought, both have ultra-green lights, both possess multi-dimensional offensive games that keep opposing defenses honest, and both seem to live for late-game moments. Both share overlooked, small-school backgrounds, and Lillard enjoyed a strong sophomore season that earned him his first All-Star appearance, much like Curry's breakout last season translated into an All-Star starting nod this year.
Like everyone else in the world, Lillard, 23, falls short when it comes to matching Curry's efficiency from deep (2014 Lillard is shooting 38.8 percent from deep, compared to 2013 Curry's outrageous 45.3 percent). However, it should be noted that he is the only player in the entire league who comes close to hoisting as often as Curry. Through Tuesday, Curry led the league with 557 three-point attempts, with Lillard on his heels at 523.
Much like Curry -- who starts alongside his so-called "Splash Brother" Klay Thompson -- Lillard happens to be paired with another high-volume three-point launcher in Wesley Matthews (who ranks No. 4 in three-pointers attempted this season, trailing, you guessed it, Curry, Lillard and Thompson). Portland's focus on the arc extends past its backcourt and, indeed, past only the offensive side of the ball. The Blazers rank No. 1 in the league in three-pointers made and No. 2 when it comes to fewest three-pointers conceded. In other words, whether or not the Blazers succeed in recreating the Warriors' magic from the 2013 playoffs, they will be raising the volatility level of their first-round series by bombing and bombing and bombing.
Right now, Portland is tracking to the West's No. 5 seed and a first-round date with Houston, a team that is tied with Portland for the league's fifth-most efficient offense and one that loves a shootout as much as anybody. The Blazers' next most likely opponent, the Clippers, is the West's best offensive unit with plenty of capable outside shooters themselves. Houston would offer Lillard a rematch against the tenacious (and currently sidelined) Patrick Beverley, with whom he recently exchanged words; L.A.'s Chris Paul presents the ultimate test for any young point guard. Either opponent will require Lillard to step up as a scorer, as LaMarcus Aldridge will have his hands full trying to play either Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin to a draw.
Even though his youth ensures that his first taste of the playoffs will be a no-risk, all-reward type of affair, Lillard simply isn't the overly patient or complacent type. Add all of this up -- his personality, the nature of his game, the style of his team, the thrilling potential match-ups, and the positional tests he could face -- and Lillard joins Wizards guard John Wall as the postseason newcomers to watch this year.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
No team has been overlooked like Toronto this season. There has been an obvious explanation for that: the Raptors have resided in the third spot in a two-team conference, the standings version of a giant blind spot.
There's an anonymity factor at play with the roster as well. The Point Forward has pointed out Kyle Lowry's All-Star snub, made a point to highlight Amir Johnson's impact, and noted the steady, year-after-year improvement of DeMar DeRozan. Even so, this feels like a team that could be 32-42 just as easily as it is 42-32, if GM Masai Ujiri hadn't moved out Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay, and if the remaining pieces hadn't so thoroughly adopted such a committed style of play. If given the choice of Toronto's roster, Chicago's roster (even without Rose) or Washington's roster or Brooklyn's roster, it's quite possible that the Raptors would come out fourth, on paper. That they are headed for a division title and battling with the Bulls for the third seed should merit Dwane Casey -- who entered the season on the hot seat -- some serious Coach of the Year consideration.
Lowry has become practically synonymous with "bulldog" this season, but let's not leave DeRozan out of that equation either. In Year Five, DeRozan has rewritten his previous reputation as a raw leaper with little else going for him. The 24-year-old guard has played the third-most minutes in the league for a team that boasts a No. 7 ranked defense, and he's turned himself into a top-10 scorer largely through will power. He's shooting a career-best 30.1 percent from deep -- which is still rough -- but he's filled out his game in other areas, registering career-highs in rebounds, assists, Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares.
Perhaps most importantly, he's doing exactly what a player with his physical talents (and lack of range) should do: get to the free-throw line. DeRozan currently ranks No. 5 in the league in free-throw attempts, trailing only Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. He might not have the smoothest handle or the prettiest stroke, but DeRozan deserves praise for figuring out how to maximize his usefulness in a way that takes a physical toll. It's no easy task getting to the line more often than James Harden, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Paul George. One relevant point of comparison: DeRozan's 7.4 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes blow away the 4.4 per 36 minutes put up by Gay in Toronto last season. Gay, to his credit, ranks in the top 20 in free throws this season, but imagining him getting to the free-throw line almost eight times a game, night in and night out, is a truly scary hypothetical for defenses. DeRozan, in this way, has been a scary reality for opponents.
Until he picks up his overall shooting numbers, DeRozan is bound to be short-changed as an overall threat, and rightfully so. His shot charts are awash in yellow and red, and he's one of only three players in the league this season attempting 17 shots a night while shooting less than 44 percent (George and Kyrie Irving are the others). Some of that inefficiency can be attributed to the burden placed on him as a top option on a team without an overwhelming amount of one-on-one offensive firepower around him, but some of it is still just a need for further skill refinement.
It's reasonable to assume that DeRozan might struggle under the weight of a defense that can gameplan for his strengths and weaknesses; it's also reasonable to assume that his potency (he has 16 games of 30+ points this season) might catch the basketball world off-guard, creating some headlines in the process.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Back in January, The Point Forward noted that Wizards guard John Wall will have the opportunity to really lay claim to a spot in the top-five point guard discussion. Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson and Ricky Rubio will all miss the postseason due to injuries or their team's records, and the East's backcourt situation is such that Wall just might be the biggest name in the field.
You can bet that Wall will be the primary focus of attention for Washington's postseason opponents. The bad news for him: his most likely first-round match-ups are the Bulls and Raptors, who are the East's second- and third-ranked defenses, respectively. Wall is at his best in the open court -- few can keep up with him speed-wise and hardly anyone catch match his deftness at full throttle -- and he's surely already preparing for a postseason reality in which transition baskets are much more difficult to come by.
Washington plays at a slightly below-average pace and they are shooting 38.7 percent from deep this season, better than everyone in the league except San Antonio, so they shouldn't be expected to fold up shop if Wall does find himself a bit restricted. A somewhat-out-of-nowhere mid-career three-point shooting bonanza from Trevor Ariza and the dependable marksman Martell Webster give Wall options when it comes to spacing the floor in the halfcourt, but 2012 No. 3 pick Bradley Beal is the most tantalizing secondary option. A 41.4 percent three-point shooter this season, he joins Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis as the only under-22 players averaging at least 16 points a night. His shooting range, calm demeanor and polish makes it easy to envision him as an All-Star in the near future, even though his 40.7 field goal percentage and 13.7 PER are more in line with what you might expect from a developing prospect.
With Wall facing either a dog fight against Lowry or the endless nightmare that is Tom Thibodeau's defense, the defining question for Washington's postseason may very well be: How ready is Beal to help right now? If Damian Lillard's best-case scenario this offseason is "The Next Stephen Curry," then perhaps Beal's goal should be "The Next Klay Thompson." While the Warriors guard wasn't necessarily a reliable every night scorer during last year's playoffs, he was a key lead option following an injury to David Lee. Thompson did most of his best work from behind the arc -- sinking five threes in a first-round win over the Nuggets and eight threes in a second-round win over the Spurs -- as a designated "make teams pay for over-committing to Curry" weapon. Wall's own lack of range makes him easier to contain than Curry, but his ability off the dribble should create plenty of opportunities for his fellow perimeter players. That's where Beal could theoretically step in.
Big picture: this postseason will mostly be about getting reps for both Wall and Beal, as their brightest days are clearly ahead of them. Bonus points for their ceiling if the 20-year-old Beal can make a meaningful impact in just his second season.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats
A few months back, The Point Forward began getting excited about the possibility of a Bobcats postseason appearance, as it would offer Al Jefferson a chance to make a major impact in the playoffs for the first time in his career. Although Charlotte hasn't yet guaranteed a playoff spot, they are 4.5 games up on No. 9 New York with eight games to play. With five very winnable contests remaining on their schedule, they are on the cusp of punching their first playoff ticket since 2010. They will likely hold the East's No. 7 seed, even though they are currently just under .500 at 36-38.
Once that spot becomes official, two very different groups of people will get the chance to look at each other face-to-face. The first group: Kemba Walker Fan Club members who were perplexed last fall when their favorite talented scoring guard was not included on SI.com's "Top 100 Players of 2014" list. The second group: Sports talk radio show hosts who have asked me, on many occasions and as recently as Tuesday, "Michael Jordan's team is going to be in the playoffs? Really? Wow, how did that happen?"
The postseason will provide answers -- and perhaps some surprises -- to both sides. Walker's backers will get to see how his 40 percent shooting stands up when the Heat or Pacers are playing with a playoff intensity, while hoping that he can create enough offense with his dynamic on-ball persona to make things interesting. The casual audience, who has had every reason to ignore the Bobcats in recent years, will get to be reintroduced to Walker for the first time since his UConn days, while also meeting a Charlotte defense that has shocked the world by ranking in the top-10 this season under first-year coach Steve Clifford.
Jefferson, Walker and company enter the postseason free of expectations thanks to Charlotte's young roster, draft pick hoarding, and the popular "Hornets" re-branding that's coming next season. Really, this is a unique position: even if the Bobcats were to get swept in embarrassing fashion by the Heat, the story would instantly change to the excitement around the return of an iconic team name, color scheme, mascot and everything else. Carefree is a good way to live for a 23-year-old, score-first point guard, especially one who is extension-eligible in the summer.
If nothing else, the 2014 playoffs will be helpful for placing Walker on the totem pole. This season, he's ranked No. 5 in PER among East point guards, squeezed in between Deron Williams and Brandon Knight, which is a pretty vague existence. His advocates see his 18 points/5.9 assists averages and wonder why he's not talked about with the rest of the 18+/5+ guys, who are almost all All-Stars. His skeptics look at his team's record and his shooting numbers (40 percent overall, 33.7 percent from deep) and wonder why he's even being mentioned at all. Whether Charlotte makes things interesting or goes quietly into the night, Walker will get the opportunity to take a stage that matters for the first time since winning the 2011 Most Outstanding Player award as his Huskies captured the title.
Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
The last spot on this list of five is a bit up for grabs because Eric Bledsoe, Kyrie Irving and others aren't yet guaranteed to be postseason performers. Three other guards -- Reggie Jackson, Patrick Beverley and Lance Stephenson -- will surely be key factors for Oklahoma City, Houston and Indiana, but they already made names for themselves during the 2013 playoffs.
Let's fill this void with an off-the-wall selection: Spurs guard Patty Mills. Unlike the other four names on this list, he's not a starter (he backs up Tony Parker), he wasn't a lottery pick (he was taken No. 55 overall in the 2009 draft), and he was known mostly for towel-waving for a good chunk of his early career. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich also recently referred to Mills as a "little fat ass" last season, the type of phrase a coach might use to describe a career reserve (in very rare cases) but absolutely never wield against a franchise player. At 25, the Aussie is a little older than the rest of the bunch, too, and unlike the others he isn't a playoff newbie (he has a whopping 79 postseason minutes to his name).
So why Mills? First: he plays for San Antonio, a fact that can't be overstated. The Spurs' recent winning streak has featured some insanely dominant play, and they must be considered a top championship contender. Get used to watching them if you're not already, because they are going to be around for awhile. Second: Mills has solidified a rotation spot behind Parker this season, getting more minutes than fellow reserve Cory Joseph on a roster that no longer includes Gary Neal and Nando de Colo. Third: Mills knows exactly who he is, a team-first, happy-go-lucky, undersized jitterbug who plays hard, can shoot the rock and has done well to cut down his turnover rate this season.
San Antonio has such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Hall of Fame talent, secondary play-makers and shooters that trying to guess which guy will emerge in any given playoff series is a fool's errand. (Who had Danny Green as the almost-MVP of the 2013 Finals?) Parker's minutes will pick up in the playoffs, which could limit Mills' night-to-night impact, but you can be sure that Popovich will ride Mills when he has it going. There's a very good chance that Popovich will need meaningful minutes from Mills somewhere along the way, as Jackson, Jeremy Lin, Darren Collison, Mo Williams, and Steve Blake are all potential back-up point guard match-ups that San Antonio might see on its path back to the Finals. Mills plays with a rare glee that could provide a timely spark at some point over the next few months.