The second half of the NBA season is almost underway. Players are coming off a fairly relaxing All-star break, prepared to step up in the next 35-or-so games coming up. However, some teams have truly underperformed, and they really need their stars to break out and step up.
The six key players that need to step up can provide that slight spark to their team to keep their playoff hopes alive. (Some players have been injured; however, their team’s record is disparate with vs. without them.)
Note: If you’re in the East, you automatically have a chance to qualify for the playoffs at this point. There is only a three-game difference between the fourth-seeded Celtics and the 11th-seeded Hawks. The west has much more distinguished teams in the top eight.
Kemba Walker is one of the six key players that need to step up. The former all-star point guard started extremely slow when he first returned from injury in January. Boston lost five of its first six games with Walker playing, a statistic that they may have attributed to him. However, since the beginning of February, the Celtics are 9-5 with Walker playing; he is averaging more than 20 points and five assists per game since then and has Boston at fourth in the west.
If, and only if, Walker continues to play at a high level (even if he’s not the “old Kemba Walker”), the Celtics can have a surefire playoff run with his leadership and veteran experience. All-stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have carried the load well, but Walker has certainly added the boost they need. With Smart returning from injury as well, the Celtics can definitely turn this ship around.
Malcolm Brogdon has been fantastic all season, averaging career highs in minutes, points, and steals per game. Even with forward Domantas Sabonis named an all-star, Brogdon has provided great leadership for the young Pacers squad all season. However, Indiana is number nine in the east right now, and some of this can be attributed to Brogdon.
The Pacers have lost nine of their 20 games when Brogdon scores under 20 points. They had a four-game losing streak in February when he had four straight games with 15 or less. Perhaps it’s a lot to ask for a slightly “above-average” player, but his team expects a lot of out him now; if he underperforms, they can count themselves out of the playoffs.
Russel Westbrook is one of six key players that need to step up. For the fifth time in his career, Westbrook nearly averaged a triple-double with over 20 points and just under 10 assists and 10 rebounds. While this is impressive, the Wizards are number 12 in the East, currently 1.5 games behind the Hawks. But after losing five straight with Westbrook at the start of February, it seemed as if he was the problem. However, since that five-game losing streak, Washington is 8-4, and much of that can be attributed to Westbrook (even if all-star Bradley Beal is first in the league in scoring).
Westbrook has certainly been distributing the ball more, averaging 11 assists in this 12-game streak. Beal, talking about winning, said,
“It feels different. It feels different in a great way. It feels great at the same time; we still haven’t done a damn thing. We’re still hungry for more. We still have games to make up, still have bad habits which we got to correct and be better at.… So, happy about it but at the same time have a humble-like approach.”
Still, two things are holding Westbrook and the Wizards back from being a surefire playoff team. First, Westbrook has been known to be a stat-padder; he still has been doing this recently, but he’s doing a better job identifying when his shots are not going and simply making the extra pass instead.
When he’s not shooting very well, his stats show that he has more assists in those games. (He went 8-22 from the field one game but supplied 15 assists in a win over the Rockets.) Second of all, Westbrook is averaging a career-low in free throw percentage, at a shocking 57.9%. For a player who averages nearly six free throws per game this season, this isn’t very good, to say the least. These few points can make a huge difference moving forward.
Draymond Green is one of six key players that need to step up. For the third straight season, Green is averaging a triple-single, but he is sixth in the league in assists per game. He has been very underwhelming in scoring, averaging the second least points in his career at 5.7 per game. The Warriors are currently sitting right outside of the playoffs at number nine; if Green continues to score like this, they will be sitting there for the rest of the season.
In fact, Golden State has not lost a game when Green scores in double digits (no matter if he’s only done this five times). Of course, they have one of the best shooters and offensive threats in the league in all-star Stephen Curry, but Green needs to return to his championship self for the Warriors to make the playoffs and then make a deep run.
For a player who averages almost 30 minutes a game, six points will not cut it. He is the glue to this team, a great and vocal leader, and a stellar defender, but if he doesn’t start scoring the ball more, the Warriors won’t get anywhere.
One of the most hard-working and best all-around players in the league, Butler has missed 14 games this season due to injuries. Miami has only won four games without Butler, and all of those wins have been within nine points. As if we didn’t already know, Butler is the key to the Heat’s success; heck, he led them to the Finals last season.
With so many young guys, the Heat need vets like Butler and Andre Iguodala to step up and lead at all times. Thankfully, Butler has been fairly healthy since his injury in January, but they need him to stay healthy for the rest of the season to stay in contention.
Several NBA insiders counted Miami out of the playoffs just a couple of weeks ago, but now, they are sitting at number six in the east. Miami is on a six-game win streak when Butler has played. They have to make sure he doesn’t take too much of the load like he did last year in the finals.
Wood has been the source of the Rockets’ success. Since he got injured in early February, the Rockets have not won a game – they are on a 13-game losing streak, the most for any team this season. As faint as it seems, the Rockets still can make the playoffs once Wood and Victor Oladipo return from injury.
Perhaps they weren’t a great team before Wood got injured, but in almost every game this season, either stud point guard John Wall, or Oladipo, or Wood has been injured. If all of them, especially Wood, who’s averaging a double-double this season, can stay healthy, they can make a solid playoff run.
There is not much Houston can do besides keeping everyone healthy. Wood has been a star player this season and is in solid contention for Most Improved Player.