Just ask the Miami Heat: Even the worst team in the NBA is one monster season by one player away from getting back in the playoff picture. And it doesn’t always have to be a superstar putting in an MVP-caliber effort, either. Every one of this year’s 14 Lottery squads has one player who, if he produces a career year (or simply does what he’s supposed to do), can swing his team’s fortunes as a postseason contender. In this three-part series, we’ll identify those guys who need to step it up:
D.J. AUGUSTIN, PG, Bobcats
Charlotte wasn’t that far from making its first-ever playoff appearance — finishing five games behind 8th-seed Detroit — but were often hurt by late-game execution and the lack of a dependable shooter in crunch-time. In short, they need a closer to bolster the NBA’s worst offense (93.6 ppg). Allen Iverson dream-scenarios aside, Augustin (11.8 ppg, 3.5 apg) can fill that role. Last season D.J. was the team’s best three-point shooter overall (43%), and its top fourth-quarter scorer (4.3 pts), knocking down 46% beyond the arc and 88% from the line in the fourth.
The challenge is getting Augustin on the court at the end of games; he and Ray Felton make for an undersized backcourt that leaves the ‘Cats vulnerable against bigger guards. If Larry Brown can figure out a way to get Augustin crunch-time minutes without sacrificing too much defensively, Charlotte will win more close games.
ANDREA BARGNANI, C, Raptors
You know what you’re getting from Jose Calderon, Chris Bosh, and even new addition Hedo Turkoglu, but Bargnani is the X-factor who can take the Raps to the next level. As a center with three-point range (40.9% 3PA), he can do for Toronto what Mehmet Okur does for Utah, drawing opposing big men out of the paint to make things easier for Bosh and open up the lane for slashers like DeMar DeRozan.
Bargnani (15.4 ppg) is also a good passer; with him, Calderon and Hedo on the floor at once, better ball movement and a more balanced offense is the natural byproduct. And if Bargs ups his rebounding (5.3 rpg), that’s just icing.
ANDREW BOGUT, C, Bucks
A roster built to run and gun still needs an interior anchor. Milwaukee can crank up the tempo with new additions like Brandon Jennings and Hakim Warrick, but somebody needs to rebound the ball and ideally be able to produce some offense when things slow down later in games.
Bogut played in just 36 games last year due to injuries, but when he’s healthy, he’s an efficient scorer (11.7 ppg) and solid rebounder (10.3 rpg); had he played enough games to qualify, Bogut would’ve been in the NBA’s Top-5 in field-goal percentage (57.7%) and offensive rebounds (3.3 orpg). Bogut also brings some toughness and size to a roster that needs it.
COREY BREWER, SF, Timberwolves
While Brewer sat out almost all of last season with a knee injury, hopefully he watched a lot of Lakers games and saw his future in Trevor Ariza. Long, athletic, quick and defensively gifted, Brewer is an Ariza clone, one of those role players every playoff team needs. Minnesota allowed 102 points per game last year; if Brewer helps get that number down and Jonny Flynn, Wayne Ellington and a healthy Al Jefferson maintain some offensive punch, the Wolves should get a few more wins.
MIKE CONLEY JR., PG, Memphis
This was your typical Grizzlies’ possession last year: Conley brings the ball up, O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay run off down-screens to each wing, and whichever one of those two has the best shot jacks it up. While O.J. and Rudy got their points, Memphis still finished 29th in the League in scoring (93.8 ppg) and last-place in assists (17.3 apg).
When Conley (10.9 ppg, 4.3 apg) is a scoring threat, however, the Grizzlies automatically become more potent and less predictable. In the month of April, when Conley bumped his numbers up to 15 points and almost six assists a night, Memphis went 5-4 and averaged 106 points in those five wins. Conley improved his outside shot last year (40%), but he’s still inconsistent; he’ll go 3-for-4 beyond the arc one night, then 1-for-6 the next. And according to 82games.com, 95% of the threes Conley did hit were assisted, so presumably he’d capitalize off more catch-and-shoot looks provided by Zach Randolph, who will draw double-teams.
Conley also needs to step it up as a playmaker. His 4.3 assists per game was among the lowest for regular starting PG’s in the League, and with Z-Bo added to the mix as a scorer who needs touches, it’s on Conley to keep Mayo, Gay and Randolph satisfied. He can also play a role in the development of rookie Hasheem Thabeet, who will need a lot of support (i.e. spoon-feeding easy buckets) to become more than an offensive liability.