Who Stands to Gain the Most from the NBA Bubble? (Part 3)
A few weeks ago, we talked about the players that stood to gain the most from the NBA bubble, from players already on our list to those who could put themselves in pyramid contention. As the playoffs begin, we wanted to highlight a third class of player — the veteran. Some of these players already have a spot on our top 100 and are looking for a ring to bolster an already strong resume. For some a championship is the missing piece for a top 100, 150, or 200 spot. These aren’t bench-warming ring chasers; they just might be the difference makers in a big series.
Isaac: Here’s my list for Top 10 power forwards of the decade in an approximate order.
This list was surprisingly easy. There aren’t any cuts I feel particularly bad about. Garnett only had a couple of good years after the 2010 Finals. Ibaka isn’t close to this level offensively. David West isn’t quite there either. Giannis can’t really be called a PF (or anything else for that matter). Pau Gasol played more centre than forward this decade.
I’ve been a Horford stan for years, and it does feel like he’s gotten most of the respect he deserved. He’s 18th in Win Shares over the past decade, and a top 15–20 player for a decent chunk of that time, despite only one All-NBA 3rd Team to his name. Kyrie’s off-court antics aside, few would argue Horford was the Celtics’ most important player the past couple years. He was also the most important player on the memorable 2014–15 60-win Hawks. What I like about Horford is that his evolution and skills seem attainable. Many encapsulations of the modern big man are not realistic; the Jokics, Porzingises, and Giannises of the world don’t just plop into a team’s lap every day. That’s why they’re called unicorns. Horford’s versatility as a big man in today’s era has been extremely impressive, and comes more from what he’s added to his game than his natural talents. The Sixers in part acquired him so Embiid didn’t have to face him. I’m sure this season has not been what the Sixers imagined going in, and after Ben Simmons’ injury it’s hard to imagine Horford achieving a whole lot this postseason; so to answer the question the title of this article poses, Horford doesn’t stand to gain much. But him moving to the bench and experimenting without Simmons will help Philly better understand what next year’s team will look like.
Best case scenario: Top 150
Dwight Howard (#55)
I’ve always had a soft spot for Dwight, the 2000s superstar who’s most seen his reputation deteriorate in the intervening years. As far as peaks go, he stacks up favourably with any big man: 21/14 with 2.5 blocks on nearly 60% shooting, three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards (third most all time), an NBA Finals appearance (one of only three Eastern Conference teams to knock LeBron out of the playoffs), a string of top-5 MVP finishes, including a close runner-up to Derrick Rose in 2011, and an ironman streak that saw him miss just 7 games in his first 7 seasons. Unfortunately, the biggest detriment to Dwight’s legacy is Dwight himself, from his ignominious exit in Orlando to his ignominious exit in Los Angeles to his ignominious exit in Houston to… you get the picture. While he continued to post solid numbers even as he became one of the NBA’s most overqualified journeymen, there isn’t a single team in his career that didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when he left.
However, Dwight’s second stint with the Lakers has been a pleasant surprise for everyone involved. Howard has willingly come off the bench, knows his role, plays efficiently in his minutes, and is quietly Frank Vogel’s preferred option at centre when the Lakers go big at the end of games. It’s high time that Dwight’s career gets re-evaluated, and proving that he can be a team player while helping take the city he scorned to the championship he never brought them would be a massive boon to his legacy.
Best case scenario: #51
Isaac: The second-best player on the 2010s Bulls, there’s a universe where we remember Joakim Noah much more fondly. Save for Rose himself, Noah’s legacy was affected the most by Rose’s injuries. Noah’s memeability over the past few years has caused people to forget how good he actually was; he made multiple defensive teams and was one of the most savvy passing bigs of the century. Unfortunately, injuries and the evolving game left Noah on the bottom of NBA rosters just a few short years after his Defensive Player of the Year win and All-NBA 1st Team selection in 2014. It’s unlikely Noah gets anything close to significant minutes for the Clippers, especially with Montrezl Harrell back in the rotation. But seeing any player get a ring feels special. When you consider Noah’s career — his bad luck with Rose, and the reality that he arrived 10 years too late — things did not break great overall for him. It would be a fun subplot to see him make some sort of contribution to a Clippers Finals run.
Best case scenario: Top 175
Chris: Millsap has been perpetually labelled as underrated his entire career, and, unlike most guys who end up with the underrated label, it’s probably true. After toiling in relative obscurity his first four years in Utah thanks to a positional logjam with Carlos Boozer, Millsap had a breakout year in 2010–11, averaging 16/8/2.5 over the next three seasons, yet largely went overlooked in favour of his teammate Al Jefferson. The process repeated itself when Millsap went to Atlanta, where praise for his game, especially defensively, was always second to Al Horford. When both eventually left the Hawks, Horford experienced a re-evaluation in the media, becoming labelled as a versatile game-breaker on both sides of the ball; meanwhile, Millsap dealt with injuries, missed playoffs, and fluctuating playtime in Denver. Now in his 14th season, Millsap is by far the most experienced member of the Nuggets, and has provided a veteran presence on and off the court as they have progressed from a sub-.500 team to genuine title contenders. A championship for Millsap would be validation for a 4-time All-Star who has gone overlooked for too long, and finally give a deserving player his day in the sun.
Best case scenario: Top 175
Isaac: Gasol has the highest ceiling of anybody on this list not named Dwight Howard. He proved he can be the number one guy on a very serviceable team and if Memphis was not in the volatile Western Conference, there’s a high likelihood we’d revere him even more.
After the Kawhi trade, pundits immediately pencilled in the Raptors as contenders. Although the Bucks were far better than expected, the reality is they never had a chance until Masai Ujuri traded away Jonas Valunciunas. Making the upgrade at centre to one of the best defensive centres in the league and one best passing big men in history is a massive reason the Raptors were able to get over the hump. Cynics have criticized Gasol’s passivity since coming to Toronto, but to have both the requisite skills and attitude to transition seamlessly from a star to a role player is rare. He likely cemented his candidacy for the Hall of Fame with his 2019 championship ring.
Gasol has evolved with the league, and is a key reason the Raptors defence remains so sound game in and game out. Though his offence has waned, his passing both from the block and from around the arc raises the floor of the Raptors immensely. Things have already turned out far better than anyone ever expected for Marc. He first entered the consciousness of NBA fans as a punchline known for being “Pau’s fat younger brother.” Playing a key role for the Raptors and helping them repeat as champions would be an awesome ending to a career. His storied career makes him the only player on this list who could potentially land within spitting distance of the top 100 with a deep playoffs run. As a Raptors fan, let’s hope it can happen.
Best case scenario: #106