Photo by Reggie Hildred for The Sports Capitol

The most essential non-stars in the NBA's Eastern Conference

BY BEN STANDIG | OCT. 22, 2018

TSC HEADQUARTERS — The 2018-19 regular season began last week. So why I am only now putting out a league-wide season preview? Look, it’s busy over here running a website, and covering multiple teams in town. Also, we cannot always control when an idea springs to life.

Just a few days into the NBA season — and specifically the Washington Wizards’ 0-2 start — brought forth this notion: Who are the essential players and coaches in the Eastern Conference that aren’t the obvious headliners. This list isn’t about Kawhi Leonard, Brad Stevens, or John Wall. We’re skipping Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving or Bradley Beal. In some cases, it’s not even about title contenders. The focus here centers on the people who may help their respective team go next level or sink back. Some may briefly play the villain role during the Washington Wizards season.

This top-10 list includes a member of the Wizards. Thinking more about that individual led to another article. Click here for that, or first dive into the Eastern Conference’s 10 most essential non-headliners.  

10. Blake Griffin/Kemba Walker/Kevin Love/Caris Levert/ Nikola Vucevic – The first three players here represent the three likely candidates for the No. 8 seed – Pistons, Hornets, Cavaliers. It’s improbable any improve enough to be considered dangerous come playoff time. Projecting a .500 record might be stretching things.

These teams have some level of postseason hope. The Pistons didn’t acquire Griffin last season solely for the brand name. Same with the Cavaliers extending Love and the Hornets holding Walker entering his walk season. Should losses drown out hope, Love and Walker become trade deadline targets.

Levert leads the interesting Nets, a dark horse candidate for the eighth seed. Brooklyn’s creative front office is always looking for growth opportunities.

Orlando’s choice of Steve Clifford as its sixth head coach since 2012 can work long-term. The short-term considerations include moving a borderline All-Star talent like Vucevic before he enters free agency this summer.

Even if these teams don’t reach the playoffs or scare anyone upon qualifying, they may play a significant factor in the fortunes of the contenders.

9. Eric Bledsoe – The Bucks have a transcendent talent in Antetokounmpo and a scoring threat in Khris Middleton. They need a real third piece, especially since Middleton doesn’t quite reach second-best-player-on-a-contender status. It’s doubtful Bledsoe is that guy. The talented scorer may never fully grasp that for a winning team his role should veer more into distributor territory. Let’s see how much new coach Mike Budenholzer can nudge Bledsoe in that direction.

8. Nick Nurse – The assistant received ample credit for helping modernize Toronto’s offense last season under head coach Dwane Casey. Nurse occupies the big boy seat now. The bar set is rather high coming off a 59-win regular season regardless of the latest playoff flameout that led to Casey’s ouster and the bold trade for Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors may have only the one season with the MVP candidate. Leonard’s upcoming free agency will dominate season-long conversation north of the border and around the league. Nurse’s job isn’t just about helping direct Toronto to the NBA Finals, but keeping one of the NBA’s best around for years to come.

7. Gordon Hayward – I believe I read that Hayward never watched a replay of his horrific opening night ankle injury that derailed his first season with Boston. Smart man. One year later, much has changed with the Celtics. Hayward arrived from Utah set to become Boston’s leading man. Then the Celtics acquired Kyrie Irving. Then rookie Jayson Tatum shined brighter than expected alongside springy wing Jaylen Brown and All-Star center Al Horford. Hayward’s wing game easily meshes with the other pieces under Stevens’ guidance. The potential for hierarchy issues exists, however. We also need a minute before gauging Hayward’s level of play in his return.

6. Josh Richardson – The lack of a superstar limits the Miami Heat’s upside. That’s why the idea of trading for Minnesota’s disgruntled All-Star Jimmy Butler makes sense. The Timberwolves reportedly want more than picks and Richardson, who dropped 28 points against the Wizards in Washington’ season opener. Minnesota should hold out for more considering Butler’s talent and drive. If Richardson, a 2015 second-round pick, takes his game up to a level where All-Star buzz lives, those talks could heat up again.

5. Scott Brooks – Hold, please

4. Myles Turner – Victor Oladipo’s ascension to All-NBA level spurred the Pacers’ 48-win season. The additions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott bolster the depth chart. Neither changed expectations. Turner turning into a player worthy of the four-year, $80 million contract extension he signed this month would. The 6-foot-11 forward oozes potential with a big man game built for the modern era. It remains unclear if the 22-year-old possess enough toughness on both ends to help Oladipo take the franchise into contender status.

3. Jayson Tatum – The Celtics lost Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference at home to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. The defeat, while disappointing, also created more excitement over future dominance. With Hayward and Irving sidelined, and Horford fading per usual in big games against James, the rookie forward didn’t blink in what turned into a mano y mano battle with the four-time MVP. The loaded Celtics can reach the NBA Finals this season without Tatum becoming a top 10-15 player this season. Should he make that jump now, taking down Golden State becomes attainable.

2. Mike Budenholzer – The coach who directed the Hawks to 60 wins and the Eastern Conference regular-season title in 2014-15 won the Giannis lottery. If you’re one of those believing Antetokounmpo wins the 2019 MVP (hand raised), that’s in part because the “Greek Freak” finally has a head coach capable of maximizing the lengthy forward’s exciting talents.

1. Markelle Fultz – Before anyone anoints Antetokounmpo as BPECPL (Best player in Eastern Conference post-LeBron), consider Joel Embiid’s worthy candidacy. Ben Simmons may eventually join such discussion if the other-worldly point guard becomes comfortable shooting from 15 feet and beyond. The Process delivered these championship-contending pieces. Philly might cruise for years.

Let’s focus on this season. Take a serious look at the 76ers roster beyond the dynamic duo. The 76ers zoomed up the Eastern Conference standings last season after acquiring Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli. Both veterans are gone. Wilson Chandler arrived. No significant free agents joined him. J.J Redick remains one of the league’s top deep shooters, Robert Covington defends at a high level, T.J. McConnell can run an offense, and Dario Saric offers intriguing stretch-4 skills. This group is good, not great. The second unit might not be league average. None of these players provide “Big 3” potential.

Whether Fultz does is the biggest question. Forget if he’s magnificent or capable of becoming one the league’s top backcourt playmakers. The real discussion is whether the No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 Draft can help. His perimeter shot remains a work-in-progress, which is a step up from last year’s broken jumper, but miles removed from credible. Philadelphia hopes putting Fultz with the starters accelerates his growth. The spotlight will expose every wart. Fending off the Bucks, Pacers, and Wizards shouldn’t be assumed. The 76ers need more than Embiid and Simmons to keep up with the Celtics and Raptors this season. Fultz reminding us why he was worthy of that top pick this season might be enough.

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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