Four NBA role players who could swing the Western Conference

The West is home to many of the NBA‘s brightest stars, but the contributions of role players could tilt the scales of a tightly-packed conference.

Gordon has missed Houston’s first three games with a left ankle injury, and could remain on the sideline for two weeks as the Rockets jostle for positioning in a packed and fluid Western Conference. While the team is loaded with wings who can shoot and defend, none are quite like Gordon. Danuel House, who started in Gordon’s place against Dallas, is a rangier defender and better spot-up shooter, but lacks Gordon’s gravity and off-the-bounce creation. Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers are capable offensive players, but limited in ways that leave Houston thin on playmaking beyond James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

The Rockets, in theory, have just enough offensive firepower to topple the Western power balance in what could be a chaotic postseason. But that upside hinges on Gordon being healthy and operating near peak capacity. Though his shot has come and gone in four years in Houston, the veteran guard still has the gravity of a 40 percent 3-point shooter because of the volume and depth of his shots, and his reputation as a deadly marksman; that perception doesn’t fade easily. He’s one of the few Rockets outside of Harden and Westbrook that can reliably get downhill and finish at the rim — a key to offsetting defenses that tilt too far toward Harden or Westbrook or one of them heads to the bench.

Houston’s frontcourt will have a lot of defensive weight on its shoulders this postseason — Gordon included. Westbrook and Harden are severe weak points on that end of the floor, which will leave Gordon defending star wings in some matchups and All-NBA guards in others. The Rockets switch constantly, which spreads around defensive responsibility to a degree, but Gordon, House, Robert Covington, and P.J. Tucker will be pressed into heavier duty if Houston eventually has to move away from that strategy as opponents target their best players.

Prior to Dwight Powell’s season-ending knee injury, the Mavericks’ offense (the most efficient in NBA history) was built primarily around their Luka Dončić-led pick-and-roll attack. After Powell tore his ACL in January, Dallas leaned into playing a five-out offense featuring more isolation and pick-and-pop. This was all the same for Maxi Kleber, a 37 percent 3-point shooter who also happens to be one of the most efficient roll men in the NBA. The German big man can just as easily bury jumpers off of kick-out passes as he can sky for dunks out of the two-man game, which gives him a unique combination of vertical and horizontal gravity. That functional flexibility allows Kleber to fit into any lineup combination or stylistic approach, and he scales perfectly as a low-usage option next to one of the league’s most ball-dominant stars.

The Mavericks took an absurd 46 percent of their shots from beyond the arc when Kleber and Dončić shared the floor (without Powell) this year but made less than a third of those looks. The safe bet is on that percentage to improve — Dallas shoots the ninth-best percentage in the league from deep overall — and Kleber could also help the Mavs generate more shots at the rim, where they shoot a high percentage but generate the second-fewest attempts in the NBA. Like most Mavericks, the German is well-trained in the art of making the extra pass to generate open jumpers.

Just as importantly, he might also be Dallas’ most versatile defender. In addition to being a smart helper and stout rim protector, Kleber has uncommon agility on the perimeter for a 6-foot-11 backup big man. He can switch across all three frontcourt positions and may be the Mavericks’ best option against Kawhi Leonard in a likely first-round playoff series. That isn’t a great answer to one of the best playoff scorers in NBA history, even when accounting for the fact that there are no real answers to Kawhi. But Kleber may stand something of a chance, which would allow the more slender Dorian Finney-Smith to focus on Paul George and Kristaps Porzingis to hang near the rim.

Perhaps no coach has experimented with lineup combinations in the bubble more than Denver’s Michael Malone, who, with three starters missing, has resorted to ultra-big lineups with as many as three centers on the floor at once. Most of these wonky configurations won’t last into the playoffs, but they have put more options on the Nuggets’ table — many of which include rangy forward Jerami Grant. Though most effective at power forward or center, Grant may be emerging as a viable option on the wing, where the Nuggets largely lack the kinds of defenders that might be able to slow James, Leonard, George, Harden, or Dončić.

Paul Millsap remains the Nuggets’ best help defender, which helps mask Nikola Jokić’s defensive limitations. But neither is equipped to defend elite playmakers along the perimeter, which could force Denver into playing bigger lineups with Grant on the wing in the later rounds of the playoffs. He’s among the few defenders in the entire league capable of switching across more than three positions and protecting the rim, and his startling length should prove quite useful against athletic and crafty wings. Theoretically, he has the wherewithal to contest a Harden stepback without fouling or getting beat off the dribble; the size to absorb Leonard’s jostling in the post and the length to contest a fadeaway jumper; the agility to at least (maybe) bother James.

Denver was slightly outscored this season when Grant shared the floor with either Jokić or Millsap and the trio only logged 83 possessions together, but those looks might be worth exploring over the Nuggets’ remaining six games before the playoffs. Denver’s likely first-round opponents don’t mandate this kind of shift, but the Nuggets will almost certainly encounter one of the L.A. teams should they survive the first round, at which point having dependable big lineups will become a practical necessity for teams not based in Houston.

Royce O’Neale, Utah Jazz

The upside of running a democratic offense with multiple threats and compounding advantages is the ability to lean on other creators when one goes down. But when those creators all lean on one another, what happens when a key load-bearing piece is removed from the structure? Bojan Bogdanović’s absence from the bubble has required compensation by committee from the rest of Utah’s rotation. Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Joe Ingles will assume more creative responsibility; Jordan Clarkson’s quick-burst scoring off the bench becomes more central; and Royce O’Neale stands as perhaps the team’s only above-average wing defender in a conference full of elite perimeter creators.

The third-year forward enjoyed the best season of his career this year, and the Jazz won’t need him to play a different role so much as double down on what he already does. O’Neale stands at a size disadvantage against all of the West’s elite wing scorers — Leonard, LeBron James, Luka Dončić, James Harden, and Paul George — yet he’s as good a one-on-one counter as Utah has. At 6-foot-4, he uses a sturdy frame and quick feet to burrow into and stay in front of ball-handlers at the point of attack. His length allows him to contest shots reasonably well. As always, Utah’s perimeter defenders will work in tandem with interior stalwart Rudy Gobert, who has looked his usual defensive self in the bubble thus far.

Bogdanović wasn’t an all-world defender, but he was a big body who could handle key assignments in a playoff series. Playing smaller, with O’Neale as the nominal power forward, simply gives Utah more vulnerabilities on defense. O’Neale can only be in so many places at once and the best teams in the West have means of attacking elsewhere. The Rockets will run Utah through ball screens to remove him from the point of attack, the Clippers can run offense through whichever All-Star O’Neale isn’t guarding at that moment, and the Lakers’ size presents uncomfortable matchups in the frontcourt for the smaller Jazz.

Offensively, O’Neale can’t hope to recreate Bogdanović’s blend of shooting, playmaking, off-ball movement, and shot creation, but he has made himself into a capable offensive player this season. He’s a dangerous spot-up shooter who has added to his game the ability to attack closeouts and make the correct decision. He won’t catalyze an offense on his own, but O’Neale keeps the line moving in a system that relies upon quick decisions to augment small advantages. It’s just unclear whether the Jazz will have enough openings to maximize.