19 Apr

Peyton Watson, Isaiah Joe set to make a name for themselves

Bruce Brown’s stock dropped so low by the 2022 free agency that his former team, the Brooklyn Nets, didn’t even make a significant attempt to re-sign him. Why would they? They already had a questionable shooter who could handle the ball and defend multiple positions. His name… and I promise I’m not kidding… was Ben Simmons. So Brown hit the open market. The best he could do was a two-year, $13 million tax-payer mid-level contract with the Nuggets.

Well, that turned out to be one of the best decisions of his career. Brown’s shot improved just enough for the rest of his versatile skill set to flourish in the right setting. His high basketball IQ made him an immediate fit within Denver’s cerebral offense, and his positional versatility made him an essential defensive cog on their way to a championship. Brown closed some games for Denver during that title run. Even when he didn’t, he was by far their most reserved.

Fast forward to the 2023 offseason, and Brown is suddenly a household name. He immediately inks a two-year, $45 million deal with the Indiana Pacers after sparking a bidding war that seemingly included every contender in the NBA. It’s amazing what a difference one strong playoff run can make for a player. It’s even more amazing what it can do for a team. The Nuggets, in part because of Brown, won their first championship in franchise history.

Every NBA postseason includes a player or two like Brown, someone that the wider NBA fan base doesn’t quite know in April but has fallen in love with by June. So with the playoffs now at hand, we’re going to try to identify who those players might be during the 2024 postseason.

  1. Peyton Watson
    We’re beginning with Brown’s immediate replacement. That title comes directly from Denver’s general manager, who didn’t just expect Peyton Watson to fill in for Brown, but to surpass them. “Some of these teams were trying to get Bruce, trying to make it worth it; it’s like, just be careful what you wish for,” Booth told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor after Brown left for Indiana. “Peyton’s bigger. He’s longer. He’s more athletic. He guards better. He passes better.”

I’m going to set the bar higher. Watson isn’t just a better defender than Brown. Watson is the best defender on the Denver Nuggets roster. Yes, that includes All-Defense candidates Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Watson doesn’t play their minutes yet, so such accolades are still beyond his grasp. But the metrics favor the second-year forward. Watson had the best Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus on the Team this season. He trailed only Nikola Jokic in terms of Defensive Box Plus-Minus within Denver’s rotation, and on a per-minute basis, the same was true for Defensive Win Shares. I may have just bored you with the analytics. I promise, I’m not going to bore you with the clips. Because dear god, how did he do this?

Peyton Watson jumped over Nikola Jokic as he tried to block Jaylen Brown 😅pic.twitter.com/58KLw2SXEG

— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) March 8, 2024
Or this…

INCREDIBLE block from Peyton Watson in transition but what I love is that he stays in the play to contest CJ McCollum’s layup after the offensive rebound. pic.twitter.com/ReoXzSMppg

— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) January 13, 2024
We’d be here all day if I shared every incredible Peyton Watson block, yet he doesn’t really chase them. It’s just the natural result of his combination of length, reflexes and closing speed. It turns out those are traits that translate to basically every tenet of defense. Kevin Durant shot 6-of-20 when matched up against Watson this season. Paul George shot 4-of-13. LeBron James shot 4-of-11. Again, we could go on, but we just don’t have the time.

Watson’s weakness is his shooting. Most teams would struggle to compensate for a 29.6% 3-point shooter from deep playing any position other than center. Playing with Nikola Jokic has its advantages. He’s not nearly as adept a cutter as Gordon is yet, but he can capably fill in for him as Jokic’s alley-oop muse for stretches. When Jokic goes to the bench in the playoffs, Gordon will move to center and Watson will fill in at power forward. Not great spacing. Utterly absurd athleticism for an offense that’s used to moving and passing more than most.

If Denver wins the championship again this season, Watson will be to them what Brown was a year ago: not quite as important as the core starters, but utterly essential nonetheless. The key difference? He’s not going anywhere with two years left on his rookie deal. My condolences to the rest of the Western Conference.

  1. Jonathan Isaac
    Oh, we’re talking about under-the-radar defenders now? Might as well cover the best of them all. Jonathan Isaac only played 15.8 minutes per game this season. Within those minutes, he was the best defensive player in basketball. Better than Victor Wembanyama. Better than Rudy Gobert. Better than anyone. I’ve covered him in more depth here. In the meantime, enjoy my favorite screenshot of the season.

Jonathan Isaac blocked this dunk attempt.

Look at where he is. Look at where KAT is. Look at where the ball is. Just a breathtaking piece of defense by the best per-minute defender in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/YdjjCB6vrH

— Sam Quinn (@SamQuinnCBS) February 3, 2024
The Nuggets can get a player on this list playing bench minutes because, well, they might win the championship. It would be much harder to justify 15 minutes of Isaac as a breakout candidate. That’s where this gets interesting.

Orlando limited Isaac’s minutes for medical reasons. They slowly ramped him up down the stretch. And then, in the season finale, he was in the starting lineup and played 26 minutes. That’s meaningful for a variety of reasons. The biggest is that it means more minutes playing alongside Jalen Suggs, which the rotation rarely allowed during the regular season. During the 183 minutes they did play together across Orlando’s first 82 games, that pairing held opponents to 98.1 points per 100 possessions. Do you know how long it’s been since an NBA team had a defensive rating that low over a full season? I’ll give you a hint: every player on that roster is now retired except for Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.

If Orlando starts the Isaac-Suggs pairing and plays them together for a meaningful number of minutes, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t going to be able to score in the first round. Think about the longer-term implications of such an outcome. There is a reasonable chance that two weeks from now, the Donovan Mitchell era in Cleveland will have ended in a storm of Isaac blocks. The Magic aren’t quite ready for championship contention, but they’re certainly ready to break up the Cavaliers.

  1. Deuce McBride
    Denver gets away with a bit more questionable shooting than most teams because of Jokic. The Knicks are a bit more conventional and, at times, old fashioned. They like to play non-shooting big men. That makes their non-shooting wings a tougher sell. Josh Hart is the prime example here. He does too many important things for the Knicks to adequately list in a single sentence, but when it came down to it against Miami last season, his shooting was problematic. The Heat never guarded him. He shot 3-of-13 from 3-point range. The Knicks scored only 106.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and lost the series largely on offense.

In a perfect world, Hart makes his 3’s and this isn’t an issue. But the playoffs are messy, and Hart shot just 32.3% on wide-open 3’s during the regular season. Series are won or lost based on what sort of pivots a coach is willing to make when these things happen. If defenses won’t defend Hart, McBride is Thibodeau’s pivot.

His playing time has been… erratic. In the span of a single week in March, he had one game in which he played under 12 minutes and another in which he played all 48. Availability contributed to that disparity but so did Thibodeau’s propensity for shorter rotations. When you’re in with him, you’re in. When someone he likes better returns, you might lose 30 minutes through no fault of your own.

McBride isn’t quite as “jack of all trades” as Hart. He certainly doesn’t rebound like him, for instance, and until this season, he fell into the shaky shooter bucket as well. But in the calendar year of 2024, he’s averaged five 3-point attempts per game and made just under 41% of them. He’s not going to be left open, but he’s not a defense-for-offense sacrifice like, say, Bojan Bogdanovic is. He can’t defend quite as high on the positional spectrum as Hart, but he brings similar traits against most perimeter players. Against guards, he’s a shade better, a useful card to play when OG Anunoby has a higher-priority assignment.

McBride won’t and shouldn’t replace Hart outright. There’s a reason Thibodeau trusts Hart so much, after all. But there will be a game or two in which Hart’s shot isn’t falling, and the outcome is going to hinge on the shots McBride makes in his place. His role will continue to be erratic, but he’s at the top of the list of “unheralded role players likeliest to swing an important playoff game.”

  1. Isaiah Joe
    Enough with these tough, gritty defenders. Let’s talk fireworks. Joe attempts over 11 3-pointers per 100 possessions and makes 41.6% of them. Among players with consistent rotation roles, the only other players to do that this season were Luke Kennard, CJ McCollum and Sam Hauser.

Kennard is a worthwhile starting point for this conversation because we saw how wildly he could swing a playoff series last season when Taylor Jenkins slowly realized that putting him on the floor was the only way Memphis was going to consistently score against the Lakers. This isn’t a typo: the Grizzlies were 28.6 points per 100 possessions better offensively against the Lakers with Kennard on the floor. There were rumblings that he might replace Dillon Brooks in the starting lineup for Game 6. Instead he got hurt, and the Lakers blew the Grizzlies out by 40 in the series clincher.

That’s an extreme example, but it shows just how much a single, elite shooter can complicate life for an opposing defense in a playoff series when the rest of that offense can generate rim pressure. Any team that faces Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in a playoff series is going to focus the entirety of its game plan on keeping him away from the basket. Having Josh Giddey on the floor creates a convenient help spot for defenses. Whenever those defenses seem to realize that, Mark Daigneault dials the difficulty meter up to 11 and says, “OK, try to stop Shai now that our real spacer is on the floor.”

This tends to be Daigneault’s “we’re not messing around anymore” adjustment in big games. When the Thunder faced the Clippers in a critical seeding matchup right after the All-Star break, for instance, they led by only two at halftime after starting Giddey. When they emerged for the second half, Joe had replaced Giddey in the starting lineup. The Thunder won by 22.

We’re going to see this adjustment quickly in the playoffs. Giddey will almost certainly remain a starter throughout the postseason, but he’s going to cede more and more high-leverage minutes to Joe as defenses get more and more aggressive in ignoring him. This has suited the Thunder just fine all season. Joe has the best offensive rating on the team. They are so stout and so creative everywhere else defensively that they can endure his presence there. It’s worth it when he swings a game with four 3’s in a quarter.

  1. Daniel Gafford
    You could realistically list essentially the entire Dallas supporting cast as breakout candidates. P.J. Washington, in typical “rescued from a bad team” fashion, has gone from a toolsy but inconsistent defender in Charlotte to an essential part of what has been the NBA’s best defense for the past month in Dallas. Dante Exum returned from Barcelona as a stellar defender and a passable jump-shooter. Dereck Lively emerged from Duke as a teenager somehow more polished at center than most 30-year-olds. All of them will play essential parts in any extended Mavericks run.

None are quite as interesting as Daniel Gafford, who is steadily emerging Luka Doncic’s basketball soulmate. Gafford has made 145 total shots as a Maverick. Exactly 40% of them, 58, have been assisted by Doncic. That number might not seem huge, but remember, every other Maverick combined has assisted Gafford 59 times. Doncic is matching his entire team when it comes to passing to this single player. Doncic actually has outpaced his entire roster when it comes to assisting Lively, and their relevant offensive numbers are somewhat similar. Both are shooting above 74% from the floor on all of the easy looks Doncic creates. Both are scoring at least 1.36 points per possession as pick-and-roll finishers, again, largely with Doncic as their table-setter.

But where Gafford stands out here is defensively. Lively has all of the tools to be a defensive star, and he flashes them frequently. But rookies tend to be vulnerable defensively in the playoffs, and the lineup data suggests that Lively still has plenty to work on as a defender. Gafford, for basically his entire NBA career, seemingly did as well. And then he got to Dallas and turned into Rudy Gobert. The Mavericks are allowing only 108.2 points per 100 possessions during his minutes this season, a hair below Minnesota’s full-season number. He’s blocking more than three shots per 100 possessions. Since Gafford’s acquisition, no team has allowed a lower field goal percentage in the restricted area than Dallas at 62.7%. The pre-Gafford Mavericks ranked 29th at 70.2%.

The sample is way too small to jump to conclusions, and there are other extenuating factors at play here. But for the price of a single first-round pick, the Mavericks have thus far stumbled into what is essentially the perfect Doncic center: an unstoppable rim-runner that protects the basket at the other end. Lively is going to be that player, too, someday. For now, it’s the Gafford show, and if he keeps this up throughout the postseason, there’s a real chance that the Mavericks are going to the Finals.

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