6. DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta Hawks
If the Cleveland Cavaliers can be stopped from reaching the NBA Finals, Carroll might have more to do with it than anyone. He’s been the closest thing to a LeBron James antidote this season, holding James relatively in check through three Hawks victories over the Cavs since November. Carroll’s peripheral role in the Hawks’ offense — in which he usually takes the fewest shots among fellow starters — means he’s one of the less noticeable players to the casual eye. But his defense on the wing could very well prove to be the fulcrum that decides whether LeBron can make it five straight trips to the championship round.
5. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls
It’s not often that you see a rookie like Nikola Mirotic. The 24-year-old has already been the MVP in one of the better non-NBA pro leagues, in Spain, and now he’s a serious difference maker for an American contender. In March, Mirotic has been the Bulls’ saving grace through injury issues, averaging 20.8 points per game off the bench, often acting as the team’s deadly closer as he lights it up in the fourth quarter. Tom Thibodeau and Co. have found especially compelling use of the Montengro native by occasionally slotting his 6’10” frame into the small forward spot — a role made possible by Mirotic’s unusual mobility for his size.
4. Timofey Mozgov, Cleveland Cavaliers
If there was an annual award for “best role player,” Mozgov would be in contention for this season’s trophy. The Russian center has filled huge dividends since coming over from the Denver Nuggets in a winter trade. Cleveland needed someone who’d be happy to do dirty work down low on defense, and act as a screen-setting pylon on offense — and to be okay without the ball in his hands very often. Mozgov has more than risen to that task, as the Cavs have thrived with him in the lineup as their thunderous, selfless tree.
3. Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors
The Warriors have been basketball’s best team this year, and the competition hasn’t been especially close behind them. Golden State’s +10.9 point differential is the stuff of legends, and nothing like it has been seen since the Boston Celtics’ magical first year with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen — an outfit that finished the season with a +10.2 difference. Bogut is the least recognized piece of the Warriors’ equation, but he’ll likely be their second-most important player behind MVP candidate Steph Curry in their race to an NBA title. His robust rim protection and uncanny wingman skills as a seven-footer are what can take the Warriors to the extra level they’ll need to squeak by the defending champion Spurs.
2. Jeff Green, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies’ midseason trade for Jeff Green makes total sense, in a vacuum. The former Celtics’ wing is an able scorer, and Memphis was able to get him for relatively little. But the strength of the Grizzlies lies in their cohesive, steely core, and Green hasn’t been an entirely natural fit in their typically bone-crunching defense. Green has remained a minus defender as he’s switched from green jersey to blue. And while’s certainly helped their spacing on offense, the playoffs will truly tell us whether the Grizzlies’ identity barter was a worthwhile endeavor.
1. Boris Diaw, San Antonio Spurs
Don’t look now, but the Spurs are beautiful again. The defending champions appeared to be struck by an unusually large dose of malaise for much of the season, but in March they’ve gone 11-3 as they’ve manhandled more than one fellow playoff team. The Spurs are undeniably back in the title mix with their suddenly revitalized chemistry, and everyone knows that Diaw will be the extra-difficult piece of the puzzle to account for. At an agile, hyper-intelligent 250 pounds, Boris creates headaches for wingmen all over the league, and no team is better suited to capitalize on his very rare skill set like San Antonio is.
— John Wilmes