Apr 2, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) dribbles up court during the first quarter against the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Editorial Note: Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for The Guardian, Deadspin, SB Nation, and Sportsnaut. He is a contributing guest to SNYtv and a co-host of The Knick of Time Show. Follow him on Twitter @_leeescobedo.

There hasn’t been this much parity in the NBA since the 1970s. After decades of superteams in Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Golden State, and Miami, the 10 best teams in the league exist mostly on the same level. The Milwaukee Bucks and Warriors are the only two teams who have won a championship with the same core. With the Finals up for grabs, we’ve identified five players on playoff-bound teams who could push their teams over the edge.

These players are not in the top three pecking order, some are bench players, and others are fifth-scoring options. Some were drafted by their current team, others were big additions this past summer. So let’s dive into guys who have either the moxie, intangibles or perhaps both to take their team past the first round and into a deep playoff run.

Aaron Gordon, Denver Nuggets: It’s taken three seasons, but Aaron Gordon is finally playing like the guy Denver thought they were getting from the Orlando Magic. When they traded starting shooting guard Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton, and a protected 2025 first-round pick for Gordon in 2021, the expectation was he would bring rugged athleticism next to Nikola Jokić. The Nuggets are a deep and talented team but lack athleticism, especially with Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray often injured. Gordon, the author of two of the Slam Dunk Contest’s two greatest performances and the most 50-point dunks in history, has lacked the lift with the Nuggets, especially in the playoffs, where he has been a disappointment, averaging 12 PPG in two postseasons with Denver. But this season, he has been on a tear.

With the team fully healthy and clicking on all cylinders, Gordon is averaging a career-best with Denver at 16.4 PPG, the second-highest of his career. He’s also shooting a confident and career-best .634% from two. Gordon has increased his FG% since coming to Denver (shooting 54.0 percent from the field in Denver compared to 44.7 percent), a benefit of playing next to a back-to-back MVP. But most importantly, he’s become an elite defender, notching a 113.8 defensive rating this season. Gordon finally appears comfortable in his role with Denver. If it extends into the playoffs, watch out.

Terence Mann, Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers have one of the most stacked and deep rosters in recent NBA history. They are field with wiry vets with years of collective playoff experience. Of their main rotation, Terence Mann is one of the youngest contributors. He and Bones Hyland are two of the only players who haven’t yet reached their ceilings. Most of the vets on the squad have reached their ceilings, and in the case of Russell Westbrook and Marcus Morris, fallen back from them. But Mann is the team’s best athlete and is one of the team’s best three-point shooters, hitting 38.7% on 2.4 attempts per game.

More than that, Mann is one of the few guys who has more to show. Even though his PPG, RPG and APG are down from last year, his FG% (.524), 2P% (.606), EFG% (.597), AND TS% (.624) are all at career highs. On a roster filled with guys lacking athleticism and upside (yes, Kawhi Leonard is a superstar, and Paul George is a star, but we know what they are capable of), Mann is a wild card capable of adding the unknown to a series—something the Clips desperately need after a mediocre season that started with high expectations. The Clips are in the bottom third for pace and typically rely on their two stars in ISO sets. Mann is a one-man fast break and can energize their stagnant offense in transition, helping to get easy buckets when things inevitably slow down in the playoffs.

Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies: Much has been made the last two seasons about how the Memphis Grizzlies haven’t lost a step when Ja Morant has been out. This season they are 10-8 without their superstar point guard, who has missed time with injury and off-the-court antics. Part of the reason is their “next man up” mentality. But they are also lucky to have a starting-caliber backup in Tyus Jones, averaging a career-high 10.4 PPG and 5.1 APG. But the emergence hasn’t stopped there. Jones is also averaging highs in eFG% (.526), helping the Grizz maintain their offensive firepower when Morant sits.

Jones was recently dubbed the “best backup point guard in the league” by Jamal Crawford, a three-time Six-Man-of-the-Year winner. Jones’s footwork, off-ball movement, and floor vision complement Morant’s athleticism and relentless penetration. In addition, Jones’ plug-and-play mentality and skill set (.38% from three this season) make him a deadly threat in the post-season, giving the Grizzlies a consistent floor leader at all times. If he can provide starter-like production off the bench, that’s an unstoppable guard rotation for any team.

Kevin Huerter, Sacramento Kings: Kevin Huerter, the “Red Mamba,” went from a bench spark plug in Atlanta to the third most important player in Sacramento. And it came at the perfect time, as the Kings are experiencing their best season in 17 years. The Kings are breaking the longest playoff drought in professional sports, and the cowbells will be returning loud and clear this post-season. Huerter brings playoff experience from his time with the Hawks and a .409% three-point average. He’s upped his scoring average by three points this season in the Kings’ high-octane offense, first in the NBA.

His shooting splits are all at career-highs: .489 FG%, .409 three-point FG%, .602 two-point FG%, and .609 eFG%. Also, his 1.5 offensive box plus-minus is a career-high and shows his importance in the Kings’ offense, which correlates to his 15.4 PER and 19.8 usage rate, both career highs. At 323 dribble handoffs, Huerter has been the main recipient of Domantas Sabonis dribble handoff passes (the nexus of the Kings’ offense), leading to efficient, wide-open threes. To extend the Kings’ first winning season since 2005-06 into the playoffs, Huerter must continue his elite chemistry with Sabonis while providing the young and neophyte Kings with post-season stability.

Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks: A good way to discern if someone has watched the Knicks this season is to ask their opinion on Immanuel Quickley, the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. If they talk about his elite on-ball defense, maturing floor vision, high-IQ rim reads, and rebounding prowess, you are probably speaking to someone who knows ball. But if they stutter and stumble to describe his worth to the Knicks, you’re in the presence of “mid.” The Knicks have turned into one of the elite developing franchises in the league, and Quickley represents this better than any single player.

Since being drafted 25th in the 2020 NBA Draft, Quickley has maximized his immediate strengths in his defense, rebounding, and floater game. But he’s also honed his passing, three-point shooting, and off-the-dribble scoring through his gym rat persona. The third-year guard is up for an extension this summer, and the Knicks need to give the kid the bag. He has the potential to start on any other team. For the Knicks, he provides instant offense off the bench as a three-level scorer who can lock up opposing point-of-attacks. Few teams in the East have a guard of IQ’s caliber on their bench. So the Knicks go into any series with an advantage on the bench, thanks to Quickley’s ascension into stardom.