Illinois Basketball: Former Illini players familiar with NBA Playoffs

Mar 22, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Deron Williams (31) drives to the basket against Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic (15) during the second half at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 126-113. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Deron Williams (31) drives to the basket against Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic (15) during the second half at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 126-113. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

The NBA Playoffs start this weekend and this has actually been a familiar place for former Illinois basketball players.

In 8 out of the last 10 years, the Illini have had some type of presence in the NBA postseason. That is an impressive run and one that will continue this weekend when the NBA’s second season starts.

This run of NBA Playoff success that I dated back to 2008 started with four players who made the postseason that year. Luther Head, Brian Cook, James Augustine and Deron Williams were all on teams competing for an NBA championship.

Head was on the Houston Rockets who fell in the first round to Williams and the Utah Jazz. He managed to average 8.9 minutes, .8 points, .4 rebounds and .8 assists per game. Williams, on the other hand, was the leader of the Jazz. He averaged 42.1 minutes, 20.8 points and 8.5 assists per game in the 4-2 beat down of the Rockets.

Williams would then go on to play against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Jazz fought hard but fell 4-2 in the series. Williams managed to put up some amazing stats, though. He averaged 43.4 minutes, 22.3 points and 11.5 assists per game.

The Orlando Magic made the playoffs that year as well and both Augustine and Cook were on that team. Cook averaged 5 points and 2.2 rebounds per game that season and Augustine was at 1.6 points and 1.2 rebounds per game.

In the first round series against Raptors, neither player had a chance to play. The team advanced through to the second round beating the Raptors 4-1 in the series. The Magic would then get beat in the second round 4-1 against the Detroit Pistons. Augustine received playing time in this series. He averaged 2 points and 1 rebound per game.

Cook got back to the NBA Playoffs in 2009 where he actually had a chance to help a team, but this time it was with the Rockets. He played in the first round series victory over the Portland Trail Blazers and averaged 2.4 points and 2 rebounds per game. The team then fell to the Lakers in the next round, but Cook still played and averaged 1.3 points and 2 rebounds per game.

Head started the 2008-09 season with the Rockets as well. But, he was waived later on in the season and then the Miami Heat signed him. He didn’t play in the playoffs, but the Heat made it to the first round only to lose to the Atlanta Hawks.

Williams made it back to the playoffs that year with the Jazz too. They lost in the first round to the Lakers 4-1, but Williams put up some great numbers averaging 20.2 points and 10.8 assists per game.

The 2010 NBA Playoffs welcomed back only one former Illini basketball player and that was Williams. He made it back to the promise land with the Jazz.

Utah won their first-round series against the Denver Nuggets 4-2 and Williams dazzled. He averaged 25.8 points and 11.2 assists per game that season. The Jazz would end up running into the Lakers again and lost to them 4-0 in the next round. Williams still had a good series averaging 22 points and 8.8 assists per game.

After the 2010 NBA Playoffs, there was a stretch of two straight postseasons that former Illinois basketball players missed. This drought had a lot to do with Williams forcing his way out of Utah and getting traded to the New Jersey Nets.

But, in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, Williams emerged once again with the Nets and they made the postseason. The Nets, now in Brooklyn, fell to the Chicago Bulls 4-3 in the series, but Williams still had a good run. He was clearly the leader of this team and his 20.6 points and 8.4 assists per game showed that fact.

In 2014 the Nets made it back to the postseason but Williams’ game started to decline due to injuries. He was still a good player but he had lost a step or two. He was still a big reason why the Nets upset the Raptors in the first round 4-3. He averaged 16.9 points and 5.6 assists per game that series.

The Nets would then fall to the Miami Heat in the second round 4-1. Williams only averaged 11.2 points and 6.2 assists per game. But, the 2014 NBA Playoffs welcomed a new former Illinois basketball player.

Meyers Leonard and the Trail Blazers showed up that season. It was only his second year in the league so he wasn’t getting a ton of playing time, though. Portland won their first round series against Houston 4-2, but he didn’t get to play.

The following round the Trail Blazers fell to the San Antonio Spurs 4-1 but Leonard saw some action. He averaged 2.4 minutes in the series and really didn’t record much in the way of stats.

In the 2015 NBA Playoffs, Leonard and the Trail Blazers made it back to the playoffs and this time he was more of a contributor. Portland lost the first round series 4-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies but Leonard still managed to average 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

Williams was also part of the playoffs that year. He had an injury plagued season but still managed to make an impact. The team fell in the first round to the Hawks 4-2, but he averaged 11.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game.

Last season, Williams was once again back in the playoffs. This time he was more of a second or third fiddle with the Dallas Mavericks. Injuries really derailed his career and he was signed by the Mavericks to give them depth. Dallas fell 4-1 in the first round to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Williams averaged 5 points and 2.7 assists per game.

Portland made the playoffs last year as well. Leading up to their playoff run, they lost Leonard to a season-ending injury, though. This hurt their chances to make a deeper run than they did. They still managed to advance past the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers 4-2 but fell to the Golden State Warriors 4-1.

The 2017 NBA Playoffs once again bring a former Illinois basketball player to national television. Williams is back in the playoff mix, this time with the defending NBA Champion, Cleveland Cavaliers.

Williams was signed after the All-Star break and played in 24 games with the Cavaliers. He is actually a huge part of this team because he is now the primary backup to Kyrie Irving. There are actually times that I think the offense runs better with Williams.

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I look for Williams to be a big-time contributor to this Cleveland team. They need his presence so Irving can get some rest at times. Hopefully, Williams can help the Cavaliers get back to the Finals and maybe, a member of the Illini can bring home a title.