Just over two years ago, had you asked me whom I considered to be the NBA’s elite players, I would have given you three names: Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
Fresh off an NBA Finals run in which his Mavericks took down Kobe’s Los Angeles Lakers, Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder, and the “Dream Team” Miami Heat en route to the championship, Dirk was a shoo-in on the list.
After Dirk came one Kobe Bryant, who, at the time, had still won two of the previous three NBA Finals and had still won two of the previous three NBA Finals MVPs. Like Nowitzki, Bryant had to be on the list.
Finally, I would have included Dwyane Wade in my elite category. Wade’s performance in the 2011 Finals–26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game on 54.6 percent shooting–was perhaps even more impressive than Dirk’s (26.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game on 41.6 percent shooting). Had the Heat won the series, Wade would have been the consensus Finals MVP choice.
Of course, the Heat didn’t win the Finals. They fell short in six games. Why? Because LeBron James–noticeably absent from my list–disappeared down the stretch of Games 2 through 6.
James’ no-show in the 2011 Finals was so pathetic, so shocking, that it was enough for me to not include him–by far the world’s most talented player–in the same category as Kobe, Dirk and Wade. And I wasn’t alone. Almost everyone was a LeBron critic post-2011 Finals and pre-2012 Finals.
See, that’s what the playoffs do. They define legacies. LeBron was a choke artist–remember all of the “LeBron doesn’t have a fourth quarter” jokes? But now, two years later and two championships later, LeBron is suddenly mentioned in the same breath, at least by some, as Michael Jordan.
Is 2014 LeBron significantly more talented than 2011 LeBron? No, but his playoff résumé is significantly more impressive now than it was two or three years ago. Fair or unfair, it’s what today’s NBA players are judged upon: playoff performance.
With the 2014 NBA Playoffs now officially underway, each of the approximately 190 players on the 16 playoff rosters are under pressure to perform, but I believe there are ten players who have more riding on this postseason than do any others.
Here we go.
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10. Tim Duncan
The notion that a three-time Finals MVP and a four-time NBA champion still needs more postseason triumph might seem ridiculous, but that’s the case I’m about to make.
I won’t argue that Duncan isn’t already an all-time great–I actually believe that he’s the best player of his generation (sorry Kobe).
I do, however, want to pose a question: when you think of Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs, what comes to your mind first? Because, for me, the Spurs’ failure to finish off the Miami Heat in both Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 Finals stands out even more than any of the four championships.
Now I realize that Duncan wasn’t in the game for the final 29 seconds of Game 6, when the Spurs missed two free throws and surrendered two offensive rebounds as the Heat erased a five-point deficit and ultimately won the game in overtime. Still, it was Duncan who missed a point-blank bunny in the final minute of Game 7 that would have tied the game.
I’m not trying to nitpick, but here’s the truth: if Duncan were to retire tomorrow, that missed bunny and the 2013 Finals as a whole would forever be a cloud over his legacy. But if Tim Duncan can take his Spurs back to the Finals and avenge last year’s collapse by winning his fifth championship, then all from 2013 will be forgiven and all will be forgotten.
9. Mark Jackson
OK, so he’s not a player, but Mark Jackson has a lot–A LOT–riding on this postseason.
For months now, Jackson has been on the hot seat, even if that does seem grossly unfair. Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob recently said that Jackson, who has a year left on his deal, would be evaluated at season’s end. Weeks before that, reports surfaced that the owner was losing patience with the head coach over a variety of issues, including “embarrassing home losses” (per SFGate.com) and Jackson’s decision to reassign assistant coach Brian Scalabrine.
If the Warriors fail to get out of the first round, Lacob could point to it as a regression from last year’s second-round appearance and thus use it as an excuse to fire Jackson. The only way for Jackson to guarantee himself Golden State’s head coaching position for the 2014-15 season? A deep 2014 playoff run.
8. Roy Hibbert
While watching the Indiana Pacers nearly collapse down the stretch of this regular season, I kept asking myself the same questions: where on Earth is Roy Hibbert? Where is the guy that averaged over 22 points and over 10 rebounds per game against the Miami Heat in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals?
I, for one, couldn’t find him. This April, the guy wearing number 55 for the Pacers looked softer than tissue paper. In 33 minutes played against the Heat on April 11, he scored just five points and grabbed only one rebound. Really? You’re 7-2 and you can’t pull down more than a single rebound against the team that ranked dead last in rebounding?
I don’t know what has happened to Roy Hibbert. But, seriously, if the Pacers don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals and if Hibbert continues to struggle, is it possible that they would look to deal him in the offseason? It certainly wouldn’t surprise me.
It’s up to Hibbert and only Hibbert to take control of his own fate and use these playoffs to turn his around his season.