While successful NBA careers are made in the regular season, a player cannot be truly regarded as a star until he proves himself under the bright lights of the playoffs. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the eight players in the NBA who have the most to prove this spring’s NBA Playoffs.
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8. BRANDON JENNINGS
It’s been two seasons since Jennings last appeared in the playoffs and this season he and the Milwaukee Bucks have the misfortune of facing the Heat in the first round. Jennings has little to prove to himself, as he already believes he’s the swaggiest swagsman in Swagland. But as he becomes a restricted free agent this summer, Jennings needs to prove to the Bucks and the rest of the league that he’s truly capable of being a winning point guard.
I honestly don’t think he can be. He’s been pouty, inconsistent and, bluntly, a loser since the Bucks acquired J.J. Redick at the trade deadline. He continually puts himself before the team and he seems incapable of effectively using the immense talent that he possesses. Some of the blame for Jennings’ unraveling also must be placed on the Bucks organization and their management of the situation. But the organization isn’t the one who goes out every night and puts up 16 shots per game at a 40 percent clip. The whole situation is a mess and it will be interesting to see which team wastes big money on him this offseason. End rant.
7. PAUL GEORGE
George has been to the playoffs before, but never as the leading scorer on his team. After replacing the injured Danny Granger this season as a go-to guy, George blossomed into an All-Star and catalyst as the Indiana claimed the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and the Central Division title. In last year’s playoffs, George struggled, shooting only 39 percent with two turnovers a game as the Pacers were eliminated in the second round by the Heat. George has struggled with his shooting this season, but it hasn’t limited his ability to be impactful at the line or on defense. In order to prove he’s for real, George will need to play aggressively, get his teammates involved, and continue his exceptional perimeter defense. I expect him to prove himself capable.
6. BLAKE GRIFFIN
Yes. Griffin has a Rookie of the Year award, three All-Star appearances and numerous national advertising campaigns. But he still hasn’t won big in the playoffs. And in the past nine games he’s been in a funk, shooting 10 percentage points worse and four points per game below his season average. His funk is related to the funk that the entire Los Angeles Clippers team is under as they struggle to figure out an effective offense in the half-court. Griffin needs to prove he is talented enough in the post and on defense to get L.A.’s other team to the Western Conference Finals. I think that any less of an outcome for the Clippers will mark the season as a failure. We all know Griffin is an incredible basketball player, but we are all still waiting for that moment when he proves to us that he is ready to take that next step into superstardom. With a successful postseason, he can get there this year.
5. JOSH SMITH
I don’t think may people, Smith included, expected him to be on the Hawks after this year’s trade deadline. Many Atlanta fans believe he’s the reason for their team’s problems and with his free agency looming this summer, this will most likely be Smith’s last season in Atlanta. So for Smith, this postseason presents him the opportunity to prove not only to Hawks fans, but to everyone in the NBA, that his game is more than just athleticism and that he can be a key contributor to a winning team. I think he can be, but not as a first option. Or a second option. He needs to continue to develop his post-up game and recommit to defense. No more threes or midrange shots or anything that is outside of the paint. There’s no reason for him to continually shoot the Hawks out of games when he’s so strong and athletic in the post. With the right adjustments, Smith can and will be an effective player in this league for a long time. But he hast to prove that this postseason by limiting the negatives of his game and refocusing on the positives to help the Hawks win.