The NBA Playoffs provides a unique landscape. After 82 games are played, eight teams from each conference are pitted against each other in the NBA’s version of The Hunger Games. At the front of this battle are the stars of each respective team. Some are coming into the playoffs with high expectations, while some are just happy to be here. Let’s put it this way, the Wizards and Bobcats are happy just to be in the playoffs whereas teams like the Pacers and Thunder won’t be satisfied without holding a trophy.
No matter the team, there are stars that have much to prove in the playoffs. There are reputations on the line and these stars have the chance to change them. Take Chris Paul for instance, who is considered the greatest point guard in the league, but has only won two playoff series his whole career. This year, Paul has no excuses with his core teammates propelling their game to the next level. What will happen if Paul doesn’t take his team to the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals? What about if Kevin Durant falls in the second round with a healthy Westbrook, will his perception change even after his historic season? Even players like John Wall and Kemba Walker have a lot to prove about their status as top point guards, even if their team doesn’t advance past the first round. One could even argue that teams as a whole have a lot to prove in the playoffs. Take the New York Knicks for example, who have crumbled upon their expectations and might barely sneak into the eight seed in the east.
Here are the 10 stars that have the most to prove in the 2014 NBA Playoffs.
*All stats from basketball-reference.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise noted*
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Washington, D.C., is living in the moment right now. With the Redskins nabbing DeSean Jackson from the free agent market and the Wizards making the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-2008 season, Washington is buzzing. Leading the Wizards into the playoffs is none other than John Wall, the face of the franchise. Before the season even began, Wall was adamant that he had to make the postseason (via The Washington Post): “I need to be in the playoffs. Leaving the season early every year is not fun, it’s no excitement, just going home and watching basketball.”
Wall is having his best season as a pro, averaging 19.8 points and 8.7 assists, including shooting a career-high 36 percent from deep. The Wizards don’t have many expectations in the playoffs, since this is their first appearance in four years, but John Wall has his plate full. Wall’s excellent season has him on the precipice of being mentioned with the great point guards in the NBA. The Wizards are 40-37 on the season, holding the sixth seed, and will have a date with Toronto or Chicago in the opening round. This presents a very winnable situation for the Wizards, but regardless, John Wall needs to perform.
Wall’s best season in the NBA led to his team’s first playoff appearance in four years–this is his time to emerge as a top five point guard. Last season, the NBA world saw Paul George’s stock explode after his playoff performance. Wall can do the same. Point guard’s such as Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio are missing the playoffs due to injuries or record. While Wall’s performance this season might have him above those point guards already, the playoffs are his opportunity to jump in the conversation with the point god, Chris Paul. I mean, Paul George’s performance had many people mentioning him as the third-best player in the NBA, behind Durant and LeBron. It’s not crazy to believe that Wall could be thrown into the top NBA point guard conversation with a great playoff performance, especially against a top two or three defense in the first round with the Raptors and Bulls.
As the Wizards march into the playoffs, John Wall needs to escalate his play even more to be mentioned with the top point guards in the NBA.
Kevin Durant has been superhuman this season–wait, that doesn’t even describe how insane Durant has been this season. Remarkable, heroic, phenomenal, prodigious? Just combine all of those adjectives and that describes Durant’s play this season. The future NBA MVP is averaging 32.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 51 percent shooting from the field, 41 percent from deep and 87 percent from the line. He’s winning the NBA MVP this season, but Durant’s legacy will only be legendary if he takes his Thunder to the promised land.
Kevin Durant might miss his second straight consecutive season of a 50/40/90 season, but that’s old news. So is the fact that Durant is on pace to have the best individual scoring season since Kobe Bryant averaged 35.4 points and Allen Iverson averaged 33 points in 2005-2006. This season, Kevin Durant is on the mark to become a part of the 30/30 club. That is, averaging 30 points and a PER of 30 in a single season, which has only been done by players with the last names Jordan, Chamberlain, Wade, McGrady and Wade. Even the name LeBron James doesn’t appear on this list.
With a season so great that it can be mentioned with the names Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan, the bar has never been higher for Kevin Durant. Anything short of an NBA championship will be a failure for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Not many people will remember this amazing season if Durant bows out early in the playoffs. The worst thing Kevin Durant could do is take the Thunder to the NBA Finals and fall to LeBron James and the Miami Heat… again. Kevin Durant is a once-in-a-lifetime type of player, but the statistics will show that he frequently finished as the runner-up to the best basketball player in the world, LeBron James. Even at 25 years young, Kevin Durant has entered the stage of his NBA career where NBA championships are going to start to become the norm. With LeBron James having two rings on his fingers and en route to a third, the pressure has never been higher on Durant.
Kevin Durant has single-handedly carried the Thunder to greatness, but will need Russell Westbrook in the playoffs to succeed. Batman needed Robin and Durant needs Westbrook. A healthy Westbrook places the bar even higher for the Thunder–an early exit from the playoffs is unacceptable, no matter how tough the West is. Kevin Durant has proven that he might be the best scorer in the NBA and is capable of accomplishing stunning individual statistical feats. However, to truly begin cementing his NBA legacy, Kevin Durant needs to capture an NBA championship. This is the year, Durantula, go get it.
Blake Griffin is having his best season as a pro, there’s no question about that. Chris Paul is the unquestioned leader of the Clippers, but Blake Griffin is an essential piece to the puzzle. Griffin is averaging 24.0 points and 9.6 rebounds with an 11th-best PER of 23.8, which trumps James Harden, Steph Curry and Dirk Nowitzki. Griffin’s 11.6 win shares this season leads the team with the third-best record in the Western Conference at 55-23. Griffin has improved every area of his game, increasing his shooting from 10-16 feet from 36 percent to 40 percent this season. Most importantly, Griffin has dispelled the notion that all he can do is dunk. This season, 14 percent of all of Griffin’s FGAs are dunks, which is the lowest of his career and is down six percent from last season. Griffin has thrown down 163 dunks this season, which is also a career-low.
As the Clippers ascend toward the top of the Western Conference and the Lakers fall into basketball purgatory, Los Angeles is being covered in red, white and blue. As the Clippers make their power surge into the playoffs, Los Angeles is expecting more than the first-round exit that occurred last season. Expecting the most out of this team is new coach Doc Rivers, whose championship pedigree needs no introduction. With the leap that Blake Griffin has taken this season, arguably one of the most complete power forwards in the NBA, he will be partly responsible for how far the Clippers can climb this season.
To be honest, Blake Griffin hasn’t exactly been Earth shattering in the playoffs during his young career. Last season, the Clippers exited the playoffs in the first round and Griffin’s numbers saw a massive dip. After going off for 18.0 points and 8.6 rebounds during the regular season, Griffin’s numbers trickled down to 13.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in the playoffs. Having someone with as much athleticism and talent as Griffin average 13.2 points and 5.5 rebounds is embarrassing. James Harden (6.7), Chandler Parsons (6.5), Andre Iguodala (8.0), Paul George (7.4) and Kawhi Leonard (9.0) are just some players that averaged more rebounds per game than Griffin in the playoffs last season. It’s safe to say that Griffin has a lot to prove in the playoffs this season and it will take more than one round in the tough Western Conference to prove that.
Chris Paul is the best point guard on this planet–no one can deny that. The Clippers are one of the best teams in the Western Conference and have taken the leap that everyone expected them too. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are playing like all-pro players and Chris Paul is still a point god. However, all of that is forgotten in the playoffs. The statistics and records are all wiped clean and the death race for the championship begins. Chris Paul’s name comes with a lot of great things, but playoff success isn’t one of them. His trials and tribulations in the playoffs are well documented–Paul has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs and has only won two playoff series in his entire career. Paul has been the Teflon Don of escaping championship criticism that hoarded LeBron James until he captured his first ring, but the masses are starting to realize that Paul isn’t succeeding in the playoffs.
CP3 took New Orleans to the playoffs three times during his tenure there and averaged over 10 assists per game in every playoff series with the Hornets. For some reason, Paul hasn’t averaged over eight assists per game in the playoffs with the Clippers. Last season, in a first-round exit, Paul averaged 22.8 points and 6.3 assists per game. The 6.3 assists were the lowest of his playoff career. Forget the statistics, CP3 just has to lead the Clippers to victory. The world would rather see him average five assists per game and win a ring, than average 10 per game and lose in the second round. While some players on this list need to prove themselves statistically, Paul needs to win.
The pressure is mounting on Paul’s shoulders and there aren’t many years left before his reputation is ruined for lack of playoff success. His greatness is undeniable, but to be honest, Chris Paul has never won shit. This is the year–the Clippers HAVE to succeed. Unless they appear in the Western Conference Finals, then the Clippers and Paul will be a failure for this season. Talk about pressure, huh?
Paul George proved a lot in the playoffs last season, as did the Pacers. Coming into this season, everyone wanted to press the fast forward button on the regular season and skip to the playoffs to see the Heat and Pacers battling for the right to represent the East in the NBA Finals. Good thing no one hit that button, because the Pacers might not even be the second-best team in the East anymore. Having a 3-7 record in their last ten games will do that to a team, especially when the Evan Turner trade has completely derailed any momentum the Pacers had in the second half. But Evan Turner isn’t the only reason the Pacers haven’t looked like a team ready to challenge the Heat in the playoffs. Paul George hasn’t been exactly setting the world on fire this season, especially after a scorching hot start to the season.
Post All-Star break, George is averaging 20.8 points and 7.5 rebounds, shooting 40 percent from the floor and 35 percent from deep. George has been even worse in the past 10 games, averaging 18.2 points on 34 percent shooting from the field. The Pacers and George have just been terrible since the All-Star break, making people question if they have enough to even make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Paul George has a lot to prove in the playoffs. The Pacers are supposed to be able to take down the Miami Heat this season after taking them to seven games last season. One thing is certain, if the Pacers come out in the playoffs and play like the team that almost went to the NBA Finals last season, then this torrid second half will be forgotten. That is, if the Pacers make it to the NBA Finals. It’s your move, Indiana.
Roy Hibbert has been playing like an absolute joke this season. It’s like he’s been a victim of the Monstars from Space Jam. Hibbert is 7-2 and 280 pounds and averages 6.8 rebounds per game. To put that in perspective, Michael Carter-Williams is a 6-6 rookie point guard who averages 6.6 rebounds per game. His 6.8 RPG are the lowest of his career and his 11.7 PPG is the lowest since his second season in the NBA. Hibbert is suffering through a serious regression this season after having a performance in last season’s playoffs that catapulted him to being one of the top centers in the NBA.
Hibbert was an absolute cannibal in the playoffs last season, averaging 17.0 points and 9.9 rebounds while converting 51 percent of his attempts. Not to mention, he was turning away 1.9 shots per game too. Hibbert was the main reason the Pacers almost made a trip to the NBA Finals, his rim protection is an invaluable asset that most teams in the NBA don’t have. His rim protection still makes him relevant, even if his stats are lacking. But, this regular season performance by Hibbert has placed a lot of pressure on his shoulders to improve in the playoffs. Hibbert is a max contract player in this league and needs to start performing like one.
A monstrous performance in the playoffs will make his regular season tribulations be forgotten. There’s no excuse for someone at Hibbert’s size to not average at least 10 rebounds per game, especially in the playoffs. Everyone is noticing how bad Hibbert has been this season and he’s no longer looked upon as an elite player. Roy Hibbert has dug himself quite the large hole this season and will need to be on his worst behavior in the playoffs to prove that he is worth that $14 million per season he’s earning.
The Charlotte Bobcats are in the playoffs. Wow, doesn’t that sound weird? It’s true, the Bobcats hold the seventh seed in the East with a 39-38 record and are winners of their last four games. Even though the Bobcats will turn into the Hornets next season, the Bobcats will have one more chance to rectify the terrible reputation that comes along with the Bobcats name. Having one of the last two seeds in the East is never easy, as it comes with a matchup against Indiana or Miami. With this being said, Kemba Walker is one of the fiercest competitors in the NBA and plays the same whether his team is up 30, down 30, or tied with two minutes to go. Walker is up for any challenge and embodies the same cold-bloodedness that UConn point guard Shabazz Napier is glowing in as he is carrying his team to the National Championship Game. There’s just something about those UConn point guards–never count them out. With the madness of March boiling over into the NBA Playoffs, Kemba Walker will look to capture the same magic that Napier is using for his Huskies.
Compared to last season, Walker hasn’t exactly improved. He’s averaging around the same amount of points, his assists are up a few percentage points and his shooting percentages have decreased slightly. Kemba Walker is averaging 17.8 points and 6.0 assists on 40 percent shooting from the field. As he plays out his third season in the NBA, no one is quite sure where to rank Walker among the top point guards in the NBA. He sure deserves to be in the conversation, but is it top-10 or top-20? This is where the playoffs come into the equation. Kemba Walker has the perfect opportunity to prove to the world that he’s a top point guard in this league. With a vicious one-two punch in Walker and Al Jefferson, the Bobcats can put some fright into any opponent that comes their way.
The Bobcats have predicated their success on defense this regular season, which is why they have the fifth-best defense in the NBA, giving up 97.2 PPG. This will translate well in the playoffs, where the offense slows down and defense becomes that much more crucial. Every possession is important and can decide a game. How many games in the playoffs are decided by one or two points? I guess that missed layup in the first quarter really did affect the game. No one is expecting anything out of the Bobcats if they wind up facing the Heat or Pacers in the first round and there sure won’t be any upsets happening. However, Kemba Walker has a perfect opportunity to prove where he is as a pro. Walker needs to come out and average around 20 points per game in the playoffs, while upping that shooting percentage above 40. We’ve all learned to never doubt a UConn point guard, which is exactly why Kemba Walker will be making a statement when the playoffs roll around.
The sweet-shooting Stephen Curry and his Golden State Warriors find themselves in the playoff hunt yet again. The Warriors hold the sixth spot in the tough West, with a 48-29 record. Golden State is 1.5 games ahead of Dallas and 1.5 games behind Portland for the fifth seed. Barring any crazy happenings, the Warriors will be in the playoffs. When this time arrives, Curry will have a lot to prove.
The world fell in love with Curry last season in the playoffs; his electric shooting had us all jumping out of our seats. For awhile, it looked like the Warriors posed a real distinct threat to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round–mainly because of the Steph Curry effect. Last season in the playoffs, Curry averaged 23.4 points and 8.1 assists, shooting 43 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. In the playoffs, 45 percent of Curry’s attempts were from deep and Curry shot 71 percent from corner threes. But, no one needs a barrage of statistics to remember how lethal Curry was in the playoffs last season.
Curry’s Warriors haven’t exactly taken the leap we all expected them to towards the top of the Western Conference, especially after the addition of defensive juggernaut, Andre Iguodala. To be frank, their regular season has been a disappointment. Curry is still performing, putting up a career-high 23.4 points and 8.4 assists while shooting 47 percent from the field. However, Steph’s three-point shooting has dropped down to 42 percent after being at 45 percent last season–Curry is taking the most attempts in the NBA from three at eight per game.
In the playoffs, the Warriors have to prove that they can be one of the best teams in the Western Conference. The competition is fierce this season, however, a first-round exit would be quite the disappointment. Hell, it would be an injustice to only see Steph Curry for one round in the playoffs this season. This is the year that the Warriors were supposed to rise to the top of the West, not fall back down the ladder. The Warriors have a lot to prove come playoff time and hopefully the hot shooting stroke of Steph Curry is ready to catch flames.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks have been so atrocious this season that we couldn’t single out one player to exclusively be on this list. The popular answer would be Carmelo Anthony, but he’s having a great season averaging 27.7 points and 8.2 rebounds on 45 percent shooting and 41 percent from the land of beyond. ‘Melo’s 41 percent from deep is a career-high and he hasn’t shot this good from the field since the 2010-2011 season when he was traded to the New York Knicks. Simply, Carmelo Anthony is not the person to blame for the Knicks shortcomings this season.
Regardless of the record, the Knicks are currently 2.5 games back of the eight seed, which is held by the Atlanta Hawks. The Knicks are on a two-game skid, but the playoffs still look like a relative possibility–New York should thank the East for being so damn awful this season. If the Knicks lose four games or the Hawks win four games, then the Knicks are out of playoff contention. With no draft picks and no cap room in the offseason, the Knicks are basically stuck with the roster they have. Carmelo Anthony has the option to opt out of his contract this offseason and even with Phil Jackson in the front office, the Knicks will still have a lot to prove if they squeak into the playoffs. This is almost like an audition for ‘Melo’s teammates to prove that he should come back to New York–a lot is on the line.
The Mississippi Bullet, Monta Ellis, has been one of the more consistent scorers in the NBA for some time. With that being said, he’s never been the type of player to lead his team to victories. Ellis has never garnered more than ten win shares in a full season during his ten years in the NBA. Monta Ellis has compiled 32.7 win shares in ten NBA seasons, meaning he averages 3.27 win shares per season. Yes, he averages 19.3 PPG for his career, but legacies are built on winning, not scoring.
Ellis has been to the playoffs twice in his career, in 2006-2007 with the Warriors and last season with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Milwaukee Bucks and Monta Ellis bowed out in the first round of the playoffs last season to the Miami Heat, even though Brandon Jennings coined the infamous “Bucks in six” phrase.
Both of Ellis’ appearances in the playoffs have been less than impressive, considering the body of work he has shown in the regular season. Last season, Ellis averaged 14.3 points, 5.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds on 44 percent shooting from the field and 16 percent from deep. Yup, 16 percent from deep on 4.8 attempts from three per game. Ellis was playing 38.0 MPG in the playoffs last season, so there’s no excuse for his 14.3 PPG. Those statistics are quite underwhelming, but Ellis is looking to change his reputation for shrinking under the lights in the playoffs this season.
Playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki, Ellis has breathed new life into his career, averaging 18.7 points, 5.8 assists and 3.6 rebounds on 45 percent shooting. The two are leading the eighth-best offense in the NBA, scoring 105.2 PPG. At 15.3 FGA per game, Ellis is taking the least amount of shots since his third season in the NBA and his shooting percentages have increased because of it.
Currently, the Mavericks are 45-31 and hold the seventh seed in the Western Conference. However, it isn’t that easy–the eight (Memphis) and nine (Phoenix) seeds are only a half game back of the Mavs. After defeating the Clippers, the Mavs are proving they have the talent to compete in the Western Conference. Dirk Nowitzki has nothing to prove, he has a championship ring and is part of the only team to take down the “Big Three” of the Miami Heat. Monta Ellis, on the other hand, has never experienced any amount of playoff success. Monta Ellis will have a chance to shine on the brightest stage if the Mavericks can stay in the playoff race. He has a lot to prove. He will be remembered as a great scorer, but adding a winning reputation to his resume would only boost his legacy.
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