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.
7. Blake Griffin
If it weren’t for Kevin Durant putting together one of the greatest regular seasons in NBA history, Blake Griffin would have a real case for the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2013-14.
Griffin averaged a career-best 24.1 points per game and just under 10 rebounds per game on 53 percent shooting this season. He also made 72 percent of his free throws–up nearly six percent from a season ago. And, with All-Star teammate Chris Paul missing nearly a quarter of the season, Griffin still led the Clippers to 57 wins and the third seed in the Western Conference.
So is Blake Griffin now officially a superstar? No, at least not until he proves his game can translate to the postseason. Last year, he was seemingly invisible in Los Angeles’s first-round series with the Memphis Grizzlies, averaging only 13 points and fewer than six rebounds per game while shooting just 45.3 percent from the field.
This postseason, that won’t cut it, especially not if Griffin hopes to prove himself to be a superstar in today’s NBA. He needs to show up and, at the very least, help lead his Clippers past the Golden State Warriors and out of the first round.
6. Dwight Howard
The pressure that is on Dwight Howard this postseason is, for the most part, self-inflicted. It was Dwight’s decision to ditch Orlando and thus leave what seemed like the perfect situation, and it was Dwight’s decision to leave the Lakers last summer, perhaps because he couldn’t handle the pressure of Los Angeles.
Season after season in Orlando, Howard was the star on a team that, in a weak Eastern Conference, was a perennial contender to get to the Finals. For the life of me, I still don’t understand why he was so hell-bent on forcing his way out of that situation.
Even more perplexing, however, is why he left the Los Angeles Lakers–the Lakers!–and one Kobe Bean Bryant. Superstars don’t just leave Los Angeles, and they certainly don’t pass up the opportunity to play with Kobe Bryant.
So, if Dwight wants to be able to justify his decision to first leave Orlando and then Los Angeles, he has to show us something, something spectacular, this postseason.
5. Russell Westbrook
I love watching Russell Westbrook play basketball perhaps more than I love watching any player in the NBA play basketball, but let’s be honest: the Thunder weren’t the same team with him in the lineup that they were without him for much of this season.
In the 21 games that Westbrook played after returning to the lineup post All-Star break, the Thunder went 13-8–good, but not great. At times, his addition to the lineup seemed to be more of a disruption to Oklahoma City’s and Durant’s rhythm than anything else. Of course, this was nothing new. Westbrook is an exciting, dynamic player–a superstar–but he has often seemed to forget that THE GUY in Oklahoma City wears number 35, not 0.
Yes, THE GUY in Oklahoma City is Kevin Durant, not Westbrook, but too often Westbrook plays as if the Thunder are his team, not Durant’s. In the 2012 Finals, the last full playoff series that Westbrook and Durant played together, Westbrook took 16 more shots than Durant. He was taking shots that his teammate and the world’s purest scorer (Durant) should have been taking. That can’t happen during the 2014 Playoffs.
Obviously, Westbrook has plenty to prove over the next two months. But if he can simply stay within himself and play as he did in Game 1 against Memphis on Saturday, when he took six fewer shots than Durant and stayed out of Durant’s way as the scoring champion took the game over in the fourth quarter, then Russell will be fine and the Thunder will be more than fine.
4. Paul George
Earlier this season, everyone–myself included–was guilty of putting Paul George in the same sentence as LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Suddenly, George was the NBA’s next superstar and, suddenly, George was the best two-way player in basketball.
Well, not so fast.
After back-to-back exceptional months to begin the season, George hit a wall in January. That month, he shot just 41 percent and scored only 21.3 points per game. Then, in February, the decline continued, as he shot 40 percent and scored 21 points per game. In March, he hit his low point: George made just over 37 percent of his shots and scored under 19 points per game. Regular-season April was slightly better–he shot 40 percent and scored 22.6 points per game–but it still wasn’t up to his November or December standards.
Fortunately for George, his poor showing for much of the season’s second half didn’t hurt the Pacers–they were able to hold on to the East’s first seed and to homecourt advantage.
In a historically bad Eastern Conference, the Pacers are under excruciating pressure to reach the conference finals, and it’s largely up to Paul George to lead them there. If he can, then maybe, just maybe, we can resume the discussion regarding his place as potentially a superstar.
3. Chris Paul
Forgive me if I just haven’t seen the light, but I might never understand the national obsession with Chris Paul. Yes, I get that his State Farm commercials are highly entertaining and I get that he’s a genuinely good person, but can he at least make it out of the second round before we give him superstar status?
In five career playoff appearances, Paul’s teams have twice been eliminated in the second round and have thrice been eliminated in the first round. His career postseason record, after Saturday’s loss to Golden State? 18-25.
Is that really superstar-caliber stuff? Is that really elite stuff? Not for me, sorry.
Before I can label Paul a superstar, he needs to go deeper into the playoffs. This season, with the best supporting cast he’s ever had, he has no excuse. CP3 has MVP candidate Blake Griffin, Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeAndre Jordan, Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner Jamal Crawford, sharp-shooter J.J. Redick, playoff-experienced Glen “Big Baby” Davis, the more-than-serviceable backup point guard Darren Collison, and the ever-underappreciated Willie Green.
Oh, and did I mention that Paul’s Clippers are coached by the great Doc Rivers? To me, Rivers, the 2008 NBA champion head coach, just might be Paul’s greatest advantage of all.
I would argue that Paul has a better supporting cast than any superstar in the NBA–better than Durant’s supporting cast and certainly better than LeBron’s. If he’s in their category, Paul must at least get out of the first round and he should probably get his team to the NBA Finals.
I like Chris Paul and I’ll be rooting for him, but this postseason means everything to him and to his legacy. If he again loses in the first round, we all must officially drop the superstar label from his name.
2. LeBron James
Let’s be clear: in order to solidify himself as an all-time great, LeBron James–a four-time league MVP, a two-time NBA champion and a two-time Finals MVP–needs not play another minute of basketball. To me, he’s already the second greatest player of all time, trailing only Michael Jordan.
But LeBron’s goal isn’t just to be arguably the second-best player of all time; his goal is to be in Jordan’s category and ultimately surpass Jordan as the greatest player of all time.
For James, I believe the 2014 Playoffs present the perfect opportunity to enter the same conversation as Michael Jordan. If LeBron can win a third straight championship, this time with a broken-down Dwyane Wade and not much of a supporting cast outside of Chris Bosh, then we at least have to start putting him in the same sentence as Jordan.
But, if the Heat fail to win the title, it would leave LeBron at just two rings as he nears age 30, and the window for him to catch Jordan’s six rings would suddenly look smaller and smaller.
It’s only my personal opinion, but I believe this postseason will have a large impact on James’ quest to dethrone Jordan as the best ever.
1. Kevin Durant
2013-14 has, so far, been the year of Kevin Durant. He won his fourth scoring title in a landslide and fell just shy of his second-straight 50-40-90 season, but most important was his ability to keep the Thunder afloat–and then some–while Russell Westbrook was sidelined.
In January, a month that Westbrook missed the entirety of, Durant had one of the greatest months for an individual in NBA history. He averaged just under 36 (35.9) points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game and 6.1 assists per game, all while shooting 55 percent from the field and nearly 44 percent from three.
LeBron might steal a few first-place votes, but Durant deserves to be the first ever unanimous MVP winner. That’s just the kind of season he’s had.
Still, none of it will matter–not the scoring title, not the 32 points per game, not the 41 straight 25-point games–if he can’t close the deal and win his first NBA championship.
Right now, it’s officially time for Kevin Durant, time to avenge his flame out in four straight fourth quarters and overtimes against the Memphis Grizzlies in last year’s postseason, time to prove he is more than just a scoring machine, and time to prove that he is on the same level as LeBron James.
Unlike last year, when Westbrook was injured, Durant has the help he needs to win his first ring. This time around, Durant has Westbrook and he has Serge Ibaka and he has Caron Butler and he has an emerging Reggie Jackson.
And, yes, don’t kid yourself: Durant needs Westbrook to win a championship, even if the Thunder were and are a better regular season team without the former UCLA guard. As the 2013 Playoffs proved, Durant can’t win in May and June without Westbrook’s guts and toughness.
It is, however, Durant’s responsibility, maybe even more than it’s Westbrook’s, to get Westbrook to harness his energy and refrain from his often out-of-control, shoot-first tendencies. Durant, as the leader of the Thunder and as a top two player in the world, must let it be known that he will not cede any of his normal shots to Westbrook.
And if he truly is the best player in the world this year and if this past season wasn’t an aberration, then Durant will be successful in keeping Westbrook under control and he will win his first championship.
I know this much: Kevin Durant and the rest of his Thunder teammates are my pick to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this June.
What do you think?
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