The playoffs are great for the clashes between the best teams in the NBA, but also because it’s an opportunity to create legends and form legacies. Individual story lines and plot threads in front of our eyes, like Kevin Durant aiming to finally step out of the imaginary shadows he’s under, while LeBron James tries and make his legacy of championships equal to that of his individual achievements and statistics.
But not everything is about championships and greatness. Some goals are a bit smaller. Shedding a concept, an image. For players like Monta Ellis and James Harden it’s about stepping away from the ball hog “role” and for others like John Wall, it’s about proving that he’s worth a mega contract, and is the right man for a franchise to put its faith in.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant will win the MVP award. He’s been to the NBA finals. He’s the best scorer in the game and this season has probably crossed the threshold and became the best player in the game. He’s consistently excellent. He has added rebounding and passing to his game. He even shines on defense from time to time although he probably will never be an All-NBA defender. What’s left? Winning a championship, probably. Not making it this season will raise some questions – he has been in the league seven years, and it’s time to start showing some golden trophies.
Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks
No one is expecting the Mavs to do too much in the playoffs. They are an #8 seed, playing the Spurs, a team they’ve lost to four times in the regular season. But there’s a chance to come out with more than just a pat on the back and hearing “good effort, good job“. Monta Ellis was awful with the Bucks in his first ever postseason appearance. The Mavs’ success has a lot to do with him slightly changing this year, and bringing the same ability and maturity to the postseason will make this a bit longer than a four-game sweep.
LeBron James, Miami Heat
What? Again?! After two NBA titles? Yes, again. The defending champions always carry responsibility, expectations, pressure. LeBron James is used to it, but it’ll probably be more in terms of taking the games on his shoulders, his back; more than ever before. His legacy won’t be hurt by not winning a championship, but James wants to be remembered as the greatest ever. Putting that kind of pressure on yourself brings expectations from the rest of the world.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Remember when the season began and the Pacers looked almost unbeatable and people started talking about Paul George as an MVP contender? The law of averages works in sports as well, and at some point LeBron James and Kevin Durant were going to raise their heads above the water, with no one catching up. George isn’t as talented and can’t score at will, but he did get a big contract from the Pacers, which means they expect him to become a lot more consistent offensively – good enough to lead this team to the NBA finals, even if he his ugly efficiency numbers while doing so.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Unlike his teammate Chris Paul who’ll show up later, Griffin isn’t a number one player on his team. It’s clearly Paul’s show to run, but Griffin has shown us a different side to him this season. One that’s not only about dunks, but a player who can consistently hit midrange jumpers, make some moves with his back to the basket and almost looking like a point forward at times. For Griffin it isn’t about leading the Clippers, but being a lot more versatile with a lot more at stake.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
The third side in the Thunder’s triangle that reached the final in 2012 is now a star in Houston, one of the best scorers in the NBA. The opinions are split on Harden: A superstar and best shooting guard in the league, or an overrated ball hog that gets too much credit from McHale and Morey? The answer is somewhere in between probably, and Harden needs to lead the Rockets, along with a talented roster next to him, in order to make the second, negative opinion become less relevant.
Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
Not the best center in the NBA, and late in the season looked like someone who isn’t even a top 5 center. Hibbert seems to wake up offensively only when he sees the Miami Heat or Tyson Chandler, which means he’s not giving Indiana enough. Hibbert likes to answer critics and talk about being disrespected as a player and a team. His second half of the season and especially the finish were embarrassing, and he needs a dominant stretch in the postseason, even if he doesn’t pull off big numbers, to change the perception of being overrated that’s become quite popular in recent weeks.
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Plenty of accolades for Chris Paul in his NBA career, and most of the time is referred to as the best point guard in the NBA. He’s been in the league for nine seasons, and still hasn’t gotten past the conference semifinals. He’s only been to them twice. At some point, his near-MVP seasons, All-NBA selections, assist-king “titles” and All-Star appearances aren’t enough. People want to see wins, or at least someone who leads a team to challenge for the NBA title, which means making it to the conference finals. Maybe it’s not fair to judge a player based on team achievements, but that’s the
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Wade was insulted earlier in the season when he wasn’t mentioned among the best players in the league in certain preseason polls. He has had games of the old Wade, or at least a guy who is unstoppable on offense, but what we’ll mostly remember from this year is Wade getting a lot of rest, and maybe costing the Heat the number one seed in the conference. The best way to make up for it? Putting those knee, back and other injury problems behind him, and being the right hand man for LeBron James like he’s been in 2012 and 2013.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
There comes a point when you’re no longer a new player, a young one developing. Wall has taken the Wizards to the postseason for the first time. Now? He needs to win a series, and it might be even expected of him. He is probably the best point guard in the East, and has a team that’s good enough to overcome not having home court advantage in the first round and show that making him a franchise player and expecting greatness hasn’t been a misguided decision.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Although Durant has lost his golden boy image over the last couple of seasons, there’s a very good chance that the player getting the blame if the Thunder don’t win the championship will be Russell Westbrook, with the rest ricocheting off of him onto Scott Brooks. Westbrook is never going to be a Steve Nash kind of point guard, but a little bit of restrain, defensive focus and actual thinking late in games might go a very long way.