Doesn’t matter how many title rings he has, LeBron James is always under the scrutiny of the media and the NBA loving public, meaning he finds himself in a similar position – needing to prove that he’s good enough to take a team on his back all the way to the title. Others, with different reasons to doubt them, are also heading into the playoffs with some proving to do – Carmelo Anthony, James Harden and Dwight Howard to name a few.
Sometimes it’s not only about being good enough to win a title or not. Sometimes it’s about showing you can adapt and become bigger than just a selfish player. Guys like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony, who love putting up a lot of points while forgetting about their teammates. For others, like Dwight Howard and Josh Smith, it’s some sort of audition showing they’re worth the money they’ll be paid this summer, and are worth building a team around.
LeBron James, Miami Heat
Even as an NBA champions and a probable four time MVP, LeBron James always has to prove something to the general public. The expectations of him and his teammates is so great than anything but an NBA title, and multiple title rings when this big-three concept ride is over, will be deemed a disappointment and a failure. The Heat seem to be setting new standards with each passing season for their own excellence, pulled by LeBron James who continues to improve, if that’s even possible. The team’s second half of the season showed just how dominant they can be when everything clicks, but if they peaked too soon (in their 27-game winning streaks) the claws will once again be out to try and show just how un-great LeBron James is.
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
The Knicks, for the first time in a very long time, enter a first round series as favorites, with home court advantage. Carmelo Anthony has been known to miss out on advancing on a few of those during his career, making the playoffs in each of his 10 NBA seasons so far, but making it past the first round only once. Anthony won the scoring title, but all the talk about him being a different player earlier in the season wasn’t really true. Anthony is an exceptional scorer, but is lacking in a lot of aspects in his game because of one thing – his own commitment to anything but his shooting. That attitude might be enough to get the Knicks past the Celtics in the first round, but anything than a more well-rounded performance from Anthony on both sides of the floor instead of games with 35 field goal attempts won’t be very beneficial for the Knicks.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers
We know Paul George is an amazing athlete. We know George can get hot from the outside. We know he has long arms, as anyone trying to explain the way the Pacers defend keeps mentioning the arm length of certain players. But is George ready to become an NBA superstar? We ranked him as one of thetop 5 players in his position before the season began. George, like other players on his team, isn’t used to being a leading man – a player who gets so many minutes each night for a full season. It showed as the finish line drew closer. Now, he’s going to need to show that he can be more than just a defensive stopper, but a real offensive and general team leader, with a Pacers team that is capable of reaching the East finals, if they start playing some consistent offense. The only way that’s going to happen is if George makes the needed switch.
Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
Some players head into the playoffs with a need to show they can handle the pressure and shine when things are a little tougher. Smith? He’s about ensuring he gets the kind of contract he expects to get, a max one, with a lot of figures on the paper, next season. It’s hard to believe the Hawks will give Smith, who’s effort and will to give his all to the Hawks has been put in question from time to time over the last couple of seasons, the kind of deal Joe Johnson got a couple of years ago. A good performance from Smith in the postseason might make it certain that he’ll get it from another team.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook needs to show us he’s changed, instead of just being another John Starks-like performance in the finals waiting to happen. Maybe he has this burning desire to show everyone he can score just as well as Kevin Durant does, but the Thunder are a better team when Westbrook at least tries to pretend he is an actual point guard instead of just someone forced into that position, but all he cares about is shooting floaters and outscoring his teammate, regardless of what’s good for the team. If Westbrook makes that switch in his head about how to control his inner-diva, the Thunder might be the best team in the NBA.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
I refuse to believe James Harden doesn’t know that him shooting 25-30 times a game from the field while playing one on one basketball isn’t the best solution for the Rockets. He has a head coach that lets him do what he wants on the court, and that is where the problem begins. Harden is at his best when he’s a point guard, but willing to share the ball, like a point guard should, instead of turning the four players around him into a catch-and-shoot bunch, which especially eliminates everything good about Jeremy Lin. The chances are against Harden & the Rockets, but a more balanced performance from him will give us an indication that he’s continuing to develop as a player and a leader, who knows when to give up on his numbers for the sake of his team advancing in the playoffs.
Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
When was the last time the Lakers were such huge underdogs in a postseason series? Probably last season, when they played the Thunder, unless you late that Lakers name on their jersey blind your judgement. This does take a lot of the pressure off from Howard and the rest of the players, especially with Kobe Bryant out for the postseason, but this doesn’t mean Howard shouldn’t bring out his A game, which we’ve seen so rarely of during the season. Howard has to be the stopped behind a faulty rotational defense against a team that moves the ball better than anyone in the NBA, but at his best, there isn’t a defensive force as good as him in the paint. Maybe it’s his chance to prove all the doubters wrong, and give the Lakers another sign that building the future around him is a wise decision.