Kit Shepard | April 12th, 2019
We made it. After a dramatic regular season that has included saliva-induced fights, half of the league included in possible trade packages for Anthony Davis, and that press conference on Tuesday night, the real fun can begin. The playoffs are finally here, and the stakes are as high as ever.
The outcome of the year will be crucial to this summer’s free agency, with playoff success crucial for teams looking to re-sign or recruit some of the league’s biggest names. The next two months will shape basketball for the next decade.
But this postseason will have consequences beyond the direction of the league in the near future. Legacies are made or destroyed at this time of year, and several players and teams will be desperate to build, secure, or save theirs this postseason.
It is perhaps harsh to discard the hundreds of games that have already taken place this campaign but, fair or not, this season will be remembered for what is yet to come. For many of the NBA’s stars, it is made or break time.
Here are five big picture questions that the playoffs will answer, along with realistic best and worst-case scenarios for each player or team concerned.
Will Giannis Make the Leap?
With LeBron James‘ Lakers missing the playoffs by a distance, the King’s reign as the NBA’s best player is over. This has left the position at the summit vacant, no one has made a better claim to the throne than Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Milwaukee Bucks superstar has taken the proverbial leap this season, leading his side to the league’s best record (60-22) by using his otherworldly athleticism to dominate on both ends of the court. He is just the third player to average over 27 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists while boasting a true shooting percentage of at least 60%, making him the favorite to be named MVP in June.
Fittingly, one of the other two players to put up those numbers was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The legendary big man led the Bucks to their first and only title in 1971, the first season that he achieved the above stat line. If Antetokounmpo can continue to follow in Kareem’s footsteps, the Greek Freak will become the undisputed face of the NBA, and begin to build his legacy.
Best Case Scenario: Giannis leads Milwaukee to their first title since 1971, joining Kareem in Bucks lore. This not only earns him the title as the best player in basketball but puts him on the path to become the league’s greatest ever international player.
Worst Case Scenario: Antetokounmpo gets into foul trouble (luring him into committing charges is perhaps the most effective way to stop him), his team-mates miss their shots, and Cameroonian Joel Embiid wins his personal battle with Giannis to establish himself as the NBA’s leading import, as the Philadelphia 76ers defeat the Bucks. Comparisons with the 2015 Atlanta Hawks are rife.
Are the Detractors Right About Westbrook?
Russell Westbrook greatest strength may also be his primary weakness. No one plays harder night-in, night-out than the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard, but when the playoffs roll around, his will to win often leads to him attempting to beat the opposition on his own. This was exemplified in last year’s season-ending first-round loss to the Utah Jazz, as Westbrook lost his head, hoisting up a ridiculous 43 shots (making just 18) in game 6 to seal the Thunder’s fate.
In the past two seasons, namely since Kevin Durant‘s brutal departure to the Golden State Warriors (which was possibly triggered by Westbrook’s one-dimensional style in the playoffs), it could be argued that Westbrook did not have enough quality around him to win any other way. That is not the case this year. Paul George is playing the best basketball of his career, putting up career highs across the board and has clearly become the Thunder’s best player. If Westbrook can embrace rather than resist this, he can prove that he is capable of leading a team to a championship. However, if he slips back into tunnel vision mode, those who label him a stat-padding ball-hog who is unable to play winning basketball might be proved right for good.
Best Case Scenario: Russell’s revenge. Westbrook takes off the blinkers, gives George the opportunity to play like the fringe MVP candidate he has become, and leads OKC to a historic shock victory over the Warriors, dramatically shifting the narrative surrounding him. Thunder fans rejoice at beating the team that ruined their chances of dominating the West and getting one over the despised Durant.
Worst Case Scenario: In an all too familiar story, Westbrook self-destructs in the opening round against the handicapped Portland Trail Blazers, shooting OKC out of the series by preventing George from activating ‘Playoff P‘. After three consecutive first-round exits, it appears that the former MVP will never be able to play winning basketball when it matters most.
Can you Win With Ben Simmons?
Ben Simmons‘ first taste of the playoffs was borderline traumatic. Sure, last season’s Rookie of the Year looked right at home in the 76ers’ first-round victory over the Miami Heat, but the subsequent series against the Boston Celtics was a disaster.
The numbers told the story. Against the Celtics, the Sixers were 53 (fifty-three) points per 100 possessions better when Simmons was off the court compared to when he was on it, making him almost unplayable. Boston’s strategy against the point forward was clear to see, with Al Horford taking advantage of the Australian’s atrocious jump shot by sagging off him completely, drastically limiting his playmaking ability.
Boston’s 4-1 victory exposed Simmons’s Achilles heel; his unwillingness to shot from anywhere outside the paint. Horford’s defense crippled the Sixers’ spacing, making life much harder for the likes of Joel Embiid and J.J. Redick to get decent looks. This season, Simmons’ jumper has shown no signs of improvement, and if history repeats itself in the postseason, whether his shooting flaws are fatal will be a legitimate question.
Best Case Scenario: Simmons puts together a transcendent display of playmaking throughout the playoffs, assuaging fears over his lack of a jumper and giving him confidence that he has the potential to lead a team to a title. He even makes a three-pointer (it was probably meant to be a pass, but beggars can’t be choosers).
Worst Case Scenario: The 76ers make the Conference Finals but are defeated by the Celtics for the second year in succession. Once again, Boston does not even bother to guard Simmons in the halfcourt, limiting the effects of Philadelphia’s other stars and raising serious questions over Simmons’ mentality after his refusal to develop an outside shot costs them.
Can the Warriors Seal their Legacy?
The playoffs will mark the end of an era for the Golden State Warriors. After 48 seasons in Oakland, the franchisee will be hopping across the Bay to play at the newly-built Chase Center in San Francisco.
Yet, in all likelihood, the Warriors will be saying farewell to more than just Oracle Arena this summer. Durant seems to have one foot in New York, with a move to the Knicks seeming inevitable.
Durant’s future has already threatened to derail the Warriors’ season once; it was the stimulus for the reigning Finals MVP’s infamous locker-room spat with Draymond Green. Golden State has been able to put the ugly incident behind them and top the West, but the season has felt like the final chapter of the current iteration of the Warriors, rather than the continuation of a dynasty.
Nevertheless, the story has not ended yet. KD’s two full seasons with the Warriors have brought two championships, adding to the title they won in Steve Kerr‘s first year as head coach in 2015, and a third would be immensely important when assessing this team’s place in history. Only Michael Jordan‘s Bulls and the Shaq–Kobe Lakers have three-peated in the modern NBA, and no team except Bill Russell‘s Celtics have won four titles in five years. One final championship could secure their status as the greatest team ever and do wonders for their superstars’ resumes.
Best Case Scenario: What most people expect, and perhaps fear, will happen. Golden State captures their three-peat with little competition, saying farewell to Durant and the Oracle in style. They become unequivocally the best dynasty since Jordan’s Bulls, at the very least. An exceptional postseason from Stephen Curry puts him behind only Magic Johnson in the all-time list of point guards, while a third straight title and Finals MVP for Durant ties him with LeBron, allowing him to leave for New York with the opportunity to surpass the player he has consistently been regarded as inferior to.
Worst Case Scenario: Curry goes down with one of his not uncommon ankle or leg injuries, leaving the Warriors without their on-court conductor and unitive heartbeat. From there, Golden State’s fragile chemistry is tested to the limit, allowing the Rockets or, worse still, the Thunder, to upset them. This would not only end the Durant/Oakland era on a very sour note but leave a serious blemish on the sports’ latest dynasty.
Can the Rockets’ Backcourt Change the Narrative?
The Houston Rockets did everything right last season. Sign one of the league’s most intelligent players? Chris Paul was acquired in July. Get James Harden his long-awaited MVP? He won it comfortably. Secure the top seed in the West? The Warriors were not even close to them.
Not much went wrong in the playoffs, either. They led Golden State 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals, one win away from dispelling the belief that Harden and Paul could not live up to the bright lights of the postseason. Then, CP3’s all too familiar injury woes resurfaced, as he missed the last two games of the series with a hamstring problem. In game 7, at home, Houston led for much of the proceedings, but a logic-defying cold stretch from behind the arc consigned them to defeat.
Although it took an extraordinary statistical anomaly to thwart the Rockets last year, it only fuelled the narratives against their stars’ playoff acumen. Harden once again came up short when it mattered most, and Paul could only watch his team’s season unravel from the bench, a scenario he had experienced before in a career that has been ravaged by injuries at the worst possible moments.
This time around, after another incredible season for Harden, the third seed in the West and Paul’s fitness holding up (for now), Houston’s fantastic backcourt duo has the chance to rewrite history, but time is running out.
Best Case Scenario: Harden translates his regular-season dominance in the playoffs at long last, and with Paul managing to stay healthy, the Rockets win it all, getting revenge against the Warriors on the way. This vaults Harden into the second-best shooting guard ever conversation and saves CP3 from joining the club of great players who could never win that elusive ring.
Worst Case Scenario: The Warriors have little trouble handling the Rockets in the second round, as Houston suffers the ignominy of losing to a team that it is hell-bent on beating. Another disappointing postseason from Harden earns him the title as one of the NBA’s great under-achievers, and Paul’s failure to avoid injury turns the aging point guard’s contract into one of the worst in the league.
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