15 players who will shape the NBA playoffs
This NBA season has been one for the books. Think of all the narratives: the drama-filled Cavs, the injury-riddled Celtics, the red-hot Rockets and Raptors, the crazy trade deadline, the inconsistent Warriors — the list goes on.
With the playoffs approaching (they start this Saturday), we still don’t know which teams will match up. Will Houston square off with Utah, New Orleans, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, or Denver? Considering the unpredictability of this season, your guess is as good as mine.
Though we don’t yet know which teams will see each other, we do have an idea of which players will play a salient role in shaping the NBA playoffs. Here’s a look at 15 of those players.
15. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The Greek Freak has looked a year away from total domination this season. Though many fans expected the Bucks would make the leap to become an Eastern Conference contender this year, the squad has disappointed. They underperformed with Jason Kidd, who was fired midway through the season, and they’ve underperformed with Joe Prunty. Giannis will need to be at his best — he’ll need to be ready now — for Milwaukee to steal a series. He missed Saturday’s game against New York with ankle soreness, the sixth game he’s missed this year.
14. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey both seemed supremely confident the Chris Paul/James Harden experiment would be a hit. This season has made them look like prophets. The Rockets, behind their voluminous three-point shooting, have been easily the best team in the league, cruising to a 64-16 record. Their postseason success will ultimately boil down to the success of their two stars. Paul has never made it to the NBA Finals — could this be the year he finally breaks through? He has his best supporting cast to date.
13. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard has cooled off a bit of late, but for a brief stretch after the All-Star break he looked like a legitimate MVP candidate. With the two-headed backcourt monster of Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Trail Blazers have bucked a shaky start to establish themselves as a force in the West. Portland separated itself from a crowded middle class to secure the West’s No. 3 seed. Lillard, who is averaging 26.8 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game, is the primary engine that makes the Blazers run. You can bet at least one game will come down to him taking the final shot.
12. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
The popular narrative entering this season was that the Timberwolves had three stars: Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler. Towns and Butler have been great, but Wiggins has failed to consistently perform up to expectations. Some nights he’ll look great; others he’ll disappear. The former No. 1 overall pick has all the talent and athleticism in the world, but he needs to become more consistent to take the next step as a star. The T-Wolves, who have been up and down, need that from him to contend with the best in the West. Wiggins is averaging a somewhat-disappointing 17.8 points per game and shooting only 33 percent from deep.
11. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
So, who’s the Rookie of the Year – Mitchell or Philly’s Ben Simmons? You could make a case for both of them, and my belief is that they should be named co-Rookies of the Year. Either way, both players will play a seismic role in their team’s postseason success or failure. The Jazz were supposed to be heading into rebuilding mode after losing Gordon Hayward to Boston in free agency, but Mitchell has surpassed even the most optimistic projections for his immediate impact. As the Jazz’s go-to scoring option from Day One, the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest champ is averaging 20.4 points per game.
10. Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City Thunder
Much like the situation in Minnesota, the new-look Thunder were expected to have three stars: Anthony, Paul George, and 2016-17 MVP Russell Westbrook. And much like in Minnesota, two of the three have lived up to expectations – but one has not. In this case, Melo, whom the Knicks traded to OKC last offseason, is the underperformer. He’s expressed his dissatisfaction over being benched in crunch time, but really, he hasn’t belonged on the court. He’s lost the athleticism he once had and just isn’t the consistent shooter he once was. Furthermore, teams are exploiting his defensive shortcomings to an absurd degree. OKC needs vintage Melo in order to have a prayer.
9. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
This guy is my runaway pick for Most Improved Player. When Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were shipped from OKC to Indiana in the Paul George trade, it was considered a lopsided deal. How, many wondered, did Sam Presti and the Thunder pull off such a heist? In retrospect, the deal looks quite fair, and it’s likely both sides would do it again. Oladipo has been tremendous. The first-time All-Star has been a legitimate star and helped the Pacers to the No. 5 seed. Indiana doesn’t have much firepower outside of the Indiana alum (expecting Myles Turner), so the Pacers will need him to stay in star form for them to make a run.
8. Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics
Everyone else on this list is a star or borderline star, so Terry Rozier, really? If you’ve watched the Celtics this year, you understand why Rozier is on this list. As soon as Kyrie Irving was forced to watch from the bench with a knee injury, Rozier took on the alpha-dog role. That’s not always a good thing – his shot selection is still occasionally suspect – but he’s had some great games. He dropped 33 March 25 in Sacramento. He’s also sometimes disappeared; he had two points in Boston’s April 4 loss at Toronto. Boston will rely on Rozier and rookie Jayson Tatum for big buckets.
7. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Wall missed much of the season recovering from an arthroscopic knee procedure to alleviate a nagging knee injury in January; he has played in only 40 games. Though he has returned to the court, the Wizards have eased him back into action. They gave him the next game off after his first game back. He dropped 28 points and 14 assists in the Wizards’ narrow loss to Cleveland Thursday, and after playing 38 minutes in that game, Washington also rested him the next night against the Hawks. The inconsistent Wizards will need Wall to play — and be his vintage self — for them to challenge the East contenders.
6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
K.D. won his first title last season, and he had an NBA Finals to remember. Durant was Golden State’s best player — and arguably the best player on the court — and he claimed Finals MVP. Like others on this list, Durant has dealt with nagging injuries throughout the year. He has played in 66 games. He’s been great, as you’d expect, but it seems there is one more gear he has been keeping in the tank. With Stephen Curry sidelined for an unknown amount of time, Durant will play a big role in Golden State’s offense.
5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
You have to sympathize with Philadelphia. The Sixers have had such a good season — they’ve far surpassed expectations — and losing either Embiid or Simmons to an injury at this point is just bad luck. Embiid bumped heads with rookie Markelle Fultz and underwent surgery to repair a broken orbital bone. There’s still no clear timetable for his return, but he could well miss the first round, or at least much of it. Even if he hurries back, you can’t expect him to be himself because playing with a mask is an adjustment. If JoJo returns to full strength, Philly, which has won 14 straight, will be a force to be reckoned with.
4. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Toronto still doesn’t have the respect of the general NBA fan populace. Despite the Raptors’ impressive regular season — they’ve been the best team in the East practically from wire to wire — there’s still a sentiment of “prove it” lingering. DeRozan has morphed into clearly Toronto’s best player this season, and he’ll garner All-NBA consideration (though the six guard spots will be a true bloodbath). For the Raptors to exorcise their postseason demons, he will very likely have to be willing and able to hang with the biggest stars in the league when Toronto needs a big bucket in crunch time.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
After finishing second in MVP voting for the past two seasons, it looks like Harden is finally going to claim the league’s top individual prize. He has been sensational all season; he’s averaging 30.6 points, 8.7 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game and shooting 36.6 percent from downtown. He’s still not a good defender, but he’s played above his standards (some credit for that goes to D’Antoni and company for hiding his deficiencies) and is even averaging 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per game. Harden disappeared against San Antonio in last year’s playoffs; Houston will rely on the likely MVP as it aims to get out of the loaded West.
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron recently said he thinks he deserves to win MVP. That’s a tough argument considering Harden’s dominance, but King James certainly belongs in the conversation, and he’ll likely finish second. The Cavs have had an unforgettable season of peaks and valleys. After they pulled off a flurry of moves at the trade deadline and remade their roster, James — who was great from the jump — really locked in. He has been next-level good in the second half of the season. He’s on a mission to play all 82 games for the first time in his career, and Cleveland can’t afford for him to get gassed.
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
When will Steph come back? And, perhaps more interestingly, will he be himself? Curry suffered an MCL sprain late in March, and he will likely miss the whole first round and perhaps some of the second as well. Curry was not himself after returning from an ankle injury in the 2015-16 postseason. Golden State played inconsistent basketball this season. The Warriors seemed to look at the Rockets and say, “you can have the No. 1 seed — meet us in the playoffs, when it really matters.” Whether the Warriors are able to return to form and do what everyone expected at the jump — win their second consecutive title — will likely ride on Curry’s health.
Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer. His work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]