In less than a month, the 2018 NBA Playoffs will begin. Though the regular season is important, it is in the postseason when history is written and legacies are solidified. Playoff success fundamentally alters the way we see players. Would Karl Malone be regarded as the greatest power forward of all time, had Tim Duncan not been so unstoppable in the postseason? If Kobe Bryant hadn’t won a championship without Shaquille O’Neal, would he still be regarded as one of the greatest players of all time?
As Jordan’s Bulls used to say, “It don’t mean a thing without the ring.” No matter how good a player is, he simply cannot enter that top tier of greats without postseason success. This year, there are many guys whose have the chance to make or break their legacies. Here are the six players who have the most to prove in the 2018 NBA Playoffs.
Six Players With the Most to Prove in the 2018 NBA Playoffs
Russell Westbrook proved a lot of people wrong last year. His MVP season was explosive, record-shattering, and undeniably unforgettable. After his superb performance, there’s simply no way to deny that he is a historic individual talent.
And yet, his superlative season ended on a sour note. The Oklahoma City Thunder were bounced in the first round in just five games by the Houston Rockets. Westbrook played his heart out in the series, but he was incredibly inefficient and had many costly turnovers.
This was Westbrook’s first postseason performance without Kevin Durant, and it certainly wasn’t a good look. It leaves us to question whether Westbrook’s highlight reel plays and insane numbers can actually translate to wins for the Thunder.
The stakes are even higher this year. If the Thunder do not make it out of the first or second round, it’s likely that Paul George will leave in free agency.
Westbrook is the heart of this team. Without stellar performances from him, they have little chance of surviving in the loaded Western Conference. Can Russell Westbrook prove that his career is more than empty numbers?
Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are lumped together because as teammates, their success and failures in the playoffs have been linked. They have gained the majority of their postseason experience playing side by side.
The Toronto Raptors‘ guards have had some success in the playoffs, like their Eastern Conference Finals appearance. In that six-game series, the Raptors put up a fierce fight against the eventual NBA Champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers. And yet, there has always been the sense that this team and its All-Star guards have not lived up to their potential.
Despite their successful regular seasons, the Raptors have never been able to make it to the NBA Finals. DeRozan and Lowry have been unable to perform at a consistently high level during the postseason, leading to multiple early exits. In addition, these guards have a penchant for playing ineffective isolation basketball during crunch time, and the team has suffered as a result.
This season looks like it could be the year the Toronto Raptors finally make it to the NBA Finals. They are rolling over nearly every team they face, and DeRozan is having his best season yet. They have diminished the toxic isolation ball that has caused them so many problems. Perhaps even more importantly, LeBron James’ Cavaliers are struggling, opening the door for other Eastern Conference teams to shine.
If the Raptors are going to make it to the Finals, this is the year to do it. Can Lowry and DeRozan prove that they are real threats to win in the East?
If Chris Paul retired tomorrow, he would have a pretty solid legacy. The Point God is a nine-time All-Star and is already a lock to make the Hall of Fame. He is the greatest point guard of his generation and one of the best playmakers that this league has ever seen.
And yet, history will most likely forget him in a decade or two. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Chris Paul has done everything, except the one thing that he really needs to be unforgettable: win in the Playoffs.
It’s not completely his fault, of course. Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers were plagued by injuries and unfortunate circumstances that prevented them from ever making it to a Conference Finals. Lob City will go down as one of the greatest disappointments in the history of the league.
Chris Paul has played in 76 career playoff games, the most all-time by a player without a Conference Finals appearance.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 30, 2017
Now, Chris Paul is on a Houston Rockets team that has the potential to not only make the Finals but win the whole thing. At 32 years of age, time is ticking for Paul to finally lead a team to playoff success. It’s now or never.
It’s a little unfair that James Harden is on this list. He has had some really excellent playoff performances over the years. Since he has been in Houston, he has tallied an average of 27.3 points, 7.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game in the postseason.
Unfortunately, no one remembers this. Instead, Harden’s success is overshadowed by his failure in Games 5 and 6 of the Rockets’ series against the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs‘ sole All-Star, was injured in Game 5, opening the door for the Rockets to take a 3-2 lead in the series. Instead, Harden went 1-6 in the fourth quarter with four turnovers, allowing the Spurs to force overtime. As the extra period finished, he had the chance to tie the game but was blocked by 39-year-old Manu Ginobili.
During Game 6, Harden simply disappeared. In an elimination game, when his team needed him most, he scored just 10 points. He was a minus 28 in the game and watched as the Spurs blew his team out by an embarrassing 39 points.
This year, Harden has the chance to redeem himself. With Paul by his side, his Rockets team is the best they have ever been. He is having a tremendous season and will most likely win the MVP award. Will Harden find redemption in the 2018 NBA Playoffs?
Kyrie Irving really shouldn’t have much to prove this year. He’s the only player on this list who has a ring, and no one can say he didn’t earn it. Irving had a monstrous 2016 Finals performance, with 27.3 points, 4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2 steals per game. It culminated in his iconic, game-sealing three-point shot with 53 seconds left in Game 7.
So why is Irving on this list? For the same reason that Scottie Pippen is often forgotten in lists of all-time greats, and Bryant’s first three titles are shrugged off. When you play next to Micheal Jordan or O’Neal, your accomplishments seem less impressive. Kyrie could never be more than the Robin to LeBron James’ Batman as long as he was in Cleveland.
Irving requested a trade last year because he was tired of his role as James’ sidekick and wished to be the number one option on his team. He got his wish when he was sent to the Boston Celtics, and for the first time in his career, he will be entering the postseason without James by his side.
There is no denying that Irving has proven himself to be excellent when the games matter. The question is, can he take the next step and win playoff games as the number one option on his team?
NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 11: James Harden and Chris Paul attend Black Ops Basketball Session at Life Time Athletic At Sky on September 11, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images)