Ah yes, the Playoffs. The thing that separates the men from the boys. Divides players we remember heroically, or those who wilted under pressure.
Think about Michael Jordan’s career. Many of us consider him the greatest NBA player ever. His numbers during the regular season, arguably prove that. But would he really be “MJ” the herculean G.O.A.T of the league, without moments when it mattered?
His moments are as follow: the infamous up-and-under move in the 1991 Finals against the Lakers (“What a spectacular move by Michael Jordan”), six threes and 35 points in the first half of Game 1 in the 1992 Finals against the Blazers (“the shrug”), 55 point domination in a decisive Game 3 of the 1993 Finals against the Suns, “flu game” where he scored 38 points sick with the flu in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals against the Jazz. And of course, his game winner in the waning moments of game six in the 1998 Finals against the Jazz, stamping his legacy and his sixth ring.
The point...a player makes his name in the postseason.
Last year, was a great example. After breaking the regular season win record, with 73, the Golden State Warriors, limped through the postseason. They found themselves, as expected, in the Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Up 3-1 in the series, their historic season looked all but in the books. But, like all great players will, LeBron James stamped his legacy, utterly dominating games five, six and seven – leading the Cavs to their shocking come-from-behind title.
What will we remember more? 73 wins or LeBron’s performance? I’m wagering your answer is LeBron’s performance.
15 Kevin Love
Kevin Love has had a resurgence this season. Yes, he’s currently nursing an injury, but his numbers have been borderline All-Star worthy. The double/double machine is back to his high efficient scoring and rebounding ways.
But who can ever forget his performance in last year’s NBA Finals? It was so bad, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue benched him for numerous fourth quarters. The 20-million-dollar man, was nothing more than a glorified, overpaid bench player.
In six games, Love averaged 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. Had his teammates, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, not played out of their minds, the Finals loss would have fallen flat on Love’s shoulders.
Until I see it this year, my gut tells me he’ll fade when it matters most.
14 Kyle Lowry
I like Kyle Lowry. I really do. He’s an excellent game manager, weaving opposing defenses. Him and teammate Demar DeRozan, create one of the most potent guard tandems in the league. But while there is so much to like about Lowry, there is little proof he’ll come up big in the postseason.
If you recall last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, Lowry really struggled against the Cavs' physicality. He looked shellshocked, his shot suddenly shaky and inconsistent. He faded the first three games of the series, bouncing back the last three when it may have been too late.
Despite his solid 20.2-point average in the series, Lowry’s assist totals plummeted (4.2 per game). He was far from efficient. Not the game manager we’re used to seeing.
13 Al Horford
For the first time in years, the Celtics have expectations heaped upon them. Their best player, Isaiah Thomas, is a scrappy point guard, who, because of that, will take the challenge in the postseason and excel. It’s not him I’m worried about, it’s Al Horford.
When the Celtics signed Horford to a 4-year $113 million-dollar deal, they expected to be getting a premier power forward; a leader, someone their youngsters could rely on to make things happen when the team was struggling.
But that just isn’t the case. He’s arguably the worst signing of any last summer. So far, the veteran, is averaging a mediocre 14.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. His shooting number are down. Everything’s down.
It’s easy to forget that he played with tons of talent, while with Atlanta. Joe Johnson, Paul Millsap, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder, DeMarre Carroll, Elton Brand, and the list could go on. The point is, he never had to be the man. He could quietly put up numbers behind others.
Now, with all the expectations geared his way, it looks to be too much.
12 Buddy Hield
Hield came into the pros with high praise. And it was well earned. The guy had a tremendous college career at Oklahoma and a memorable March run. In fact, Sacramento GM, Vlade Divac, said he would have taken Hield first overall in the draft. That’s how much this guy was adored.
But so far, it’s been ugly. Hield has looked overmatched, out of place. His lack of strength has resulted in off balance shots, and his field goal percentage plummeted below 40%.
He’s averaged 8.8 points in his rookie campaign.
Recently, he made more news, as the central chip traded to the Kings for star big man DeMarcus Cousins. Suddenly, his time of adjustment he had with the Pelicans, is over. Hield is expected to step in and contribute right away. No questions asked.
With the Kings sitting one game out of the eighth spot in the West, Hield could find himself in the Playoffs. And as ugly as it has been so far, my confidence in him is slim.
11 Blake Griffin
I’m sorry, I really am. I was one of Griffin’s biggest defenders for a longtime. But the guy just doesn’t seem to have the IT factor necessary to lead his team deep in the playoffs.
If it’s not poor play, it’s stupidity. It’s things like getting in a fight with his trainer, resulting in injury. The guy seems injured every other month. I swear I see him sitting on the sidelines in a suit about as much as I do, wasting his talents with a lackadaisical drive on the defensive end.
The Clippers have been favorites to win it all for the last few years. And each year, they are an utter disappointment. I can’t blame Chris Paul, because he delivers, as usual, getting teammates involved. I can’t blame DeAndre Jordan, because he rebounds and finishes as always. I can’t blame a lack of depth, because the Clippers have one of the deepest benches in all of hoops.
It’s Blake Griffin. Hands down. Last year’s quarter finals against the Blazers, a series that saw the Clippers way outplayed and losers in six games, Griffin played in only four of those games.
His numbers? I’m glad you asked. 15.0-points and 8.8-rebounds on 37% shooting.
10 Dwight Howard
Like everyone from here to Mars, I, too, thought Dwight Howard would turn into a legendary unforgettable center. He led the Magic to the Finals in 2009 and was a defensive presence and blooming offensive handyman. But since, the guy has succumbed to passive aggressive antics, a lack of drive, chronic questionable injuries, and an attitude that just doesn’t want to meld with other stars.
The result? Forgettable play. Utter, forgettable, average play.
How does a player with a body like Superman, a wingspan as wide as the Pacific Ocean, agility and otherworldly shot blocking abilities, average 13.0-points, a block and shoot 37% from the free-throw line, in last year’s quarterfinals series against the Warriors? It’s unforgivable.
9 Victor Oladipo
Oladipo is good. He does just about everything at an above average level. He scores, rebounds, makes plays, defends. Nothing wrong with him as a player. But this is the first year, some heavy expectations have been put on him. He’s the guy called upon to replace Kevin Durant.
Russell Westbrook is putting up Godly numbers, but we all know he can’t do it alone. And if the Thunder want to have a real chance at making some noise in the postseason, they’re going to need Oladipo to increase his scoring (16.1-points per game) to an All-Star level.
If Westbrook’s hurt or in foul trouble, the scoring load will fall on Oladipo’s shoulders. I’m not so sure he’s ready.
8 Gordon Hayward
I really like Gordon Hayward. The guy is a classic point-forward and plays hard. He’s developed into an efficient scorer, averaging 22-points per game on 47% shooting. But if you watch a Jazz game, you’ll notice two serious problems: he’s average athletically and arguably, below average speed wise. Those two things wouldn’t be a big deal, if he weren’t the Jazz star, their go-to player, the guy expected to get them a bucket when it counts.
Hayward’s crafty. He finds ways to get to the free throw line, and has shifty footwork. But when faced against bigger more agile defenders, these trickster attributes may not work. And if they don’t work, and he struggles, the Jazz great season could and should flame out in the playoffs rather quickly.
Currently slated to play the Clippers in the first round, Hayward would probably face Chris Paul – an elite defender. If they were to beat the Clippers, he’d probably match up with the Warriors. There, he’d face Draymond Green or Klay Thompson – both outstanding on that end of the floor.
7 Andre Drummond
This season, Andre Drummond is being Andre Drummond. He’s consistent, a double-double in his sleep. But last year, I thought I was beginning to see a top 2 or 3 center emerge. I expected increased numbers this year, a higher motor, an embodiment of a star. So far, I’ve been underwhelmed. As of now, I see Drummond as second fiddle to Reggie Jackson. And Reggie, in all respect, is better suited as a sixth man – someone who scores in bunches off the bench.
Drummond will perform as suited in the postseason. He’ll give the Pistons 13 and 13, clog the middle, and block a couple shots. But in the postseason, you must hit free throws, and as of now, that’s something Drummond can’t do (42.4%).
I’m positive, if the Pistons find themselves in a tight series, the opposing team will be putting Drummond on the line. And I’m certain, he chokes.
6 DeAndre Jordan
For sake of being consistent, I must include Jordan on this list. He, like Drummond, is utterly gross at the free throw line. It’s like watching a drunk blindfolded, throw darts dizzy at a moving target.
This year, he's been slightly better. Jordan’s shooting 50.2% from the line, which is still unacceptable.
No, he isn’t the team’s go-to-scorer. But he rebounds and is the main target for Chris Paul on alley-oops. Because of these central pieces of his game, he draws tons of contact. The result, tons of free throw chances.
In a close game, you better believe he’ll be at the line with a chance to ice the opposing team or tie. The numbers say he’ll fail.
5 Dion Waiters
If you watched Waiters in last year’s Western Conference Finals, you felt chunks rise. He averaged six points on 36% shooting. Numerous times, he took wild ill-advised shots, despite his teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the floor. The result were fast break points for the Warriors. Those points swung momentum, helping the Warriors inch back in the series.
Currently, Waiters plays for the Heat. He’s having the best season of his career, averaging 16.1 points. But what’s scary, is the me-first shooter, is now expected to score. Who on the Heat, has the authority a player like Durant or Westbrook has? I can’t imagine Goran Dragic or Hassan Whiteside having the same sway they do. If the Heat get in the playoffs - one game out of the eighth spot - you better believe Waiters will make a multitude of errors.
4 Denver Nuggets Starting Five
Let me be clear: the 2004 Detroit Pistons were an anomaly. Tell me the last time a team won the NBA title by committee. That would be 2004. There’s a reason why. The style of the play in the postseason bogs down and becomes much more physical. The result are constant isolations with the team’s best player. These best players draw the defense, and either swing the ball opposite side, or split the seam and kick to either corner.
Who on the Denver Nuggets is going to draw doubles? Who is going to sway the defense and split the seam? Nobody. Why? Because no one on their starting five is respected enough.
Here’s what will happen in a first round series against the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs. Everyone will guard straight up. No doubles. No over commitment. They’ll dare Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris or Emmanuel Mudiay to shoot. Who of those five is going to win you a series? (Hearing crickets)
3 LaMarcus Aldridge
Aldridge has long been known for his consistency. He’s an All-Star for that reason. But what he’s never been is a winner. Why? Because he’s never had to be. Most of his nine years in Portland were time split between missing the playoffs altogether or losing in the first round. When he signed last season with the Spurs, he was expected to replace the retiring Tim Duncan.
Here’s why that isn’t going to happen…
In last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, Aldridge faded. He began the series dominant, and then where did he go? Trying to locate Aldridge in that series against the Thunder, felt like a page in a Where’s Waldo book.
The first two games of the series, he scored 79 points on 70% shooting. The final four – when the wheels came off for the Spurs – 83 points on 37% shooting. Call that random, I call that choking.
Tim Duncan doesn’t choke.
2 Stephen Curry
I get it, I get it. You’re thinking: two-time MVP, one of the greatest shooters ever, a choke artist??
But hear me out. Where was Curry for most of the postseason, last year? Hurt, right? Which proves how deep his team is. The Warriors won 73 games for a reason. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson held the fort, and their productive bench played out of their minds.
When Curry returned to form in the Western Conference Finals, he looked out of place. He turned the ball over at inopportune times. In fact, he looked lazy with it. The Thunder were in his head, it was clear. Russell Westbrook outplayed him. And had Klay Thompson not gone bananas in the second half of Game 6, the Thunder would have wrapped the series up, and sent the Warriors home deflated.
Fast forward to the NBA Finals, where again, Curry looked out of sorts. Back-to-back series, he was outplayed by the point guard he defended. Kyrie Irving averaged 27 points on nearly 47 % shooting, Curry plummeted to 22 points on barely 40 % shooting. He turned the ball over thirty times in seven games.
The result: A Cavalier comeback and Finals victory. Where was the MVP when it mattered?
1 Kevin Durant
Will Kevin Durant be back in time for the Playoffs? We don't know yet.
Durant’s a bulk scorer. That means he scores in bunches and has been allowed to shoot his way through slumps. He’s a volume shooter. This is okay. Many great players (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant) were volume shooters. But the problem is, sometimes a volume shooter’s offensive numbers mask an extremely inefficient night. I’m not saying Durant has a bunch of these inefficient nights, but I am arguing he did this more than normal in lasts year’s postseason run for the Thunder.
If you watched their Conference Finals series against the Warriors, one that saw the Thunder waste away a 3-1 series lead, you noticed Durant’s uncharacteristically bad play. He fumbled balls, bounced balls off his feet, took ill-advised low percentage fadeaways. He wasn’t KD. Games 5, 6 and 7, exposed KD’s lack of gut in key moments. He disappeared. No wonder he left as a free-agent for the Warriors. His running mate, Russell Westbrook, was by far the alpha of the two. He didn’t back down. He failed. But failed trying. And significantly outplayed Steph Curry – league MVP – in the series.
Again, Durant’s offensive numbers were there. He averaged 30.0-points in the series. But if you notice he shot a much lower percentage from the three- point line (28%) and from the field overall (42%). His fourth quarters were worse, as his shooting percentage fell to 29%, 22% in the final three minutes.