The culmination of another 82 game NBA season is upon us, and with it comes that second season, the NBA Playoffs. Most of the league's biggest stars will be there, primed to make an impact while creating some memorable performances in their quest to make it to the next round. Not all of these stars will be able to advance, as half of the teams that start the journey to the NBA Finals will not make it out of the first round. The stars that are ready to make a big impact, on the other hand, will have some big games carrying their teams to the second round of the playoffs and beyond.
This year, there are some players who have plenty to prove, including James Harden, Stephen Curry and LaMarcus Aldridge. These players can all score, but need to do even more in the playoffs for their teams to advance. The wily veterans, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, don't know how many more chances they might get. Then we have Daminan Lillard, John Wall, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving all looking to start their legacies and prove that they have truly arrived in the NBA. With all these talented players looking to make their impact, it will be hard for LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard to meet up again in the NBA Finals.
The following 20 players are ready to make their impact on the 2015 NBA Playoffs. They can all score, play some good defense, and carry their teams when the moment demands it. The only question will be which ones will make the biggest push. While that question still remains, there will be no doubt that these players will create some memorable moments. It's the part of the NBA Playoffs that we all can't wait to see.
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20 Tony Parker, G - San Antonio Spurs
Tony Parker is so experienced and very capable of turning it up a notch in the playoffs. When Parker's shot isn't the first option, he will use his repertoire of drives through the paint that draw extra attention to score, get to the free throw line, or kick out to one of the Spurs sharpshooters to hit the open three. Parker has had an average season, scoring just 14.2 points per game, while dishing out only 4.9 assists per game. Parker does, however, have a tendency to play with great grit and composure in the playoffs. For his career, Parker has averaged 16.9 points per game of during the regular season and 18.9 points per game during the playoffs. The Spurs have many scoring options, but the player who can still break down almost any defense in the league and hit those big quarter-closing shots is, Tony Parker.
19 Dwight Howard, C - Houston Rockets
Certainly the Houston Rockets' chances in the playoffs revolve around the ability of James Harden to score a good deal of their points, but the contributions from Dwight Howard might be just as important in the second season. Well rested and limited in action by playing in about half of his games this year, Howard has averaged a career-low average of 30.1 minutes played per game. He has still managed to average 15.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots per game in his limited minutes. The Rockets might even need Howard's presence more on the defensive end, as the Houston defense has been average since starting the season among the league's leaders in defensive points allowed. If Howard can have more than just that occasional big game in the playoffs, the Rockets might have a chance of finally advancing past the first round.
18 Klay Thompson G - Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson has proven that Stephen Curry isn't the only one on the Warriors who can shoot the lights out from the outside. Thompson has hit 42.8% of his 3-point shots this season, helping him average 21.3 points per game. He has had such a solid season that he earned a spot on the 2015 Western Conference All-Star team. Thompson can shoot from just about anywhere on the court and has even proven he can also get to the free throw line and make shots there as well. He has averaged 3.3 free throw attempts per game along with almost 3 assists per game, both improvements over last year. If Thompson's outside shots are falling in the playoffs, the Warriors will stand a good chance of getting well past the first round.
17 DeMar DeRozan, G/F - Toronto Raptors
DeMar DeRozan is in his sixth NBA season and last year was his first taste of playoff action. The Raptors lost in dramatic fashion to the Brooklyn Nets in a grueling seven game series, providing them with the realization that they must do better and more incentive to make it further this year. In order for that to happen, DeRozan will need to come up big and do even better that his current average of 20.1 points per game. He has also been averaging 4.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game this season, becoming even more of a complete player. Despite his growth as a player, DeRozan still struggles with his outside shot, hitting less that 30% of his 3-pointers and shooting at only a 41.0% clip from the field. If he can be explosive with the ball and get to the free throw line, where his conversion rate is just over 83%, the Raptors should move on to the next round.
16 John Wall, G - Washington Wizards
John Wall might be a streaky shooter, but his aggressive drives and timely passes have been a big part of the Washington Wizards' success the past couple of seasons. Wall can do a little bit of everything for a balanced Wizards team, averaging 17.5 points, 10 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. He is the player who initiates their attack, gets the big guys involved and ensures that Bradley Beal is able to get more open shots. Wall has struggled with his own outside shot this season, hitting only 30.3% of his threes, but does have his best assist average of his career. He has the players around him who can score and needs to continue to break down the opponent's defense with his dribble for the Wizards to achieve some measure of playoff success.
15 Paul Millsap, F/C - Atlanta Hawks
Paul Millsap has brought a mental toughness to the Atlanta Hawks that has seemingly been contagious this season. Millsap is a power forward who can do a little bit of everything, averaging 16.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 3.0 assists per game. He is a load in the paint, and will need to be even more if the Hawks have any chance of making a deep playoff run. Millsap is the engine that really makes the Hawks offense run, opening things up for the perimeter players and allowing Al Horford to have a little more open space. The last two seasons, Millsap has also gained confidence in shooting the three, hitting almost 36% of his 3-point shots. The Hawks do a great job of sharing the ball, but Millsap must set the tone for the Hawks to make it to the next round.
14 Jimmy Butler, G/F - Chicago Bulls
Jimmy Butler has really come into his own this season, averaging 20 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game to become the Bulls leading scorer. Butler has helped carry the Bulls, without Derrick Rose in the lineup, having his most productive season to date. This season, Butler has regained his shooting touch after hitting under 40% of his field goal attempts and 28.3% of his threes last year. He is hitting almost 46% of his field goals, 36.7% of his 3-point shots, and 83.8% of his free throws so far this year. Butler can also be a factor with his defense, averaging 1.8 steals per game while guarding some of the Eastern Conference's better players. If Butler's shot is falling, it will be hard to beat the offensively balanced Bulls who already know how to play solid defense.
13 Kyle Lowry, G - Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors made it to the playoffs last year and Kyle Lowry was certainly one player who came to play. Lowry averaged 21.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the Raptors seven-game playoff series against Brooklyn. He is the tough hard-nosed point guard who is not afraid of drawing contact in the paint or taking a clutch outside shot. He has recently come back from a back injury, managing to play over 30 minutes in each of his last three games, scoring 26 points in the Raptors season finale. Despite some struggles with his shot since coming back from injury, Lowry has still averaged 17.7 points, 6.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game this season. He has the mental toughness that the Raptors will need to advance in the playoffs. If Lowry heats up from the outside, he will already do enough of the other things to help the Raptors win.
12 Damian Lillard, G - Portland Trailblazers
Damian Lillard is having a very productive season, averaging 21.2 points, 6.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. Lillard might occasionally struggle a little bit with his outside shot, but he can still drive and get to the free throw line when his team really needs it. Lillard has hit 86.6% of his free throw attempts when he gets there, and has averaged around five free throw attempts per game the last couple of seasons. The Trailblazers will need Lillard to be aggressive and create more space and scoring opportunities for LeMarcus Aldridge and their other shooters. Lillard will also need to hold his own on the defensive end against some of the league's best point guards that happen to be in the Western Conference. If Lillard is able to hit a good amount of his outside shots, the Trailblazers will have their best opportunity to make a deep run in the playoffs.
11 Chris Paul, G - Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul makes the Clippers' offense high-octane offense run with his average of 10.3 assists per game being much more important than his average of 19.1 points. Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan get much better looks when Paul is on the move and at the top of his game. Whether on the break or in half court sets, Paul knows how to get his big men the ball where they can easily score, usually by way of crowd pleasing lobs. On the other hand, if Paul is left open he is perfectly capable of hitting the 3-point shot. This season, Paul has made 48.5% of his field goal attempts and is hitting 39.2% of his threes. If Paul can also set the tone for the Clippers defensively, it will likely lead to more fast break points and a pace on offense that favors the Clippers. Chis Paul is the key to L.A's success.
10 Anthony Davis, F/C - New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis has done everything except play himself into the MVP conversation this year. He has averaged 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.9 blocked shots per game, earning his second All-Star selection. Davis is capable of dominating a game by blocking shots, stealing the ball (1.5 steals per game) and playing with his typical energy on the defensive end. He has improved his offensive game in each of his three seasons, even managing to shoot 53.7% from the floor and 80.5% from the line this year. Davis has become one of the league's premier players and at 6-foot-10, 220 pounds, he is the face of the league's new athletic big men. If Davis gets a little bit of help, the Pelicans could shock the world and be the last 8th seed to win in the first round since Golden State in 2007.
9 Dirk Nowitzki, F - Dallas Mavericks
Long-time NBA match up headache, Dirk Nowitizki, still has to be respected when it comes time for the playoffs. Carrying a 25.6 points per playoff game scoring average into this postseason, Nowitzki can still make defenses pay with his fade-away shots and quirky drives. He must play like the Dirk of old in order for the Mavericks to have a chance of advancing in the rugged Western Conference, but he will be up to the task. Nowitzki is only averaging 17.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game this season, but look for his production to go up come playoff time. In his 17th season, Nowitzki knows how important each opportunity is and will be out to prove that he can still be a big impact in any playoff game. The Mavericks will need Dirk to be at his best to have any chances of getting past the first round.
8 Pau Gasol, F/C - Chicago Bulls
Pau Gasol has been rejuvenated since coming to Chicago from the struggling Los Angeles Lakers. Arriving from Los Angeles with his confidence bruised but pride still intact, Gasol has proven he can still be a big factor given the right setting and right situation. He has averaged 18.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots this year, fitting in on the Bulls with more inspired play that has even extended to the defensive end. Gasol has averaged 1.9 blocked shots this season, his best average in nine years.
Playing in his 14th NBA season, Gasol should have no problem playing with a sense of urgency in the playoffs this year with the Bulls. If Gasol can establish himself in the post as well as hit some elbow jump shots, the Bulls will be a tough out for any team in the Eastern Conference.
7 LaMarcus Aldridge, F - Portland Trailblazers
Thanks in large part to an opening round match up against the Houston Rockets last year, Aldridge averaged 26.2 points per game in the playoffs. He showcased his dazzling array of post moves and proved he could nail more than his fair share of outside shots as well. Aldridge is the heir-apparent to Dirk Nowitzki at power forward, with his athletic post moves and array of aggressive and fall-away jump shots. He presents a match up problem to most teams he could potentially face in Western Conference. When Aldridge establishes himself in the post, it opens things up for the Blazers offense on the perimeter. The Trailblazers will need Aldridge to be a beast and the best player on the floor if they are to have any chance of advancing past the first round of this year's NBA Playoffs.
6 Kyrie Irving, G - Cleveland Cavaliers
Kyrie Irving is ready to be more than just a member of the LeBron James supporting cast. This season, it hasn't taken Irving long to adjust to the addition of LeBron. Irving is shooting a career-best 41.4% from the 3-point line, while averaging 22.0 points and 5.2 assists per game in the first year of the return of "King James". He exploded for 55 points in a win against Portland and 57 points in a spirited effort at San Antonio, proving how capable he is at going on extended scoring runs. It seems that the addition of James has only given Irving better looks that he has not been afraid to take. If defenses try to take away James, Irving will need to step up and make the defense pay. In his fourth NBA season, Irving is one of the youthful players who is capable and willing to make his presence known.
5 Mike Conley, G - Memphis Grizzlies
Most of the NBA is well aware of the potency of the Grizzlies' inside game. With Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the paint, look for opposing teams to leave some openings on the perimeter. If things get rough on the inside, look for Mike Conley to carry more of the scoring burden. Conley's scoring and assist averages are both down from last year, but his 3-point accuracy has been one of his improvements. Conley is shooting 38.6% from beyond the arc, and has hit about 86% of his free throws, both numbers he will need to duplicate in the playoffs. He will need to hit the open threes he will probably get and draw fouls in the paint to keep defenses from sagging on Gasol and Randolph down low. Conley will also have to guard some of the NBA's elite point guards in the Western Conference and winning his share of match ups might be the key to the the Grizzlies' chances to advance.
4 Stephen Curry, G - Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry has solidified his position as one of the leading candidates for this year's MVP Trophy by setting a new NBA record for threes made in a season. The extremely accurate shooter is hitting 48.7% of his shots from the field and 44.2% from the 3-point line, which both pale in comparison to his 91.4% average from the free throw line. Curry is undeniably the premier shooter in the NBA, with averages of 24.0 points and 7.7 assists per game to go along with his terrific accuracy. He seems ready to make a big impact and lead the Warriors to the Finals. If defenses concentrate on taking away Golden State's perimeter game, it will be up to Curry to penetrate and create more offense with his finesse shots and deft passes. Curry can also play defense, and if he can show the world his all-around game, the Warriors should make a deep playoff run.
3 James Harden, G/F - Houston Rockets
James Harden has dedicated this season to becoming much more of a complete player. Gone are the days of matador defense, pull-up 3-point shots with 20 seconds left in the shot clock and yo-yo dribbling at the top of the key. Harden has started playing himself into conversations of the NBA's elite with his average of 27.5 points per game, to go along with 5.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists. He has continued to be aggressive driving through the paint, averaging just over 10 free throw attempts per game. Harden has also stepped it up on the defensive end, averaging a career high 1.9 steals and 0.7 blocked shots per game this season.
After leading the U.S. to the FIBA World Championship in 2014, Harden appears ready to make a similar impact in the playoffs. If Harden continues to drive and remain aggressive, while also getting the same regular season fould calls, Houston might have a chance at doing more than get past the first round.
2 LeBron James, F - Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James is well aware of what he will need to do to get the Cleveland Cavaliers into the NBA Finals this year. James has been averaging a career best 7.4 assists per game as he has struggled to utilize David Blatt's Princeton-style offense. He has also averaged 25.3 points and 6 rebounds per game as the Cavaliers primary offensive threat. The Cavs' chances may depend on how many points James can score, but his assists and defensive intensity will surely help set the tone. Points do not come easily in the playoffs and teams will either try to send multiple defenders at James or extend their defenses to shut down his supporting cast, forcing him to score.
In either case you can bet that King James will be up to the task. If he gets some help from Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, the Cavaliers might really make the city of Cleveland proud.
1 Kawhi Leonard, G/F - San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard has calmly waited for his turn to be San Antonio's top dog, and this year the Spurs might need his bite instead of his bark. With Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker getting up there in age, this playoff run might require Leonard to do much more than provide his stellar defense and occasional scoring bursts. This season, Leonard has been averaging a career best 16.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, up from the 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game he had last season. He has scored at least 20 points in six of his last nine games, and seems to be on a tear at the right time of the year.
Leonard has spent plenty of time deferring to Ginobili, Parker and Duncan, but the Spurs now need Leonard to become their centerpiece. If the Spurs win another title, look for Kawhi Leonard's scoring and defense to be the big reason why.
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