NBA Stars with the Most to Prove Leading into 2013 Playoffs
So many NBA superstars, so little titles.
While only one team can be crowned champion this season, there are numerous big-time players jockeying for a chance to prove themselves by winning a title.
Problem is, the guys who have already have worn the crown are favorites to do it again.
The league has plenty of individual talent, but only those with rings are given the ultimate credit.
It leads us into a postseason in which many superstars still have plenty to prove.
If Kobe Bryant doesn’t win, he’ll never be Michael Jordan.
Bryant’s legacy could end as: the game’s greatest player since Jordan—before LeBron James.
Bryant’s five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers still reign over James, and this isn’t a debate on who’s better; that’s an argument that will play out on the hardwood for the next decade as James finishes his career.
To be clear though, the 34-year-old Bryant is no longer the best player in basketball and is still widely considered a tier below Jordan.
But if he were to rally this Lakers team through a first-round upset against the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder and somehow win a title, he’d have to be considered on Jordan’s level. Jordan was 35 years old when he won his sixth title.
Bryant has already had a remarkable 17th season, but he hasn't been given enough credit because of the Lakers' team performance. He's averaging 27 points on 48.6 percent shooting and adding 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds this season.
Still, his stat line will be lost in a disappointing year that “never would have happened to one of Jordan’s teams.”
Bryant’s final legacy may depend on how well this Lakers team performs as an underdog in the postseason.
If Dwight Howard doesn’t show up for the playoffs, he only further proves he doesn’t have what it takes to win a title. As harsh as that seems for a guy who has been a part of deep postseason runs, it's the popular notion.
It does make you feel for the superstar center though. He is what he is, even if people don't like it.
We're talking about a guy who went from the league’s most entertaining, adored players early in his career to the game’s biggest—yes, literally—villain.
His overall game hasn't changed drastically since his early days, and that may be a knock or a compliment. But the numbers remain consistent, if at least in this later part of the season.
The problem has been in the postseason. He has always done statistically well in the playoffs, averaging 19.9 points and 14.4 rebounds through five separate runs.
But people want wins, and Howard has never delivered that.
Howard was drafted by the Magic in 2004 after the team's 21-win season. After failing to make the postseason in his first two seasons, D12 led his team to the 2007 playoffs where they were swept by the Detroit Pistons in the first round. Orlando advanced to the second round in 2008 before again falling to the Pistons.
In Howard's fifth season, the Magic advanced to the Finals where they lost in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers. From there, it was a regression to an Eastern Conference Finals loss to back-to-back first-round losses.
It’s probably not fair to put those postseason shortcomings on Howard. After all, as a center there’s only so much you can control and making it that far is an accomplishment.
But that isn’t enough in Los Angeles with all that talent this season.
Howard has a reputation of lacking competitiveness, and the only way to change his personal narrative is going to be through winning in the postseason.
He could average 16 points and 14 rebounds throughout the playoffs, but if the Lakers don’t succeed, no one will care.
Tim Duncan and Tony Parker
If Tim Duncan and Tony Parker lead the San Antonio Spurs to a title this season, the pair will once again remind the game who has truly run the league since Michael Jordan retired.
Sometimes you just have to shove your way into the conversation—over and over again.
A championship this season would be the fifth championship for Duncan, tying him with Kobe Bryant.
If Duncan were to win a fourth Finals MVP, the argument can be made that he was more valuable to the Spurs' championship success than Bryant, who has won two Finals MVP awards.
That’s legendary status, and it would serve as another reminder just how special Duncan is.
Parker, additionally, has been included in a national oversight.
Parker is still just 30 years old, and he has already won three championships, including a Finals MVP in 2007. The five-time All-Star has averaged 18.9 points and 5.1 assists in 152 postseason games.
This tandem has already proven their place as the game’s best, but another title this season would etch the two among the all-time great duos.
Manu Ginobili could be included in that conversation as well.
This might be the last shot Carmelo Anthony has to prove he can win a title by himself.
Anthony is one of the game's elite scorers, but that hasn’t proven to help the superstar in the postseason.
He's been to nine postseasons in his 10-year career, but he has only advanced out of the first round one time. That instance came in 2009 in a Western Conference Finals series loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Anthony has averaged 24.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in the postseason, but numbers can be deceiving when the game is about wins.
“He’s going to figure out the stat sheets aren’t important,” Nuggets coach Karl was quoted by the New York Daily News in December. “It’s the team scoreboard and the intangibles that make winners champions.”
Anthony, though he may or may not have injured Amare Stoudemire on his side, will have a chance this postseason to prove he can lead a team to victories.
Or he could stick with his scoring trend that’s netted few playoff wins.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook aren’t getting any younger.
Of course, that’s not fair as the youngest superstars in the game are both still 24, but the window can tighten quickly in the league.
As spectacular as the duo has been, there remains a level of doubt regarding whether or not the two could win a title in today’s NBA climate.
LeBron James isn’t going anywhere; he’s only getting better. The San Antonio Spurs will stand in their way, though the Thunder have already passed that test without home-court advantage last season.
Durant and Westbrook have already proven themselves in the postseason, but winning a title is an entirely further feat.
Just ask James.
Chris Paul has had a fine career, but he needs to win in the playoffs to cement himself as a true superstar.
Paul is the closest thing to the best at all things point guard. He can defend on-ball, he can create for his teammates and he can morph into an elite scorer.
But he hasn’t proven he can win in the postseason.
Paul is just 14-20 in the playoffs and he has never made it past the second round.
While Paul's numbers have been spectacular in the postseason—20.5 points, 10.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds—superstars are remembered for victories. It’s a beauty of sports and the bottom-line focus on team success.
As the leader of the Los Angeles Clippers, a team filled with depth and talent, it’s on Paul to prove he is a winner when it matters.
If the Clippers fade again this postseason, it’s clear that Paul isn’t the guy who can put a team over the top, and he may need to be paired with another superstar to win a title.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce
It’s hard to identify either Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce as guys with anything to prove.
They’re Hall of Famers who already share a championship trophy.
Still, if these two push the Boston Celtics past the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, it will add a sparkling layer to their resume.
Without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have maintained in the Eastern Conference. A recent battle, albeit a losing battle, against the Heat demonstrated slightly that Boston is capable of contending.
Garnett's postseason success has come mostly with Boston, as the 36-year-old averaged 20.4 points and 10.5 rebounds in Boston's 2008 title season.
Paul Pierce was the 2008 Finals MVP, and has averaged 21 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 130 postseason games.
If they were to push past Miami and win a title, these two would prove as one of the greatest duos in league history.
It’s not enough.
Nine All-Star Games and a likely fourth Most Valuable Player award his season—it’s not enough.
A career postseason record of 72-43 at 28 years old—it’s not enough.
Defending a championship by way of the best record in the NBA and a still-growing 26-game win streak—it’s not enough.
Nothing is going to be enough for the game’s greatest player, an honor anointed to him more than a decade ago in a 2002 Sports Illustrated article. The latest “next Michael Jordan” is actually making a case for just that though, near blasphemy in the basketball sphere but an obvious comparison.
But if James is going to move into that Jordan tier, he’s going to need more titles.
At least five more.
Jimmy Spencer can be followed at @JimmySpencerNBA.