The NBA Playoffs, like any other sport's postseason, serve the base function of determining a given year's champion. That was the purpose of their creation, and it remains their primary duty.
But you're crazy if you think their ramifications stop there. Playoff basketball is a beginning and an end at the same time; a coda to one season, but an intro to the next; a dessert as well as an appetizer.
What happens in May and June has palpable upshots on what we see come October. Players and teams mature on the grandest stage, come into their own and realize a potential they might not have otherwise known.
Dallas' run to the 2011 Championship set the table for last season's finals. Miami couldn't have won the title without the experience of losing a year prior. Same goes for Oklahoma City, who couldn't have won the West without learning from their Conference Finals loss to the Mavericks.
On a microscropic level, that same sort of transformation goes on within individuals. The playoffs are an X-ray—they reveal exactly what a player is and what a player isn't. Only with that insight can a player properly improve. Only with that experience can he hope to reach his ceiling.
This postseason has been no different. A number of players have grown up in front of our eyes, taking a veritable "leap" from one level to another. Some leaps are bigger than others—stars become stars, while role players become starters—but each one is franchise-altering in its own, unique right.
Here are three guys that have taken that leap in the 2013 playoffs:
SG/SF Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Leap: All-Star to Mega-Star
Even a pure, one-way specialist—someone like Bruce Bowen or James Posey—would lampoon the defensive task before Paul George.
He spent one long series chasing around Carmelo Anthony (the league's leading scorer), then segued directly into another (potentially) long series chasing around LeBron James (the league's four-time MVP). But George's task is much more difficult than the duo mentioned above, who got to rest and spot up for threes on the other end of the floor. George has to carry a playoff-caliber offense too.
Not once has George complained about his workload, and more impressively than that, not once has he shied away from the task. He thoroughly outplayed Carmelo Anthony in the Knicks series, and held his own against LeBron in Miami. (Note: Thoroughly outplaying LeBron is not an option, so this is as impressive as it gets).
Did I mention he's just 23?
Grantland's Bill Simmons, in his annual Trade Value Column, ranked George the league's 15th most-precious commodity. That article was published on May 10—one day before Knicks-Pacers Game 3.
In just over two weeks of action, PG might have elevated himself to the Top 10.
SF Kawhi Leonard
Leap: Quality Starter to All-Star
Leonard's leap appears on paper, but isn't all that drastic. Here's a look at his regular season vs. postseason stats:
The slight uptick in point and rebound totals can be attributed to the slight uptick in minutes. What's impressive, though, upon closer review, is the increase of efficiency.
Playoff minutes are notoriously tougher than regular-season minutes. This is especially true for a player like Leonard who's counted on to thrive on both ends of the floor. He's playing harder and longer than he did in the regular season, but still managed to improve his shooting percentage (considerably) and PER. That's pretty darn impressive.
Of all postseason players who (a) made the second round, and (b) average over 37 minutes per game, only seven have a better PER than Leonard. Their names are:
- LeBron James
- Kevin Durant
- Stephen Curry
- Carmelo Anthony
- Marc Gasol
- Mike Conley
- Zach Randolph
Pretty elite company, right? Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan deserve all the credit they get for San Antonio's success. But overlooking Leonard is a fool's errand for opposing coaches.
As the trio above continues aging, Leonard will be counted on for a bigger and bigger role going forward. The way he's grown up this summer should prepare him for that burden.
SF Quincy Pondexter, Memphis Grizzlies
Leap: Rotation Player to Quality Starter
The Grizzlies parted with Rudy Gay in part because he forced their hand, but also because they had faith in Tayshaun Prince. They thought the lanky former Piston would fit right into what they do: tough defense, patient offense, maximum effort. For a while, they looked to be right. Lately, though, Prince has turned into a corpse and made Memphis question their future at small forward.
Enter Quincy Pondexter.
The Washington product has been a beacon of offense for a team that's often struggled to find it. Lineups with Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince on the wing—like, you know, Memphis' starting lineup—allow opponents to collapse against pick-and-rolls and post feeds. They'll happily let those wingers shoot with space before they give Zach Randolph room to operate.
When Pondexter checks in, that defect goes by the wayside. His three-point attempts are up from 2.6 per game in the regular season to 3.4 in the playoffs, but his percentage has risen from .395 to .447. That sort of confident outside shooting allowed Memphis to blow by a decrepit Thunder team in Round He's played awfully well against the Spurs this series too.
Prince is locked up through 2015, so it's unlikely Pondexter manages to crack the starting lineup by next season. But that doesn't make his leap from rotation-caliber to starting-caliber any less real. He'd make the first five for many teams in this league.