The NBA playoffs are where players get the chance to define themselves the most. It’s when the lens is turned, and the picture is sharpened. It’s when we know who a player really is.
For some players that's a good thing. For one player this year it's what he didn’t do in the playoffs that cleared up the picture for him. For another player, the picture wasn't as good as it used to be. Whichever it is, these are the players who cleared things up the most. They are ranked according to impact for their teams.
Russell Westbrook has been scathed with criticism over the last few years for being too much of a me-first player, for taking away touches from Kevin Durant, and/or for not being a “true point guard.”
Well, the critics had their chance to say “I told you so” when Westbrook was lost for the postseason and the Thunder were playing their first game without him—well…ever. He had played every game for Oklahoma City since the franchise moved south from Seattle before the 2008-09 season.
The critics had their chance, and now the critics are silent. Without Westbrook, Durant shined, but the Thunder blundered. Their once-prolific offense struggled mightily.
The regular season’s most efficient offense, with an offensive rating of 112.4, slipped to eighth in the postseason, all the way down to 105.1.
Durant’s overall numbers were fantastic without Westbrook, scoring 31.5 points, grabbing 9.3 boards and dishing 6.5 assists per game, but his field-goal percentage dropped to .455 and his three-point percentage plummeted to .323.
By getting injured Westbrook finally proved what he had so much trouble getting across while he was healthy. He helps the Thunder win.
Harrison Barnes is one third of a trio of young perimeter players in Golden State who, especially if you’re a Warriors fan, have got to make you excited. He, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are all tremendous young players.
Barnes played well enough in the regular season, averaging 9.2 points and 4.1 boards, but he took another step forward in the postseason with 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Perhaps more enticing is that his four highest-scoring games of his one-year career were all scored in the playoffs.
Barnes was not a Rookie of the Year candidate, but he still has the potential to prove he could be the best player out of the 2012 NBA draft.
Since being spurned by LeBron James, the Chicago Bulls have been a remarkably overachieving team. The first two seasons they tied the Spurs with the most wins in the NBA. Then, this season, without superstar Derrick Rose as part of a plethora of injuries, they clawed their way to the second round of the playoffs.
During that time the Bulls have been in a seemingly endless quest for a shooting guard who can both shoot and guard. They’ve gone through players like Kyle Korver, who could shoot; Ronnie Brewer, who could guard; and Keith Bogans and Marco Belinelli, who could sort of do both but couldn’t really do either consistently.
Then they had Rip Hamilton, who couldn’t even stay on the court.
Jimmy Butler was selected with the last pick in the 2011 draft, and the following season he played decently though sparingly. He was pressed into starting duty late this season, and this postseason it became apparent what the Bulls had in him—their answer.
As a starter during the regular season and the postseason combined, Butler has averaged 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds over 32 games, shooting .435 from deep with an effective field-goal percentage of .506. He can shoot.
And boy can he guard. During the second round, guarding LeBron James, when Butler was the primary defender, James shot just .375, according to tracking data by Synergy. If you can guard LeBron James, you can guard.
Bulls fans are salivating to see what will happen when Butler has the chance to play alongside Derrick Rose. For now, it looks like one big dilemma is solved in the Windy City.
When Roy Hibbert was signed to a max deal, there were some who mocked the idea. This was a 7’2” center with a career average of 11.1 points and 6.4 rebounds who had only 198 dunks in four years but had attempted 945 jump shots.
That’s not the ideal big man. If Nate Robinson is 5’9” and plays like he’s 7’2”, Hibbert was 7’2” playing like he was 5’9”. How do you average less than seven rebounds when you’re over seven feet tall?
This regular season he didn’t really change minds either, as he averaged just 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds (at least he was averaging better than his height). He also only shot .448 for the season.
During the playoffs he seemed to finally discover he’s bigger than everyone else, though. He averaged 17.0 points and 9.9 rebounds and shot .511. More importantly, he played like he was a big man, actually attacking the rim at one end and defending it at the other.
A note of caution here is that he had the bulk of his success against the Miami Heat, who don’t have a true center. He averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 boards against them, shooting .557, but he was still better against the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks (14.0 points on .473 shooting and 9.6 rebounds) than he’d been in the regular season.
If Hibbert has finally discovered who he is, he might have defined himself to the most important person—himself.
There were times when Stephen Curry was playing this postseason where you just couldn’t believe what you were seeing.
For the postseason Curry averaged 23.4 points and 8.1 assists per game. Those numbers are really close to Derrick Rose’s 25.0 and 7.8 assists during his MVP campaign. It’s not at all a stretch to say that if Curry can elevate his game to that level over the course of a season, he’ll be an MVP contender.
As is sometimes the case, Curry’s best game, the one where the basketball world stopped to just admire what he was doing, the Warriors lost. Curry scored 44 points and passed for 11 assists, shooting .514 from the field, including 6-of-14 from deep.
According to Basketball-Reference, he was just the ninth player in history to accumulate 40 points and 10 assists while shooting over .500. Of the other eight players who did that, four—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Charles Barkley—won an MVP in their career. Don't rule out Curry joining those four in that department one day too.
Stephen Curry isn’t the only player that showed he could potentially win an MVP in his career. James Harden did too.
Harden averaged 26.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists in his first year in the postseason as a first option. And remember, he’s just 23.
Again, the list of players who are in the company with Harden is pretty exclusive. There have only been 10 times where a player 23 or younger averaged 25 points, six rebounds and four assists for a postseason with at least five games played. It’s been accomplished by eight players. The only two that didn’t win an MVP are Jerry West and Tracy McGrady.
Harden very well could be looking at an MVP in his future as well, especially if the Houston Rockets can keep building around their young team.
Not everything that is coming into focus is doing so in a positive way. It is becoming clear that Dwyane Wade is no longer an elite player in the NBA. He’s averaging 14.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game during the playoffs. He’s shooting just .447 from the field and .250 from deep.
Yes, he had a nice game to close out the Indiana Pacers, notching 21 points and nine boards, but that seemed more like a momentary flash of his former greatness.
Wade just hasn’t been himself. He’s 31 years old showing signs of age getting the better of him. Only nine times in NBA history has a guard scored more than 25 points per game past the age of 32, which is how old Wade will be next year. Eight of those times it was Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Jerry West, all of whom defied age and, for the most part, serious injury—something Wade has not done.
It’s sad, but probably true. Like was the case with fellow Heat guard Ray Allen at this age, we will most likely never see sustained greatness from Wade again.
What does Tony Parker have to do to get some respect?
Among the players who have won Finals MVPs, it’s hard to consider someone who is more underrated than Parker. He is arguably one of the top five foreign-born players of all time, but he's rarely raised in that conversation.
He is too often dismissed as the product of a system.
The Spurs offense is a system offense, but you need to bear in mind, the system here was designed to fit the player. Three seasons ago the San Antonio Spurs essentially re-invented themselves to make Tony Parker the key to their offense rather than future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.
They are a team that wins off the screen, with more than 1,000 field goals having come off the pick and roll, or shooters coming off screens, according to Synergy.
Additionally, the Spurs score 5.3 more points per 100 possessions when Parker is on the court, according to 82games.com. The system makes the Spurs successful, but Parker makes the system work.
It's time to embrace him as an elite superstar in this league.
Why do some people automatically say that Kobe Brant is the greatest player of this generation? Certainly he belongs in the conversation, but he’s not the automatic winner of it.
Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant have different personalities, play different positions and are asked to do different things, so it’s difficult to compare them.
Still, look at there accomplishments.
Bryant has five rings, but Duncan has four—and obviously has a chance to win his fifth. Bryant has an MVP. Duncan has two. Bryant has two finals MVPs. Duncan has three. Kobe has an advantage in scoring. Duncan has the advantage in the various metrics that measure the overall game, like win shares and PER. Duncan has never won fewer than 50 games (or the strike-shortened equivalent). Bryant has had a losing season.
You can argue that's because of teammates, but then aren't rings too? That road runs both ways.
Kobe Bryant is a great player, but so is Tim Duncan. Certainly, if Duncan goes on to match Bryant in rings, it would be even more difficult to argue that he’s not the greatest player of this generation.
LeBron James is clutch, and he’s getting more clutch. He averaged close to an “Oscar Robertson” in the clutch this season, with 29.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 11.2 assists per 36 minutes, based on data from NBA.com/STATS. He was the only player in the NBA with a clutch triple-double. He was also seventh in scoring.
The 51.3 points he produces either through passing or shooting were the most of any player in the NBA.
His 25.5 points per 36 minutes in the clutch is second only to Nate Robinson this postseason.
But more than anything is his recent slate of success in closeout games.
Using my trusty Excel, I looked at what he’s done lately in big games. Over the last two seasons, in “closeout games” where winning meant sending the opponent home or losing meant going home, the Heat are 8-1, with James averaging 30.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists over the nine contests. He’s shot almost .800 from the stripe and .519 from the field.
That’s clutch. Whether the “choker” label was ever fair or not is moot. It’s not valid now. James is one of the great clutch players in the league in addition to being the best player overall.