7 NBA Players Under the Most Pressure to Deliver in the 2014 Playoffs
Everyone who made the 2014 NBA playoffs deserves congratulations. However, the work is not done yet for those teams still playing basketball.
For a few specific players, that means even more. These guys have made it through a full season but still have plenty to prove. There is a great amount of pressure on big names who have fallen from fans' graces or finally have the opportunity to prove themselves deserving of that level of stardom to perform well this spring.
The games are underway, and no team or player wants to be embarrassed at this level. It is time for these players to deliver or get out of the spotlight.
While a lot of the talk about Dwyane Wade's career and future is greatly exaggerated, it does stem from a place of truth.
Wade played in just 54 games this regular season. How many of those were him sitting out for pure rest versus actual injury is somewhat irrelevant. After an up-and-down 2013 postseason, one that is generally forgiven thanks to a 23-point, 10-rebound Game 7 in the Finals, Wade did little to squelch rumors that his career was on a downturn.
While he is still a very capable star, Wade hasn't proven he can deliver consistently all season. These playoff games are going to have a jacked-up feeling. Of course, Wade is a veteran of 132 postseason contests. Whether the experience from those or the mileage of it all wins out in 2014, we will know in the next month or so.
For Wade to prove he is still in the upper-echelon of NBA stars, he needs to show that the regular season was just that, regular, and turn it up starting with the Charlotte Bobcats.
Deron Williams' regular-season numbers plummeted in 2013-14. The 29-year-old point guard averaged just 14.3 points and 6.1 assists per game, the lowest total since his rookie season.
He shouldered plenty of blame for the Brooklyn Nets' slow start this year and deservedly so. Williams played in just 64 games and was visibly a different player than the former All-Star guard who makes $18.6 million this season.
Thanks in large part to his teammates stepping up, Williams will get a second chance in the playoffs. The Nets were very much a team built around his abilities with the basketball in hand. If he is losing minutes to Shaun Livingston, that is a problem. This is the playoffs, and the expensive Nets aren't going anywhere without Williams picking his game up.
For a franchise built to win right now, with not a ton of room for improvement financially, Williams has to prove his career as a NBA star isn't over. Williams must deliver, and the Nets must deliver, or $100-plus million just went to waste.
The 2013 NBA playoffs were a nice little coming out party for Roy Hibbert on the national stage. That stage has followed him and the Indiana Pacers throughout the following 2013-14 season, which isn't looking like a great thing.
After opening the year on a tear and looking like maybe the top team in basketball, things have slowly disintegrated for Indiana. At the forefront of that slip has been Hibbert, the team's defensive anchor and highest-paid player at $14.28 million.
His numbers this season dipped from 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds last season to 10.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in 2013-14. He didn't come close to making the sort of leap that was hoped following his 17-point, 9.9-rebound postseason of last spring.
Down the stretch this season, Hibbert's game has been incredibly shaky, mirroring the struggles of his team. The Pacers' confidence level is shot from poor play and inconsistency. While no one can take away the success he had last postseason, being a great player means doing it year in and year out.
With a big contract and a big personality, Hibbert is under a lot of pressure to help the Pacers get back to winning.
Monta Ellis is in the playoffs for the second consecutive year, but things are a lot different for the 28-year-old guard.
Ellis experienced the postseason briefly with the Milwaukee Bucks last year, getting swept in Round 1. This time around, he is on the Dallas Mavericks and looking to prove he belongs with a different level of guards.
An excellent regular season, averaging 19 points on 45.1/33/78.8 shooting splits to go with 5.7 assists per game, has helped Ellis emerge from the irresponsible gunner category and into the efficient producer category. However, all of that can be easily marginalized without a strong postseason performance.
This is Ellis' ninth NBA season but will be just his third ever trip to the postseason. We touched on how quickly his last trip ended, and for him to continue poking his head into that level of guards, he'll need to stick around a bit longer.
The playoffs offer him a chance to get some run on a more national stage; all he has to do is deliver the goods he's been showing Dallas since arriving.
What could have been a disastrous season for LaMarcus Aldridge has turned out pretty well. He was fast approaching a point in his career where his level of stardom could be easily questioned by a lack of team success (see Love, Kevin).
Instead, the retooled Portland Trail Blazers went on a tear to open the season and have maintained a level of winning through the tough Western Conference slate. Now Aldridge and Co. find themselves in an opening-round matchup with the Houston Rockets.
This will be Aldridge's fourth ever postseason appearance, but none of them have lasted beyond six games. Since drafting the All-Star forward in 2006, Portland hasn't exited that first-round series successfully. The pressure is on its best player to get it done this season.
Aldridge, who played in only 69 games during the regular season, technically becomes an expiring contract next season. He will be looking for a healthy extension. How he plays over the next few weeks could decide how healthy it is as well as where it comes from.
As a star player, there is likely nothing more frustrating than being forced to sit out during important games. The only thing more frustrating may be sitting out and watching your team actually play better in your absence.
That is what David Lee went through last spring, getting a front-row seat to just how important he was to his Golden State Warriors. After averaging 18.5 points and 11.2 rebounds per game in the regular season, Lee had his postseason stripped from him by injury. He sat on the sidelines while Golden State became the darlings of the NBA playoffs.
With Lee in a suit, Harrison Barnes was inserted into the lineup, and both offensively and defensively, things seemed to run smoother. Now, Lee is back, and the Warriors earned a No. 6 seed and an opening-round date with the Los Angeles Clippers.
For a 30-year-old power forward, the first game of that series will be only the second meaningful playoff game of Lee's career. He got in one game last season but will have a lot to prove when the postseason juices start flowing.
Lee's pay balloons north of $15 million next season; delivering a good playoff performance will make that number seem reasonable in 2015.
The 2010 playoffs were the last time Dwight Howard was able make postseason noise. Since then, the All-Star center has played on two different teams and not exited the first round.
Howard's Orlando Magic lasted six games in 2011, while his Los Angeles Lakers were swept last spring.
Now with the Houston Rockets, Howard has a lot to prove as they enter their postseason series with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Howard had a somewhat rejuvenated regular season, maybe not statistically but emotionally. He finds himself in a much more comfortable situation in Houston, but all of that will simply be window dressing if he comes up empty in the playoffs.
The Rockets spent a lot of money to get Howard to Houston and will spend even more to continue supplying him with quality teammates. The pressure is on the player to get back to what he did best earlier in his career. Howard has to get this team deep into the postseason.