While many purists, perhaps, lament the loss of the Lakers and the Celtics in this year's playoffs, and many previous contenders, such as Orlando, Cleveland, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Denver find themselves home early, the 2011 Playoffs may become one of the most important in a long time.
History wise, the NBA's Final Four is loaded with a lot of stars (and longtime role players) who have traveled the NBA wasteland for decades, almost, and have never reached the ultimate prize: a championship.
Sure, every year a contender might have a ringless wonder on its squad looking to compete but the last few years have been legacy matches between giants: Kobe getting rings No. 4 and 5, KG finally grasping the trophy, Tim Duncan cementing his legacy as one of the greatest power forwards ever, etc.
But with the exception of Dwyane Wade, each team's mega-superstar is ringless. And right next to them are a number of well-deserving journeymen and role players who have also searched for, but have yet to find, that lovely jewelry that defines a career.
Careers and legacies are at stake. For some, the time is NOW. For others, it's a bonus prize for a career that has a long way to go.
But for the most part, this year's playoffs have superstar contenders looking for the big prize. Maybe not for the first time but, for some, the last.
- With Bulls: 13 total wins, two series wins in five possible rounds (one in progress)
- 25.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 7.4 APG
At Stake: Nothing. . .yet.
Analysis: Derrick Rose has surpassed expectations. His team, previously eliminated in the first round the last two years, surged to the league's best record and Rose, as its leader, won the MVP.
For a franchise often in the shadow of its previous superstars, Rose has led the Bulls not only back to respectability, but into contention, perhaps for years.
Some see the Bulls jump as exceptional but premature, but after a Game 1 obliteration of the Miami Heat, and a well-fought loss in Game 2 (where the Bulls were still in it despite a bad shooting night), the Bulls are only three wins away from their first NBA Finals berth since 1998, and people are starting to believe.
If Rose wins his first title this year, especially at the expense of LeBron James and, perhaps, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, his legacy has started with a bang and the future is all his, pressure free.
If he fails to get the jewelry this year, he's already exceeded expectations and has a long career ahead of him.
- With Jazz: 20 total wins, four series wins in eight possible rounds
- With Bulls: 9 total wins, two series wins in three possible rounds (one in progress)
- Two Conference Finals appearances (one in progress), 2-4 record
- 18.3 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.6 APG
At Stake: Respectability; selfish/lazy star or superb teammate?
Analysis: Boozer has one of his best shots at a title this year. He doesn't have to face the Lakers or Spurs and he doesn't have to be the star (a role that never suited him in either Cleveland or Utah, except, maybe, in 2007, the last time Boozer was unquestionably awesome in the playoffs).
Boozer was a large free agent target this year and he has the skill to be utterly dominant. But many get the feeling the Bulls are winning despite Booz. His addition certainly helped the Bulls' size and offense but has actually been a detriment to its dedication to defense, at times.
If he can come through in his second Conference Finals appearance in his career and get through as a key component, on both ends of the floor, history will remember Boozer more kindly. He did in Game 1 of this years ECFs but not in Game 2.
Which Boozer will we see?
- With Heat: 0 total wins, 0 series wins in one possible round
- With Knicks: 23 total wins, 5 series wins in nine possible rounds
- With Suns: 16 total wins, 3 series wins in five possible rounds
- With Spurs: 10 total wins, 2 series wins in four possible rounds
- With Bucks: 3 total wins, 0 series wins in one possible round
- With Bulls: 9 total wins, 2 series wins in three possible rounds (one in progress)
- Four Total Conference Finals appearances, One Conference Title ('99, East), 9-14 record (one in progress)
- One NBA Finals appearance ('99): 1-4 record
- 5.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 0.7 APG
At Stake: Life Time Achievement
Analysis: Sixty one total wins and eleven years of total playoff experience has yielded no rings for the longtime vet, known for his effort and hustle.
He always seemed to meet the wrong dynasty at the wrong time or join one as it faded. Impressing Gregg Popovich with his play on Tim Duncan while a member of the Suns, Thomas joined a Spurs team hot off a quasi-dynasty (three titles in six years). But the ring never came.
Thomas is far from his Knicks days, when he was a key piece of the last great Knicks squad, but he is a locker-room presence for the young guns and a living example of the hustle and heart the Bulls have tried to show in both the regular season and the playoffs.
He deserves a ring just for the body of work.
- With Cavs: 42 total wins, 8 series wins in 13 possible rounds
- With Heat: 9 total wins, two series in three possible rounds (one in progress)
- Two Total Conference Final appearances, One Conference Title ('07, East), 7-7 record (one in progress)
- One NBA Finals appearance ('07): 0-4 record
- 28.7 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 7.0 APG
At Stake: Restoring Legacy
Analysis: LeBron James is a one of a kind talent: immensely built, multi-faceted, and extremely athletic, LeBron has also proven in these 2011 playoffs that he can keep adding on to his game and recover what he has lost.
The once 'clutch-less' LeBron is back to being a deadly killer, like he was pre-NBA Finals '07. And with his Hall of Fame-to-be partner Dwayne Wade and good-to-great PF Chris Bosh next to him, the Heat can win on talent alone.
LeBron, as the figurehead for this league, needs to win a ring if FOR ANYTHING to prove his doubters wrong.
He'll never be able to recover the legacy he left in Cleveland, where he led a once-pitiful Cleveland franchise into the elite, but as the second fiddle OR, at the least, the co-leader (with Wade), LeBron can still win the championship that has eluded him for eight years.
If he does it this year, the NBA's most popular All-Star may finally earn the title of King.
- With Bullets: 0 total wins, 0 series wins in one possible round
- With Mavericks ('01): 4 total wins, 1 series win in two possible rounds
- With Rockets: 3 total wins, 0 series wins in one possible round
- With Mavericks ('08): 1 total win, 0 series wins in one possible round
- With Blazers: 2 total wins, 0 series wins in one possible round
- With Heat: 9 total wins, 2 series wins in three possible rounds (one in progress)
- One Conference Finals appearance, 1-1 record (in progress)
- 7.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.9 APG
At Stake: Making Look Like All that Money and All that Time Led to Something
Analysis: Juwan Howard has been paid lots and lots of money over the years and was, at some points, a star in the league. Hell, he guested on The West Wing!
But Howard never really panned out. For a guy that's been around forever and played with some of the league's most explosive players, it took until 2011 for Howard to get on a team that won more then one series. In fact, on Miami, he doubled his career playoff series win total.
He's also won more playoff games with the Heat this year then he had his entire 15-year career previous (nine wins this year so far, 7 total in first 15 years).
And while Howard plays little to no role in the Heat's plans of title domination, he at least has a personal stake in all of this.
If he wins a ring in what is likely his final year of playing ball (he becomes a free agent after this season), he'll have a personal milestone to feel good about after 16 underachieving years.
- With Kings: 27 total wins, 4 series wins in 9 possible rounds
- With Hawks: 11 total wins, 2 series wins in 5 possible rounds
- With Heat: 9 total wins, 2 series wins in 3 possible rounds (one in progress)
- Two Total Conference Finals appearances, 4-5 record (one in progress)
- Has played in six Game 7s with a 2-4 record; he has won the last two though
- 13.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 4.3 APG
At Stake: Redemption
Analysis: I'll never talk trash about Mike Bibby. Though his playoff successes have gotten smaller and smaller since the glory days in Sac-Town in 2002, Bibby aged gracefully in the league and continued to lead Sacramento and Atlanta to decent, if not special or worthwhile, playoff appearances.
His Heat signing is a bit of a ring-chase, but he's at least had the playoff performances in the past to justify a Kevin Willis 'I'm hanging on until they fit me with a ring' season.
Bibby has to get through the feisty Derrick Rose before he can even compete in the NBA Finals but Bibby has been closer then he's been in almost 10 years.
Some feel the Kings were jobbed in '02. I never buy into conspiracy theories BUT, if they WERE, getting a ring now would be a somewhat lifetime achievement award for the one-time playoff stud.
- With Thunder: 11 total wins, 2 series wins in four possible rounds (one in progress)
- One Conference Finals appearance, 1-1 record (one in progress)
- 28.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.6 APG
At Stake: Nothing. . .Yet
Analysis: Like Derrick Rose, if Durant wins his title this year, then he is cementing the Thunder as the team of Western Conference future for years to come. But if all comes to pass, like Rose and the Bulls, things are going at or beyond expectations.
Durant is the figurehead of the Thunder and, as two time scoring champ, a top 5 superstar that will headline the league as the NBA goes into a new era.
His ring chase here, if ending in seven more wins, will change the legacies of the old timers he's had (or did) beat and will jump-start the league a few years ahead of schedule.
- With Mavericks: 61 total wins, 11 series wins in 22 possible rounds (one in progress)
- Three Conference Finals appearances, One Conference Title ('06, West), 7-7 record (one in progress)
- One NBA Finals appearance ('06): 2-4 record
- 25.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.7 APG
At Stake: Entire Legacy
Analysis: Dirk is great. No one will ever doubt that. But at this point, he's got a lot of playoff experience that has led to nothing. And worst of all, despite the talent, he is considered, at times, a choke artist.
But this year FEELS different. It feels like Dirk WANTS it and won't be denied. We shall see. But his legacy is at stake but what better way to put it at risk then to avenge previous defeats.
The ultimate storybook ending to this season would be to see the Mavericks go up against the Miami Heat again, like they did in 2006, when the Mavericks had a 2-0 lead and lost the series 4-2. THAT'S a final I'd watch.
- With Suns: 32 total wins, 6 series wins in 12 possible rounds
- With Mavericks: 11 total wins, 2 series wins in four possible rounds (one in progress)
- Three Total Conference Finals appearances, 4-9 record (one in progress)
- 15.4 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.5 APG
At Stake: The Years in Phoenix
Analysis: A member of those super-fun, never-quite-made-it Suns squads that made the NBA a blast in the mid 2000s, Marion was a victim, like Nash and Amare, of 'close-but-no-cigar' syndrome.
With Dallas this year, Marion has a well deserved chance to finally get that ring. While it will be sad for Suns fans to see Marion get some jewelry, especially after all these years, fewer players deserve it more, especially after so many failures.
- With Suns: 8 total wins, 1 series win in six possible rounds
- With Nets: 43 total wins, 9 series wins in 15 possible rounds
- With Mavericks: 17 total wins, 3 series wins in 7 possible rounds (one in progress)
- Three Total Conference Finals appearances, Two Conference Titles ('02, East; '03 East), 9-3 record (one in progress)
- Two NBA Finals appearances ('02, '03): 2-8 record
- 14.3 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 8.7 APG
At Stake: Role in History
Analysis: Do I even need to argue this? One of the greatest point guards of our age has been to two Finals but never had a chance to try on a ring.
The fact that he is still a key and necessary member of the Mavericks current run makes my sympathy for his ring cause even more powerful. It would simply be a shame to see so rich a talent get so close but never finish the deal.
If Kidd wins seven more games, he notches 75 total playoff wins but, most importantly, one shiny ring.