Judging the Comfort Levels for NBA Stars Heading into the Playoffs
After a roller coaster of a regular season that took all the way to Game 82 to determine all the playoff seeds and matchups, the 2018 NBA playoffs are finally here.
In the West, the Nos. 1 through 8 seeds are the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves.
In the East, the seeds from top to bottom are the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.
All 16 teams have their stars (perhaps a variable term). And some should feel more comfortable than others.
Which stars are feeling the most pressure? And who's the most comfortable? Let's answer both for every team in the postseason.
This is an interesting one. You could argue that LeBron James is in a fairly comfortable spot heading into this postseason.
Regardless of what happens, he enters unrestricted free agency this summer, and he'll have no shortage of suitors. Tinseltown's Los Angeles Lakers will have two max-player slots. San Antonio would be a nice spot for the game's best player to spend the twilight of his career (though the Spurs would have to do some cap gymnastics and make some trades to get the cap space). Or, he could continue to be the face and champion of his hometown Cavaliers.
When he loses in the postseason, it won't be hard to make the case that his supporting cast was inadequate. Between his points and the ones generated by his assists, LeBron accounted for 45 percent of the total scored by Cleveland this season.
With all that in mind, you could argue he's just playing with house money.
But we know that's never the case with LeBron and his legacy. At this point, the comparisons to Michael Jordan are constant. And every title he wins makes the debate more interesting. Plenty of catch-all numbers already point to James as the greatest player of all time, but you know there will always be plenty of fans and talking heads who cite rings as the end-all.
After seven straight trips to the Finals, "title or bust" is a perennial thing for LeBron.
Comfort Level: Nagging suspicion that the ghost of MJ will always be in the back of his head.
Presumptive 2018 MVP James Harden finished last season's playoff run with 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting in a 39-point loss to the Spurs.
"You've got to take it for what it is," Harden said after getting knocked out, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "Everything falls on my shoulders. I take responsibility for it...both ends of the floor. You know, it's tough, especially the way we lost at home for Game 6. But it happened. Now we move forward."
And move forward they did.
Adding Chris Paul in the offseason turned the already-solid Rockets into a juggernaut. According to the NBA's player impact tool, 10 of the 11 players who've logged at least 100 minutes with Paul this season have a better net rating (team's net points per 100 possessions when that player is on the floor) when they're in with the superstar point guard. Seven of 11 have a better true shooting percentage when sharing the floor with Paul. Both are true for Harden.
Comfort Level: Enjoying the help.
Despite finishing third in the bloodbath of a conference that is the West, few would expect the Blazers to compete for a title or even get through the Rockets and Warriors and into the Finals.
So, in that sense, Damian Lillard has every reason to just go out and play loose. But he shoulders a heavy load, simply by virtue of how this team is constructed.
He and CJ McCollum are the team's only serious scoring threats (Jusuf Nurkic's occasional outbursts aside), and Portland's net rating drops 9.1 points when Lillard leaves the floor, per the NBA.
If he doesn't have a monster series, it'd be hard to imagine the Blazers getting past Anthony Davis in the first round.
Comfort Level: Sensing a unibrow.
Russell Westbrook has averaged a triple-double in each of the last two seasons. That's truly remarkable. But questions remain about how well other stars fit alongside him.
Kevin Durant left and won a title with the Warriors. Victor Oladipo exploded in his first season post-Russ. Carmelo Anthony fell off a cliff this year (thought it'd be hard to totally blame Westbrook for that). And Lakers have been a looming possibility for Paul George all season.
Both Westbrook and George have said all the right things about their partnership and future over the course of this season. But if OKC loses in the first-round to a deep and well-coached Jazz squad, George may be more likely to head home to one of the most storied franchises in professional sports.
Comfort Level: Impending loneliness.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan
The Raptors' recent playoff struggles have been discussed ad nauseam. This team is supposed to be different than the one that's flamed out in the past.
The bench, led by Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, is perhaps the NBA's best. And it'll surely be a factor this postseason. But ultimately, the Raptors should go as their stars go.
For his career, Kyle Lowry is shooting 39.4 percent from the field and 31.4 percent from three-point range in the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan has been worse, shooting 40.3 percent from the field and 20.9 percent from three in postseason games.
Toronto doubled down on this core in the last several offseasons. If the playoff woes of those two at the top continue, the Raptors might have to make a shake-up.
Comfort Level: Now or never.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the five to 10 best players in this year's playoffs. His Bucks have almost have no shot at a title.
That, of course, is no fault of Antetokounmpo's. He's done his part all season and will likely continue to do so in whatever amount of postseason games he plays.
But the Bucks' coaching and a steep drop-off after the team's top five or six players probably put Milwaukee's ceiling somewhere below Antetokounmpo's standing reach.
Comfort Level: Patiently waiting to call David Fizdale.
Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell
Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell have dominated the Rookie of the Year debate, one that's heated up to a ridiculous degree, for most of the season.
Open up good ol' Twitter most days and peruse the timelines of Jazz and 76ers fans, and you'll find some squabbles. The fights have even been between beat writers at times.
Despite the fact that Rookie of the Year will already be decided (the votes are in; we just won't learn the results till June), the postseason performances from Mitchell and Simmons will almost assuredly add fuel to the fire.
If either goes off (or struggles), you better believe both sides will be plenty verbal about it on the internet. Whether that translates to psychological effects on the rookies remains a mystery, though.
For the most part, both have been poised beyond their years for most of this campaign.
Comfort Level: Should be less comfortable than a featured rookie on a playoff team would typically be, but these guys are all about defying convention.
It's been an interesting season for the underachieving Washington Wizards. John Wall may represent their up-and-down play as much as anyone. And Marcin Gortat has elected himself spokesman of it.
"I agree completely," Gortat said of head coach Scott Brooks' recent characterization of the team as "selfish," per Candace Buckner of the Washington Post. "It comes from the coach, and we as the players, we've seen that during the game. We feel that sometimes. It has to change. It has to change as soon as possible. It's not only on one guy. It's on a lot of people. You can't win basketball games if you're just thinking about yourself."
Presumably, that "one guy" is Wall. While he was out with an injury earlier in the season, Gortat tweeted the following after a win: "Unbelievable win tonight ! Great "team" victory!"
Another presumptive shot at Wall.
Over the next six seasons, Washington will pay the franchise point guard over $206 million after almost $47 million last season. Some are already calling the contract unmovable. And if Wall has already lost the team, things could reach borderline-unfixable levels with a first-round exit.
And that could mean trades (of the contracts that can be moved).
Comfort Level: Impending doom.
Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson
If there was any question before this season, it should probably be settled now. The Warriors are Stephen Curry's team.
According to NBA's player impact tool, Golden State was plus-150 in the 404 minutes Curry played without Kevin Durant (plus-17.8 per 48 minutes). The Warriors were plus-12 in the 1,098 minutes Durant played without Curry (plus-0.5 per 48 minutes).
Since February 1, when All-Stars Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were on the floor without Curry, Golden State is minus-37 (minus-7.5 per 48 minutes).
If Curry's out for much more than the first round, this team looks legitimately vulnerable. The Warriors got lucky in drawing the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in the first round, but keeping up with Lillard or Antonio Davis without their two-time MVP in the second round will be mighty tough.
Comfort Level: Missing one of most impactful offensive players in the history of basketball.
Stars from the remaining teams should be fairly comfortable, for a variety of reasons.
Jayson Tatum: He probably could've been thrown in with the slide on Simmons and Mitchell, but whatever he and the Celtics pull off in the playoffs is gravy. With Kyrie Irving out, Boston has a legitimate, built-in excuse for losing.
Anthony Davis: Ditto for the Pelicans and Davis, sans DeMarcus Cousins. All AD can really do at this point is add to his legend.
Victor Oladipo: The Pacers already vastly exceeded expectations for this season. They should be seen as a massive underdog against LeBron and the Cavs. Winning that one would be quite the bonus to an already surprising season.
Hassan Whiteside: There may be an argument for giving Whiteside his own slide. There's been some tension between him and the team this season, and a quick exit could lead to a trade. Still, this is probably about where Miami should've expected this team after the moves it made last summer.
LaMarcus Aldridge: If Leonard randomly comes back for the first round, the Spurs should probably feel real comfortable about playing the Curry-less Warriors. Without him, San Antonio's ragtag bunch can make Golden State sweat, but it probably doesn't have enough firepower to get the upset.
Jimmy Butler: The Timberwolves look primed for a gentleman's sweep at the hands of the Rockets. These guys need rest after a year in the grinding rotations of Tom Thibodeau.