The Biggest Blemish on Every Top-10 NBA Star's Resume

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2020

The Biggest Blemish on Every Top-10 NBA Star's Resume

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    Every NBA player has their baggage.

    For most, it comes in the form of eternal drawbacks, as faults and foibles they can neither escape nor reverse. For the league's top stars, these resume quirks are usually less permanent and more temporary stumbling blocks—career low points and glitches they overcome or remedy.

    In some cases, though, perception doesn't change. Bad breakups, ill-fated performances and functional flaws stick with a player. They are used to deride and define as both narrative and background.

    Not all of these perceived blemishes are fair. Many are mutual, an issue shared by star and franchise. Others are overblown, portrayed as fatal failings when they're much less.

    Most importantly, none of these career wrinkles, whether stark or secondary, are irredeemable—not even in the oft-uncompromising court of public opinion. Some have already run their course as intermittent obstacles-turned-footnotes. Others don't demand a grand resolution. They just are.

    On a semi-related housekeeping note: This crop of top-10 stars was pulled from our final NBA 100 rankings. Direct any gripes about these inclusions there.

    And we're off.

10. Khris Middleton: Perception of His No. 2 Status

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    In any normal year, the idea that a top-10 player—or even someone with a borderline top-10 case—doesn't qualify as a viable No. 2 on a championship team would be laughable. This isn't a normal year.

    Injuries to Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, along with limited availability from Joel Embiid, Paul George, Kyrie Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns, paved the way for a non-traditional top-10 inclusion. Jayson Tatum, Chris Paul and Pascal Siakam all belong in the discussion. That the final spot went to Khris Middleton both speaks to his body of work and the relative wide-openness of this entire discussion.

    The belief that he is not a conventional second star has never seemed flimsier. His success is not solely rooted in the time he spends next to Giannis Antetokounmpo but exists on its own. From his NBA 100 write-up:

    "Self-creation is ingrained into his game. He runs pick-and-rolls into pull-up jumpers. He shoots over mismatches in isolation and from the post. Tough fadeaways are business as usual. His off-the-dribble three is deployed in small doses but remains effective. He is the secondary playmaker everyone's waiting for Jayson Tatum to be (which, for now, gives him a clear, albeit slight, edge over Boston's fast-rising linchpin).

    Middleton has logged more than 750 possessions without Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, through which the Milwaukee Bucks have an offensive rating in the 99th percentile. This self-sufficiency isn't exactly new. Milwaukee thrived in these same minutes last season, outscoring opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks also held up in the playoffs during the scant time he spent without Antetokounmpo.

    The upshot? Top-10 players are supposed to be best-star-on-a-title-contender material.

    Middleton will likely never reach that pinnacle. He's yet to even prove he can successfully sustain the Bucks if Antetokounmpo is going through motions. He went off in their 2018 first-round series with the Boston Celtics, but they still lost. And his offense, like the rest of Milwaukee's, stalled out against the Toronto Raptors in last year's Eastern Conference Finals.

    Middleton's stay among the top 10 is probably, if overwhelmingly, temporary. But his is a plug-and-play stardom that, on paper, should comfortably translate to top-15-to-20 talk. Whether it does from here on out rests largely, if not exclusively, on what he does for Milwaukee in the postseason and how far it goes, potential asterisks and all.

9. Jimmy Butler: Exit from Minnesota (2018)

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Jimmy Butler's tour de force was great for content, but that doesn't make his divorce from the Minnesota Timberwolves any less of a hot mess.

    Then-team president and head coach Tom Thibodeau definitely bears a brunt of the blame. Butler's camp made it clear he wanted out shortly after the Timberwolves fell to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the 2018 postseason, according to The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski. Thibodeau treating that as a bluff and dragging his feet in negotiations ahead of 2018-19 was a special kind of stubborn—and detrimental.

    That Butler ended up appearing in 10 games for Minnesota before getting traded to the Philadelphia 76ers remains a farce. Thibodeau mishandled the entire situation and, eventually, paid for it (and other things) with his job.

    At the same time, Butler's breaking point became spectacle.

    The memory of him reportedly yelling at general manager Scott Layden and teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and then speaking about it, on the record, with ESPN's Rachel Nichols that same day will last forever. His exit strategy will be remembered more than anything Thibs and Co. did wrong—and, for that matter, everything Butler did right during his lone full season in Minnesota.

    To what end this actually matters is unknown. In the moment, his departure from the Timberwolves was ugly and seemed unnecessary, a series of wrongs strung together by player and team. Now, two new homes and roughly 20 months later, it all feels like a blip.

    Maybe Butler's leadership and temperament aren't for everyone. And maybe his tour de force dissuaded potential suitors. But his reputation hasn't taken much of a hit. Nor should it. He came out the other side of this soap opera better for wear. The Sixers miss him terribly, and he has the Miami Heat on the fringes of title contention.

8. Anthony Davis: Exit from New Orleans (2019)

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    Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

    Anthony Davis could have theoretically orchestrated his departure from the New Orleans Pelicans without much blowback. They failed to build a contender around him. Requesting a trade in advance of 2020 free agency (player option) was his right—and, in a vacuum, an understandable move.

    But his exit strategy defied convention. Trade requests are supposed to come one year out from free agency. Davis' came 18 months before he hit the open market. His agent, Rich Paul, tried to spin the move as transparency, but the Pelicans were notified of Davis' intentions less than two weeks before the 2019 trade deadline, giving them no time to scour the league for a palatable deal.

    Then again, they didn't really need to scour.

    Everyone knew Davis wanted to end up on the Los Angeles Lakers Lakers (or perhaps the New York Knicks). That open desire made it impossible for New Orleans to effectively drum up the asking price. It takes a specific kind of team to mortgage the future on a player who intends to leave. It also didn't help that, at the time, the Boston Celtics couldn't enter the sweepstakes without giving up Kyrie Irving.

    What ensued after Davis' trade request was a bad look for everyone involved. Then-Lakers team president Magic Johnson claimed the Pelicans operated in bad faith when they didn't move him. The league threatened to fine New Orleans if it didn't play Davis. Pelicans fans booed him. Lakers players knew they were being dangled in talks and, in Josh Hart's case, weren't thrilled about how they found out after the trade actually went through.

    This is what we call a cluster-you-know-what.

    Davis was well within his rights to request a trade. This is a business. Teams treat players like assets. Players with leverage, even those under contract, should be expected to use it.

    That's different from saying they're absolved from criticism. Davis was under no obligation to make his trade request at a more convenient time, but the time he chose didn't do him any favors. He didn't get to the Lakers any faster. And who knows, if they didn't jump to No. 4 in the draft lottery, he might not have made it to the Lakers at all.

7. Damian Lillard: 2018 Western Conference Quarterfinals

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Putting the Portland Trail Blazers' 2018 first-round collapse squarely on Damian Lillard's shoulders misrepresents the situation. They weren't a typical No. 3 seed falling to your usual No. 6 seed. One game separated them from the New Orleans Pelicans, who aside from having Anthony Davis, also had Jrue Holiday, an underappreciated defensive bulldog coming into his own as a No. 2 on offense.

    Granted, this background doesn't much ease the stain of that series. The Blazers were swept. Losing as the slight favorites would've been one thing. Getting completely eviscerated was another.

    It is a minor miracle Portland didn't blow the roster to smithereens afterward. This was the type of series that rattles an organization from top to bottom, shaking faith in everyone involved.

    Lillard, though never on the chopping block, was not immune.

    He shot under 40 percent inside the arc and just 30 percent from behind the rainbow against New Orleans' relentlessly trapping defense. Was his performance a one-off letdown? Was it the result of a sprained left ankle he suffered at the end of the regular season? Or was it a harbinger of his limitations, a barometer for how far a team headlined by him couldn't go?

    Try none of the above.

    Much like how LeBron James' struggles in the 2011 Finals served as an impetus for him to evolve, Portland's sweep at the hands of New Orleans pushed Lillard not to revamp or reinvent his game, but to augment it. As ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote the following season:

    "Lillard is at the height of his powers. He spent the summer honing his off-the-bounce game so no pressure defense would unnerve him again. With nothing more than winks and raised eyebrows, Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic choose the best pick-and-roll option based on how the defense reveals itself—a chemistry that is especially deadly when [head coach Terry] Stotts clears one side of the floor for them."

    Two years and one Western Conference Finals appearance later, the Blazers face the same questions about their future. They probably won't make the playoffs this season, remain on a perpetual search for dynamic wings and continue to have the look and feel of a team that tops out as a 50-something-win irritant and never sniffs the Finals.

    All of which has nothing to do with Lillard. His largest career blemish preceded his best basketball ever. He is now not one of the 10 best players in any given season, but also one of the league's 10 best players, period.

6. Nikola Jokic: Slow Start to 2019-20

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    Nikola Jokic's resume blotch is appropriately recent. It has to be something more immediate. His first four seasons were split between fighting for his rightful spot in the Denver Nuggets rotation and battling against the belief he wasn't a superstar.

    Last year put the latter issue to bed. He made first-team All-NBA and, for the most part, lit it up on offense during his first postseason go-round. Locally, he was a tenured superstar. Nationally, to some degree, this year was the first time he entered the season facing the expectations placed upon consensus top-10 talents.

    It turns out there was no time for a victory lap.

    Jokic began the season sluggishly, posting a lowly effective field-goal percentage of 48.2 through his first 19 games, a sad-sack mark fueled by his 22.2 percent clip from deep. He turned in three triple-doubles and a couple of game-winners during this time but, by and large, didn't look like the player who finished 2018-19.

    Theories for his struggles abounded. Was he too out of shape? Exhausted from playing with Serbia in the FIBA World Cup after making his first postseason appearance? Just plain disengaged? And why were there so many games in which he didn't take more shots? Was there a rush to coronate? Was he actually, maybe, possibly not the player from 2018-19?

    Jokic has since nuked most of the lingering doubt. (The shot-total concerns have always been overblown.) He's averaging 22.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists on an effective field-goal percentage of 59.5 since Dec. 6. And his returning to the Nuggets out of shape, yet again, after an extended time away is no longer a problem.

    He lost 40 pounds during the NBA's shutdown. Concern has shifted to whether he'll have the requisite heft to displace defenders in the post, a far cry from where it was a few months ago.

    Perhaps Jokic's early-season struggles have left the door ajar for skeptics to question his top-10, borderline top-five, status. That comes with the superstar territory. Doubt forms in droves at the first sign of humanness. And though Jokic isn't a typical big, he's still attempting to headline a contender at a time when teams are divesting in centers.

    His margin for error is a lot thinner than those enjoyed by many of his top-10 peers.

5. Luka Doncic: Crunch-Time Struggles

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    Luka Doncic's career isn't old enough to include a major blemish. He's a sophomore with a top-five billing. Life is pretty good. And it has time to get better. He's only 21. He has the runway to iron out any creases in his game or resume.

    Right now, crunch-time struggles are his greatest wrinkle. His efficiency plummets during the final five minutes of games in which the Dallas Mavericks neither trail nor lead by more than five points. He's still putting in 50.0 percent of his twos, but he's shooting 17.1 percent on threes and just 65.2 percent at the charity stripe.

    Small samples can be misleading, and Doncic's clutch play is no exception. We're talking about under 100 minutes of action, not to mention a ridiculously heavy workload. Among 147 players with at least 20 crunch-time appearances, Doncic ranks 10th in usage rate, putting him ahead of even James Harden. His efficiency might improve if the Mavs had another operable shot-creation outlet beside him.

    Except, well, we don't yet know whether Doncic's style fits next to another high-usage playmaker. He controls the game through his ball dominance. Ceding touches would represent a stark departure from the norm.

    Doncic's shot distribution needs to change either way. His step-back threes are too high-variance to be his crutch down the stretch. At the very least, his reliance on them impedes his ability to draw fouls. He's averaging 8.6 free throws per 36 minutes of crunch time, down from 9.8 overall this year and noticeably below the 10.4 he notched in the clutch last season.

4. James Harden: Game 6 of 2017 Western Conference Semifinals

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    James Harden's lackluster performance in Game 6 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals isn't quite the genesis of his postseason criticism, but it stands out as a tipping point.

    Both Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker were missing for the San Antonio Spurs. The assumption was that the Houston Rockets would force a Game 7, on the road, and get a crack at making the Western Conference Finals.

    They didn't.

    San Antonio throttled Houston, 114-75, while Harden went just 2-of-11 from the floor, including 2-of-9 from deep. He finished with 10 points, seven assists and six turnovers. Going by Basketball Reference's game score, it is the sixth-worst playoff performance of his career—and second-worst as a member of the Rockets.

    "As the series went on, I just thought he ran out of steam," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said that July, per ESPN 97.5 in Houston's Salman Ali. "We asked so much of him, and he's human."

    This was and remains a perfectly reasonable assumption. Harden played 81 games and posted a top-four usage rate during the regular season, and this marked the first year in which he served as Houston's scoring and playmaking lifeline. Russell Westbrook is the only other player to ever average more than 25 points per game while maintaining an assist rate north of 50 percent. (He and Harden both hit those benchmarks in 2016-17.)

    Citing Harden's workload is nevertheless seen as an excuse. Ditto for pointing out that the Rockets' second-leading scorer in that series was...Trevor Ariza. Or that Lou Williams' free-throw-happy style imploded.

    Such is the burden of megastardom. Untimely lowlights are seen as sinister rather than situational. And subsequent struggles have only added to Harden's playoff complications.

    His efficiency has routinely dipped in the postseason, usually from long distance, and Houston has racked up an uncomfortable number of missed opportunities, not all of which fall on Harden—namely blowing a 3-2 conference finals lead in 2018, complete with 27 straight missed threes in Game 7, and failing to capitalize on Kevin Durant's absence in Game 6 of the 2019 semifinals. And fair or not, his style has also grated on fans and analysts alike in the years since. 

    Harden burns through more isolations than entire teams. Houston no longer even feels obligated to send as many ball screens his way. He doesn't need them. What the Rockets see as innovation, as capitalizing on a market inefficiency, others view as an assault on aesthetics.

    Bake in his intense focus on contending for regular-season MVPs and Harden occupies a space all to himself, a gray area in which his talent and shortcomings are almost equals and a title is all that stands to recalibrate his postseason reputation.

3. Kawhi Leonard: Exit from San Antonio (2018)

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    This is another instance in which the poor optics are shared by both player and team.

    Kawhi Leonard's relationship with the San Antonio Spurs deteriorated so quickly it still doesn't quite make sense. It felt random at the time. Impossible, even. The Spurs were the billboard for transcendent culture. Their franchise cornerstone orchestrating his own exit, mid-contract, was tough to grasp.

    ESPN first reported that a rift was growing between Leonard and the organization at the end of January 2018. By that point, he had appeared in just nine games while dealing with a right quad injury. Unbeknownst to most, they would be his final nine games in a Spurs uniform.

    Awkward injury updates hinted at the divide between star and franchise. Head coach Gregg Popovich openly didn't seem to know what was taking Leonard so long to return, and the team's updates always seemed to run contrary to their star's own timeline—including after San Antonio kind of, sort of ruled him out for the season.

    Another report from ESPN in May 2018 revealed that Leonard's camp was at odds with the organization. The root of the issue appeared to be a disagreement over the handling of the superstar's injury. Leonard's camp believed he was misdiagnosed; the Spurs grew frustrated that they lost control over the medical treatment of their franchise cornerstone.

    By the middle of June, it was unofficially official: Leonard wanted out of San Antonio. Along with Danny Green, he was eventually traded to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick that became Keldon Johnson.

    To say this is a major blot on Leonard's legacy goes way too far. He has since led the Raptors to a title and could be on the verge of doing the same for the Los Angeles Clippers. He should not be criticized for exercising his agency, or for prioritizing his health, even if he's responsible for what appears to be a gross breakdown of communication.

    His breakup from the Spurs is more so just uncharacteristic of his career. He is stoic and private. This exit was public(ish) and messy.

2. LeBron James: 2011 NBA Finals

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    LeBron James left himself no margin for error after leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010 free agency. It was a move that enraged people on two levels.

    There was The Decision TV special that, to many, came across as arrogant and self-indulgent. And then there was the actual decision itself. LeBron chose to leave Cleveland to forge a superteam in Miami. With one choice, he both crippled his "hometown" franchise and consolidated star power in a manner previously unseen. His default role became that of a villain.

    Winning doesn't cure everything—ask Kevin Durant—but titles were the only way LeBron could begin to redress his perception. Emphasis on titles. As in plural. LeBron essentially promised an unprecedented dynasty. Any misstep, even in Year 1, would be pounced on and dissected and used to discredit both the player and person.

    Let's just say LeBron gave his critics plenty of material to work with after the 2011 Finals.

    He shot a combined 17-of-44 from the floor through Games 3, 4 and 5, including a 1-of-11 clip from beyond the arc. In a win-or-go-home Game 6, he committed six turnovers and finished as a minus-24, which remains tied for the fourth-worst on-off differential in a playoff tilt for his career. The Dallas Mavericks defense made him visibly uncomfortable, exposing his inability to punish a zone with his jumper.

    To top it all off, LeBron and Dwyane Wade were seen mocking Dirk Nowitzki's flu-like symptoms on camera. And after the Heat fell to the Mavs, LeBron went off on his critics during his postgame presser.

    No part of the 2011 Finals comes close to being LeBron's best moment. And...that's worked out quite well for him.

    Is he as motivated to hone his perimeter shooting if he doesn't lose to Dallas? Or amend his response to criticism? I mean, maybe, if not probably. We're talking about an all-time great. But even LeBron admits the 2011 Finals letdown was a failure he needed to confront, which he did.

    "After that Finals, I was like, 'That's never happening again. I may lose again, I may not win everything, but I'll never fail again,'" he said on a 2018 episode of HBO's The Shop (h/t the Washington Post's Ben Golliver). "... That was my greatest achievement: to overcome that."

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo: 2019 Eastern Conference Finals

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo has felt solvable before. Shaky jump shooters always do.

    Prior to head coach Mike Budenholzer's arrival, though, it was less about stopping Antetokounmpo and more about withstanding him. Teams were content letting up his barrages at the rim when neither the Milwaukee Bucks' roster nor their shot profile threatened to punish them from beyond the arc.

    The Boston Celtics became the standard for doing both during the first round of the 2018 postseason. They forced the ball out of his hands, coaxed him into low-percentage shots by keeping guys in front of him and, on occasion, won in spite of him.

    Last year's Eastern Conference Finals letdown felt...different. It wasn't just the stakes. It was the player. Antetokounmpo couldn't be as rattled when forced to pivot or brought to a standstill. This wasn't a just-happy-to-be-here superstar. He had ascended into consensus-MVP territory and planted his flag, firmly, in the best-player-alive discussion. Any struggles he had would be magnified and packaged as concern on a larger scale.

    Existing skeptics were not disappointed. Antetokounmpo shot under 48 percent on twos in the Eastern Conference Finals, including barely 45 percent over the final four games, all of which were losses after Milwaukee jumped out to a 2-0 series lead.

    Not every team will have Kawhi Leonard, the man most responsible for neutralizing last year's—and probably this year's—MVP. He goaded Antetokounmpo into jumpers and blanketed him one-on-one. That won't be a problem this year, at least not right away.

    Leonard is on the Los Angeles Clippers, and few players boast his combination of length and strength. But the Raptors also beat Antetokounmpo with timely double-teams around the block, lending merit to the idea that he could be schemed into submission.

    Whether that proves true this year is debatable. Antetokounmpo feels much less beatable. His jumper isn't the deadliest weapon, but he has doubled his volume of pull-up three-pointers compared to last season and trusts his fadeaway more. Better individual offense from Eric Bledsoe—posting an effective field-goal percentage of 61.3 in isolation this year—would also go a long way.

    And still, you can't help but wonder if the Bucks are vulnerable and if Antetokounmpo is at least a sliver of the reason why. His reign at once feels inevitable and, because of what Toronto put him through last season, a little fragile.

                   

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.