NBA Stars with the Most to Prove in the Playoffs
Entrenched stars are not typically saddled with the burden of proof during the NBA's regular season. Their value amongst one another can be divisive, but it's a given overall. Issues with their games are, usually, matters of split hairs; otherwise they wouldn't be stars.
That changes during the playoffs. Flaws are exacerbated. Legacies are put under a microscope. Basically, the pressure reflects the stakes. Almost everyone is prepared to draw wholesale conclusions based off what happens over a sample that most likely won't span two-dozen games.
No star is immune. LeBron James, a four-time champion and 10-time Finals participant, has something to prove at the alter of the "Jordan better" proponents. But that's an issue of cosmetics and anecdotes—of putting a bow on a greatest-of-all-time argument already airtight.
Other stars face more pressing questions. Can they get over the conference finals or championship hump? Can they diminish the impact of—if not erase—longstanding functional imperfections? Can they validate their status in the first place?
This space is for those cases.
We will not seek to single out low-hanging fruit with limited big-picture implications. Yes, James Harden has some playoff demons to shake off once he returns from his hamstring injury. But referendums on his championship mettle mean little this season unless you're of the mind he had a better chance of winning with the Houston Rockets and took a risk by forcing his way to the Brooklyn Nets.
And, we're off.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Perception is seldom reality for Postseason Giannis Antetokounmpo. Extremists would have us believe he is an implosive liability undeserving of his two MVPs—even though they are regular-season awards. There will also be those who insist Antetokounmpo isn't somewhat problematic in the playoffs.
Like always, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Antetokounmpo does not devolve into a total net negative during the postseason. It takes a specific set of personnel to exploit his shaky range by turning the paint into a no-fly zone. The issue: Those opponents exist. They will not await Antetokounmpo at every turn, but they have derailed the Milwaukee Bucks in consecutive postseasons.
Last year, inside the Disney bubble, it was the Miami Heat. Just over 47 percent of Antetokounmpo's shot attempts came inside the restricted area through the first three games of their second-round series. That's a demonstrative drop-off from his 52.6 percent share during the regular season.
Miami also did a good job cutting off his transition attacks, using a combination of Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler to direct him toward Bam Adebayo or coax him into settling from the perimeter. Antetokounmpo shot 3-of-19 on jumpers, including 2-of-13 from long range, through those three games.
Small sample sizes aren't telltale of everything. (Antetokounmpo left Game 4 and didn't play Game 5 due to a sprained right ankle). But the Heat's success isn't exactly an outlier. The Toronto Raptors championed a similar approach during their 2019 Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Bucks.
Milwaukee has experimented on offense in anticipation of facing the same issue. From stashing players in the dunker's spot to giving Antetokounmpo more responsibility as the screener to the acquisition of Jrue Holiday, it is far better equipped, in theory, to navigate the postseason minefield.
Championships aren't won on paper, though. And while tightly tethering Antetokounmpo's megastardom to rings culture is reductive, he and the Bucks, together, need to show their dominance is postseason-proof.
Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
The meme-ification of Paul George has always veered too far over the line. He is a viable All-NBA candidate just about every regular season, and last year's shooting slump came inside an unprecedented bubble environment that left him battling anxiety and depression. George spent much of 2019-20 battling shoulder and hamstring issues, too. Empathy and context are important ingredients in any conversation.
Still, George is now up against postseasons—plural—of unflattering play.
Though he has never regressed into a total no-show or liability, his efficiency has taken serious hits. He shot 34.8 percent on twos during his final postseason series with the Indiana Pacers in 2017 and is knocking down under 34 percent of his three-point attempts over his past three playoff appearances. His lackluster shooting played a role in last year's Los Angeles Clippers collapse against the Denver Nuggets, a rut he capped off with a 4-of-16 clip (2-of-11 from three) during Game 7.
Struggles and inconsistency of this magnitude won't cut it for someone who deemed himself Playoff P. (That self-awarded nickname is fair meme game.) Lingering disappointment is actually a compliment, albeit one delivered with the back of a hand. It reflects the higher standard to which he's held.
George's regular season has only reinforced those expectations. He's averaging 23.5 points and a career-high 5.2 assists while downing 51.2 percent of his twos and 41.6 percent of his threes (another personal best). He isn't an All-NBA shoo-in, but he will garner consideration.
Whether his postseason performance will live up to this billing is a separate, recurring matter. The Clippers have the look and, at times, feel of a championship favorite. But they won't earn absolute benefit of the doubt unless Paul invalidates his.
Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
Kristaps Porzingis' burden of proof is more fundamental than anyone else's on this list. He isn't trying to perfect or protect his stardom so much as he's attempting to finally establish it.
Looping him into this crop of players is not egregious. He has one All-Star selection under his belt, and after giving up a small sum of assets and treasure trove of flexibility to get him, the Dallas Mavericks treated him like second-best-player-on-a-title-team material by signing him to a max contract.
Injury after injury has delayed final verdicts on his place in the league. Even last year, as Dallas was pushing the Clippers to the brink in the first round, a right knee issue cost him the series (and then some). He has missed the Mavericks' past six games because of that same knee.
Spotty availability eventually becomes part of the problem. Porzingis is at the point. His value is further compounded by uneven play. Spread bigs with his range have serious value, and for all the post-up jokes, he's converting 50 percent of his looks on back-to-the-basket sets—a career high by a comfortable margin.
But this alone hasn't accelerated the Mavericks to title-contender territory. His three-point shooting is subject to wild swings, and he adds a limited layer of secondary shot creation. Nearly 80 percent of his made baskets are still coming off assists, and the minutes he logs without Luka Doncic have not played out as smoothly as they did last season.
Both Jalen Brunson and Tim Hardaway Jr. are arguably, if not obviously, more valuable to Dallas over the course of a playoff series. The team still wants for higher-end off-the-dribble relief around Doncic, but they are, right now, closer to the answer than Porzingis.
The Mavericks seem to have thought along the same lines. They reportedly gauged Porzngis' market value around the trade deadline. Team governor Mark Cuban denied this, but there appears to be an awkward dynamic between player and organization, punctuated most recently by Porzingis' public rebuke of Cuban's commentary on KP's relationship with Doncic.
Even if everything is hunky-dory off the court, that doesn't change what's happening on it. Porzingis has three years left on his deal at superstar money. The Mavs are still waiting for him to play at a superstar level. This postseason is his latest chance to prove he's the right sidekick for Doncic. It may also be his last.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons' stardom doesn't hang in the balance as the Philadelphia 76ers gear up for the postseason. He is a brilliant playmaker and defender, the latter of which holds significant value during best-of-seven sets. No one else in the league pairs the scope of his assignments with his effectiveness. He is capable of removing a star from the game plan.
This year, like every year, is more about Simmons proving he can be a part of the Sixers' championship case without strings attached. That isn't akin to his showing he can splash in jumpers outside the paint, let alone three-point range. Harping on where he doesn't generate his offense errs too far on the side of pointlessness. He isn't Stephen Curry, and Philadelphia doesn't expect him to be.
Simmons must be held to a standard similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo. He doesn't need to be a different player, just a better, less-solvable version of the one he's already become. As The Athletic's Derek Bodner wrote when asked about the Sixers' biggest x-factor:
"I mean, the answer is Ben. It's always Ben. And it's not even about individual scoring, but when the game slows down and coaches have a chance to game plan over a 7-game series, great playoff defenses have shown that they can utilize his lack of shooting and passive play to disrupt the rest of the team's half-court offense."
Philly has given Simmons more of a fighting chance by virtue of improved spacing. The half-court offense is 7.4 points better per 100 plays with him on the court. That is, by far, the best swing of his career and a demonstrative improvement over last year's mark of minus-4.3.
Extra room to operate looks good on Simmons. He has increased his efficiency on post-ups and canned 52.4 percent of his hook shots, up from 46.1 percent last season. He seems less predictable on drives.
Slight variation isn't enough to shield Simmons against question marks. He needs a quartet of outside threats around him to reach his peak. Joel Embiid's own improvement from beyond the arc is critical to Simmons' livelihood. The minutes he plays without Embiid have been disaster.
Maybe that never changes. Playmakers with finite range are easier to plan around independent of a co-star. But Simmons—and the Sixers—need to at least see his minutes alongside Embiid are championship material when said championship is on the line. How well he plays in the postseason will go a long way toward determining whether this partnership deserves more time to marinate or is closer to its last gasp.
Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Kemba Walker already had a spot within this exercise. The news that Jaylen Brown will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn ligament in his left wrist merely increases the urgency with which he must prove himself.
Injuries have bilked Walker of regular availability. A left knee issue delayed his season debut until the middle of January and has prevented him from playing both ends of back-to-backs. Most recently, he lost time to a strained left oblique. That's not on him.
Truth be told, Walker's roller-coaster performances aren't entirely on him, either. Ramping up in the middle of the season after dealing with a significant injury isn't easy. He deserves plenty of leeway.
But that does nothing to curb the precariousness of the Boston Celtics' situation. They needed him to be their third-best player before now. Brown's injury removes what little margin for error Walker enjoyed. Boston won't make a lick of noise in the playoffs—and may get upset during the play-in tournament—if he isn't second-best-player material.
That isn't an impossible ask. Walker is not far removed from the top-25-player discussion. But his season has been a mixed bag even he's on the floor. His shooting splits seem to vacillate between peaks and valleys by the game, and both the share of his shots coming at the rim and free-throw-attempt rate are at all-time lows.
Defenses still need to plan around Walker's off-the-bounce creation. But even that part of his game has waned. He's draining under 35 percent of his pull-up threes for the first time since 2015-16, a uniquely problematic slide for a Celtics team that relies on dribble jumpers to generate offense more than any team except the Portland Trail Blazers.
Can Kemba stay healthy? If so, will he recapture and then sustain his typical Kemba shot-making? A lackluster postseason performance won't rob him of his cachet; his resume speaks for itself. It would, however, force Boston to reevaluate its ceiling moving forward with him as the team's third best player.