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The NBA playoffs are a proving ground for everyone, but the stakes differ from one player to the next.
Some stars are trying to make up for past postseason flops. Others are under enormous pressure following an offseason move to a full-fledged title contender.
Every player listed here suited up in this season’s All-Star Game. No one can deny their talent. But that talent needs to translate into major postseason success—and quickly.
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Life was simple in the Big Easy for Anthony Davis. He’d post face-melting numbers, but the New Orleans Pelicans wouldn’t win enough to make them matter. It was rinse-repeat monotony for seven entire seasons.
But the Brow bored of that existence and craved a bigger challenge. When he orchestrated his trade to L.A. last summer, he sought significance.
“I think a lot of stuff that I did in New Orleans, people saw and heard about. But then again, people said, ‘Well, it was New Orleans,'” Davis told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “I think the big question is, ‘All right, let’s see what he can do on a big stage.'”
The stage couldn’t be any bigger than this.
With Hollywood as a backdrop, Davis is now co-starring in LeBron James’ best attempt to add a fourth world title to his legacy. Even a 35-year-old cyborg can only avoid the aging process for so long, so this becomes a sink-or-swim moment for Davis graded on a championship-or-bust scale.
In terms of talent, he seems up to the task. His skill set lacks a glaring weakness on either end of the floor, which shouldn’t be possible, but when a high school point guard becomes a 6’10” All-Star big man, we’ve already left the confines of conventional possibilities.
That said, there’s still the matter of his almost empty playoff resume. He has only played 13 postseason games. The Pels were 5-8 in those contests. The pressure awaiting him is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. And because James’ championship clock is ticking, there is zero margin for error.
Davis wanted this change, but that doesn’t make the massive burden on his shoulders any lighter.
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There’s an argument to be made for every Badger State resident not named Giannis Antetokounmpo to be listed here given the potentially franchise-altering stakes of this playoff run. But since Khris Middleton is Wisconsin’s only other NBA All-Star, public perception paints him as the person most responsible for deciding the Greek Freak’s future with the Milwaukee Bucks.
What’s particularly brutal for Middleton, though, is the validity of that perception doesn’t really matter. Even if his postseason play has no bearing on Antetokounmpo’s future, it will still be picked apart as if it’s the single biggest deciding factor.
That’s fine if Middleton maintains his sizzling play from this season (21.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and a 49.9/41.8/90.8 shooting slash).
But it becomes problematic in a hurry if he falters like he did in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Toronto Raptors. He averaged just 13.7 points on 41.1 percent shooting and had Milwaukee’s second-worst net differential in the series (minus-16.5 points per 100 possessions).
As Michael Pina wrote for SB Nation, Middleton might be fighting an uphill battle to avoid another disappointment:
“In a league populated by dynamic duos and expensive ensembles, Middleton’s own margin for error is slimmer than every other second option. He’s very good, but not Paul George, Anthony Davis, or even Russell Westbrook. He can’t muscle his way to the free-throw line or command the attention of multiple defenders when he puts it on the deck.”
Middleton could wind up subsisting on difficult shots against some of the Association’s best defenders. That’s a tricky task on its own, and it borders on cruelty when attached to the perceived Antetokounmpo stakes.
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The broken record about Ben Simmons’ lack of assertiveness has pestered Philadelphia airwaves for over a year.
In May 2019, Jimmy Butler pleaded for more aggressiveness from Simmons. In December, Sixers head coach Brett Brown publicly sought one three-pointer per game from his supersized point guard. Both requests went unanswered.
Simmons spent the latter portion of the 2019 playoffs in a shell.
In Games 5 and 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals—Philly’s final two defeats of the campaign—he had the same number of field-goal attempts and turnovers (five of each in both outings). Of the 46 players who logged 300 minutes in the 2019 postseason, Simmons—an All-Star point guard—ranked 29th in usage percentage (16.6, down from 22.1 in the regular season).
He’s been even less involved at the offensive end this season. His 11.4 shots per game and 20.9 usage percentage are both career lows. And despite that prodding from Brown, Simmons remains allergic to the three-point arc (six attempts in 54 games).
Simmons can be (and is) a star without major scoring numbers, but he needs to find his offensive niche for the second season. He averaged 3.3 free-throw attempts in the 2019 playoffs, which is criminally low for someone who’s so effective attacking the basket. In half of his 12 outings, he had five assists or fewer, which shouldn’t be possible given his combination of size, vision and selflessness.
The pressure only increases this time around.
He’s leading a new unit into the postseason—if Shake Milton sticks, Philly could start a lineup that hasn’t played together—and if this team doesn’t perform, major change could be imminent. ESPN’s Tim Bontemps reported that a failure to advance beyond the second round could put Brown and general manager Elton Brand in jeopardy and open up the possibility of trading either Simmons or Joel Embiid.
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Kemba Walker spent eight seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, and only two ended with a playoff trip. Neither went beyond the first round.
That’s why he relocated from Buzz City to Beantown last summer.
“These guys are used to winning and are used to being in the playoffs, making deep runs in the playoffs. That’s something that I’ve never been fortunate to be a part of,” Walker told The Athletic’s Jay King in October. “And that’s why I’m here.”
The good news is Walker might have more talent around him on the Shamrocks than he had during all of his years with the Hornets. But that doesn’t alleviate any pressure on the 30-year-old Bronx native.
He’s still the squad’s assist leader and No. 2 scorer. His co-stars are young players who are being featured like never before (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown), a defensive specialist (Marcus Smart) and a player who recently had one season wiped out by injury and spent the next one wiping off all the rust (Gordon Hayward).
Those players all have some degree of built-in excuses for any postseason misfires. For Walker, all he has is the nearly barren playoff resume that drove him to Boston. Unless he wants to become the face of a “be careful what you wish for” public service campaign, he has to hit the ground Olympic-speed sprinting in what’s essentially the first postseason test of his career.
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James Harden turns 31 years old in August. Russell Westbrook will be 32 in November. Even if the Beard and the Brodie only rejoined forces this past summer, they are already under immense pressure to win big in the postseason.
A failure to launch could prove disastrous in Space City. Head coach Mike D’Antoni’s future is up in the air, which might mean Houston’s overall offensive blueprint is, too.
The Rockets are all-in with their backcourt for now. Harden’s relationship reportedly soured with Chris Paul, so Houston found him a familiar floor general in Westbrook—sacrificing Paul (who could get some MVP votes for his work with the Oklahoma City Thunder), two first-round picks and two pick swaps in the process.
Houston then doubled down on its commitment to Westbrook with the all-in push to play small-ball. The deadline deal sending Clint Capela out and bringing Robert Covington in was all about giving Westbrook his best shot at success.
“The whole point of trading Clint Capela was to maximize Russell Westbrook,” ESPN’s Tim MacMahon said on The Hoop Collective Podcast (h/t Ashish Mathur of ClutchPoints). “Just because having two non-shooters on the floor with James Harden in that system, it was clunky.”
In case having the weight of an organization on their shoulders wasn’t enough, Harden and Westbrook could also stand to improve their playoff resumes.
Westbrook hasn’t advanced beyond the first round since 2016, and he has shot below 40 percent in each of his last three playoff trips. Harden hasn’t hit 42-plus percent of his playoff field-goal attempts since 2015, and he owns a career postseason shooting slash of 41.9/33.3/86.8.
Nothing would mean more to their legacies than orchestrating a championship run together.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.