Every year, the NBA playoffs provide a proving ground for everyone who’s earned a spot in the tournament.
The pressure is relative, though. Anthony Edwards may feel like he has a lot to prove, but he’s 20 years old and playing in his first postseason. Anything he proves now is essentially found money. He has years to build his resume in this forum.
Those with the most to prove have been here before. In some cases, many times before. And they’ve reached points in their careers where winning the ultimate prize (or, in one case, winning it again) is about the only thing left.
For any of the below, this summer could be a legacy-altering run like Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 or Matthew Stafford in this year’s Super Bowl.
Failing to win it all leads to more questions and the possibility of asterisks like those looming over the likes of Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Karl Malone.
Determining who deserves the analysis here (and the order of least pressure to most) is an entirely subjective exercise, though accounting for previous playoff appearances, career accomplishments and time left in the league happened with everyone.
Starting with Nikola Jokic feels like a bit of a stretch. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. being out is a significant pressure release for the reigning MVP and the Denver Nuggets.
But he’s now hit the point in his career where a championship is really the only thing left. He won MVP in 2021. He appears to be running away with the voting for this year’s award. From now until he wins a title, the analysis on him from many will begin and end with, “Yeah, but what has he done in the playoffs?”
Forget the fact that he’s averaged 25.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists in his postseason career. Ditto for him trailing only Michael Jordan and LeBron James in career playoff box plus/minus (BPM “…is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court,” according to Basketball Reference).
Sixteen wins in a single postseason run is all that’s left. Though he’s not likely to pull that off without Murray and MPJ (who haven’t been ruled out entirely), that’s still his standard from here on out.
Kyrie Irving is on the lower end of our imaginary pressure scale, and it’s not hard to see why. He already won a title in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His sidestep three in Game 7 of that series is one of the most cold-blooded daggers in league history. But very public flameouts and off-court drama since then may have him back in prove-it mode.
From forcing his way out of Cleveland to ditching the Boston Celtics after telling a Garden crowd “I plan to re-sign” to appearing in fewer than half of the Brooklyn Nets’ games since he arrived there, Irving has created enough questions about himself to warrant inclusion.
While he’s still a clear No. 2 to Kevin Durant, it’s probably safe to assume this Nets squad will struggle with Eastern Conference powers like the Celtics, Miami Heat or Milwaukee Bucks without Kyrie being available and playing his best.
Of course, there are caveats here similar to Jokic. Brooklyn is far from healthy. Even if Ben Simmons returns at some point in the first round, it’s hard to imagine him being fully acclimated to his new role right off the bat. Not having the floor spacing provided by Joe Harris hurts too.
But don’t expect to hear much about those excuses if the Nets struggle this postseason and Irving is a big part of why.
For years, a narrative has floated around the internet about Rudy Gobert’s inability to stay on the floor in the playoffs.
The theory goes something like this: If you play small, spread the Utah Jazz out and force Gobert away from the paint, he becomes a liability.
This was on vivid display when the Jazz imploded against the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers last year, as guards and wings repeatedly got to the rim, forced Gobert to commit and kicked out to open shooters in the corners.
The thing is, those initial breakdowns aren’t Gobert’s fault.
“Utah has 1 Elite defender, 1 Okay defender and 8 turnstiles on D,” former Dallas Mavericks executive Haralabos Voulgaris tweeted. “…but tell me again how Gobert can’t play in a playoff series.”
While Voulgaris and others come to Gobert’s defense, he remains a primary target of criticism for a Jazz team that feels on the verge of a teardown.
If Utah has another early exit, especially if it comes at the hands of a team adept at playing small, expect Gobert to be scapegoated.
Whether he wins a title or not, Chris Paul is headed for the Hall of Fame as one of the absolute greatest point guards of all time.
He’s the only player in NBA history with career averages of at least 18 points, nine assists and two steals. He’s sixth all time in career BPM, tied for 15th in career All-Star selections and is 30th in career MVP shares.
But figuring out whether he’s closer to Magic Johnson or John Stockton on the all-time ladder depends on whether he can win a title. And this season may be the best shot he’s ever had at one.
As good as Paul has been, this is just his second season as a No. 1 seed and on a team with 60-plus wins. His contenders in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Houston all happened to rise at the same time as historically great teams, like Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers, Tim Duncan’s Spurs and Stephen Curry‘s Warriors.
Somehow, CP3 seems to have outlasted them all. He’ll turn 37 in May and is in his 17th NBA season. And these Suns may be the best and most complete team he’s ever been on.
Phoenix probably isn’t leaving the contenders’ tier any time soon, but Paul’s chances are limited as he inches closer to 40.
For better or worse, James Harden is one of the faces of the NBA’s player empowerment era.
From pretty much the moment he arrived in Houston, Harden seized control of the franchise. After jettisoning Dwight Howard, CP3 and Russell Westbrook, he forced his way to the Brooklyn Nets. When that didn’t work out, he did the same thing this season, pushing a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers.
That history, combined with very visible individual collapses in the playoffs, makes the 32-year-old Harden the star with the most to prove this postseason.
Of course, as a member of the Sixers, he’s clearly No. 2 in the pecking order. Joel Embiid is the first option and will command the most attention from opposing defenses. But he won’t deflect many arrows from his new running mate if Harden shrinks from a big moment and Philadelphia fails to make a deep run.