Assuming the NBA season can continue in Orlando (fingers crossed), some of the league’s best players have the chance to add exciting new chapters to their career stories.
Both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James could become the first player to be named NBA Finals MVP with three different teams. But their legacies as all-time playoff greats are already secure.
We’ll get our first look at Luka Doncic in the playoffs, but he’s just getting started. It will be fun to see Zion Williamson and Ja Morant in their first truly meaningful NBA games, but they should get plenty of chances in the years to come.
Here are five veteran players with a chance to shine in the playoffs and change how they are viewed around the league.
5. Kemba Walker
Walker missed seven games in February with a left knee injury and didn’t look totally right even when he returned, shooting 28 percent from the field in his final three games before the COVID-19 shutdown. In Walker’s absence, Jayson Tatum ascended to the role of Boston’s top offensive option.
Walker says he is healthy and will head to Orlando with the chance to win a playoff series for the first time in his nine-year career. In Charlotte, he was the proverbial “good player on a bad team.” Now, he needs to prove he can make winning plays in the playoffs.
Tatum’s emergence as a go-to scorer could help Walker immensely. Instead of having to carry the offense, he’s more likely to get some open looks, great news for one of the NBA’s best high-volume three-point shooters (37.7 percent on 8.8 attempts per game).
If he can make some clutch threes, Walker could provide Boston with the perimeter threat that made Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet so crucial in Toronto’s title run last season. The undersized Walker will also need to defend well enough to be on the floor for those moments.
In his only Game 7, back in the first round in 2016, Walker shot 3 for 16 from the floor in a 33-point loss to Miami. There’s no doubt he’d like a chance to redeem himself.
4. Anthony Davis
Davis is talented enough on both ends of the floor to be the NBA Finals MVP. He just needs to prove himself on that stage.
If the Lakers and Clippers meet in the Western Conference Finals, Davis needs to dominate, because James will have his hands full with Leonard and Paul George. Davis is too big for Montrezl Harrell and too quick for Ivica Zubac. If the Clippers put George on him, Davis has to win that matchup decisively.
The Lakers aren’t going to win a championship unless both James and Davis have incredible playoff runs. The gap is too great between those two superstars and the third-best player on the roster (take your pick of Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma).
Davis has shown he can be a playoff monster. Two years ago, he averaged 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals to lead New Orleans to a playoff sweep over the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. He may need to put up those numbers for four rounds to win a championship this season.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks dominated the regular season like few teams before them, winning by an average of 11.2 points per game on their way to an NBA-best 53-12 record.
But plenty of questions loom after their Eastern Conference Finals loss to Toronto last season.
Khris Middleton has had an outstanding season, but can he knock down shots for four rounds? Can Eric Bledsoe erase the memories of that series loss to Toronto, when he shot 29 percent from the field and 17 percent from three-point range in six games? Can Antetokounmpo make enough perimeter shots to keep defenses honest?
Antetokounmpo may have the most pressure on him of any player going into this NBA restart. He has been, by far, the best player in the Eastern Conference this season. It isn’t even close. There is no proven playoff performer like Leonard blocking his path to the Finals. This is his time.
Antetokounmpo is almost certainly going to win back-to-back league MVP awards. He’s a free agent after the 2020-21 season. If he and the Bucks don’t get to the NBA Finals this season, will Antetokounmpo think about leaving Milwaukee for greener pastures?
2. Russell Westbrook
For the first three months of the season, the offseason trade to bring Westbrook to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul looked like an abject disaster.
While CP3 became one of the league’s best clutch shooters in Oklahoma City, Westbrook struggled to find his footing as the second banana to James Harden, shooting under 43 percent from the field in 30 games through December.
But just as people began to write him off, Westbrook’s efficiency numbers skyrocketed. In his final 23 games before the season paused because of COVID-19, Westbrook shot over 52 percent from the floor and averaged 31.7 points.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey decided to go all-in on the Harden/Westbrook brand of small ball, jettisoning center Clint Capela and bringing in Robert Covington. Either the 6-foot-7 Covington or 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker are tasked with defending opposing big men. We’ll see if that works in a playoff series.
For that style of play to have any chance of succeeding in the playoffs, Westbrook will have to hit the defensive glass like a monster and score as efficiently as he did later in the season.
1. Al Horford
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that Horford’s four-year contract for $97 million guaranteed looks like a mistake to this point. But the final three words of that previous sentence are the most important.
To this point.
Yes, the on-court fit with Joel Embiid hasn’t worked. The Sixers have a negative net rating with Embiid and Horford on the floor together. But that doesn’t mean Horford can’t be valuable when the playoffs begin.
When he was with the Celtics, we saw firsthand how many winning plays Horford made in the playoffs. Maybe he can combine with Embiid and Ben Simmons to frustrate Antetokounmpo just enough to squeak by the Bucks in a series. Maybe he makes a couple of clutch three-point shots to win a key playoff game.
Or maybe the playoffs show that Horford is simply a square peg in a round hole on this Sixers roster.
But if he has some big moments in a deep playoff run, the narrative of his time with the Sixers will be vastly different than it appears right now. If he plays well, maybe it’s easier to trade him if the front office doesn’t like the long-term fit.
There’s no use coming to final conclusions on Horford’s time in Philadelphia just yet.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
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