The NBA playoffs are all but a sure thing now. The league is working on plans to resume the season at the end of July in Orlando at the Walt Disney World Resort, likely with some sort of play-in tournament before the playoffs start.
We still don’t know what the exact format will look like, but the excitement is certainly building. Fans are eager to see how players perform after such a long layoff. Which of these players are facing the most pressure to succeed? Here is USAbetting’s ranking of the top eight stars with the most to prove.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden has been a perennial MVP candidate in the NBA for several years now. In terms of pure offensive skill, he might be the best player in the league. He is known for his craftiness in drawing fouls, but his ball-handling is mesmerizing and he is very capable of hitting both interior and perimeter shots with defenders draped all over him.
However, Harden hasn’t been quite as effective in postseason situations, and the statistics bear this out, especially as he draws much fewer fouls. His reputation as a choker might be a little bit overblown due to a few memorable poor performances and moments in key situations, but he definitely doesn’t deserve the “clutch” label.
Another failure by Harden to reach the Finals as the Rockets’ No. 1 option isn’t just an indictment on him. It also reflects poorly on his isolation-heavy, ball-dominant style that often keeps teammates from being very involved in the offense.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo is still relatively new to facing high expectations in the playoffs. Up until last season, he was a rising young star playing on a low-seeded playoff team. No one expected him to carry the Bucks very far in the playoffs.
This season, though, he is likely going to win his second straight MVP award and head into the playoffs playing for a Bucks team with the NBA’s best record. A year ago, Milwaukee had a 2-0 lead on the Toronto Raptors, but the squad then lost four straight games and was eliminated. Toronto’s defensive strategy of walling off the paint and daring Giannis to shoot from the outside rendered him ineffective.
Antetokounmpo is now facing a similar situation that LeBron James went through early in his career. Both guys are skilled, smart and extremely athletic, but opponents game planned to make them rely on their shaky jump shots. Can the Greek Freak continue to develop his jumper so it’s not a true weakness anymore?
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Davis is in his eighth season in the NBA, and he has still won just one playoff series in his career. That is objectively disappointing for a player of his skill level who, when he was drafted in 2012, was arguably the top prospect to enter the league since LeBron James.
Most of that lack of success is probably due to the New Pelicans’ poor front office decisions with Davis. However, there is still some slight doubt about the intangibles that Davis brings (or doesn’t bring) to the table.
AD is LeBron James’ teammate now, and they are the NBA’s best duo. Gone are the days when Davis could use the excuse of having subpar teammates. Anything less than an NBA Finals win will be a disappointment for Davis.
4. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron has won three NBA championships and he was in the Finals MVP in each series. His status as one of the top few players ever is set in stone, but his sights are higher. He wants to stand alone as the best player in the history of basketball.
Some people place James at that spot already, but most would still put Michael Jordan and potentially a couple other players in front of him. LeBron’s detractors will point to his 3-6 record in the NBA Finals and the fact that he orchestrated star-studded Big Threes with both the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers.
If LeBron wants a chance at surpassing MJ by the end of his career, he needs at least one more championship. He can prove a lot to his doubters by playing the leading role in a Lakers title run.
5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons is a very similar player to Giannis Antetokounmpo, except Simmons isn’t quite as strong as Giannis in their common strengths and he is far weaker as a shooter, which is already Giannis’ biggest weakness.
It may seem early to get antsy about Simmons’ future as a star player, since he has yet to turn 24 years old. Admittedly, he is still an elite contributor in many aspects of the game, but he has shown very little evidence of an improved jump shot since being drafted first overall. Continued struggles with shooting will greatly hinder his chances at becoming a championship-level No. 1 or 2 option.
Maybe the time off from NBA action will provide Simmons with the time to get his shooting technique to a place where he is comfortable attempting shots outside of 10 feet this postseason.
6. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Westbrook had been on a slow decline from the 2016-17 season until about early December of 2019. He was relying too much on his shaky jump shot and his otherworldly athleticism was starting to fade ever so slightly.
Midway through this season, his first with the Rockets, things started clicking for Westbrook. He changed his offensive approach to be much more centered around getting to the rim and his defense also improved. Ideally, Westbrook could both hit outside shots and play good defense, but the Rockets will gladly take an efficient, paint-based offensive game and solid defense from Westbrook.
In the playoffs, Westbrook has had some good moments overall the past decade, but he has mostly been disappointing. If he can be an efficient co-star with James Harden and play good defense on the way to a Rockets title, his reputation will change dramatically.
7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
I hear often that the debate for the best center in the game is between Embiid and the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic (assuming Anthony Davis is a power forward). I just don’t see it. Jokic has a less talented supporting cast than Embiid and his Nuggets have still had a better record than the 76ers playing in a tougher conference.
The concerns for me with Embiid are his durability and inconsistency. His constant struggle with injuries, occasional foul trouble and temperamental play make him difficult to rely on as a No. 1 option. Last year in the playoffs, he had several bad games with either too many bad shots, bad fouls or bad turnovers.
Embiid needs to become a more reliable player with his effort and decision-making, and staying healthy would definitely help. Will that next step in his development come in this season’s playoffs?
8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Gobert is a center whose advanced stats are absolutely amazing. He gets a ton of rebounds and blocked shots while using his length and smarts only to take easier shots very close to the basket. Defensively, his IQ is great and he is the best rim protector in the NBA. There is no denying that he is an All-Star caliber player.
Is Gobert a franchise cornerstone-type player who can lead a team to a championship in the present era? That’s the question everyone is asking. He doesn’t shoot outside of three feet on offense and he can’t handle the ball or defend the perimeter very well. At 7’1”, he is not the quickest player around.
In the postseason, Gobert has struggled quite a bit in recent years. His fouls go up and his defensive impact is minimized by teams that place four or five three-point shooters on the court at the same time. Gobert doesn’t have the offensive ability to jump-start an offense that isn’t flowing well. This postseason run will be another tough test for Gobert and the traditional big man archetype that is becoming less common in the NBA.