The NBA playoffs begin on April 16, less than three weeks from today. FiveThirtyEight has six teams with at least a 5 percent chance of winning the title. Five percent is significant, according to Philadelphia 76ers executive Daryl Morey.
“If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title,” Morey said.
With that group of teams at 5 percent or better, we have players whose legacies could be greatly impacted depending on their postseason success. Let’s take a look at the players under the most pressure heading into this postseason.
James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers
Fitting that we opened this piece talking about Morey’s 5 percent rule, and the player under the most pressure is his guy James Harden. Morey went all-in to bring Harden to Philly to complement MVP front-runner Joel Embiid. Now it’s time to win that championship.
Harden has forced his way off two franchises, and outside of his early days in Oklahoma City, he has a checkered playoff history. For all his regular season brilliance, he hasn’t been quite the same player in the postseason.
If you just look at his averages, you see a slight dip that is in the range of what happens to every player in the postseason, as you play the league’s best defenses.
But for Harden it’s the big games where he has not delivered. Game 7 in the 2020 playoffs first round, Game 3 in the 2019 playoffs first round, Game 5 in the 2018 playoffs conference finals, and Game 5 in the 2015 playoffs conference finals all come to mind.
If he and the 76ers fall before the conference finals this season, shaking that postseason rep will be next to impossible.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and five-time all-defensive team member has been the best defender in the league according to all advanced metrics the last five seasons.
During that time the Jazz have racked up a ton of regular-season wins and was the top seed in the playoffs last season. But they’ve failed to advance past the second round with Gobert.
To be fair the Jazz’s postseason struggles can’t all be placed at Rudy’s feet. Head coach Quin Snyder has failed to make adjustments when opponents attack specific Jazz personnel.
The Jazz work to funnel everything toward Gobert, who is a monster in the paint. But in the postseason teams play “five out,” and with the Jazz’s lack of resistance at the point of attack Gobert has to protect the paint and run out to cover wide-open shooters on the wing.
As good as he is, he can’t be in two places at once. Still, if the Jazz falter this postseason Gobert will be a target for criticism.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
This one is tough because the “Point God” is a future first ballot Hall of Famer and the best point guard of his generation. But rings culture has the basketball discourse permanently stuck in the gutter. Lack of team success in a 1-30 lottery championship is somehow cast upon the individual.
If you have titles you and you alone are a winner capable of elevating your game when it matters the most. If you don’t have titles, it’s some kind of character flaw. You are devoid of the “clutch” gene or the “it” factor. All the inane debate points on talk radio, debate TV, and barbershops.
Paul is ninth all-time in career win shares and fifth all-time in career WS/48. He is among the winningest players in NBA history, but because he hasn’t been lucky enough to win a championship he’s somehow less than?
Paul is likely going to feel the pressure regardless because he so badly wants to win a title. He was two games away last season, and with the best team all season long, he’s never had a better chance. Given his age, he might not have another chance as good as this one.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
It’s hard to imagine that a player who will make the playoffs in three of his first four seasons in the league is under pressure, but here we are.
The pressure for Doncic isn’t about winning a title. The Mavericks aren’t good enough.
No, the pressure for Luka is to advance to the next round. In his first two playoff appearances he and the Mavericks have been bounced in the first round. Their opponent (Los Angeles Clippers) have been the better team and favored to win those series.
But Luka was drafted the same year as the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young, and since they were traded for each other on draft night the comparisons will continue for the rest of their careers. Young led the Hawks to the conference finals last season in his first playoffs appearance.
If the Mavericks fall again in round one, people will unfairly start to question what’s up with Luka.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
The only champions on this list, so according to rings culture they face no pressure.
They’re only on this list because people assumed that two of the best players teaming up would equal automatic championships. It’s not just about talent and being good, as we’ve stated before. Teams need luck as well to win.
This duo has had bad luck since they signed up in Brooklyn. Some of it was their own doing (ahem, Kyrie) but if they flame out in round one or the play-in, despite their up and down regular season, many will see it as a disappointment.