SI.com will periodically panel its basketball experts during the 2015 NBA playoffs and ask them a pressing question about the league. Today's topic, the NBA's pressure-packed postseason and which star is facing the greatest burden.
Among the choices: LeBron James is chasing his fifth straight Finals appearance while carrying the ailing Cavaliers, Derrick Rose is under the microscope in Chicago once again, and Stephen Curry and Chris Paul are trying to make a name for themselves out West.
Which NBA star is under the most pressure during 2015 playoffs?
Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers
Isn’t it always LeBron? Maybe he gets a pass because it’s year one in Cleveland, and because Kevin Love is injured, and because before the Cavaliers landed Love most scouts pegged them as a second-round team. But the onus on LeBron looks as heavy as ever. Without Love, he has to generate offense despite diminished spacing and also help defend the Bulls' massive front line, while showing young teammates how to approach the playoffs and buoying their confidence through difficult stretches. He also has the added pressure—self-imposed, of course—associated with delivering his home region its first championship in a half-century.
• MORE NBA: Bulls have no answer for LeBron in Game 2
Phil Taylor: LeBron James, Cavaliers
It seems like forever ago now, but the season began with James, the Cavaliers’ prodigal son, returning to Cleveland with the intention of leading them to a championship. Now it appears that the Cavs might be hard pressed just to survive the second round of the playoffs. Granted, the Cavaliers have a rookie coach, an injured Kevin Love, and a knuckleheaded J.R. Smith, but if they fall short of a title, the bulk of the blame will still be laid at the throne of King James. He’s the one who wanted the Cavs to trade first-round draft pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for Love because he felt the Cavs were in win-now mode, and he got his way. As it turned out, Love never fully fit in with the Cavs, and now there is the real possibility that he’s already played his last game in a Cleveland uniform, while Wiggins is the reigning Rookie of the Year with a bright future in Minnesota. None of the other stars still in the playoffs have the outside expectations James faces. The pressure is on him to produce the championship that Cavs fans thought they were getting when he came back to town.
Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors
LeBron is the obvious candidate, but I'd like to throw out a less conventional answer: Stephen Curry. A number of factors obscure the pressure that Curry faces: the roster around him is loaded, his loose style of play seems to scream "pressure-free," his team-first and upbeat personality limits the individual criticism he takes when he has an off night, and Golden State has totally blown away its preseason expectations during a historic 67-win season.
But this is exactly why the pressure is on Curry more than we probably realize. It's highly unlikely that Golden State repeats its level of success next season. Of the seven previous teams to post a +10 point differential, only two repeated the feat the next season: the 1972 Bucks (led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the 1997 Bulls (with Michael Jordan). Golden State's excellent depth will be challenged this summer, as it positions itself to re-sign Draymond Green to a possible max deal. There's also no way it can count on its health being as good next season as it was this year, as five Warriors logged more than 2,000 minutes and center Andrew Bogut has held up well.
In addition, consider that the Warriors might very well win multiple titles over the next half-decade and still not face an easier path to the Larry O'Brien trophy than this season. They won't have to face the Thunder or the Spurs, the Blazers imploded after the Wesley Matthews injury, they caught the Grizzlies without Mike Conley in Game 1, the Clippers' Chris Paul is nursing a hamstring injury (in advance of a possible West finals matchup), and the East's top team entering the playoffs just lost one of its three best players (Cleveland's Kevin Love). The more stars that fall by the wayside elsewhere, the more it feels like the stars are aligning for Golden State.
Curry need only ask Steve Nash—the point guard he is most often compared to—how important it is to cash in on these opportunities. Nash's legacy includes two MVP awards, but it also includes a postseason record with no titles or even Finals appearances. Curry, at 27, should certainly have many more title runs in his future, but Nash is proof that the "championship window" is an unpredictable beast, slamming shut and reopening more often than we might expect. That's why the time is now for the 2015 MVP; the table couldn't be set any better.
Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavaliers
The level of scrutiny James faces may be a fraction of what he faced during his Miami years, yet no other star in these playoffs is as wholly responsible for his team’s success. Kevin Love’s injury and J.R. Smith’s suspension have deprived Cleveland access to its most stable lineups. Without them, James has no choice but to dominate; it’s on him to feel out the Bulls’ defense for vulnerable angles in spite of his team’s structural limitations. His ability to do so in Game 2 blew that game open by halftime, while his over-dribbling played a part in the Cavs’ stalling during Game 1. LeBron can’t exactly be roasted for the shortcomings of an incomplete team, but he faces more pressure—as a proven champion and his team’s central superstar—to perform than any other player.
Matt Dollinger: Stephen Curry, Warriors
The only thing harder than winning the MVP award is validating it. Curry was a worthy recipient of the league's most prestigious honor, now we'll find out if he's ready to burden the load that comes with it. The Warriors star admitted to being a little distracted in Golden State's Game 2 loss to Memphis, just hours after receiving the award in a press conference in front of his family and teammates. It's one thing to think you're the best player in the NBA, it's another to be formally recognized as it by the league and have the bronze 'X' painted on your back. Not much seems to rattle Curry on the court, whether he's confronted by multiple defenders, dwindling shot clocks or anything else. The playoffs will show whether the hardware that comes off the floor is as ineffective.
DeAntae Prince: Derrick Rose, Bulls
The last four years of Derrick Rose’s NBA career have been ravaged by injuries; so much so that every time the 2011 MVP crashes to the floor or runs into a hard screen that we wince. While Rose’s spills appeal to the worrisome nature in all of us, expectations for the Bulls remain as high as ever. They would not sit on such a perch if we didn’t still harbor hope that Rose will somehow turn back the hands of time and become his old self.
Rose is critical to the Bulls’ title efforts. For Chicago to succeed, Rose not only needs to remain healthy, he needs to be vintage Rose, the player we’ve seen flashes from when the point guard gets proper rest. Adding to this pressure is the fact that the Bulls have all the pieces in place and only need a leader to shepherd them in the right direction. The burden placed on Rose—just months removed from a meniscus tear—might be greater than any other player in these playoffs has to bear.
Jeremy Woo: Chris Paul, Clippers
Though his clutch performance against the Spurs in Game 7 might be the moment we remember most fondly when looking back at his impressive exploits, in our modern, ring-centric discourse, Paul needs that one title to cement himself as an all-time great. To drive that home, just think about how winning one changed our perception of Dirk Nowitzki, who went from a great scorer that never got over the hump to a beloved, unorthodox basketball figure whose legacy will be tough to nitpick.
The Clippers point guard turned 30 on Wednesday. The clock's starting to tick, and Paul seems to know it. His teammates stepped up to steal Game 1 with him on the sidelines. Even with the powerhouse Warriors looming, these playoffs might be Paul's best opportunity yet to seize the moment. LeBron's already got titles, Stephen Curry and James Harden have plenty of years remaining, and Derrick Rose is just happy to be out there. Nobody can change the arc of both his own career and his team's fortunes quite like Paul.