The All-Bullseye Team: Five All-Stars who will be under the microscope come playoff time
"The Point Forward All-Stars" will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. This week: highlighting five 2014 All-Stars who will be facing extra scrutiny during the upcoming postseason.
Previously: The All-Grateful Team | The East's All-Letdown Team | The All-Atrocious Team | The All-Ignored Team | The All-Stocking Stuffer Team | The All-Recalibration Team | The All-Payday Team | The All-Gridiron Team | The All-Sanctioned Team | The All-Dunk Contest Team | The Non-Champions | The All-Gold Strike Team | The All-Tank Team
The postseason pressure game is played on two fields: one for LeBron James and the Heat, and one for everybody else. When the playoffs begin next month, they will be headlined -- again -- by Miami's title quest, as the Heat look to become the first team since the Celtics (1984-87) to make four consecutive Finals appearances and the first team to three-peat since the Lakers (2000-02). Their back-to-back titles -- and the dramatic nature of their 2013 triumph -- has only served to raise the bar and heighten expectations for James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company.
Miami's winning ways might hog center stage, but they don't preclude other major stars from facing questions heading into the postseason. Indeed, these five 2014 All-Stars will all go under the microscope come April, for all sorts of different reasons. Let's take a look. (All stats through March 11.)
PG: Chris Paul, Clippers
Which NBA star's regular-season credentials outpace his playoff accomplishments by the widest margin? That's easy: Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, a perennial presence on the NBA's scoring, rebounding and Player Efficiency Rating (PER) leaderboards, who is about to miss the playoffs for the sixth time in his six-year career.
Besides Love? I would nominate Paul, who has won every meaningful individual recognition outside of MVP during his nine-year career and yet has just two playoff-series victories. The 28-year-old Paul occupied the No. 3 spot on The Point Forward's Top 100 Players of 2014 list in September, and he is the only member of the list's top 10 that hasn't advanced to the conference finals. Yes, he has the same number of visits to the NBA's final four as his twin brother, Cliff.
Paul has often laid claim to the title of "best player not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant," and the advanced stats support that assertion. Since the beginning of the 2010-11 season, James' first in Miami, Paul has accumulated, by a wide margin, more Win Shares than anyone besides James and Durant. His average PER over that time period also ranks third, trailing only James and Durant. The eye test is on board with this assessment, revealing Paul to be the game's premier two-way floor general with a rare skill for commanding the action and deciding when to exert his influence.
The following chart shows the league's top Win Shares producers since 2010 compared to their total playoff victories during 2011, 2012 and 2013. Note that only players who are currently 25 or older -- those who can be considered Paul's direct peers -- are included. Click to enlarge image.
Laying out Paul's regular-season accomplishments during this time period -- which have included four All-Star appearances, three All-NBA selections and three All-Defensive selections -- alongside his limited postseason success helps show how he's been trapped in the NBA's super-elite version of limbo. Paul has been fantastic enough to separate himself from just about everybody in the league while sliding into a Carmelo Anthony-esque zone of postseason irrelevance that falls well short of the standard set by James and Durant.
Two Olympic gold medals stand as a strong counterargument to anyone who would like to read the chart and label Paul as somehow not inherently a "winner." And, of course, there are multiple explanations for his recent postseason shortcomings: a tough Western Conference, a change of location from New Orleans to Los Angeles, the remaking of the Clippers' culture, the existence of former coach Vinny Del Negro and bad timing with injuries to both Paul and Blake Griffin in the postseason, among other factors.
Even so, the clock is ticking, a fact that we can assume Paul understands better than anyone, given his proactive role in the Clippers' reconstruction. The tick-tick of the clock is amplified because Paul is not only pacing himself against James and Durant but he's also angling for a spot on the list of the league's all-time best point guards. Here's how Paul stacks up to nine other well-regarded floor generals in postseason success by the age of 28. Click to enlarge table.
Twenty-eight isn't old by any stretch, but Paul won't take much comfort knowing that Magic Johnson, Walt Frazier and Isiah Thomas had won a combined nine titles through their age-28 seasons and none afterward. While there is no single path to glory -- Bob Cousy won five titles in a row starting at age 30, Oscar Robertson snagged his first ring at 32, and both Kidd and Payton captured tiles in their respective golden years -- Paul will join John Stockton on the only point guard on this list with zero conference finals appearances by age 28 if he misses out again this season.
Certainly, a shorter postseason format aided a number of names on the list, and Paul can take solace in knowing that Kidd, Stockton and Steve Nash all remained elite point guards well into their 30s. It goes without saying that Paul's brainy game should age very well, but he suggested last fall that he might end his career "a little early or premature" to move on with his post-basketball life. Such an approach reinforces exactly how much time is of the essence.
The good news: Things are lining up pretty, pretty, pretty good for the Clippers, who are riding an eight-game winning streak. Paul is captaining the West's best offense and the Clippers possess the league's eighth-best defense under coach Doc Rivers. Although the Clippers lack a true third superstar alongside the Paul/Griffin duo, they have pulled out just about every stop in the "title contender assembly" process. The Clippers picked up Glen Davis, Danny Granger and Hedo Turkoglu on buyouts this season; cashed in a promising star-in-the-making (Eric Bledsoe) for veterans (J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley); and added Rivers' ring-sporting hand on the steering wheel, all while enjoying Griffin's growth into the type of player who is a top-five MVP candidate.
For all intents and purposes, Paul's transformation of the Clippers from laughingstock to "Lob City" is now complete in Year 3. The Paul/Griffin pairing ensures that L.A. should be able to field strong teams throughout the duration of Paul's five-year, $107 million contract, but Paul's story entering the postseason is all about the present, not his rocky playoff past and not the perpetually bright future. Simply put, he has never approached the playoffs with the table laid this perfectly and to his liking, and he's reached the point -- age-wise and franchise-wise -- where it's time that his postseason achievements align with his well-earned reputation and regular-season dominance.
SG: Joe Johnson, Nets
If your first reaction to seeing Johnson's name here was "Joe Johnson was a 2014 All-Star?" or "Joe Johnson didn't deserve to be an All-Star" or "Kyle Lowry got screwed," then congratulations, you have a better handle on things than the Eastern Conference coaches, who voted the Nets' guard to his seventh All-Star Game in the last eight years. It was an inexplicable decision at the time and it looks even worse now, what with the Lowry-led Raptors maintaining their winning ways into March and Johnson's PER remaining below league average as the Nets have finally worked their way above .500.
Johnson's inclusion on the All-Bullseye Team is a symbolic selection owing to his status as the highest-paid player on the league's most expensive roster. The 32-year-old guard has been a staple on the league's list of most overpaid players for years now and his $21.5 million salary continues to dwarf anything he might be doing on the court. If you take out Kobe Bryant ($30.5 million) and Derrick Rose ($17.6 million), who both were paid top dollar but missed virtually the entire season with injuries, and the big-money amnesty guys (Brandon Roy, Gilbert Arenas, etc.), Johnson is left near the top of the conversation of players who are doing the least for the most.
This year, Johnson is averaging 15.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 44.2 percent. By comparison, Portland's Wesley Matthews ($6.9 million) is averaging 16.5/3.9/2.4 and Phoenix's Gerald Green ($3.5 million) is averaging 15.7/3.5/1.7. There's overpaying and then there's this. Johnson's contract expires in a mere 842 days, which is enough time for Andrew Bynum to make at least three more comebacks.
Here's a look at how the league's highest-paid players (who actually saw meaningful court time this season) stack up when their PERs and salaries are charted out. Johnson, as you can see, is at the nexus of unproductive and insanely expensive. As a general rule of thumb: Any time you are clear across the scatterplot in both directions from LeBron James, it's a bad sign. Click to enlarge image.
Much like Johnson, "bang for the buck" isn't a phrase that applies to the Nets. Incredibly, Brooklyn has won just 32 games with a roster that will wind up costing more than $180 million with luxury taxes. Meanwhile, the $60 million Bobcats sit just three games behind the Nets and they will be laughing all the way to the bank when it comes time to cash those luxury-tax checks.
Wastefulness isn't the Nets' only sin. For a team this star-studded, there's been an awful lot of blah. Brooklyn ranks 16th on offense and 15th on defense -- appropriately unexceptional -- and its older roster and the injury issues that have come with it have made for a season that was defined first by its lowlights, namely rookie coach Jason Kidd's unforgettable acclimation to his position.
If the NBA had an "Enthusiasm Scale," the maximum possible recording would be Chicago guard Jimmy Butler tearing through the courtside crowd to get back in the game, while the minimum possible recording would be Knicks guard Raymond Felton yawning widely during a huddle in overtime. Right next to Felton on the scale would be Johnson, whose strolling through the Three-Point Contest confirmed that he wanted to be at All-Star Weekend about as much as everyone else wanted him to be there.
The blasé stench from Brooklyn's first-round playoff flop last year -- a Game 7 loss to the undermanned Bulls at home -- still looms, too. Johnson was one of many Nets who didn't do enough in the series, and his 2-for-14 showing in the deciding game, which tied his regular-season low of six points, didn't exactly scream "rising to the occasion."
Thankfully, a 6-1 Nets run over the last two weeks has created the possibility for a bit of redemption or, at the very least, an opportunity to salvage a season that looked completely lost. Brooklyn sits 32-30 as the East's No. 6 seed; things could be a lot worse for a squad that could have packed it in once Brook Lopez went down with a season-ending foot injury.
Maintaining or improving their current position would ensure that the Nets avoid Miami and Indiana in the first round, giving them a shot at securing the franchise's first playoff-series victory since 2007. That's surely not what owner Mikhail Prokhorov had in mind when he swung the blockbuster deal for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett last summer, but it would be more than enough to keep them from joining the Knicks as the punchline to endless offseason jokes.
Brooklyn's playoff hopes don't live and die with Johnson, not when Deron Williams, Pierce and Garnett are all in the mix, but he's a big, easy target if things don't go so well. The 2014 postseason will stand as a referendum on the Nets' roster-building -- and quite possibly on the future of general manager Billy King -- and Johnson's salary figure and bogus All-Star status will keep him in the critics' cross hairs. He might be in a bit of a no-win situation, given the expected dominance of the Heat and the Pacers, but he could enjoy a little breathing room if he knocked in a timely game-winner or helped power a trip to the conference semifinals.
SF: Kevin Durant, Thunder
The Thunder's ascension to the top of the Western Conference was so fast and so direct that they have often seemed at least one step ahead of the pressure. Their youth demanded it. Who could reasonably be disappointed when the Thunder were beaten by the Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference finals after a 22-year-old Durant had gone off for 40 points in Game 1? Who spent real time agonizing after the Thunder were defeated by the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, given how young their core was and the resounding nature of their Western Conference finals victory over the Spurs?
Everyone grows up, even the most precocious superstars. Durant, 25, finds himself and the Thunder cast clearly as the hunted this season. What's more, recent shakiness (a 4-5 record since the All-Star break), injuries to Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, the adjustments to Russell Westbrook's reappearance in the lineup and some slippage on defense have left Oklahoma City dealing with more doubters than they've seen all season. Westbrook's return, by itself, ramps up expectations and removes the explanation for the Thunder's exit in the 2013 conference semifinals, and they will enter the playoffs with one of the league's best records and a big old bullseye pinned firmly on their backs.
Durant has embraced the building pressure both on and off the court. He initiated and then refused to back down from some memorable offseason trash-talking with Wade, and he has played the best ball of his life this season, even though Westbook was out for months. Much was made last year -- and rightfully so -- of Durant's 51/41.6/90.5 shooting season, which put him in the vaunted 50/40/90 club. He's "slipped" to 50.9/39.8/86.9 this season, as his workload increased considerably during Westbrook's absence, but he's still managed to average a career-high/league-best 31.7 points while posting a career-high/league-best 30.2 PER. Those numbers put Durant on track to post the best individual scoring season since Kobe Bryant averaged 35.4 points in 2005-06 while snapping James' six-year streak of leading the league in PER.
The 50/40/90 talk was soooo 2013. Try this on for size: the 30/30 club. Durant is on track to become just the fifth player to average at least 30 points while maintaining a PER of 30 or higher, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady and Wade. As if we needed further evidence that Durant already belongs among the greatest scorers ever. Here's the list.
The better you perform, the higher the bar gets raised. These days, the bar suggests that Durant's season will be a failure if the Thunder fall short of the conference finals. Consider: James reached his first Finals appearance at age 22 and has never gone two straight seasons without making the conference finals since. Jordan advanced to his first conference finals at age 25 and went on to appear in the conference finals or Finals in eight of the next 10 years, and the only two exceptions came during his minor league baseball career. Magic Johnson made the Finals as a 20-year-old rookie and he never went two consecutive years without making the conference finals during his career. Starting with his first title at age 21, Bryant made the Finals in seven of the next 10 years. You get the picture.
A second straight early exit wouldn't be disastrous for Durant's legacy by any means. He's headed for the history books one way or another, given that he hasn't suffered a major injury to this point and could theoretically play another 15 years if he wanted to. But he enters these playoffs knowing that he's in the stage of his career, already, where winning at or near the very highest level has become the anticipated standard.
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers
Much of Aldridge's career has been a fight for attention, whether "attention" meant touches and shots in his early years or national recognition as one of the premier players at his position in recent years. His Blazers earned plenty of headlines with a 24-5 start to the season, and that notice helped land both Aldridge and Damian Lillard on the All-Star team. Since that high-water point, Portland is just 18-17, and it dropped three straight games to teams in the West's playoff picture this week. The Blazers' postseason outlook has changed swiftly: Once hanging with the Thunder and Spurs at the top, the Blazers now find themselves trying to fight off the Warriors simply to maintain the fifth seed. Given the strong pushes from the Rockets and Clippers, the home-court advantage ship is perilously close to sailing away.
This "hot start, fade fast" pattern has emerged in each of the three seasons since Aldridge stepped into Portland's alpha dog role after career-altering injuries to Roy and Greg Oden. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, the Blazers are 79-61 (.564) before the All-Star break and 24-48 (.333) after. Click to enlarge image.
Each season told its own tale. The end of the 2011-12 campaign saw the team quit on coach Nate McMillan, who was fired with 23 games left in the 66-game season. In 2012-13, Portland lost its final 13 games after a thin, young roster was run ragged. This year, the roller-coaster plunge is being felt sharply for a number of reasons.
The Blazers enjoyed near-perfect health to start the season before losing multiple rotation players (Aldridge, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson) to injuries in recent weeks. In addition, Portland's schedule has caught up to it, its offense has fallen slightly off its previously league-leading pace, and strong shooting performances by Aldridge, Matthews and others have regressed under the weight of time and opposition scouting. Blazers GM Neil Olshey also opted to hold his cards at the deadline and during the buyout season, as the Thunder (Caron Butler), Spurs (Austin Daye), Rockets (Jordan Hamilton), Clippers (Davis and Granger) and Warriors (Steve Blake) all made additions.
Portland's roster remains one of the league's youngest and thinnest, so this March swoon isn't particularly surprising. Unlike in the two previous years, these Blazers built themselves a large enough cushion that their worst-case scenario is backing into the playoffs and looking to play first-round spoiler. After two lottery trips, simply making a postseason appearance will count as progress; that's especially true because the team's entire starting lineup is under contract through next season and the most significant potential defection this summer is Mo Williams.
But Aldridge himself set a higher bar last April. "I think just getting into the playoffs isn't good," he said during his annual exit interview, when asked about the team's future outlook. "I've done that." Indeed, Aldridge has made three postseason appearances during his eight-year career without advancing or even reaching a Game 7. His statement amounted to a not-so-subtle encouragement for management to quickly construct a roster around him that had some real upside. Rumors of his unhappiness followed in the months after, but that talk quieted down during the Blazers' hot start, and Aldridge has expressed interest in negotiating an extension.
The bullseye falls on Aldridge in a direct "it's time to walk the walk" manner. In January, he said he "definitely" should have been an All-Star starter over the likes of Griffin and Love, and at the time he had a strong case. Since the break, though, he's missed time with a groin injury and has looked badly out of sync upon his return, while Griffin has raced past him on the various MVP trackers. After averaging 23.9 points and shooting 46.6 percent before the All-Star break, Aldridge is down to 20.7 points on 38.4 percent shooting after the break. Portland surprisingly looked better during his absence (going 4-1) than it has since his return (2-4).
Whether out of necessity, routine, over-eagerness or something else, Aldridge has found himself with the ball and the game on the line a heck of a lot this season, and he has routinely struggled to deliver, especially lately. Although he's hit a number of game-winners since emerging as Portland's go-to player in 2011-12, Aldridge is shooting just 31.1 percent (26-for-83) in clutch situations this season, which is almost as bad as it gets for players with at least 50 clutch attempts, according to NBA.com. (Note: "Clutch" is defined as the final five minutes of regulation and overtime when the score is within five points either way.)
His postseason microscope really begins right now. Aldridge is a far more effective player than he has shown since the break, as evidenced by his career-high rebounding rate this season and a consistent standard of excellence throughout the first few months of the season that raised his profile considerably. But the up-and-down swings -- both his own and his team's -- leave his standing very much in flux in the run-up to April.
The lead-in to Aldridge's ranking in The Point Forward's Top 100 Players of 2014 pointed out that he and Love were the only players in the list's upper echelon without some degree of postseason success. The upcoming playoffs, then, offer Aldridge the chance to put his imprint on a series for the first time in his career, along with the opportunity to prove that he's more than a Mr. December. If Portland goes quietly in the playoffs, it will reflect on Aldridge much more than any of his younger teammates. They've given him a fighting chance, which is more than he expected this season. Carpe diem.
C: Dwight Howard, Rockets
Howard was a stone-cold lock to appear on the All-Bullseye Team from the moment he left his Aspen hideout last July and announced that he was turning his back on a completely desperate Lakers organization. Houston offered him a max deal, a better roster, a favorable tax climate, a superstar partner in James Harden, a history of elite big men and a coach in Kevin McHale who clicked with him in a way that Mike D'Antoni never did. What the Rockets couldn't offer Howard was cover from those who believed his decision to force his way out of Orlando and then bail on L.A. reflected a personality flaw. Spurning two organizations in 12 months will leave some bridges that stay burned for years, and Howard's only recourse was to follow James' post-Decision model of hoping to win back hearts and minds by winning big on the court.
There will be extra eyes on Howard this postseason, and not just the angry, unforgiving gazes from Southern California. Howard is like the sixth-year senior who reappears on campus after taking a year off to work at home and save money before studying abroad for two semesters. Whoa. This guy's back. Wasn't he on the Dean's List, like, five years ago? It's hard to believe that a No. 1 overall pick and an eight-time All-Star who advanced the Finals as a 23-year-old has won a total of two playoff games over the last three years. As James' Heat made the playoffs their personal playground, Howard, who had been considered an MVP candidate for a number of years and whose Magic advanced further than James' Cavaliers in both 2009 and 2010, ducked out the side door. He is only now returning. Click to enlarge.
So far, so good. Oklahoma City's convincing victory on Tuesday night was a nice reminder that expecting Houston to leap into the West's top tier immediately would have been asking too much. And yet the Rockets are the outskirts of the "contender" discussion and right near the top of the conference's second shelf, having incorporated Howard into a top-five offense while the three-time Defensive Player of the Year has helped improve their defensive efficiency from No. 16 to No. 9 this year. Other than Omer Asik's sideshow, Houston's master plan is unfolding without a hitch.
The 28-year-old Howard is averaging 18.9 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 58.9 percent. While those numbers are off a bit from his career highs, McHale hasn't had to run him into the ground either. Howard's 22 PER is tops among playoff-bound centers in the West and he represents a matchup nightmare for much of the conference. Importantly, he won't be going at it alone, like he did with the injury-riddled Lakers last season. The Rockets' starting lineup of Howard, Harden, Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones has registered a cool plus-7.4 net rating, and they enter the postseason with the ability to generate points in bunches from the free-throw line, at the rim and from beyond the arc. As with any team whose A-list players are in their first season together, it's hard to know exactly how the Rockets will respond when the lights go on. Considering his frustrated ejection from last year's season-ending loss and his status as a target of intentional fouls, Howard remains a bit of a wild card, too. Nevertheless, no one in the West is going to be excited by the prospect of playing the Rockets, or of dealing with a rejuvenated Howard, who seems poised to open the second extended chapter of his postseason career.