LeBron James’ offseason return to Cleveland plus Atlanta’s extraordinary season has injected new excitement into the East landscape, while Golden State’s arrival coupled with injuries to the likes of Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and Wesley Matthews have made for another unpredictable season in the unforgiving West.
James’ push for a fifth straight Finals appearance and the Warriors’ drive for the franchise’s first title since 1975 are guaranteed to dominate headlines come April, but these five impact players will all take their turns under the postseason microscope, for all sorts of different reasons. Let’s take a look. (All stats through March 10.)
PG: Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Truth be told, last year’s point guard nominee for this list, Chris Paul, could easily be right back here again after another second-round exit that saw him crumble in key late-game situations. Paul is putting together another sensational season (18.2 PPG, 10.2 APG, 4.8 RPG) and he’s kept the Clippers in the mix despite an elbow injury to Blake Griffin and a bench demolition courtesy of Doc Rivers. Paul will enter the 2015 playoffs very in much the same spot as last year: as one of the most accomplished floor generals never to have reached the conference finals.
But Paul’s story isn’t entirely the same, thanks to the rise of MVP candidate Stephen Curry and the recent run enjoyed by Russell Westbrook. For the first time in years, Paul, 29, isn’t the hands-down, consensus top point guard in the league. The Warriors are 10 games up on the Clippers, Curry could easily win the MVP (something Paul has never done), and the future is absolutely brighter and more defined in the Bay Area than it is in SoCal.
Wedging his way into what might have been a smooth handing of the “Best Point Guard in the NBA” baton from Paul to Curry is Westbrook, who isn’t so much a point guard as he is a weapon of mass destruction. The physical, fast, strong, relentless, confident, smart Westbrook should enter the playoffs as the league’s most feared player, James aside. (Of course, Oklahoma City’s playoff fate isn’t yet guaranteed, as they are just one loss up on New Orleans for the No. 8 spot.)
You can go on and on gushing about Westbrook’s attack mentality, his ability in the open court, his improved passing skills, and all the rest of it, but maybe it’s easier to note that he broke a bone in his face and remained in the game. How is it possible that a player can undergo five surgeries in less than 24 months (three on his knee, one on his hand, one on his face) and somehow seem more indestructible after each one?
Westbrook seems to have turned a corner in the court of public opinion over the last month, as he put together four consecutive triple doubles (for the first time since Michael Jordan accomplished the feat in 1989), topped 40 points in three straight games and six times in the last six weeks and inched into the MVP conversation during Durant’s absence. His peacocking “style” and chippy media interactions remain ripe for mocking, but his game doesn’t appear to be nearly as polarizing as it was two or three years ago. Durant’s absence has allowed Westbrook the opportunity to average a career-high 27.4 points while also dishing a career-high 8.3 assists, and his playmaking instincts and ability to read defenses have been on full display because the Thunder are so reliant upon him for their offense.
To be clear, his general approach hasn’t changed all that much—he’s still too fast for his own good sometimes, he’s still not a knockdown perimeter shooter, he’s still a little too quick to pull the trigger—but his will has a way of wearing on his critics. Night after night, Westbrook brings it, and the Thunder are 9-4 since the New Year without Durant in the lineup, even though GM Sam Presti shook up the roster at the trade deadline. Anecdotally, it just seems like there are fewer people on social media rooting for Westbrook to fail.
Derided as selfish and hotheaded earlier in his career, Westbrook finds himself on this bullseye list not for those critiques but for two other reasons: the burden of greatness, and the uncertainty around Durant.
Unlike Paul, the 26-year-old Westbrook has reached the conference finals twice and the Finals once, even though he missed virtually the entire 2013 postseason with a knee injury. He’s also scored playoff-series victories over the likes of Paul, Tony Parker and Mike Conley along the way. Plus, let’s not forget that the historical comparisons for Westbrook’s stats really began in last year’s postseason, when he averaged 26.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds—playoff numbers that had only previously been posted by Oscar Robertson (minimum: five games). Westbrook will go under the playoff microscope because he’s already set a very high bar and because he’s playing so well recently that he looks poised to raise that bar even higher. That’s a tantalizing thought, given that he opened the year at the No. 4 spot on SI.com’s “Top 100 Players of 2015” list.
Durant’s return, which doesn’t yet have a firm return date, adds a serious layer of complexity to all of this. Westbrook can’t possibly impact the game in the same manner that he has been once Durant is back on the court. If Durant is rusty or less than 100 percent, Westbrook could find himself criticized for failing to involve Durant enough, for failing to step in and save Durant and for everything else in between those two poles. That’s not a particularly enviable place to be, especially with the prospect of facing Curry and the world-beating Warriors in the first round.
There’s a very real possibility that Westbrook, as the face of this year’s Thunder, will be subjected to undue criticism if Oklahoma City is bounced early, whether because Durant can’t get totally right, because Golden State simply proves to be better, or because Westbrook himself fails to live up to the hype. Civil minds would do well to remember that Durant largely escaped blame when the Westbrook-less Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in 2013, and that the same treatment should be afforded to Westbrook if the roles wind up being reversed.
In the meantime, go ahead and start salivating at the prospect of Warriors/Thunder, which on paper looks like the best first-round matchup in years. Who knows how that series will play out, but one thing is for sure: Westbrook’s fingerprints will be all over it.
SG: James Harden, Rockets
Fair or not, James Harden will either: 1) get the monkey off of his back by leading the Rockets out of the first round, or 2) watch the monkey grow into a Godzilla that casts a shadow over the rest of his remarkable season.
In large part because of his steady rise over the last three years, Houston’s three-time All-Star finds himself perfectly positioned for such a cut-and-dry dichotomy. Harden has ticked off a number of boxes since the 2012 trade that sent him from Oklahoma City to Houston: he’s blossomed from a sixth man into one of the top scorers in the league, he’s earned All-Star and All-NBA honors, he’s been the No. 1 guy on a playoff team, he’s been cast as the future of NBA offense because he can draw fouls, create shots and hit threes and he’s emerged as an MVP candidate this year by carrying the Rockets to a 43-20 record despite Howard’s extended injury absence.
The next logical box to check is “win a playoff series.” Yes, Harden was a key piece during two deep runs with the Thunder in 2011 and 2012, but he would surely be the first to admit that there’s a big difference between being a “key piece” and “the man.” Houston went one-and-done in six games in both 2013 and 2014; last year’s loss was particularly bitter, as Damian Lillard sent the Rockets packing with a miracle, series-clinching, buzzer-beating thre