Welcome to the fourth annual All-Bullseye Team, which highlights five players who will be facing immense scrutiny during the upcoming playoffs. Be sure to check out the 2014, 2015 and 2016 versions of this list.
The most unforgiving postseason pressure is always found at the top. That’s especially true when the Cavaliers and Warriors, two legitimate superteams, have spent the last three seasons tussling for control of the league, trading barbs and titles along the way.
But Cleveland and Golden State are entering the stretch run with various health concerns, including Kevin Durant’s knee injury, that complicate their long-assumed Finals rubber match. Although Durant should return in time for Golden State’s toughest challenges, it’s no longer prudent to view the upcoming playoffs strictly through the “Countdown to Warriors–Cavaliers III” lens.
With this leveled playing field in mind, let’s put aside Cleveland and Golden State for a moment to investigate five players who will spend the 2017 playoffs under the microscope for various reasons.
(All stats and records through Mar. 7).
Isaiah Thomas, Celtics
Thomas headlines this list for the second straight season, and it’s remarkable how much has changed over the last 12 months. Last year, the 5’9” guard was hopping over hurdle after hurdle, first proving that he could hold down a starting job on a winning team, then proving that he deserved to be an All-Star, and then proving that he was right centerpiece for the Celtics’ long-term offensive plans. Thomas entered the 2016 playoffs facing questions on multiple fronts. Would his struggles to create clean looks and shoot efficiently against the Cavaliers in the 2015 playoffs resurface? How badly would his lack of size be exploited on the defensive end?
Although the Celtics succumbed to injuries and fell to a mediocre Hawks team in six games, Thomas had his moments, including a 42-point outburst in Game 3. Honestly, most of the doubts about Thomas remained unresolved: Boston couldn’t pull off the upset, his shooting numbers came in below his season averages, and the mid-series loss of Avery Bradley was an instant crusher.
Thanks to a strong breakthrough season, Thomas (29.5 PPG, 6.2 APG, 27 PER) has played his way out of last year’s petty problems and into significantly more pressure. The honeymoon period is over: Boston is on track to enjoy home-court advantage and favorite status against any of its possible first-round matchups, Thomas has chummed the water by declaring that “nobody holds me in check,” and coach Brad Stevens has entrusted him like never before (Thomas has a career-high 34.4 Usage Rate).
Thomas has had an extraordinary offensive impact this season, lifting the Celtics’ offensive efficiency by 13.3 points when he’s on the court and serving as a one-man machine in the fourth quarter. He’s great in many of the same ways that James Harden is great: as a skilled drawer of contact, as a smooth shooter from many spots on the court, as a practiced pick-and-roll decision-maker, as a cheeky finisher, and as a reliable deep threat.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much help in the creation department. Boston’s other highest-usage players—Avery Bradley and Al Horford—aren’t initiators. When Thomas leaves the court, the Celtics' attack can fall to pieces. Despite the off–season addition of Al Horford, Boston’s defense has been so-so this season, leaving the Celtics to pray for the threes to fall when they play against top competition. To date, this approach has produced an unimpressive 4–11 record against the West’s top three seeds (Golden State, San Antonio and Houston) and the East’s other top three teams (Cleveland, Toronto, and Washington). Thomas, like Harden before him, may also find it impossible to maintain peak scoring efficiency once the playoffs hit.
Celtics president Danny Ainge did Thomas no favors at the deadline, choosing to stand pat while the Cavaliers (Kyle Korver, Deron Williams), Raptors (Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker) and Wizards (Bojan Bogdanovic, Brandon Jennings) all made additions. After losing to the Clippers on Monday in L.A., Stevens rejected the notion that the No. 2 seeded Celtics were “chasing” the Cavaliers, saying that the Celtics “were not on that level yet” and “just trying to be the best version of ourselves.” Given Thomas’s unavoidably poor defensive impact (he ranks dead lead in Defensive Real Plus minus), the Celtics will only reach that standard if their floor general performs at an exceptional level offensively. There’s not much margin for error, a fact reinforced by Thomas’s venting over Boston’s “unacceptable” play and small-ball lineup “experimenting” against the Clippers.
Still, it’s time for Thomas and the Celtics to advance in much the same way as it was time for Kyle Lowry and the Raptors to get over the hump last year. Boston has been building for years towards a series win, and Thomas is 28 with eyes towards a possible max contract candidate when his current deal expires in July 2018. To his credit, Thomas seems to understand the stakes. “I know I’ve got to win more,” he told The Bill Simmons Podcast last week. “I’ve got to get further in the playoffs for people to lay off. There’s still people out there that have doubt and say negative things. I want to win and I want to be one of the best to play.”
Gordon Hayward, Jazz
After years of strenuous climbing, the Jazz are finally set to reach a summit—only to realize that it doubles as a fork in the road. Careful roster management throughout an extended rebuilding effort has put Utah in position to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and, if the current standings hold, to claim homecourt advantage in the first round for the first time since 2001. For the 26-year-old Gordon Hayward (22.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.5 APG), who was selected to his first All-Star team this year, lots and lots of losing is starting to pay off. Indeed, entering Tuesday’s action Hayward had suffered through 261 losses during his seven years with the Jazz, the second-most for any player who has remained on the same team since 2010 (trailing only Kemba Walker).
So it’s no wonder that Hayward, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent and command max money this summer, has prioritized winning a championship as he weighs his future. In turn, it’s no wonder that GM Dennis Lindsey has put his cards on the table, making a public case this week for Hayward to re-sign, noting the organization’s willingness to treat him like a centerpiece and its ability to offer him a five-year contract.
What makes Hayward’s free-agency decision so fascinating is that Utah’s long-term future as a possible contender is tied in a major way to his play this postseason. Remember, Hayward is an unknown quantity: he’s only been to the playoffs once, in 2012, and the Jazz were swept by the Spurs in demoralizing fashion. Many of his major supporting cast members (Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors) are similarly inexperienced. What’s more, the Jazz’s most likely first-round matchup, the Clippers, possess a major advantage in experience, matchup well at key positions, and own a whopping 17–1 head-to-head record since Feb. 2012. If Hayward slumps or if his auxiliary shooters sputter, the Jazz will find it hard to keep up with a Clippers attack that operates at a league-leading level when Paul and Blake Griffin share the court. An elite defense, captained expertly by Gobert, won’t be enough by itself.
Utah’s dream scenario goes something like this: Use homecourt to grind out a first-round series win and then give the Warriors, who may still be welcoming Durant back to full speed at that point, a run for their money in the second round. That type of positive momentum would seemingly give Hayward enough reason to believe the Jazz can be trusted with his prime years. However, the nightmare scenario, a dead-end loss to the Clippers, might make the prospect of jumping ship to the Celtics, or somewhere else, more appealing.
In sum, Hayward heads towards the playoffs facing question after question. Can he prove that he deserves to be included, once and for all, among the league’s crop of elite wings? Can he carry an offense to a series victory? Can he finally taste the joys of postseason success? Can he eventually carry the Jazz on deeper postseason runs? Most importantly, can he do enough to make himself feel comfortable committing for another four- or five-year term? We’ll see.
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Let’s craft a blueprint for inoculating an NBA superstar from pressure. First, put him in a small-market. Second, make sure he is quiet, invisible on social media and solely focused on basketball. Third, place him on an organization that was consistently successful before he arrived to effectively reduce his share of the credit. Fourth, put him in a passing-oriented offensive system and limit his minutes so that his raw numbers don’t balloon to the point that he demands night-to-night attention. Fifth, gradually increase his role over the course of multiple seasons rather than turning over the entire show to him at once. Sixth, give him a ring early in his career to preempt any validation talk.
That’s been life—a great life—for Kawhi Leonard, who has started to receive MVP consideration on the heels of his sterling showing against Houston’s James Harden earlier this week. The two Texas superstars contrast on nearly every point listed above: Harden plays in a bigger market, he’s the Rockets’ whole show, he’s putting up historic raw numbers, he’s a highly-visible pitchman and celebrity, and he hasn’t yet won a championship. And while Harden’s career year has been made possible by Mike D’Antoni’s brilliant system, he will be stuck carrying his coach’s past postseason failures on his shoulders as he enters the playoffs. Leonard, obviously, won’t head into the playoffs facing more than a decade of pent-up skepticism about Gregg Popovich’s philosophical approaches to the game.
All of that being said, there’s no place for a true superstar to hide. Just ask Stephen Curry, who watched a charmed, miracle season turn into the defeat of a lifetime in less than a week last June. Leonard’s deserved entry into the MVP conversation, on the strength of his best offensive season and peerless perimeter defense, will necessarily change the equation for him come playoff time.
This year, he won’t be the 21-year-old who was largely forgiven for missing crucial free throws in the 2013 Finals. He won’t be the young LeBron-stopper who was named 2014 Finals MVP at age 22. He won’t be the first-time All-Star who struggled to leave a mark late in a surprising first-round series loss to the Clippers in 2015. And he won’t be the future of the franchise whose inability to go shot-for-shot with Durant last May was mostly lost in Tim Duncan’s quiet, dignified farewell. Who had the heart (or the attention span) to criticize Leonard’s lack of shot-making late in the series when Duncan was pointing his finger to the sky and the electrifying Thunder were heading for a highly-anticipated showdown with the Warriors?
Things will be different this time around, now that Duncan is retired, now that San Antonio’s other aging stars are fully deferring to Leonard, and now that the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is charging into the MVP conversation while posting superstar-level offensive numbers (26.3 PPG, 28.6 PER, 31.2 Usage). Whether or not the Spurs succeed in passing the Warriors for the No. 1 seed, Leonard is headed for the biggest reckoning of his brilliant career, as his unqualified admission to the club of NBA A-listers necessitates that his team’s postseason slip-ups will be charged to his individual reputation.
Ryan Anderson, Rockets
When Rockets GM Daryl Morey rolled the dice on Ryan Anderson, signing the stretch–four to a four-year, $80 million contract last summer, the backfire potential was very real. Anderson had missed at least 16 games in each of the previous three seasons, he hadn’t shot the ball particularly well since 2014, he hadn’t been a full-time starter since 2012, he had only accumulated 503 postseason minutes over eight seasons, and his net impact throughout his four-year tenure in New Orleans had been negligible due to his defensive limitations. If Anderson succumbed to injury again, or if he failed to rediscover his 40% shooting stroke, or if he didn’t mesh with James Harden, or if he simply couldn’t perform physically at the same level he had earlier in his career, Morey was in line for the tar-and-feather treatment.
So far, so good: Anderson has appeared in all but three games this season, his floor-spacing has helped Harden unlock a career year, he’s part of a starting lineup that has registered a dominant +12.9 net rating, and his new coach Mike D’Antoni cares far more about his 40.1% three-point shooting and ultra-deep range than his exploitability on the defensive end. While Anderson hasn’t gotten the same acclaim as teammate Eric Gordon and his raw numbers (13.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG) are down from his career-high levels, he’s been a key piece to Houston’s turnaround story.
However, the Rockets are bound to face their share of skeptics once the playoffs roll around. D’Antoni hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008 and he hasn’t won a series since 2007. Harden, too, has had postseason struggles. Their offense, which has relied on a record-setting volume of three-pointers and is therefore prone to night-to-night swings in effectiveness, will be an easy target if a slump hits. And their mediocre defense, which has outperformed expectations by a good bit but nevertheless remains an afterthought, will be subjected to D’Antoni-centric doubt throughout their run.
Anderson may well prove to be a crucial X-factor, a player who must continue to log big minutes as a net-positive regardless of his individual matchups. The Rockets are getting close to locking in the West’s No. 3 seed, which could set up possible matchups against the Clippers, Grizzlies or Thunder. All three of those teams have physical frontline players that need to be accounted for. Any of those series could swing on the four spot, with Anderson’s ability to force traditional players to play on the perimeter potentially working in Houston’s favor.
The Rockets have gotten strong minutes from center Clint Capela and they can shift to beefier looks as needed thanks to Nene and Montrezl Harrell. But to really hit their peak, and to make the type of statement they want to make as an organization, the Rockets will need Anderson to keep delivering a full return on his polarizing contract through May.
Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors
GM Masai Ujiri splurged at the trade deadline, adding Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker to address the Raptors’ frontline and shaky defense. The excitement in the aftermath of those moves was fully warranted, even if Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury has somewhat dampened the mood in the two weeks since. Toronto will enter the playoffs as a deeper, more versatile and more balanced team, one that should feel confident in its ability to handle a first-round series with something approaching ease. If the Raptors somehow fail to advance after reaching the East finals last year, the players will bear the brunt of the criticism, not the front office.
But Ujiri’s moves were made with the clear understanding that the bill would be due soon. Lowry, Ibaka and Tucker are all headed for unrestricted free agency, with DeMar DeRozan already locked in at a near-max numbers and DeMarre Carroll inked to major money through 2018-19. With Lowry a must-keep piece set to command max money, something will have to give.
That something could very well be Jonas Valanciunas (12 PPG, 9.5 RPG), a 7-footer who has spent his five–year career as a dependable but not-quite-spectacular starting center. With Lowry and DeRozan driving so much of the Raptors’ offense in recent years, Valanciunas has been forced to work around the edges, doing damage in isolation when he does get opportunities and crashing the offensive glass for second-chance opportunities.
Coach Dwane Casey has not expanded Valanciunas’s role as the Lithuanian has progressed through his early 20s, preferring instead to deploy more defensive-minded, paint-protecting centers, especially late in games. As a result, Valanciunas’s production has stagnated. While he remains efficient and productive in his relatively narrow role, Valanciunas is far more expendable now than one would have anticipated two or three years ago, when his per-minute production suggested he might be an All-Star in short order. Toronto has developed Brazilian center Lucas Nogueira into a passable replacement for Bismack Biyombo, and 2016 lottery pick Jakob Poeltl is in the pipeline too. In other words, Ujiri has ready-made Valanciunas replacements should he elect to trade him this summer.
Toronto’s decision this summer may very well come down to two choices: 1) paying Ibaka and trading out of Valanciunas’s $15.4 million salary for next year, or 2) letting Ibaka leave as a rental in order to keep Valanciunas. Given that both Lowry and DeRozan are in their primes, that Ibaka is aligned with those two guards when it comes to career arcs, that Valanciunas will struggle to fulfill his offensive potential on a guard-dominated roster, and that Ibaka’s versatility and two-way game are critical in a potential matchup with Cleveland, the early inclination would be to make retaining Ibaka the higher priority.
The writing on the wall has been pretty clear since the All-Star break: He’s seen his minutes, shots and scoring drop sharply, while Ibaka is averaging more minutes (35+) than Valanciunas has ever logged in his career. There is still a chance for Valanciunas to prove his worth: Toronto may face Atlanta’s Dwight Howard, Detroit’s Andre Drummond or Chicago’s Robin Lopez in the first round, physical centers against whom Valanciunas’s traditional size might prove useful. Valanciunas could also loom large in a possible second-round matchup against the Celtics, whose finesse frontline conceded an 18-point, 23-rebound effort to Valanciunas back in January. No matter who the Raptors draw, though, Valanciunas should enter the postseason with this simple understanding: He’s playing to keep his spot.