The NBA gives us the most vivid superstars in sports. We get to know players off the court, watch them struggle on the court, and as we chart their progress—breakthroughs, setbacks, games we'll talk about 15 or 20 years later—almost every relevant moment comes in the NBA Playoffs. It's why the next two months are great.
Of course, there's a measure of irony to the way everyone processes the playoffs. It's true, the most dramatic elements of these games begin and end with the stars at the center of everything, but the success of those stars so clearly depends on the people around them.
Example: LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time, but he needed a handful of massive clutch performances from Dwyane Wade to break through in 2012. He needed Ray Allen to fend off the Spurs in 2013. Against the Warriors in 2016, LeBron sealed his place in everyone's top five. He put together one of the most incredible Finals performances we've ever seen. But even in that Warriors series, he was only within striking distance because Kyrie Irving was out his mind, too.
None of that's a shot at LeBron, it's just a reminder of how this all works. Almost every career-defining performance from a superstar in the playoffs will be built on the foundation of an equally impressive sidekick coming up huge. So with that in mind, here are seven sidekicks to keep an eye on this postseason.
7. Kyle Lowry, Raptors
Raptors playoff struggles have been well-documented, and while DeMar Derozan's game has not always translated in the postseason, it's Lowry who's struggled the most. His playoff field goal percentage (39.1%) is one of the lowest in NBA history among players with a similar volume, and he's also shooting 31% from three. So there are your obligatory reminders of the history here.
This year could be different. The Raptors are deeper than they've ever been, they're playing with more space than ever, and there's a real chance to upend some of their stereotypes. The offense will rely heavily on DeMar DeRozan, and how much of this season's bench success translates to a playoff setting will be a crucial question of its own. But Lowry's shooting off the dribble is the key that unlocks everything, particularly in fourth quarters. He creates space and makes everyone much harder to guard. When his shots are falling, the whole team looks more confident.
He'll be tested early against John Wall. If Toronto survives the Wiz, the Cavs will probably be waiting in two weeks. DeRozan should be able to help them regardless. But if the Raptors want to scare Cleveland and anyone else, they need Lowry.
6. Jrue Holiday, Pelicans
I want to pick the Pelicans in the first round. Portland has no one to guard Anthony Davis. The Blazers have lost four of their last five games, and the Portland role players have overachieved all year, but none of them looks all that trustworthy right now. There's a good chance that the series will come down to Davis vs. Damian Lillard to see who can be most ridiculous from game to game.
While those two are battling up front, Jrue Holiday can help tip the scales behind the scenes. He's been very good on defense all year, and he can bother Lillard. Offensively, he's been rock solid for months now, and with all due respect to Boogie Cousins, Holiday is quite clearly the most effective sidekick Davis has ever had.
Over the past few months the answer to "How are the Pelicans doing this??" obviously started with Davis, but Brow has been incredible for several years. The biggest change in New Orleans has been the suddenly competent supporting cast, with Holiday leading everyone. He's been underrated all year long. Now he has a chance to show the whole league exactly how valuable he really is.
5. Paul George, Thunder
This Thunder team, man. One week they are teetering on the brink of collapse, and a week later, it looks like it's all coming together. Even now we're still riding the waves. Two weeks ago Paul George was openly musing about his shooting struggles, citing mechanics gone awry, explaining, "I don't feel like myself." He finished the season going for 24 and 6 in a massive win against the Rockets, added 27 in a win against the Heat, and then dropped 40 against the Grizzlies on the season's final night.
It's anyone's guess as to which version of this team we'll see in the playoffs. All we know for sure is that OKC can only hit its ceiling with George hitting on all cylinders. For example, an over-simplified story of the Thunder spectrum is this Warriors game—George goes off for 38 points in a blowout win—and this Warriors game—George goes 1–14 for 5 points in a 32-point loss.
When it doesn't work with George, some of the struggles have probably been a reflection on the star at the center. Westbrook's not exactly renowned for keeping his co-stars in a rhythm. But George bears responsibility, too. And either way, the bottom line is clear: George at his best puts OKC on equal footing with teams like Houston and Portland, and sometimes even Golden State. We'll see how often he can hit that level for the next two months.
4. Ben Simmons, Sixers
I wrote about Ben Simmons at length over here. Short version: Simmons has glaring weaknesses that could be exposed against smart defenses in the playoffs, and that's obvious. But over the past month, he's hit another level. He looks like a perennial All-Star at worst, and there's a chance that the combination of absurd physical gifts and preternatural intelligence could add up to a Hall of Fame-level career. That sounds like crazy hyperbole, but that's how impressive the past few weeks have been. Simmons is a one-man offensive scheme, and since he's been running the show in Embiid's absence, the Sixers have turned into a freight train. They are running teams off the floor every other night.
So let's see what happens in the playoffs. Embiid should be back at some point in the first round. Embiid's offense will be huge as the game slows down in fourth quarters, and his defense will be crucial as the Sixers competition gets much tougher than it's been. But if we're talking about Finals run—which, amazingly, we probably should be—it will require Simmons continuing to progress, and passing tougher tests than he's seen all year. Teams are going to be ruthless about forcing him into jumpers in the halfcourt, officials may pay closer attention to his push-offs, there will be less opportunity for easy transition buckets, and every close fourth quarter will put him under a microscope.
As long as Embiid comes back healthy, Philly should scare everyone. The potential for a Simmons regression is probably the best reason to doubt the Sixers. But there's another side of that coin: if Simmons continues to thrive, or gets even better, anything is possible.
3. Kevin Love, Cavaliers
I often wonder what Kevin Love's reputation would look like if the Warriors didn't exist. Golden State has always been a horrible matchup for him—Game 7 lockdown defense aside—and since Cleveland has spent the past three years orbiting the Warriors, that's all that matters. So we discuss Love in these hushed, sympathetic tones, like he's a wounded animal. But against almost every other team in the league, he's a nightmare.
In any case, this year's Cavs need that nightmare. They are more vulnerable than any LeBron team we've seen this decade. The defense is mediocre at best. The point guard situation is a mess. Between J.R. Smith and Rodney Hood, the wing situation is going to be a nightly adventure. There are good, reasonable arguments for picking someone else in the East to make the Finals.
If Cleveland is going to survive, it'll take the kind of blinding offense that renders all the other weaknesses irrelevant. It will take LeBron going nuts, but it'll take Love, too. When he's knocking down open looks and stretching the floor, LeBron becomes twice as impossible, and the Cavs become close to unsolvable. The Finals will be their own story and the calculus will change against Houston or Golden State. To get there, though, LeBron needs help. And with the future in Cleveland more uncertain than ever, Love has an opportunity to remind everyone that he's been pretty incredible this whole time.
2. Draymond Green, Warriors
The Warriors title chances will be directly correlated to the health of Steph Curry. We know this. But until Curry returns, they'll need to win with defense. As great as Kevin Durant has been, the Warriors without Steph are most dangerous when the game is ugly and they are playing the best defense in the league. That starts with Draymond.
He hasn't been the same player for most of this season. Whether he's just not as engaged or he's not as healthy, it's an issue. After several years as an undersized five banging with every big man in the league, it would make sense if his body's worn down. He's been battling various nagging injuries throughout the year, most notably with his shoulder. So maybe that's it? But he's also looked less focused this season, with less energy than usual, and some of that may mental.
LaMarcus Aldridge will be an interesting test. After Kawhi Leonard went down last year, Aldridge became the focal point for San Antonio, and then Draymond spent several games ruining his life. Fast-forward 11 months and Draymond has struggled all year, while Aldridge has been reborn in San Antonio.
Beyond that, it's fair to say that a healthy Curry next to a healthy KD makes the Warriors the clear favorites. But even with Curry at full strength, this is a team that has traditionally tortured teams on defense. They'll need Draymond at his best if they want to be untouchable again. If we assume Curry will be back on time, the single biggest Warriors question is what version of Draymond Green we'll see in the playoffs this year.
1. Chris Paul, Rockets
It's funny, Chris Paul spent the past six years of his career as an oft-maligned lead superstar who became infamous for his failures to break through in the playoffs. Some of those failures were absolutely on him—the OKC meltdown remains one of the most inexplicable 60-second stretches I've ever seen in the playoffs. But most of the other Clipper letdowns could be ascribed to disappearing acts from his co-star, Blake Griffin, and an annually creaky supporting cast in L.A. Despite a few bad moments, Paul has been mostly excellent as a franchise player in the playoffs. Now he's a sidekick.
All eyes will be on James Harden as the Rockets try to build on everything they started in the regular season. That makes sense. Harden's history in the playoffs is actually much sketchier than Paul's, and he'll have to prove that he can be as dominant in a playoff series as he's been for the past six months. But let's assume Harden can pass that test. If the Rockets are really going to have a shot at the title, they need more.
That's why Chris Paul is here. He was the best point guard of his generation until Steph Curry emerged, and now he's got a chance to stake another claim to throne. He's still one of the best point guards the NBA has ever seen, and this year in Houston, he might have been the most underrated player in the NBA. In those intervals when Harden goes to the bench, he stays on the court and the Rockets remain every bit as unguardable.
He's got a chance to do it all. He can remind everyone why he's a first ballot Hall of Famer. He can outplay Steph Curry. He can quiet the playoff critics. And assuming Harden shows up as the focal point, Chris Paul can be the player who gives the Rockets a real chance to win the whole damn thing.