NBA

5 NBA Players With the Most to Prove in Orlando

Mar 8, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) looks on in the first half against the LA Clippers at Staples Center
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA season is set to resume on July 30, with 22 teams competing for the 2020 NBA championship. Some teams near the bottom of the standings won’t be playing for anything more than draft lottery seeding. 

But for some players, the resumption offers a golden opportunity to prove something to their doubters. Amongst them, these five will have the most on the line in Orlando.

Russell Westbrook

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 20: Russell Westbrook (0) of the Houston Rockets looks up at the clock late against the Denver Nuggets during the fourth quarter of Denver's 105-95 win on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.
AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

By looking at Russell Westbrook’s regular-season stats alone, there’s little question that he’s a top 10 player in the league. And while some might indeed think that, the consensus opinion on Westbrook isn’t as pretty as his stats might suggest.

A Bleacher Report player rankings list put Westbrook at just 22nd. This was much to the chagrin of fans and even Westbrook himself. It’s extremely tough to argue that there are 21 NBA players better than Westbrook. Russell is only three years removed from an MVP season, and he is having a terrific year.

But still, the Rockets point guard is by no means void of criticism. Westbrook has continually underwhelmed in the playoffs, giving fans a reason to question his actual value. One look at his per-game numbers will tell one story, but diving deeper into his playoff struggles reveals a far different one.

Since former teammate Kevin Durant infamously departed to the Golden State Warriors, Westbrook has won just four playoff games. In those three trips to the playoffs without Durant, he shot an abysmal 38% from the field with 5.25 turnovers per game. 

After these several playoff losses, the Thunder traded Westbrook to Houston last offseason, where he has since thrived. He’s posting career highs in field goal % and effective field goal % this season. 

It’s tough to be confident that this newfound efficiency will carry over to the playoffs, but it’s still a very good sign. At this point, Westbrook has nothing to lose and everything to prove. Just one deep playoff run could completely change the stigma around him. 2020 could mark the year that finally happens.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

March 6, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Staples Center.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few seasons, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been undeniably great. This year he’s averaging 29.6 points per game and 13.7 rebounds per game. Giannis is getting these numbers in just 30.9 minutes per contest with a single-season PER that ranks 7th best all-time. The Greek Freak is also the favorite to win his second MVP trophy and even a Defensive Player of the Year award. His Milwaukee Bucks are on pace for an impressive 67 wins as well.

However, Antetokounmpo has his fair share of doubters. After an uncharacteristic performance against the Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, some valid criticism arose.

Antetokounmpo went from being an unstoppable offensive force to being neutralized by Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. He averaged just 22.7 points per game on 44.8% field goal shooting. Solid numbers, but both were far off from his regular-season marks. His shooting weaknesses were also on display, as Antetokounmpo shot a pedestrian 58.3% from the charity stripe with several costly misses in the series.

To his credit, this was Antetokounmpo’s first legitimate playoff challenge, and at only 24 years old. It was natural for him to struggle against a stifling Raptors defense. But if a similar outcome happens in the 2020 playoffs, critics will genuinely question whether or not Antetokounmpo is a capable big-game performer.

No one doubts Antetokounmpo’s status as a world-class talent with the potential to be an NBA legend, but he’s yet to prove that he can replicate his production in the playoffs when it matters most. Until that happens, he won’t be on the same level of proven playoff performers.

LeBron James

Mar 8, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) looks on in the first half against the LA Clippers at Staples Center
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike other players on this list, LeBron James’ status amongst the all-time greats in this game is already set in stone. He’s racked up legendary stats, accolades, and accomplishments throughout his 17-year career and has done things most players could only dream of doing. There’s no question that he’s an all-time great player, and in a way, James has nothing left to prove.

But for James, simply being an all-time great isn’t enough. He’s continuously been compared to Michael Jordan as the best player ever, and passing Jordan is a goal he’s had his eyes set on for plenty of time. He confirmed this in 2016 by saying, My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.” 

Since that statement, James has failed to win another championship, and his case for being the ‘GOAT’ hasn’t strengthened. To make matters worse, time is running out for the King. He’s in his 17th NBA season at 35 years old, and has logged over 58,000 total minutes of quality basketball in the regular season and playoffs. 

Many players have become progressively worse past the age of 35, and it’s tough to think that James will be any different. As great as he’s been for so many years, he’s human, and has shown some signs of slowing down over the last few seasons. There’s just no guarantee that he’ll continue his dominance for much longer. That means this playoff run might be one of the last legitimate shots that James has at another ring.

In fact, it’s one of the best chances that James has ever had throughout his entire career. He’s joined by a bonafide superstar in Anthony Davis and a slew of experienced role players. TheLakers boast a 49-14 record and have meshed surprisingly well this season, despite their overhauled roster from the year before. There’s also no all-time great superteam standing in James’ way like the 2017 & 2018 Warriors.

With that considered, expectations will be sky-high for LeBron James once the season resumes. Only time will tell if he lives up to them.

James Harden

Mar 7, 2020; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts in the second half at Spectrum Center.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A reunited teammate of Russell Westbrook, James Harden has come short of reaching the NBA Finals on numerous occasions. These repeated shortcomings have earned Harden a negative reputation in the playoffs.’

In several cases, these postseason losses weren’t his fault, and much of the criticism is undeserved due to Harden’s consistently reliable, yet overlooked individual play. In fact, Harden has topped 26 points per game in each postseason that he’s played in Houston. But this hasn’t translated to winning as much as one would expect. Harden and his Rockets are yet to reach the finals in his eight-year tenure there, despite clinching a playoff berth each year.

Frankly, it’s unlikely that changes this year. Going through the two star-studded LA teams in the West won’t be easy. The Rockets’ lack of variety on offense has been a problem of the past in big games and remains a looming issue with so much of the game plan going through just Harden and Westbrook.

As time progresses, it’s looking more and more probable that Harden will finish his career without an NBA championship, and be regarded on the same level as Allen Iverson & Tracy McGrady, rather than Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. But if The Beard wins his first ring this year against all the odds, it’ll be time to reconsider his place on the all-time rankings. He’ll have finally silenced his doubters and will likely cement his position as a top-five shooting guard ever, if he hasn’t already.

Paul George

Mar 5, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George (13) shoots the ball during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough to remember this after so many years, but Paul George’s early performances on the playoff stage were very promising. He was part of a Pacers team that pushed the Big 3 Miami Heat to 6, 7, and 6 games in consecutive years. He wasn’t afraid of going toe-to-toe with a prime LeBron James.

Since then, George has grown into one of the league’s best two-way players and a perennial all-star. Even after a gruesome leg injury in 2014, he has solidified himself as a top player in the league. But there’s one glaring weakness on George’s resume that has held him back from true superstardom: recent postseason success. In his last four trips to the postseason, George has failed to get past the first round and has a record of just 6-16.

However, this year’s playoffs can mark a fresh new start for PG13. He’s playing alongside a loaded roster including an established playoff superstar in Kawhi Leonard. His shoulder that underwent surgery last year shouldn’t be a significant factor like it was early in the season, as George has had ample time to recover thanks to the NBA’s hiatus.

George’s shortcomings in past years had legitimate excuses (unfavorable situations in Indiana & Oklahoma City). However, those are no longer existent with the Clippers. There’s little doubt that Kawhi Leonard will come to play in the postseason. The question is whether or not Paul George can do the same. If he does, George’s first ring will be well in reach, and his nickname ‘Playoff P’ will finally be deserved.

These players’ chance to prove themselves will all begin on July 30.

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