NBA Playoffs: Ten Player Story-lines To Watch

            The 205-2016 season was one for the ages.  The Golden State Warriors won 73 games.  Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his last game ever.  The San Antonio Spurs nearly went step for step with the Warriors in their pursuit of history.  And LeBron James quietly finished the year as good as ever.

With the playoffs upon us, there are storylines abound.  Who will deliver home the NBA championship?  Who may see their team broken apart if they fail to meet that goal?  Who is a must watch on a night in, night out basis?

Here are the 10 – well, 14 – players to watch

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan

            In some respects, the idea of this iteration of the Toronto Raptors having a history of playoff failures is overblown.  In 2014, the Raptors lost to the Brooklyn Nets, but most predicted that result.  So, in actuality, the “history” of Raptors playoff struggles behind their Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan core is based on the loss of one playoff series – last year’s first round to Washington.  That was an awful loss – but only one loss.

Still, what the metrics say is often not what resides in our own psyche, and the Raptors surely will have recent playoff outcomes on their mind as they take on the Indiana Pacers.

The Raptors are an extremely good team and all the ingredients to make playoff noise are in place.  Lowry and DeRozan form a great backcourt.  Jonas Valanciunas is a good big.  Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson fit extremely well.  Cory Joseph has been a great spark off the bench.  Top to bottom, the Raptors are better than the Pacers, and should advance.

Lowry and DeRozan are electrifying together, and should win their first two playoff series as teammates this spring.  But the weight of a nation is on their shoulders.  If they fail? DeRozan is a free agent, and his leaving could strike a big blow.  If he does indeed leave (although I doubt he does), does Masai Ujiri look to trade Lowry in the offseason and start over?  Given what DeRozan means to this core, were he to leave a rebuild would not be out of the question.

Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving

            There is no doubt: Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are outstanding offensive talents, and can put the ball in the basket with the very best of NBA players.  A healthy Irving is one of the NBA’s most thrilling players.  And for all the hits Love has taken as a Cavalier, he is a fantastically unique big who can shoot the three, score inside, and take slower 4’s off the dribble.

Still LeBron James’ frustrations in Cleveland were well documented this year, and it is easy to trace back to Love and Irving.  LeBron chose to move back into Ohio and never sold his Bath Township home: his problem isn’t the location.  And sure, David Griffin lacks Pat Riley’s credentials, but players rarely interact with GM’s, and Griffin has brought a ton of talent to LeBron’s Cavs.  And while David Blatt appeared to be the target of LeBron’s ire, his frustration did not dissipate when Tyronn Lue was installed as coach.

From LeBron’s public comments and on court body language, he clearly sees the NBA as a league of role players and stars, and his issue in Cleveland is his stars not playing like stars. Love and Irving are flawed in two significant aspects.  First, they both struggle defensively.  For all the talk that the Cavaliers would play better when both were healthy, the reason they were so good last playoff run was that they got defensive efforts from players like Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova that Love and Irving seem incapable of giving – Thompson and Dellavedova do not guard opponents like this.  Second, perhaps at issue with both players is the fact that losing can breed complacency: we cannot definitively say Love and Irving are not winners until we see them healthy at playoff time, but neither’s drive compares to Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, based on what we currently know about them.  Simply, it can become easy to be satisfied with an enormous check and winning 50-55 games: will Love and Irving dig deeper and go through pain to do more?

LeBron is frustrated, all right.  With Love and Irving.  Short of a championship, or extremely close finals loss – neither are which are likely – the possibility Love and Irving are shopped for stars LeBron prefers is very real.

Can Love and Irving make a statement to the world, and to LeBron, this postseason?

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin

      The Clippers win totals the past five seasons: 50 (if you prorate the 66 game lockout year of 2011-2012 to 82 games); 56; 57; 56; and now 53, despite Blake Griffin missing 47 games.  Basketball fans tend to dismiss teams they have not seen win the championship as not being contenders, even though so many teams constantly knock on the door and do eventually burst through.  The Clippers are not a mediocre, or even merely a good team: this is a team with two elite players, and two very good players, who continues to knock on the door.

Alas, for all the drama in Cleveland this year, the Clippers may quietly be at a much bigger crossroads, if they do not reach a conference finals or better.

After Blake Griffin’s now infamous punching of a team employee, the Clippers reportedly shopped him near the deadline.  Sure, trading Griffin in the context of the incident could be seen as reactionary.  But the idea of Doc Rivers deciding to break his core up after five years is not just a reaction to that incident – Doc Rivers stated his potential intent to break the core up if it did not win a title prior to the season.  Doc’s message: a contender around for a time that does not win it all can get stale, and unfit to win a ring.  If the Clippers lose in four or five games to the Warriors in the second round – a distinct possibility – that would constitute their worst playoff defeat since 2012, their first year as a core.  That means there is a very real chance that Doc decides that his core is stale, moving backward, and ripe for change.  To make such a change would require Doc to deal at least one of Paul and Griffin.

Will this spring represent the end of the Clippers as we know them?

Damian Lillard

            The 2015-2016 was truly a season of so many spectacular players and stories.  That led to a player like Damian Lillard being lost in the shuffle despite having an an absolutely sensational year.

The assumption around the league was that the Blazers were poised for a long rebuild, after losing LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez to free agency.  Lillard, however, stepped up his game, and simply would not allow that to happen.  Averaging 25 and 7 around a whole host of role players and unpolished youth, Lillard dragged the Blazers to 44 wins and the fifth seed in the west.  Lillard hits shots from everywhere on the court, is a killer late in games, fights tooth and nail to win, and makes everyone around him better.  In a playoff series against Paul and Griffin, you can legitimately wonder if he will be the best player on the court.

In a more subtle way, if there is an argument against tanking, it is the development of a star like Lillard into the winner he is today.  By being surrounded with winners and quality veterans, Lillard was forced to learn how thrive in a team concept and develop winning attributes.  He is well ahead of other great talents like John Wall and Irving, who started their careers with doormats.

Lillard will snag at least one game from the Clippers with a monster performance.  And the weight of the world will be on the Clippers’ shoulders if he steals two.

Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge

            The Spurs had to be featured in this column somehow.  And true to their ensemble nature, a duo takes its place on the list together – but not because of a potential offseason shakeup.

Leonard had an absolutely amazing year for the Spurs.  The raw offensive numbers are spectacular.  The defense?  Even better.  Leonard is a physical load of a player, who can take you off the dribble, and score on you in the post.  Be it as a go to scorer, or weakside outlet, he excels in any role.  On the other end, he is perhaps the league’s best one on one defender who thrives in the team concept.  The Warriors have multiple athletes to throw at him in the conference finals if the Warriors-Spurs clash comes about, but whether Leonard can force the Spurs to match up with him and open up the floor will be a huge sub plot.

Leonard is one of the league’s most enjoyable players to watch, and you should enjoy him this spring.

As for Aldridge, he clearly not have the year Leonard had, because, while he is a great player, he simply is not quite as special as the truly fantastic Leonard.  Still, his play will be a huge barometer for the Spurs, and how far they are able to go.

Aldridge is quietly THE key to the Spurs’ hopes this year.  You know, come playoff time, that Leonard will be a rock, the system will impress, and the roster will be well coached.  But when the Warriors face the Thunder and Warriors, both matchups will be duals of athleticism and pace against deliberation.

Tempo is the most important word of these playoffs: will the Spurs be able to control the tempo against other elite teams?

The way they can control that tempo, despite the evolution of the game away from the low block, is through Aldridge.  If Aldridge can impose his will upon smaller, more wiry front lines in Oklahoma City and particularly in Golden State, he can force those teams to play bigger to match up with him.  The Warriors and Thunder will still be difficult to overcome even if they are forced to match up with the Spurs bigger, more methodical lineups but they will be more vulnerable than if they are able to play their preferred lineup combinations and style.

Tim Duncan is still a treat, but he is going to be 40 years old in nine days.  The Spurs player who can force the Warriors and Thunder out of their comfort zone is Aldridge.

Let’s see what he can do.

Draymond Green

            No “players to watch list” can be made without the league’s prototypical modern power forward.  Steph Curry clearly had the league’s best season.  And Klay Thompson gets a considerable amount of praise because people love shooting, and scorers who also defend, and  Thompson brings the Warriors both of those things.

But Green is the second most important Warrior (behind Curry), not Thompson.  It is Green that enables the Warriors, due to his versatility, to play lineups of all sizes and shapes.  It is Green who enables the Warriors defense – which ensures that the Warriors are not just a great offense who cannot get stops but are a great team —  to switch on virtually any pick and roll and guard any type of offense they see.  Run and gun with the Thunder?  Grind it out with the big Spurs?  The Warriors can play any style, and they can because they have Green.   He is the prototypical “Swiss army knife” – on steroids.

Clearly, Steve Kerr deserves credit for Golden State’s rise in many respects, in that he ditched Mark Jackson’s isolation heavy system and the team, which stunted in growth the year before, meteorically rose under his coached.  But that rise also coincided with the insertion of Green as a starter – it should not be forgotten that we saw flashes of greatness (only flashes) under Jackson, the select times his Warriors went small.

Green has a take no prisoners attitude.  He does it all for the Warriors defensively, and is also an effective offensive player.  He is a treat, and how effectively he handles frontlines this spring (and that of the Spurs in particular) will dictate whether the Warriors can repeat.

Russell Westbrook

            Russell Westbrook had an incredible year for the 55 win Thunder.  Maybe it’s because some still have a preconceived notion of what a “true point guard” is.  Maybe it’s because at the start of his career he was a scorer who did not elevate teammates.  But all of that should be shoved aside.  Westbrook is a fantastic player, whose impact on the Thunder is significant.

Sure, the Warriors and Spurs are the heavy favorites in the West: both have earned that right.  The Thunder, even under Billy Donovan, run a rather unimaginative offense, more reliant on the immense talents of Kevin Durant and Westbrook and a few set plays than any real system.

But Westbrook has left an indelible mark on this season, and will leave one on these playoffs.  His athleticism is close to unparalleled, his playmaking ability evident, and he is a threat for a triple double on a nightly basis.  He is also an old school throwback, in that he has a Kobe like hatred of losing and wears that fire and emotion on his sleeve (as opposed to Curry, who has the same fire, but is outwardly jovial and does not show that side of him nearly as often).

            Westbrook must despise that his Thunder still haven’t overtaken the cagey Spurs in the West.  He probably hates even more the fact that his young Thunder were the young team to watch, but now the Warriors are.  You will see Westbrook play with a controlled rage this spring in response to both ego hits.

And, it is not a topic yet, but if Durant gets at all distracted by his impending free agency, you best believe Westbrook will take that personally, and make his anger about that clear – more clear than the Thunder organization would like.

Enjoy Westbrook this spring.  We are in for a treat.

Kevin Durant

            After dealing with terrible foot problems during 2014-2015, Durant played 72 games in 2015-2016and showed that he still is a top 3 NBA superstar.  The Thunder have not won a championship, but with Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka primed and healthy, clearly have the high end talent to continuing contending for one.

Durant has seen LeBron win two championships, seen Curry win one.  He is hungry, and will do everything he can this playoff run to bring a championship to Oklahoma City.  He is still a matchup nightmare, still a player who can score from anyplace on the court.

Remember: the last time a Durant playoff team was fully healthy, it took the Spurs out with four straight wins over them, and then played the Heat extremely close in the NBA Finals (on a game in game out basis, despite the 4-1 result), at a time when LeBron, Wade, and Bosh were all at the peak of their physical and mental powers.

However, Durant’s free agency is a topic in the background, a topic that surges to the foreground if the Thunder fall behind in a given playoff series.  The Warriors are clearly better than the Thunder, and the Spurs are as well.  It can be easy to see the grass as greener on the other side, and if the Thunder begin to start reeling in a series, Durant may become distracted by the summer ahead.  That distraction may be evident in his play, body language, and postgame media availability.

Will Durant show us what his Thunder can do when healthy?  Or will this be the last Durant-Oklahoma City title pursuit?

LeBron James

Curry will win MVP this year, and he deserves it by any imaginable measure.  His Warriors are heavy favorites to cap their 73 win season with a championship.  That said, sleep on LeBron at your own risk.  LeBron, quietly by his standards, averaged 28.2 points, 8 assists, and 7.7 rebounds over the last eleven games of the season, and looks primed for another sensational playoff run.  It was just ten months ago that the talk of the NBA Finals was that LeBron, not Curry, was the league’s best player.

Sure, the Cavaliers had an uneven year by contender standards, punctuated by the fact that they fired Blatt and installed Lue, but won less under the latter than the former.  But we have seen time and again that a motivated LeBron led playoff team can be devastatingly good, and LeBron certainly looks motivated at the moment.

LeBron has won five straight Eastern Conference titles, and the Cavaliers feeling as thought the East was in the bag all season (and lacking hunger as a result) could be a product of human nature.  Couple that with the Warriors and Spurs distancing themselves so far from the pack that home court in the finals was unattainable, and  perhaps the Cavs uneven year was a byproduct of a team lacking short term goals.  It is hard to drudge through October-April with regular intensity when your only goal lies in June.

Sure, the Warriors or Spurs would be heavy favorites to beat the Cavaliers in the Finals, as they should be.  But I have an utmost respect for LeBron’s ability to turn that narrative on its head.

You should too.

Steph Curry

            Simply put, Curry is THE player to watch in the 2016 playoffs.  73 wins.  402 made threes (!).  50-45-90: forget 50-40-90.   A dominant 8-1 record against the three teams – San Antonio, Cleveland, and Oklahoma City, – seen as most likely to spoil his magical season.  The half court heaves.  The fall away threes off the dribble.  The constant proving of detractors — who thought he would not recover from ankle trouble, or lead a contender, or win a championship, or back that championship up with a great season — wrong.

Curry arguably had the greatest NBA season of all time, for a Warriors team that had the greatest regular season of all time.  He is now poised to carry that momentum into the playoffs.  And while the Spurs, Cavaliers, and Thunder are great teams, capable of winning a championship in a given year, it is simply difficult to fathom that Curry’s Warriors, who lost just nine times over 82 games, will now lose four in seven.  Curry’s Warriors have earned their right as overwhelming favorites this spring.

Curry’s dizzying arsenal of three point looks will be must see TV this spring.  But almost as stellar as his ability to exploit defenses with his scoring his his highly underrated, steely resolve.  Countless times the past two years, Curry’s Warriors struggled or meandered through a given game, be it because of their own poor play or high quality opposition limiting his attack.  Curry never gets rattled in those situations, but, rather, competes, digs, and gives his team a chance to win – a chance he often delivers on.  He may do it with a smile, and may not show the type of fire on his face that Westbrook shows us, but make no mistake – Curry has immense desire to win every night he takes the court, takes slights from former players or members of the media personally, and uses those slights as further motivation.

Curry will electrify this postseason, and figures to be as incredible as he has been all year.  He will likely win his second NBA championship.  And if he does not, he will go down shooting.

Brief Round by Round Predictions:

 

-East Round 1: Cavaliers over Pistons in 4; Raptors over Pacers in 5; Hornets over Heat in 6; Hawks over Celtics in 6

-West Round 1: Warriors over Rockets in 4; Spurs over Grizzlies in 4;Thunder over Mavericks in 5; Clippers over Blazers in 6

-East Round 2: Cavaliers over Hawks in 5; Raptors over Hornets in 6

-West Round 2: Warriors over Clippers in 4; Spurs over Thunder in 6

-East Finals: Cavaliers over Raptors in 6

-West Finals: Warriors over Spurs in 6

-NBA Finals: Warriors over Cavaliers in 6

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