It’s that time again, where the best teams in the best league in basketball battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy in a 16 team tournament where personal brands, regular season awards and previous successes mean exactly nothing.
The only thing that matters is what happens in between those white lines from mid-April to June.
It’s the ultimate proving ground for NBA stars, where legacies are built, defined or destroyed.
There are a lot of players who have legacies at stake this year, and we want to look at each squad and ask, who has the most on the line? Who has the most to gain and also the most to lose?
Who’s reputation is the most at stake on their squad?
This will be a two part article focusing on each conference respectively. This part will focus on the players of the East, starting in Beantown.
Boston Celtics – Jayson Tatum
Let’s start with a bit of a surprise.
The 2018/19 Celtics have been news worthy for a variety of reasons. They were able to push into the Conference finals last year without their two best players and have been inconsistent and underwhelming. Much of this has been laid at the feet of Kyrie Irving’s confusing leadership style, Gordon Hayward’s slow progression back to form after his catastrophic ankle injury and a complicated wing rotation situation where only two or three of Tatum/Brown/Hayward/Smart/Morris can play in crunch time.
It’s clear it hasn’t worked this year, but the reason why is still unclear.
This is exactly why Tatum needs to tread very lightly.
Kyrie has the nuclear button, and if he jets at the end of a mediocre Celtics’ playoff campaign, his media team can flood the headlines with stories about how he has ‘come home’ to play for the Knicks or Nets. Or how he is so happy to be reunited with his big brother in Los Angeles in purple and gold. Or how he wants to take the Clippers to the next level.
You get the idea. Kyrie hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history a few years ago to clinch an improbable Cavaliers championship and is regarded as one of the league’s best.
What Kyrie has also done is consistently point at the young players on the Celtics roster as the problem and if Tatum doesn’t perform at the level that many (including me) expected from him after dunking over the second best player of all time last year, then I don’t know that we could say Kyrie was entirely wrong.
For Tatum, it’s a matter of proving whether or not last year’s amazing playoff run was a fluke or an indication of things to come from him. If he doesn’t, Kyrie might have an easy excuse for leaving and/or Danny Ainge might have an easy excuse to send him to New Orleans.
Brooklyn Nets – D’Angelo Russell
“D’Angelo is an excellent player. He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us, but what I needed was a leader, I needed somebody also that can make the other players better, and also that players want to play with.” – Magic Johnson
This was shortly after the Lakers traded Russell to the Nets in 2017 to clear the way for team chemistry god and future Laker legend…Lonzo Ball.
This seems like it happened years ago, but in fact this was only 20 months ago.
This calendar year has proven to be Russell’s best stretch as a professional in his young career, earning him an All-Star bid, some All-NBA consideration (although likely not a spot on the third team) and attention as a legitimate NBA star.
But he’s still fighting against some doubters and hasn’t proven them wrong yet.
A strong first round performance that pushes the favoured superstar team in Philadelphia to six or seven games would probably be enough at this point to at least keep criticisms at bay but a first round upset (which would only be possible if he performs well) would certainly shut them up entirely.
With the stakes for Brooklyn very low in general, D’Angelo certainly has the most to gain.
Detroit Pistons – Andre Drummond
Let’s make one thing clear: The Pistons will lose to the Bucks.
I don’t care what happens to Milwaukee in this series. Even if Giannis signs with Klutch sports and demands a trade, refusing to play a single second for the Bucks.
Even if Bledsoe and Middleton get caught in a blizzard and can’t get on a plane to play in either of the Detroit games.
Even if Brook Lopez has to bail his brother out of prison for beating up another mascot by recreating the escape scene from the 2010 movie version of the A-Team with the help of Ersan Illyasova, Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic (a remake hat would be a way better use of 90 minutes than whatever Space Jam 2 garbage we eventually get).
The Bucks will win the series.
However Drummond could stand to benefit most from even stepping on the court with the one seed…but he could also stand to lose the most.
Everyone knows what Blake Griffin is and it is likely we have already seen his peak. No one is going to change their mind on Blake too much. Same with Reggie Jackson for better or worse (definitely worse).
Drummond however is complicated: a 25 year old, immobile rebounding centre who’s superstar status is up and down constantly. Who has been disappointing and exactly what was expected all in one 6’11, 279 pound frame.
A standout performance that steals a single game for the Pistons could repair the damage to his reputation and his absence of greatness could damage it beyond repair.
Drummond needs to play well, or risk being shoved out of town.
Indiana Pacers – No One
No one expected much from Indiana after Oladipo went down mid-season.
Neither did I.
The fact that the Pacers are 1) in the playoffs 2) not the 8th seed 3) almost had home court and 4) make me doubt that the Celtics will make it out of round one is an accomplishment of it’s own.
I pondered a few options here. Myles Turner is an unproven big man with a multi-dimensional game that has been compared to Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic. Bogdanovic could prove to be a top end starter on a playoff team that could go deep in the playoffs if he’s able to carry this team offensively to competitive series. Sabonis could…impress us?
I don’t think I could possibly be disappointed in this team or any member of it. When a key player, who is akin to James Harden in that he defines your entire offensive identity, goes down mid way through the season and you only drop one spot in the conference, it is impossible for me to think anything but positive things about everyone in and around that team.
I’m just not particularly convinced that anyone has anything at stake on this squad…which is really dangerous for Boston in round 1.
Milwaukee Bucks – Khris Middleton
Is Khris Middleton really an All-Star caliber player or just the beneficiary of playing with the most physically dominant player since Shaq and a top of the line NBA coach?
I legitimately don’t know the answer to that question. That’s a big deal for Middleton, who enters free agency this offseason.
On one hand Middleton has been the second best player on a team that won 60 games this year, averaging 18.3 points per game on 44% shooting from the field. He was given the All-Star nod in 2019 and has been…good.
He’s good. Good defender. Good shooter. Good player. Certainly above average.
But would I max him out this summer if I was another team? No, probably not.
If I am Milwaukee would I max him? Eh….
This post season can really make or break Middleton this offseason and for that, he has the most to lose/gain on a roster that includes a recently extended Eric Bledsoe, a collection of obvious beneficiaries to the Bud system and a future best player in the league candidate (and front runner).
Orlando Magic – Aaron Gordon
Is Aaron Gordon good at basketball?
I know Vucevic is pretty good at it, good enough to be an All-Star this year.
I know Fournier is above average, particularly in the two man game with Nikola.
I know Issac, Ross and Augustin are all average to slightly above average guys.
But I honestly don’t know if Aaron Gordon is good or not. Were his 16 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists per game this season empty calories or actually a sign of solid production?
Is he more than a fancy dunker and smilie face? Can he lead a team to take a game from Toronto? Is that a reasonable expectation for him?
I honestly don’t have anything to contribute to the discussion on whether or not Aaron Gordon is good that isn’t a question outside of the fact that in theory I like him as a baby Blake Griffin type…but I have no evidence to suggest those two a comparable yet.
Gordon can have some flashes of brilliance that get the sparse amount of Magic fans out there very excited or become Orlando’s version of Andre Drummond (no no no, this year is the year Drummond is going to be an All-NBA guy).
Philadelphia 76ers – Ben Simmons
Joel Embiid is hurt. Jimmy Butler is a controversial veteran. Everyone likes/doesn’t expect superstardom Tobias Harris (he’s best friends with Boban and his social media is hilarious).
Ben Simmons is the only guy of that four who is unproven, expected to be great and doesn’t have any excuse for not being great.
Last year, Simmons struggled against the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs. Simmons has also been criticised greatly for his lack of shooting ability, his tendency to disappear in games and miss free throws when they need it most.
This is also very much Joel’s team and if Simmons can’t fit in with that and/or perform at the high level many expected him to when he was drafted 1st overall, then it could be an excuse for the Sixers to field very discreet phone calls from other teams (Devin Booker for Ben Simmons who says no?).
Simmons needs a big performance here or risk having his greatness be fodder for sports talk shows for months after the season.
Toronto Raptors – Kyle Lowry
If you have made it this far, you have made it to the number one guy on both lists who has things to lose this post season.
No one in either conference, on any team or in any situation in the entire league (including non-playoff teams) has more personally at risk this season than Kyle Lowry.
Last summer, the Raptors took a huge swing at top tier greatness when they traded Demar Derozan for Kawhi Leonard. While they also definitely fielded calls about Lowry, they decided that keeping him for this seasons campaign was better than not and he remained on the team.
Lowry has previously been woeful in the playoffs, posting some of the worst performances by an elite player in the postseason over the last couple of years.
He cannot afford to have this happen again.
Two basic scenarios exist for Kyle:
- He plays great, the Raptors handle their buiness in rounds 1 and 2, move on to the Eastern Conference Playoffs and possibly the Finals. If they win or they get close to winning, it could convince Kawhi to stay or even convince the front office to take a big swing on a star again (can you say, Anthony Davis?) or both.
- He lays an egg, a couple of eggs, the Magic series is closer than expected and Kawhi is forced to rely only on the stellar play of Siakim for support to get them to the second round. Maybe they sneak by the Sixers/Nets and get ousted in the Eastern Finals. Kawhi leaves in the offseason to a currently unknown team (Clippers) and Lowry is instantly on the trade block to anywhere that will take him as the Raptors hit the reset button and blow up the whole team.
Lowry’s performance in this postseason will define the future of the Raptors.
He is the creator.
He is the destroyer.
He is Kyle Lowry.