Something to Prove

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NBA players are judged first and foremost by how they perform in the playoffs—no amount of regular season stat-padding can make up for a poor showing in the post-season. And having a great post-season can define a player’s career. It can prove the doubters wrong (see James, LeBron); earn someone a big contract in the off-season, or help turn around a career that’s in a funk.

Here are 5 players that have something to prove heading into the post-season:

Blake Griffin
 
 

With the exception of Russell Westbrook, few NBA All-Stars are subjected to the kind of scrutiny and criticism that Blake Griffin endures on a frequent basis. Bursting on the scene in 2010, Griffin rejuvenated a Clippers franchise that had been going nowhere for, well, its entire existence. His athleticism and willingness to dunk on anyone, and seemingly over anything (cars included) suddenly turned a Clippers game into a must-watch spectacle.

But in recent times the media and fans (none-Clippers fans, that is) seem to have fallen a little out of love with the young power-forward. In his rookie year he was lauded for his exciting, dunk-oriented game, but critics now yearn for him to develop some variation—a reliable jump shot, or better post-up moves (I’d argue the latter aspect of his game is underrated). His numbers this year are solid (18 and 8), but are down from his first and second year averages, and he’s developed a worrying propensity to drift in and out of games. He’s attempting fewer shots than last season, particularly in the second half of games, and has looked passive at times.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Griffin is still in his third year in the league, and will undoubtedly get better, but his team has been constructed with the goal of winning a championship now—their success or lack of it in the playoffs could make up Chris Paul’s mind as to whether he’ll sign a long term deal in Los Angeles. Griffin will need to give Paul and Jamaal Crawford ample support on the offensive end during the playoffs, and will have to improve his free-throw percentage to avoid becoming a liability late in games. Much of the criticism aimed at Griffin is unfair and a tad shortsighted, but to prove his critics wrong, he’ll need to come up big in the post-season.

Josh Smith
 
 

One of the biggest surprises of the season was that Josh Smith wasn’t moved before the trade deadline. Hawks G.M. Danny Ferry obviously didn’t receive an offer to his liking and decided to attempt one more playoff run with Smith leading the team. That Smith won’t be in Atlanta past this season, however, seems to be a given. The relationship between the franchise and its enigmatic star seems to have run its course. 9 years is enough. It’s time to move on.

Smith, like any other young and talented NBA player, believes he’s worth max-money. As alluded to above, however, it’s unlikely that the Hawks feel the same way. Therefore J-Smoove will need to showcase his worth to another NBA franchise. His performance in the playoffs might go a long way to deciding whether a team is willing to take a chance on Smith and offer him big money.

And a team will be taking a risk offering him a max contract. On his day Smith is a breathtaking talent—a player with the ability to affect the game at both ends of the floor. He can post-up defenders, rebound, pass, block shots and defend with the best of them. But Smith has never found the consistency to match his talents. He has a tendency to check out of games and no one seems to be able to convince him that he shouldn’t take long twos—the worst shot in the game. It’s hard to understand why a player who shoots under 60% from the line, feels he can make shots from 20 feet.

It’s likely that Atlanta, as usual, won’t make it past the first round of the playoffs, but if Smith can put in the kind of head-turning performances he’s capable of, he may be laughing all the way to the bank in the off-season.

Dwight Howard
 
 

Despite leading the league in rebounds and being top-five in blocks—illustrative of his immense talent—Dwight Howard is having a sub-par year. Forget about his points per game average—down from 20 last season, to 16 this year—a lot of that is due to playing with Kobe. It’s his general attitude and decline defensively that’s more worrying. The Dwight Howard in Orlando was a one-man wrecking machine on the defensive end, blowing up plays and altering shots on a consistent basis. He managed to turn a team with Jason Richardson, Jameer Nelson, and Hedo Turkoglu into a top-5 defensive team in the league. No small feat.

Whether it’s because he’s still recovering from his off-season back surgery, or the bright lights of L.A. are proving too blinding, Howard hasn’t been that same presence this season. He’s looked a step slower, less intimidating, and has frequently been torched by teams on the pick-n-roll. And the media have let Howard know about all his failings. Since his acrimonious departure from Orlando, which saw him go from one of the league’s most loved, to most hated in a few short months, Howard has been a favourite whipping boy of anyone who follows basketball. And two years ago you’d be crazy to claim anyone other than Howard was the league’s most dominant centre. Now the answer seems up in the air—Marc Gasol? Tyson Chandler? Wait, did I hear Shaq mention Brook Lopez’s name?

If the Lakers do make the playoffs—and it’s still touch and go—Howard has a chance to silence his critics and ease the pressure. If he once again becomes a dominant force on the court, and wins his team some playoff games in the process, he can go some way towards saving what’s been an awful season for himself and his team. Howard has proven that he can lead a team in the off-season before—he dragged the ’09 Magic to the NBA Finals, remember—but never under this level of pressure and scrutiny. Howard will likely sign a big contract with the Lakers in the off-season, but this post-season he’ll want to prove that he’s worth every penny.

Deron Williams
 
 

It seems like only yesterday that the ‘who’s the better point-guard between Chris Paul and Deron Williams?’ question was something worth debating. In-fact, just a couple years ago it wasn’t crazy to lean towards D-Will. If you were building the perfect point-guard you’d probably construct him with Williams in mind—great court vision, speed, outside shooting, and a size advantage over most point-guards in the NBA, Paul included. In 2013, however, Williams isn’t winning that argument. Somewhere along the line Paul become the premiere point-guard in the league and Williams faded into the background.

When Williams left the Jazz, after reportedly feuding with Jerry Sloan, his game seemed to regress. Granted, last year he put up decent numbers—including 50 in one game—but mentally he seemed to be somewhere else (remember the complaints about the sight lines), not the leader a point-guard should be. The move to Brooklyn gave Williams, and his Nets teammates, some initial street-cred, but that new car feeling has since worn off. The honeymoon is over. Brooklyn is now just another above-average Eastern Conference team—a pretty dull team to be honest—and although Williams has played better recently, he hasn’t covered himself in glory this year.

In a recent one-point loss to the Bulls—Brooklyn’s likely opponent in the playoffs—the Nets’ final play ended with a Brook Lopez 20-foot jumper. No disrespect to Lopez, but whether it’s coaching, or Williams’ lack of assertiveness, that’s an issue. In Utah the offense ran through D-Will, and in Brooklyn it should be no different. When the playoffs roll around Williams will need to be more assertive. He needs to look for his shot and become the focal point of the offense once again. A decent performance in the playoffs wouldn’t immedietly result in the point-guard debate being reopened, but it would be a start.

Carmelo Anthony
  

In a world where LeBron didn’t exist, Carmelo Anthony would have a good shot at winning the MVP award. The current scoring leader has been superb for the Knicks this season, particularly given the injuries the team has sustained. In the last four games Melo has put up scores of 50, 40, 41, and in Sunday’s fantastic road win over the Thunder, 37. He’s the first Knick since Bernard King (the now soon to be Hall-of- Famer) to score 35 points or more in four straight games. Mighty impressive.

Considering his blistering form then, what does Melo have to prove?

Well, in the regular season, nothing. Everyone knows that Melo can win games on his own—on his day no one in the league scores with such consummate ease. But it’s in the playoffs where Anthony has something prove. The playoffs are where players truly cement their legacies and insert themselves into ‘greatest player ever’ narratives. And Melo’s playoff resume isn’t too great. In-fact, it’s pretty poor. He’s only been out of the first-round once—with the 2009 Nuggets—and with the Knicks he’s only won a single playoff game. What’s more, LeBron, Bosh and Wade—the other 3 standouts in that ridiculously stacked 2003 draft—have four titles between them.

This season Melo has as good a chance as any to make a real impact in the playoffs and banish those post-season demons. The Knicks seem ready for a long run and are probably the only team with the slightest chance of beating the Heat—anything less than a place in the Eastern Conference Finals will be seen as a failure. Melo will have to continue his regular season form in the post-season in order to prove that he’s not simply a regular season volume-scorer who disappears when it matters.

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