With the start of the postseason, several players have a lot on the line. From Chris Paul to Klay Thompson, Boardroom looks at the players with the most to gain in the run up to the title.
The first round of the NBA Playoffs tip off Saturday. Thrilling Play-In Tournament games set the bar high, but even more meaningful, legendary moments that have long defined the postseason are on the horizon.
The narratives and storylines we’ve built up for months will finally play out in real time on the most unforgiving stages across the U.S. and Canada. Legacies will be built and broken. Stars will be born. Fates will be determined for players, coaches, and executives. Who will step up when the spotlight beams directly on you, and who will wilt under the ceaseless pressure of the postseason?
Let’s take a look at seven players with the most at stake during the NBA Playoffs.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
CP3’s legacy as an all-time great point guard won’t change depending on what happens during the playoffs, but this Suns squad is unquestionably the best team Paul has played on in his 17 NBA seasons.
Despite Paul missing 17 games due to injury, Phoenix went 64-18 during the regular season — the league’s best record by eight games. He has a superstar backcourt running mate in Devin Booker, quality shooting and defense around them, and a rising star in center DeAndre Ayton.
But Ayton is hitting restricted free agency this offseason. This is a relatively weak Western Conference, with the Lakers out and the Nuggets short-handed. This could be Paul’s best title shot, one year removed from making his first NBA Finals but falling short to the Milwaukee Bucks. Let’s see if he makes the most of the Suns’ potential this year.
James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers
This is exactly what James Harden was asking for.
Harden wanted out of Houston at the end of 2020 and reportedly chose a deal to go to Brooklyn in January 2021. Not 13 months later, the 10-time All-Star and former MVP forced a move to Philadelphia at the Feb. 10 trade deadline. Now, he’s reunited with former Rockets shot-caller and current Sixers team president Daryl Morey and teammates with MVP candidate Joel Embiid.
Harden has been known to under-perform during past NBA Playoffs. He got a head start on perpetuating that narrative by shooting 38.5% from the field and 29.9% from three across 19 games since the beginning of March. Philadelphia won’t have an easy first-round task against a feisty Toronto Raptors team with nothing to lose.
The Beard didn’t force his way out of Brooklyn for an early playoff exit in Philly. He passed up a $200-plus million contract extension with Brooklyn to opt into the final year of his deal next season with the Sixers. Will he both win and earn what could be the largest contract in league history, or fall short like he’s done in the past?
Rudy Gobert & Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Could the Jazz break up the band if they don’t make a deep postseason run? The warning signs are all there.
New owner Ryan Smith is slowly bringing in his own people, led by shareholder Dwyane Wade and CEO Danny Ainge once top executive Dennis Lindsay stepped down after last season. Rumors are swirling about the future of longtime head coach Quin Snyder. If there’s uncertainty and turmoil up top like that, it’s only a matter of time before it filters down to the players.
Both Gobert and Mitchell are locked into long-term max contracts, but it sure seems like this team has reached its ceiling. A first-round loss to a Dallas Mavericks team led by an injured Luka Doncic would bring up a lot of questions in Salt Lake City. And with new voices running the team, and even a new reported black-and-yellow color scheme on the way, a new direction may not be far behind.
Kyrie Irving & Ben Simmons, Brooklyn Nets
Irving took a huge, well-documented risk and played in just 29 games during the regular season despite the chance that he opts out of his $36.6 million deal next season and chooses unrestricted free agency. His play on the court this postseason could go a long way toward determining the value of his next contract, especially if it matches his productivity when he was on the floor in the regular season.
Simmons, of course, took an even larger risk. After being criticized for his performance with Philadelphia during the 76ers’ second-round playoff loss to Atlanta, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick hasn’t played in an NBA game since last June. The 25-year-old Australian famously sat out until the Sixers dealt him on Feb. 10 — the blockbuster Harden trade mentioned above. Due to reported mental health and back issues, the defensive ace has yet to suit up for Brooklyn.
That could change during Brooklyn’s first-round series against the Boston Celtics, the team Irving left three years ago in free agency to join the Nets. The prospects of a healthy Brooklyn team all on the court together has made them one of the top betting favorites all season to win it all, yet the Nets needed a win Tuesday over Cleveland in the Play-In just to reach the playoffs. It’s worth noting that Irving scored 34 points and went 9-for-9 from the field in the first half.
Now, we get to see whether that potential will come to fruition when it matters most.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Like Paul, nobody is questioning Klay’s legacy or credentials. But at 32 years old coming off two devastating injuries in a torn Achilles and a torn ACL, it’s natural to question how much Thompson has left in the tank.
Since his return, his production after 941 days away in January is nothing to scoff at. Thompson averaged over 20 points on 38.5% from three in 32 games. Plus, the Warriors as whole are a more complete team than the one that Thompson left. Gold State has done a good job acquiring pieces around Steph Curry in Klay’s absence in Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Otto Porter Jr., and Gary Payton II.
Thompson’s status and importance in franchise history have been cemented. But as Golden State’s young talent grows and develops, will Klay’s status and importance in the Warriors’ not-too-distant future diminish? The answer might start to show itself during the Warriors’ first-round matchup with Denver.