Heading into one of the most wide-open NBA playoffs in years, nearly every superstar in the league has a chance to redefine the stories about their careers.
Seven months ago, LeBron James willed the Lakers to a bubble championship, the fourth title of his career, then declared “I want my damn respect, too!” This convinced me to finally acknowledge that James is pretty good at basketball. Feel free to join me.
James was referring to the MVP vote—Giannis Antetokounmpo won, and only one voter placed James first. But “I want my damn respect” would be a good slogan for the NBA playoffs every year. Basketball players have an outsized influence on how much their team wins, so we judge them for winning and losing far more than we do other team-sport athletes. When the Angels miss the playoffs, we don’t blame Mike Trout; we bemoan the lack of talent around him. But when Chris Paul loses in the second round, he gets saddled with unfortunate adjectives.
Players know this is how we view them. It helps explain why James went to Miami, why Kevin Durant went to Golden State, and why Paul George asked out of Indiana and Oklahoma City.
So this year’s NBA playoffs are shaping up to be the ultimate veteran-respect bracket. It’s a weird year. The likely league MVP faces no championship expectations; it’s hard to fathom Nikola Jokić winning a title with Jamal Murray injured. And the player who looked like he would be under the most pressure this spring, Antetokounmpo, suddenly is not—when Antetokounmpo signed a contract extension in December, he bought himself time to win in Milwaukee.
But for some of the names that have carried the league for the last few years, this is a crucial postseason. Even those of us who loathe the overused word legacy must admit there are historical ramifications for some obvious Hall of Famers, starting with a player who has become oddly polarizing:
Durant was Antetokounmpo once—a lovable and freaky long scoring machine who decided to stay in a small market (Oklahoma City) while other players hopped around. He might have been the most likeable star in the sport.
Then he left for Golden State and proved nobody wrong by winning two championships with an embarrassingly talented team. Durant has never admitted this, but winning with the Warriors was obviously not as fulfilling as he imagined, and he handled the blowback by revealing how thin his skin is, most notably with his burner-Twitter-account debacle. Toward the end of his third season in Golden State, it became fairly clear that he wasn’t jelling with his teammates and had an eye on the door. Then he came back from an injury to play in the 2019 Finals and tore his Achilles tendon, one of the most devastating injuries in basketball.
That injury changed the narrative around Durant again. He is 32 now. He still plays at an extraordinarily high level, but only when he plays; since tearing his Achilles, he has played in 33 of a possible 143 games. The notion that Durant takes the easy way out seems silly now—even though that is what he did when he chose Golden State. If he leads the Brooklyn Nets to a title after such a brutal injury, there will be a wave of awe, and his fellow athletes will lead the way. They know how hard this must have been.
A friend of mine once compared a tough editor to vegetables: “He’s good for you, but blech.” This is Harden. He is a hell of a player, but how many people enjoy watching him?
Sure, the quick dribble and ability to create space for himself is impressive. But his step-back threes are not as much fun as Steph Curry’s. He piles up assists, but they’re not pretty. His whole game is built on relentless offensive efficiency: Three pointers and free throws until you change the channel. Even the conversation about Harden is repetitive and numbing. Yes, he scores a ton, but he doesn’t make teammates better and has a long line of playoff duds.
Joining a super-team is a strange way to prove individual greatness—ask Durant—but Harden is a strange player, and his Nets stint might yet alter his reputation forever. He carried Brooklyn this season when Durant and/or Kyrie Irving were out. In November, he was considered a sulky, out-of-shape malcontent in Houston; two months later, he was arguably the most valuable player in the league. Harden has a reputational ceiling—the quirkiness of his game makes him, for many, hard to watch. But winning a championship in Brooklyn—and putting up big numbers in one or two elimination games—will at least mute a lot of the critics.
James is clearly the best player of his generation, a stunningly complete player who has excelled in every aspect of the game. I just wish I could find some player from the past to whom I could compare him. Wait—I’ve got one! Michael Jordan! Why didn’t anyone think of this before?
The Jordan-James arguments got tiresome a while ago; James has convinced many open-minded people he is on Jordan’s level, and Jordan nostalgists will never even consider it. That’s fine. Part of watching sports is having favorites, and Jordan is America’s favorite.
And yet: The one clear argument in Jordan’s favor is that he won six championships to James’s four. But if James wins five, and goes to his 11th Finals, that looks pretty damn good next to Jordan’s six titles and six Finals. It would also tie James with Kobe Bryant, ending any serious discussion about who was the better player, which should have ended a while ago anyway; Bryant was historically great, but any argument he was better than James is rooted in passion instead of honest analysis.
If the Lakers win, after a season in which James and Davis were injured and the team looked toothless without them, it will feel a bit like Tom Brady’s most recent title—like circumstances don’t matter, records don’t matter, nothing matters as long as you have the one guy you need, which brings us to …
He is not James. With his attitude toward the regular season, he will probably never win an MVP award. But if he leads a third franchise to a title, then when we discuss all-time great forwards, that’s one heck of a conversation-opener.
He has never made the Finals, his Clippers were a perpetual playoff disappointment, and less than two years ago, he appeared to make that dreaded transition from star player to salary albatross. But one could reasonably argue Paul is the second-most transformative force of his generation, after James.
Paul has spent a large portion of his career playing for notoriously terrible owners—George Shinn, Donald Sterling and now Robert Sarver. But he made the New Orleans Hornets respectable, turned the Clippers from a joke into a destination franchise, whipped an afterthought Thunder squad into a playoff team and has now taken the Suns from a mess to the upper echelon of the West. Is Phoenix a legit contender? We will find out. But if Paul takes this group to the Western Conference finals at age 36, maybe the holdouts can admit that, even with no championship, he is one of the great winners of his generation.
I have seen significant chatter about Curry proving doubters wrong this year, and every word of it has been baffling. What doubters? Do these people really exist? He set the league on fire, won two MVPs, led the Warriors to a pre-Durant championship and came within a Kyrie Irving shot of another. Then he won two more with Durant. If there is really somebody out there who doubted Curry’s greatness, I would not like to meet that person.
This season has not been about Curry proving; it has been about Curry reminding. This is the guy who changed the game. The hopes for another Warriors title without Durant are slim—Klay Thompson hasn’t played in two years, Draymond Green may start fading soon, and there is a real chance James Wiseman is just a nice complementary piece. But Curry is still the best shooter the league has ever seen. He is perhaps the superstar least likely to shout he wants his damn respect, too. But year after year, he earns it.