Every time the postseason comes around, players are given the opportunity to make history, to make themselves legendary, and to forever be etched in the memories of fans everywhere. Hit a big shot and you are remembered forever (Robert Horry, anyone?), no matter how bad your season might have been. Miss one, and no matter how well you played all fans will remember is the shot that didn’t drop.
While stars are sometimes made in the playoffs, it is not always the case. Back in 2006, Dwyane Wade became a bonafide superstar by winning Finals MVP and leading the Heat to a title, and he hasn’t looked back since. Tracy McGrady, on the other hand, has always been a great regular season player, but his lack of playoff success is something that people will always point out.
While a star can validate his legacy with a big playoff performance, a role player can guarantee himself a nice contract and a solid rotation spot with a couple of big plays. Guys like Derek Fisher and Horry have given themselves multi-year contracts (not to mention multiple rings) by hitting huge shots come playoff time. So let’s take a look at the 10 players who have the most to prove heading into this postseason.
John Salmons (Milwaukee Bucks) – Is there a more underrated big-time scorer in the playoffs than John Salmons? The Bucks swingman has averaged nearly 20 points a game since being shipped from Chicago at the deadline, and has quickly become a leader who guided Milwaukee to a surprise playoff spot. Salmons has an opt-out clause at the end of the season and has hinted at testing free agency, s0 a good playoff performance could go a long way to guaranteeing him a nice contract this off-season.
While teams know Salmons is a big scorer in the regular season, they want to see if he can go bucket-for-bucket with some of the best scorers in the game when it matters most before rewarding him with a long-term deal. Salmons has the perfect chance in his first round match-up, if he can score a lot and go toe-to-toe with free-agent-to-be Joe Johnson, he just might play himself into a big contract this July.
Shannon Brown/Jordan Farmar (Los Angeles Lakers) – Okay so I cheated a little bit, this is two players, but they have basically the same task in front of them. For Farmar, it’s now or never in his quest to prove he can be the starting point guard for the Lakers. The fourth year back-up is notorious for trying to get his own buckets, and he needs to prove that he can run a team when it matters. While there are many teams who view Farmar as being ready to start today, he wants to remain a Laker and the Lakers would love for him to be able to take the reins from Derek Fisher.
Brown, meanwhile, is out to prove that he is more than just a dunker. Anytime someone brings him up, the first things that comes to mind are the posters he routinely makes on the court. Lost in those dunks is the fact that Brown has become a very capable back-up guard who can shoot from deep, play solid defense and get to the basket. His problem is consistency; we may see five good games from Brown and then ten bad ones, and teams want to see he can play at the same level all the time.
Raymond Felton (Charlotte Bobcats) – The much heralded North Carolina foursome who came into the league after winning the NCAA title in 2005 has been an absolute bust in the NBA. Rashad McCants could never find his scoring touch with the Timberwolves, while Sean May is just trying to stay underweight and on a roster. Marvin Williams has become a serviceable role player, but the fact that he was taken ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams and expected to be a superstar makes him a bust as well. The one player who didn’t have the high expectations of the other three is point guard Raymond Felton. While Felton did go fifth in that years draft, that pick was based on need and not so much talent.
Felton heads into this postseason with the chance to show NBA teams he can start and lead a great team. After testing free agency last season and not getting a contract offer to his liking, Felton came back this year with a lot to prove. After an up-and-down regular season, he can guarantee himself a lucrative contract in the off-season if he is able to keep up with Magic guard Jameer Nelson in the first round. A solid showing against the former All-Star will go a long way towards getting Felton the contract security he’s looking for.
Antawn Jamison (Cleveland Cavaliers) – The first of two Cavs on this list, Jamison is going to need a good postseason showing to prove that all the hype surrounding his arrival to the Cavs was worth it. Jamison has been a starter (Washington) and a sixth-man (Dallas) on playoff teams that have won absolutely nothing, and now that he is a second-option to an super-duper-star in LeBron James, Jamison has his best chance to finally win in the postseason and live up to the expectations that started when he came out of North Carolina and was traded for Vince Carter.
Jamison is viewed by many as the final piece to the championship puzzle for the Cavs; the most talented teammate LeBron has had and the reason they will win a title and keep James from leaving in free agency this summer. If the Cavs fail to win it all this season, much of the blame will be placed on Jamison. Add that to the fact that he has Cleveland on the hook for $10 million a year for the next couple of years, and he’s going to need LeBron around to avoid the pressure of leading yet another doormat team.
Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks) – This could be Nowitzki’s best – and final – chance at winning an NBA title. Since the Mavs collapse in the Finals in 2006 and subsequent first-round embarrassment against the Warriors the next postseason, Nowitzki has been labeled as someone you can’t build a championship team around. Dallas owner Mark Cuban disagrees with that notion, and has built a stellar supporting cast around the Big German in hopes that Dallas can finally win that elusive ring.
While Dirk has played with a group of talented squads, never has he had a bigger, deeper roster around him. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and Shawn Marion are about as good a supporting cast as any superstar could ask for. A championship this spring will guarantee Dirk a spot as one of the best players in NBA history, and could give him the title of best European to ever play in the NBA.
Vince Carter (Orlando Magic) – Let’s go back to the summer of 2009 real quick. The Orlando Magic are coming off of an impressive postseason that saw them surprise the NBA world and make it to the NBA Finals before succumbing to the Lakers in five games. While rookie guard Courtney Lee did an admirable job, Kobe Bryant torched the Magic and was the reason the Lakers were able to take home the hardware. So the Magic have to make an upgrade at the two, find that last piece that they believe would make them the favorites to win the NBA title. Plug in Vince Carter, the man that they hand-picked to push the Magic over the hump.
Carter has been labeled lazy, dramatic, and a team-cancer. He’s also been labeled All-Star, Half-Man/Half-Amazing, and an athletic freak. The Magic decided to roll the dice and hope they were getting the latter. While the season has been up and down for VC, one good postseason could reshape how we view his entire career. If he steps up and helps lead the Magic to a title, suddenly Carter goes from cancer to champion. We forget all the problems he caused in Toronto and New Jersey, and remember him for the sacrifice he made when he came to Orlando and helped them win a championship. While all the pressure of this playoffs can’t be placed squarely on Carter, if he wants to ever shed the stigma that follows him, this would be the time.
Carmelo Anthony (Denver Nuggets) – Since coming into the NBA in 2003, Melo has been known as one thing and one thing only, a scorer. Not a leader, not an MVP-candidate, not a champion, but just a scorer. This is the postseason where Anthony gets the chance to prove once and for all he belongs in the conversation of best player in the NBA. While he has been content to just get his and not really lead his team, players like Kevin Durant have leap-frogged him in the NBA hierarchy by leading their teams into the postseason by example. While Anthony has been able to take veteran teams into the playoffs his whole career, he has never been looked at as the unquestioned leader of the Nuggets.
This postseason that all could change. While Chauncey Billups is still viewed as the teams on-court leader, it is Anthony’s time to become the Alpha Male. After coming within two wins of the NBA Finals last season, this is the year Anthony can lead his squad to a Finals berth. Anthony must carry this team on his back and do all the little things it takes to win. This means playing smart (as opposed to fouling out 50 feet from the basket in the last minute of a one-point game), getting gritty on defense and doing whatever ensures team success, even if that means deferring. If Melo can make some noise this postseason he could solidify his spot as one of the top four players in the league.
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) – With two Defensive Player of the Year Awards, a dunk-contest title, and being the unquestioned leader of the defending Eastern Conference champions, you would think there is no way Howard needs to prove himself. But coming off of a Finals loss, having yet to prove he has any type of low-post game besides dunking the ball, and being able to be taken out of a game because he can’t hit free throws have people asking all kinds of questions about Howard. Can you win a title with your best player being limited offensively and completely defensive-minded? Can Howard play seriously and be tough when his team needs it? These questions must be answered.
With all the shooters in the world surrounding him, Howard has to dominate inside. If he can score at will in the paint, it will completely open up the perimeter for his sharp-shooting teammates. However, if Howard is a non-factor on offense, opposing teams can key in on shooters outside without having to worry about being punished inside. There is no doubt that the Magic are talented enough to return to the Finals and even take the whole thing; however, their success is tied directly to what Superman (sorry, Shaq) does on the inside. It’s really quite simple – if Howard dominates, the Magic will be back in the Finals, not Bron and the Cavs.
Ron Artest (Los Angeles Lakers) – Just how much pressure does Artest face this postseason? He put it best when he told reporters upon signing with the Lakers that, “Everybody in L.A. expects a second ring. And if we don’t then yeah, they should point it right at me, throwing tomatoes and everything.” While the truth of the matter is that the Lakers weak bench and inconsistent play from Andrew Bynum could be the Lakers downfall, the quick issue that fans and critics alike will point to if the Lakers don’t repeat is Artest. We all know about the de facto trade the Lakers made of Artest for Trevor Ariza, messing with a championship team to upgrade into a possible dynasty, and there have been people second-guessing it all season. Now that the playoffs have started, it’s time for Artest to earn his check.
While his scoring will not be relied upon, Artest must leave his mark on the defensive end for the Lakers to repeat. By effectively guarding the likes of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James, Artest will allow Kobe Bryant to focus most of his energy on the offensive end during the playoffs, where crunch-time scoring will be at a premium. If Artest can keep himself focused on D (and not take wild shots on the offensive end) the Lakers will remain the team to beat this postseason, Artest will get his ring, and his defensive prowess will go down in playoff history.
LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers) – This one is simple really, it’s all about legacy. James has all the talent, all the stats, all the awards to prove he is one of the best players to ever play the game. What he is missing is the most important thing of all: a championship ring. While the consensus seems to be that James has surpassed Bryant as the best player in the game, until he wins a championship he will just be a super-athletic version of Charles Barkley to Kobe’s Jordan. And LeBron knows this better than anyone. A title validates him as one of the top ten players of all-time. It allows him to stay in Cleveland and finish his career in his hometown, and it lifts the weight of the world off his back.
James has undoubtedly put up yet another classic season with numbers that you would only think possible in NBA 2K10. For the second straight season he has lead his team to the best record in the league, but should the Cavs fall short of a title, they will be the first team to ever have the best record in consecutive seasons and not win a championship. With the additions of Jamison, Shaquille O’Neal, and a much deeper bench, it’s now or never from Bron and the Cavs. If Cleveland fails to win it all this season, it is more than likely LeBron will bolt to another team and see what he can do in a bigger city. So what exactly is on the line for James this postseason? Just a legacy, a championship, and the hope of an entire tortured fan base. Hey Bron, no pressure, right?
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a