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This may be a radically different postseason than we’ve ever seen, but even without fans present, the 2020 NBA Playoffs come with a ton of pressure. Aside from the constant threat of catching coronavirus, not having family or friends around for weeks on end and trying to get back in shape after four-and-a-half months away from sports, these games will bring the usual, rigorous demands of high-octane playoff basketball.
This postseason may feel more like an AAU tournament, but when the games are officially underway, the world’s best players will once again be competing for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Being that NBA basketball will be one of the only major sports being broadcast in America and around the world, all eyes will be on these games — even without the familiar roar of a home crowd.
The question is, which players will be under the most pressure to perform under these strange circumstances? Whether it’s from having to carry a team to victory, trying to restore the front office’s patience with their team’s roster outlook or Father Time closing in, here are the five players under the most pressure in the NBA restart.
Honorable Mentions: Damian Lillard, Skinny Nikola Jokic, Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, Zion Williamson
5. Paul George
Kawhi Leonard feels like the obvious choice to represent the LA Clippers, but after what he did for the Toronto Raptors last year, no one should doubt what he’s capable of come playoff time. Even if he did fall on his face, last year’s Finals run has more than earned him a pass. We humbly submit another option, in the form of a guy who’s fallen short numerous times in the postseason.
The Clippers don’t need Paul George to be an MVP candidate to win playoff games; they just need him to be a terrific two-way player who can help Kawhi turn the tide in the Battle of L.A. PG-13 repeatedly disappeared in big games with the Oklahoma City Thunder and even at times with the Indiana Pacers. George may not be under pressure to be “the guy” for Los Angeles, but Leonard always shows up big in the postseason. Will PG follow suit with championship aspirations on the line?
4. Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons
These two are intertwined, mostly because the chatter over their uncertain future together is a constant topic of debate. The heights that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have been able to elevate their team to in just two-and-a-half seasons together are honestly impressive, but all anyone wants to focus on is how they “can’t play together” or how “one of them needs to be traded so they can build around the other.”
True enough, the Philadelphia 76ers have done a less than optimal job complementing their two superstars, neither of whom can shoot. But even if Simmons is only in his third NBA season and Embiid is only in his fourth, another shallow playoff run — to follow up an incredibly disappointing regular season, no less — will only make those cries for a roster rehaul even louder.
3. LeBron James
LeBron James will always find himself on a list like this as long as he remains among the NBA’s elite because there will always be more at stake for him. Chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan is a nearly impossible task, so every year the King is healthy and able, it’s a championship-or-bust endeavor.
It’s not just MJ that’s haunting LeBron these days though, since Father Time is lurking in the background, looming over the 35-year-old and waiting for the first sign of slippage. He hasn’t gotten one yet, but after all this time off, it will be difficult for LeBron to turn the dial from zero to 100 for a few months of quarantine basketball, enjoy only a month or two off before another full NBA season on deck, and then navigate yet another shortened offseason (with the Olympics possibly thrown in there somewhere) before the 2021-22 campaign.
These playoffs could be LeBron’s last, best shot at winning a title with the Los Angeles Lakers before gradual decline finally creeps in. Just because he’s better suited than anyone for this postseason doesn’t mean he’s free from the pressure.
2. James Harden
Maybe it’s unfair to put James Harden and the ultra-small Houston Rockets this high, but don’t let their current standing as the 6-seed in the Western Conference fool you; they’re only 2.5 games out of the 3-seed, and no matter where they land, their unique playing style, 3-point heavy approach and small-ball lineups make them a team nobody wants to face in a seven-game series.
However, even if a crowd-less postseason plays right into Harden’s hands, the pressure’s still on. This current iteration is Daryl Morey taking his approach to its zenith level of experimentation. If it fails, not only will his job security be at risk, but so too will his team-building approach, his head coach in Mike D’Antoni and possibly even Harden as the centerpiece of a championship-caliber roster. The Beard could absolutely be the best player on a title contender, but given Houston’s salary cap situation, another postseason implosion might see a new GM picking up the smoldering remains of the Rockets to build something new.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
If Harden fails to propel Houston to a championship, oh well; the Rockets entered the bubble as the 6-seed and it’s nothing new for him and Morey. If LeBron falls short, no sweat; he’s already got three titles to his name and is still one of the two greatest NBA players ever. If Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons crash and burn, they’re still incredibly young. If Paul George disappears, he’ll catch flak, but he’s not even the best player on his own team.
No, the player facing the most pressure in this NBA restart — which dwarfs that of everyone else — is the reigning (and likely two-time) MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak was on a whole different plane this season (and no, it wasn’t a close MVP race, Lakers fans). Therefore, as both the player who had the best season in the league and the best player on the league’s best team, it logically follows that anything short of a championship would be a disappointment.
This long hiatus throws everything out of whack for the Milwaukee Bucks, who — contrary to what talking heads might have said after one defeat against the Lakers — still felt like they were miles ahead of the rest of the league. Now, Eric Bledsoe hasn’t even entered the bubble yet, and Giannis has to prove his team’s regular-season dominance will translate to this truncated postseason.
Last year in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis and the Bucks were up 2-0 on the Raptors before losing four straight and watching Toronto go on to win it all. This year, the narrative was always Lakers vs. Bucks, LeBron vs. Giannis. With questions about his 2021 free agency hovering overhead, the Raptors standing in his way in the East and a potential Finals matchup against either Kawhi or LeBron looming, Giannis has a lot of demons to exorcise in these playoffs.
Speaking of pressure, James Harden is also facing some scrutiny after wearing what looks like a Thin Blue Line mask in Orlando. James, wyd?
Kevin O’Connor has started his Power Re-rankings of NBA teams in the bubble over at The Ringer.
Zion Williamson has left the Orlando bubble due to an urgent family matter. Here’s hoping everything is all right with his family and then he’s able to suit up for these imminent NBA games soon.