Culture of Hoops

NBA Playoffs: Legacy Watch

Image courtesy of Erik Drost/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Erik Drost/Flickr.

We’re down to the NBA’s Final Four — a foursome that is equally as predictable as it is surprising, if that makes any bit of sense — and that means we’ve gotten to the point in the postseason where we can seriously begin considering all that is on the line for every individual still duking it out. There isn’t any other professional sport that emphasizes the individual performance and achievement as much as professional basketball, and that’s why you hear the all-too-popular buzzword “Legacy” thrown around so often. I’ve taken it upon myself to create a legacy watch and figure out who has the most to gain, and lose, over the next month of the postseason.

15/14: DeMarre Carroll/Draymond Green

Whether it’s in Atlanta and Golden State or elsewhere, these two dudes are getting paid the big bucks this offseason, and for good reason. DeMarre Carroll was January’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month (with four teammates, but still) and Draymond Green was runner up for both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player.

So what do each have to gain? Draymond has been touted as a max-contract candidate nearly all season long, so unless he’s an absolute no-show the rest of the way he’s probably not taking a monetary hit, especially since he’s more than likely remaining a Warrior. Would and should teams throw a ton of money Green’s way if he makes it through the postseason with his reputation as a potential 14-10-5, All-Defense and Swiss Army Knife offense guy still intact? Hell yeah they should, and even more-so if they feel like they’re only one piece away from being a title contender.

It’s a similar story for Carroll, who’s ascent up the NBA ranks hasn’t been quite as profound as Green’s. He probably won’t get the money that Green will; Green is four years younger than Carroll and a little more versatile, but Carroll isn’t just some slouch who is being dragged along by the rest of the Hawks starting five, a narrative that was in play at the beginning of the season. Save for Al Horford, Carroll has been the best Hawk this postseason; their best perimeter defender, most consistent scorer and he’s shooting better than Kyle Korver. Over the next two rounds, pending a Hawks victory in the Conference Finals, Carroll will be the primary defender on LeBron James and then either James Harden or Klay Thompson in the NBA Finals. This next month is big for DeMarre Carroll.

13: Josh Smith

On his way to becoming one of the all-time great reclamation projects. In December Smith was paid by Detroit just to leave town and now five months later Smith has found himself in the best situation of his career and played his two most relevant games of his Playoff career (Game 2 against Dallas, where he threw 17 alley-oops to Dwight Howard in the 4th quarter, and Game 6 against Los Angeles, where Smith led the Rockets 4th-quarter comeback while James Harden sat on the bench). Just as easily as Smith could play the unexpected hero, he could have a couple of those 2-for-13, 0-for-6 from downtown stink bombs that result in Houston fans turning on him like Hawks fans did at the end of his tenure in Atlanta.

12: Klay Thompson 

Maybe he’s the Robin to Stephen Curry‘s Batman, but Klay Thompson is talented enough and streaky enough to string together a series of games that are good enough to win an NBA Finals MVP. Klay’s been good but not great this postseason, and he hasn’t had one of those breakout score 24 points in a quarter games yet. Having watched a ton of Klay Thompson this year I can confidently say he’s due.

If it comes against the Rockets then it means he’s doing it against James Harden, the unquestioned best shooting guard in the league; probably the only guy we can definitively put ahead of Thompson at that position. If it’s in the Finals, against either Cleveland or Atlanta, then it’s probably a game Golden State wins, meaning they’re one closer to winning an NBA Title. And to think, Thompson was nearly traded in the offseason for Kevin Love. It’s already one of the best non-trades in league history and a strong close to the postseason will only further that notion.

11: Al Horford

The heart and soul of the Hawks, a Bill Walton-esque difference maker on both ends of the floor, and the owner of one of the most clutch plays of the postseason so far. Horford’s stats don’t scream “Superstar” but he certainly is one, even if it’s not in the traditional sense of the word. All five Hawks starters have a legitimate chance at winning Finals MVP if Atlanta gets that far, but Horford is their best guy and that prestigious distinction wouldn’t change that fact. And what a feather in the cap of Horford it would be if he could add “Best guy on a title team” to his basketball resume.

10: NBA

As I’ve said before, I’m not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories in regard to NBA officials (even though, well, we’ve seen that kind of stuff before), but it’s easy to believe that it’s in the NBA’s best interest for LeBron James to be in the NBA Finals. If we get a Cavs/Rockets Finals, the NBA is in good shape. A Cavs/Warriors Finals is an absolute jackpot. A Rockets/Hawks Finals is, um, not quite what the league would prefer.

9: David Blatt

It would be hard for Blatt’s legacy to trend too far upward at this point, even if he becomes the first coach since Pat Riley to win an NBA title in his first year as a head coach. The popular belief is that this is a team run by LeBron James and Ty Lue, and Blatt is just some sort of overseer and figure-head who is an easy scapegoat if things go bad. There is definitely a scenario where David Blatt isn’t the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers next season, and that was in play even before he almost blew Game 4 against Chicago not once, but twice.

Would Blatt get twenty percent of the credit he deserves if Cleveland won the title? Ten percent? Probably not, but at least you’d think some job security would come with it. Remember, Erik Spoelstra was in a similar boat in 2011 as Blatt is now and look at how highly he’s regarded now. Blatt has a chance to turn this around.

8: 2004 Detroit Pistons

The current example for the superstar-less team that overachieves and beats all of the teams that played selfish, me-first basketball. Or something like that. The Pistons have held this title for a decade, but they’re just eight Hawks victories away from being removed from the top of that list. Even though the two teams are stylistic foils, they feel awfully similar from a brand/know your role and play it well/no star power/right team, right time/perpetually underrated perspective. The Hawks aren’t going to make six-straight Conference Finals appearances like those Pistons teams did, but one title certainly isn’t out of the question.

7: Kevin Love

Love won’t be playing for the duration of the postseason, but we’ll be talking about him at the end of Cleveland’s season, whether it ends in the Conference Finals or the Finals, or with a win or a loss. Love is going to be judged for what Cleveland does without him. If the Cavaliers can win the title, it will be easy to question whether Love is a cornerstone piece of a franchise or just a big numbers, lousy team guy. If the Cavaliers lose in the Finals but put up one hell of a fight, the narrative will probably be the same. But if there’s any point where Love’s absence truly rears it’s ugly head, the perception of Love may swing the other way. It’s tough to say whether that’s fair or unfair, but it’s the harsh reality that comes with being branded an NBA superstar.

Perhaps even more interesting than what happens with Kevin Love over the next month is what happens with Kevin Love in the month after that. Here’s a question to ponder: which scenario is it more likely that Love would remain a Cavalier; if they were to win the title or if they were to fall short? Either way, there might be a belief growing within the Cavaliers organization like Hey, we got this far without him, why don’t we spend the money we’d be giving him somewhere else. Regardless, these next two months are legacy defining for Love, even if he won’t be playing a game. Is he a luxury item or a necessity? Someone who is in it for the rings or in it for the big market recognition?

6: Steve Kerr

Kerr already holds virtually every first-year coaching record, and he’s two more series wins away from becoming the first coach in 34 years to win a championship in his first season on the bench. Sure, the Warriors won 51 games under Mark Jackson last year, but there’s a larger difference between a 51-win team and a 67-win team than people realize. Kerr came in and was smart enough to assemble a great cast of assistant coaches to help get him through year one. He recognized that the Warriors defense was stifling already so for the most part he left it alone. What Kerr did was fully unleash Stephen Curry, turn the Warriors into a jacked-up version of the San Antonio Spurs while also embracing their deadly small-ball potential, moving Andre Iguodala to the bench and turn David Lee into a seldom-used reserve while not loosing control of the team and also bring some championship experience to the bench.

If you were to have made a checklist before the season of all the things the Warriors needed to do to fully realize their potential, they’ve hit just about all of them. They aren’t too far from a title and permanent inclusion into any Best Team of All-Time discussion. And that means Steve Kerr would be joining elite company, and not just on a scale of first-year coaches.

5: Kyrie Irving

A few nagging injuries have kept Kyrie from being totally himself so far and that means he’s not too far off from drawing the wrong kind of Dwyane Wade comparisons. There’s still plenty of time left to turn that around though, and it’s crucial for Cleveland that he does, otherwise it’s just another 2007 Cleveland or 2014 Miami situation for LeBron. Kyrie’s legacy watch isn’t all that different than Klay Thompson’s. He’s clearly the Robin to LeBron’s Batman, but remember when Robin poured in 57 points against the defending champions in their building? Performances like that aren’t out of the question for a healthy Kyrie Irving; a Kyrie who can break down defenders, pull up from virtually anywhere on the floor and finish over bigs in the paint from all different sorts of goofy angles.

If that version of Kyrie shows up more often than not over the next two rounds, then there’s a really good shot Cleveland can compete for a title. There’s also a distinct possibility that in that scenario, it would be Kyrie Irving who wins the Finals MVP. That stuff doesn’t hold a ton of weight though. One great series is all it takes to win a Finals MVP. Tony Parker skewered the Cavaliers junior-varsity point guards in the 2007 and won the Finals MVP because of it, even though Tim Duncan was the best guy on the team. A Finals MVP wouldn’t make or break Kyrie’s legacy at this point in time. However, he can cement himself as one of the best “point guards” in the league and make a move on Dwyane Wade and Sasha Pavlovic as LeBron James’ best teammate.

4: Dwight Howard

Dwight’s looked like 85 to 90 percent of Orlando Dwight for the past four weeks, and as usual, he’s been better in the postseason than he was in the regular season. I’ve called him the rich-man’s Dikembe Mutombo before, but that’s just my hurt feelings lashing out for what he did to my Cavaliers in the 2009 Conference Finals. He’s the best NBA center since Shaq and even after back and knee injuries that required surgery, he’s still been the premier rebounder and rim protector this postseason. Watching his unpolished post game can leave you wanting more, especially since he’s hanging out with post-game guru Kevin McHale every day, but that doesn’t change the fact that Dwight’s averaged 20-14 in the postseason for his career and he’s not far off those numbers this season.

Remember how a championship made a lot of people forget about LeBron James’ Decision? Well a title for Dwight would do similar wonders for his back to back years of Indecision in Orlando and then Los Angeles. It would also put a stamp on an already Hall of Fame worthy career. And just imagine if Dwight tosses up 24-15 over the next two-rounds and steals a Finals MVP from Harden. Then he’d be joining Shaq, Olajuwon, Duncan and Kareem as the only Centers to win a Finals MVP since Bird and Magic came into the league. But as of right now, we don’t even know if he will be playing in Game 2.

3: James Harden

A realistic worry I have as a Stephen Curry fan/Warriors supporter: what if we’re about to see a Hakeem Olajuwon/David Robinson situation with James Harden and Stephen Curry in the Western Conference Finals? Harden was worthy of MVP consideration and was the runner-up on my ballot that doesn’t count (yet). His 2014-15 campaign was one of the best post-MJ shooting guard seasons, only rivaled by a couple of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson seasons. With a title on top of all of that, we’ll have to start taking a good hard look at whether James Harden is the best player in the league. From a bigger picture perspective, we’ll have to consider where Harden will end up placing in the all-time shooting guard power rankings.

He wouldn’t move past Jordan, Kobe, Jerry West, Wade, or probably Iverson (my top five) at the moment. Would a title and Finals MVP give him a leg up over Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Clyde Drexler and others who either didn’t win a title or won a title but couldn’t do so as the alpha dog? I say yes, and that’s not just a ring or no ring decision. Harden should already be climbing the ranks. Even if he never wins a title or an MVP, that doesn’t change the fact that at his absolute best, he was probably better than every other shooting guard with the exception of those top five.

2: Stephen Curry

Only ten players ever have won the NBA MVP Award and an NBA Title in the same season (Willis Reed, Lew Alcindor, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and LeBron James). Ten of the top 40 players ever, nine of the top 20, seven or eight of the top ten. Curry’s on the verge, and naturally, we’ll have to begin wondering what his career will look like ten years down the road.

For now, Curry is the most popular player in the NBA and one of the few guys who we can say is changing the way basketball is played. He’s some sort of ungodly Nash and Maravich hybrid with a dash of Isiah Thomas, Chris Paul and Tony Parker thrown in there too just for good measure. Would it be absurd to believe that when it’s all said and done Curry could be a top 25 player ever? Someone who shattered the career three-point shooting mark, a member multiple times of the 50-40-90 club, a terrifying late-game scoring option and someone who frequently appeared in the top ten of scoring, assists, and steals each season? It’s there for the taking, and a great start to building this legacy would be a title in June. It would cement Curry as the new (baby)face of the NBA, an incredible crowning achievement for someone whose ascent to the top of the league has been just as surprising as it has been delightful to watch.

1: LeBron James

It couldn’t have been anyone else, right? For as long as LeBron James is in the league, he will always have more riding on the end result of each season than anyone else will. A third title gives him the same number as Larry Bird (the only Small Forward you could rationally say is ahead of LeBron on The List) and it brings his Finals record to 3-3, a more than respectable tally.

Of course, in the minds of some, nothing LeBron James could ever do will ever be good enough to put him in the same sort of rarefied air as Michael Jordan and … oh wait, it’s just Michael Jordan, right? Nobody else even deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence, paragraph, chapter or book as MJ, correct? Let’s forget about the MJ-LBJ discussion, because clearly a lot of people can’t address that topic rationally.

A title for any star player is a legacy changer, but a title for LeBron James in Cleveland would somehow feel like even more than that. It would give him folk hero status in Northeast Ohio, almost rendering what he did on July 8, 2010 irrelevant. All that would matter is that the native Ohioan rescued the states most prominent city; a city that hadn’t seen a winner in over half of a century. LeBron’s not only playing for his own legacy … he’s playing for the legacy of the city of Cleveland.

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