Now this list can’t technically be fully complete since the playoff teams aren’t determined yet, but I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on which players have had the most meaningful seasons for their teams and which ones will be the most essential to both their team’s success and a viewing audience. So even though Milwaukee is only two games back and Utah is only half a game behind, for the sake of this post, we’re going to assume they don’t make it to the postseason. The Suns currently hold the eighth spot, owning a tiebreaker over Houston, and since they’re both so close to the Nuggets and Mavs, I included a player from each of those four teams just in case. Spoiler alert: the biggest snubs on this list are Dwyane Wade, Andrew Bynum, Russell Westbrook, Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin. Now that that’s out of the way, without further adieu, here are the top 20 players you need to watch in the NBA playoffs this year:
20) Steve Nash – There’s no guarantee this guy even gets a chance to make some noise in the playoffs, but if Phoenix does somehow maintain their current playoff standing, Steve Nash is the one you want to pay attention to. The way he facilitates and runs the point guard is absolutely gorgeous to watch, and if he takes a decent number of shots, he can be pretty entertaining in close games as well. Don’t count this championship-hungry point guard out just yet.
19) Andre Iguodala – I’m not big on the 76ers. The numerous posts I’ve written about them this year should have gotten that point across already. I didn’t even want to put anyone from Philadelphia on this list, because they don’t really have anyone exciting on their roster anymore, but if anyone in Philly were to help the Sixers finally get past the first round of the playoffs, it would be Andre Iguodala. The new A.I. has seen better seasons, but he finally hit the 20-point mark for the first time in 40+ games. If he can somehow put up solid numbers in multiple categories like he tends to do, who knows? Maybe Philly will be worth watching this year.
18) James Harden – What? Russell Westbrook gets snubbed and somehow James Harden makes the cut? Let me explain. While Westbrook is certainly one of the top players to watch every night for his pure athleticism and entertainment value, James Harden is the definitive role player to keep an eye on during the postseason this year. We’ve grown accustomed to both Kevin Durant and Westbrook going for 40+, but few people realize how vital James Harden’s scoring ability is for this team. Harden has been the perfect sixth man and third-best player on the Thunder, and if he plays as well as he has all season, I still think the Thunder are favorites to make the NBA Finals. Plus, for the millionth time, you can’t ignore that ferocious beard!
17) Paul Pierce – Rajon Rondo is running the show down in Boston as the ringmaster, but Paul Pierce is the main attraction. Pierce is the one who puts up big points, take game winning shots and usually rises to the occasion when matched up with another superstar at his position (LeBron James especially). Rondo is the one with the pretty assists making critical plays for his team, but Paul Pierce is the one knocking down threes and somehow getting around younger defenders to the rim to fire the crowd up.
16) Chris Bosh – Yes, I am fully aware the Dwyane Wade is probably the biggest snub on this list (Russell Westbrook is up there too), but from a team’s success standpoint, the Miami Heat always have the comfort of D-Wade showing up to play well. Saying Wade is going to play well in the playoffs is like saying the Bobcats are a terrible team; we already know that. But whether or not Chris Bosh shows up will be a huge question for Miami. If Bosh rebounds and puts up 20+ points a night, the Heat will be extremely tough to beat, but if he disappears, so will Miami.
15) Arron Afflalo – I wanted to give this spot to Danilo Gallinari, but with the way Arron Afflalo’s been playing lately, it’s impossible to deny that he is the player to watch on the Denver Nuggets this postseason. It’s hard to pick just one player on such a balanced team, but Afflalo’s been leading this team in scoring and playing very effectively. While I still think the Nuggets need Danilo Gallinari to play like an All-Star to win and even though Ty Lawson is prone to having big nights, Afflalo will most likely be Denver’s most consistent offensive weapon.
14) Tony Parker – Someone from the Spurs had to make the list, and since Tim Duncan is so fundamentally sound that his dominance has become boring to us, I had to go with Tony Parker. Parker has had an All-Star season and is probably the most exciting player to watch on a very mundane Spurs team. San Antonio has never been the most entertaining team to watch, but if they want to avoid another first-round playoff exit, they will rely on Tony Parker to run the offense and pump up the fans.
13) Goran Dragic – Now everyone in the NBA knows what Phoenix Suns fans have known for years: Goran Dragic is a quality point guard who should be starting somewhere. Now that he’s gotten that chance in Houston, he hasn’t disappointed expectations, averaging 19.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 3.4 rpg and 2.0 spg in April. He was a terrific replacement when Kyle Lowry was out with a bacterial infection and is keeping Houston in the playoff race as a starter even with Lowry playing again. Dragic is exciting, athletic, attacks the basket and has been an extremely pleasant surprise for the league. Keep your eye on this kid, he can score points in bunches.
12) Rudy Gay – Rudy Gay is Memphis’ main main and can get a crowd on their feet extremely fast with one his signature high-flying dunks. Marc Gasol will need to keep performing consistently and I almost gave this spot to Zach Randolph because of how badly the Grizzlies need him to play well again, but Rudy Gay will be leading his team in the playoffs this year, for better or worse.
11) Rajon Rondo – Paul Pierce connects better with the crowd, but Rajon Rondo’s tendency to rack up triple doubles and find the open man with fancy passing and dribbling makes him the show-stopper in Boston. Rondo doesn’t always put up big scoring numbers, but the way he runs the point powers this Celtics team and is worth noticing.
10) Josh Smith – Josh Smith is Atlanta’s Do-It-All Guy. The Hawks really don’t look like they’ve improved much over the past few years and seem primed for a first-round playoff exit (again), but if they somehow do compete, it’ll be behind superhuman performances from Atlanta’s high-rising, all-around stud Josh Smith. Smith can score, rebound, block shots and do whatever else his team needs to win. Joe Johnson used to be the alpha dog in Atlanta, but Smith has taken over that role now.
9) Dirk Nowtizki – Don’t forget the guy who’s the main reason we refer to the Dallas Mavericks as “defending champs.” Dirk has struggled at times this season, but if he finds the right motivation, he can single-handedly keep his team in games down the stretch. Dirk is nearly impossible to guard, so when he’s starting to get hot, you can almost guarantee audiences are in for something special.
8) Dwight Howard – After a drama-filled season, Dwight Howard almost needs to come back and play. Herniated disk in his back or not, Superman has to show up and play his heart out this postseason to save his team and his reputation. The Magic have been on the steady decline with Howard sitting out, and after all he’s put the Orlando organization and fanbase through this season, the least he could do is come out and roll over every center unfortunate enough to cross his path. Dwight Howard flip flopped on staying in Orlando. He was involved in rumors that he wanted Stan Van Gundy fired. He mailed-in an awful, half-hearted performance the day those rumors surfaced. He owes the Magic everything he’s got and if he’s healthy (big IF there), we could be in for a treat.
7) Danny Granger – Danny Granger never gets enough credit for being the superstar that he is; he didn’t make the All-Star team this year getting completely snubbed, yet he’s led the Pacers night in and night out. Indiana still isn’t getting credit as a tough postseason matchup, yet they’re third in the Eastern Conference and find a way to just keep winning thanks to Granger’s consistent scoring every game. The Pacers were my sleeper team before the season even began, and rightfully so after they gave the Bulls all they could handle in the first round last year (Chicago won in 5, but had to work for all of those wins). If the Pacers turn out as dangerous as I think they are, Danny Granger will be the guy to keep an eye on.
6) Kobe Bryant – Kobe Bryant is always a player to watch come playoff time, but this year his story will be more interesting based on how he deals with that shin injury that has sidelined him for five games now. Make no mistake, Kobe has no problem playing through pain. So with him missing so much time, he is either in a lot of pain or he’s really making a commitment to being 100% for the playoffs. Either way, how Kobe comes to play this postseason will be worth following, especially now that the Lakers have established some chemistry and have been able to win without him on the floor. Andrew Bynum was a big snub, especially considering his temper and what he did in the postseason last year, but Kobe is still the biggest reason to watch the Lakers and that won’t change even if Bynum is still a head case.
5) Chris Paul – There is one player you need to watch during the playoffs this year on the Clippers, and no, it isn’t Blake Griffin. I’m sure Griffin will provide us with plenty of Lob Alert specials on SportsCenter’s Top Ten, but Chris Paul is the player to watch for LAC this season. CP3’s complete control of the game has been quintessential of what a true point guard does: managing and facilitating, deferring to teammates for the majority of the game and taking over in the fourth quarter when they need it the most. If there’s a close game for the Clippers, notice how it will come down to Chris Paul’s heroics.
4) Derrick Rose – The Bulls success this postseason is contingent upon one thing: how Derrick Rose fits in with Chicago’s new team chemistry. Everyone knows the Bulls won’t win a championship without D-Rose, but it’s also pretty clear they can’t win if he’s taking too many shots or not 100% up to speed. Because of all the time he’s missed with injury, D-Rose has to make sure his own skills and play are up to par as well as fit in with the team dynamic again. The Bulls are the best team in the league as of right now, so if Derrick Rose can elevate his game again and if Chicago’s supporting cast can play as well as they have without him on the court, the Windy City might get its first championship since the days of Michael Jordan.
3) Carmelo Anthony – Here’s his recent resume: over 30 ppg and 7 rpg in the month of April, singlehandedly turned New York into the most dangerous underdog in the East, inspired the entire city’s hope in a Knicks team with an interim coach, finally started playing like the top 5 superstar he was down in Denver, played much better defense, looked like he cares about both sides of the court, developed into a leader for a team without Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, and finally looked happy playing the game again. I’d say that sounds like a player worth watching when the playoffs roll around. Based on how everyone in the NBA is playing right now, if I had to pick one guy to lead this Knicks team to a first-round upset over the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls (their most likely opponents as of right now), it’d be Carmelo Anthony. I told you Melo wasn’t the problem!
2) Kevin Durant – People have been saying it all season long: This is Oklahoma City’s year. This is Kevin Durant’s year. The Thunder have handled all that talk all year long and have done it well until recently when they dropped a few games. But OKC still sits atop the Western Conference and anything less than the Western Conference Finals would be a big failure for them. Kevin Durant has stepped up in big games all season long, can score from anywhere on the court and electrifies audiences and home crowds with elite crunch-time performances. Durantula is one of those players that you just sit back, relax and enjoy.
1) LeBron James – LeBron might be the number one guy to watch this postseason. Not only because of his MVP season that he’s had this year, but because this year, LeBron NEEDS to win it all to save his name, his reputation, his Decision and possibly even his legacy. The fact that Miami didn’t win it all last season was disappointing, but not inexplicable; it was only their first year together. But this year, after having a whole season to improve with that thirst and anger after losing last year, falling short this year would be indefensible. So now everyone will tune in to watch LeBron James either finally succeed, score in the crunch time and prove everyone wrong, or they will watch as LeBron shies away from the fourth quarter spotlight, the Heat implode and revel in watching this misunderstood superstar fall flat again. Either way, you know you’re going to be watching.