When the discussion shifts to the greatest competitors to play the game, one of the biggest and most important qualities referenced is the amount of NBA titles won. In the minds of many critics, this is what separates the good players from the great players. The inability to win a championship has often left Hall of Famers such as Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, and Patrick Ewing somewhat less appreciated for their achievements on the court.
It’s a completely unfair viewpoint to define a players’ impact and ability on the court, but in many ways it has influenced greatly the common idea of what factors make a player not only great but legendary (i.e. Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant). With all that in mind, here are three current NBA players with the most to lose in the playoffs.
3. Kevin Durant
In the last handful of seasons, Oklahoma City star forward Kevin Durant has elevated himself to an elite status as a top-five player in the league with seven straight All-Star Game selections, an NBA MVP award, five All-NBA First Team nods, and four scoring titles. He has also helped make the Thunder into a legitimate title contender, playing alongside another top-five player in Russell Westbrook, which has pushed expectations for the franchise to an astronomical level.
Since bursting through in the 2011-12 season, getting to the NBA Finals, Durant had the lofty expectations of being the next star player to take over the league and win multiple championships. In the three seasons that followed, the Thunder fell in the postseason due to major injuries. In the first year after the NBA Finals appearance, they lost Westbrook to a significant leg injury in the first round and fell in the second round to the Memphis Grizzlies. The next season, the Thunder fell in six games to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
Last year, the team failed to make the playoffs entirely, with Durant missing a bulk of the year due to persistent issues with his broken right foot, which needed additional surgery to correct the issue. The Thunder are once again one of the top teams, with both of their superstars healthy and currently holding the third-best record in the Western Conference, which is also the third-best in the entire NBA.
However, the Thunder have major hurdles to clear in getting past both the Spurs and defending champion Golden State Warriors in the playoffs. There is certainly plenty of time for Durant to get his first championship, being just 27 years old, but the further along he goes without that accolade the louder the criticism will be toward him.
2. Chris Paul
Over the past several seasons, Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul has established himself as arguably the best point guard in the game. He has nine consecutive All-Star Game appearances, four All-NBA First Team selections, five NBA All-Defensive First Team nods, and led the NBA in assists four times and steals on six occasions. However, there is a building reputation that Paul can’t get the job done in the playoffs. He has yet to make it to the conference finals in his career.
Paul has put together quite an impressive career, but when the playoffs come, he’s an entirely different player. He has ventured into the second round four times, including three out of the last four seasons. Paul had arguably his best chance to reach his first Western Conference Finals with the Clippers, holding a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets. Los Angeles fell short in the moment, seeing their 19-point lead vanish in the fourth quarter of Game 6, and the team shrunk in the all-or-nothing Game 7.
Paul has played well in the postseason, averaging 20.9 points and 9.5 assists in 65 career playoffs games, but it comes down to the simple fact that his team has yet to get over the hump. That said, Paul still has time to change that stigma by finally breaking through in the playoffs. Even if he does get to the Western Conference Finals the next wave of criticism will be whether or not he can win an NBA title, especially in the latter portion of his career. Yes, he’s still at the top of his game, but the clock is ticking on his opportunity to get it done.
1. LeBron James
LeBron James may have won two NBA titles, but the pressure to win is always on the Cleveland Cavaliers star. The bulk of this pressure is due to the fact that he’s arguably one of the most talented players to play the game, but the primary reason above all else is because of the comparisons to Michael Jordan, who has become the gold standard for any player vying for that stature of greatness.
James has already made NBA history by being the first player to reach six consecutive NBA Finals, but until he wins a few more titles, there will be the critics who will state that he can’t be in the same conversation as Jordan or any other of the past greats. That said, he has already proven that he’s a winner and nearly won a championship last year without the services of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love against the loaded Golden State Warriors.
James played at an unbelievable level, averaging a near triple-double with 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, including three 40-point performances and two triple-doubles. It’s a battle that James will never seemingly win with critics who try to find holes in the argument that he’s one of the greatest to play the game. The biggest counterpoint is that he can’t get the deal done in the playoffs. Like many other great players, even Kobe Bryant, he remains second fiddle to Jordan.