The NBA playoffs can often serve as a predictor of the future as much as they can identify the present champion. Yes, the same two teams have made the Finals for the third straight year, but the path that led us there gave us a look into where other competitors stand. In these playoffs, some players made the leap while others fell off a cliff, a few coaches exposed their counterparts, and one exec picked up Mark Cuban’s old mantle as the best owner to watch in the postseason.
Steve Ballmer’s stock as the ultimate fan owner rose during the playoffs (so did, you know, his literal stocks). How did others around the league fare? Whose NBA stock rose in this year’s playoffs, whose dropped, and whose stayed the same?
John Wall: Up
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Wall has risen in the conversation of best point guards in the league over his seven seasons, but he’s seen the playoffs only three times in his career, including this year’s, which ended at the hands of the Celtics in Game 7 of the second round. His limited success in the prior two appearances left Wall invitationless to the society of league elites, which meant he got none of the club benefits (like, say, a shoe deal). In November, he expressed feeling underappreciated with quotes like, "They’ll find time to respect me." Whoever that was directed toward — on-court opposition, tight-whistled referees, or home fans who booed him — they retreated after Hawks-Wiz Game 6.
Wall dropped 42 to close out Atlanta on the road, and would later score 40 again on an away court against the Celtics. In 13 playoff games, Wall averaged 27.2 points per game, a 10-point increase from his first 18 games despite averaging roughly the same amount of minutes in his first two postseasons. He frequented the line more often, shot better in every department, and emerged as a legendary trash-talker. Wall took the Boston series to seven, but flamed out in that final game, likely due to finally wearing down from the complete lack of depth surrounding him. And while the Wizards didn’t make the conference finals (a Washington tradition unlike any other), Wall had never looked like a more convincing avenue to one.
Isaiah Thomas: Stayed the Same
Paolo Uggetti: Our first instinct with Thomas’s historic season should not be to determine its validity or project its significance, even though that’s exactly what I’m about to do. Let’s first just take a moment to appreciate that a guy shorter than the average American man dropped 53 points in a playoff game and routinely scored with ease on guys more than a foot taller than him. In a season defined by of basketball cyborgs (LeBron), robots (Kawhi), and machines (Russ), Thomas was The Little Guy That Could and Did, and he continued his dominant play throughout the postseason, averaging 23.3 points on 42.5 percent shooting while doling out 6.7 assists per game. His clutch scoring was the best among all players in the playoffs.
Despite those numbers and his confidence oozing as exuberantly as ever, Thomas didn’t make it out of the month of May unscathed. A hip injury that may require surgery in the offseason forced him out of his first conference finals stint early, while the fact that his team won a game without him on the floor has allowed the small-sample hot-take artists to ask, "Is Boston better without Isaiah?" Defensively, the answer is and has been yes, but minus IT, the Celtics have been much-maligned as a team without a go-to scorer. Isaiah, at the very least, tried to fill that void. Now, with the Celtics likely taking Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick in this draft, Isaiah — who will command a max contract in 2018 — could be expendable. He’s going to get paid. The question now is where.
James Harden: Down
O’Shaughnessy: The Beard’s postseason performances this year, much like his shot, fluctuated wildly. Harden averaged 38.7 points through the first three games against the Thunder in the first round, then went 0-for-7 from deep in Game 4. He shot 3-for-17 in Game 2 against San Antonio, then hit over 55 percent of his 18 shots four days later in Game 4. Now, that swing doesn’t matter. Only the Game 6 finale will be remembered. Specifically:
At the half of what would be his final game of the season, Harden’s stat line looked like teammate Bobby Brown’s garbage time: one field goal, five points, five turnovers. Things didn’t look any better in the second half, and Harden’s season ended with Montrezl Harrell subbing in for him after he missed one final 3-point attempt and fouled out on the next play. The 75 points the Rockets scored in the 39-point Game 6 loss were 17 fewer than they had scored in any game all season, win or lose
Harden finished with 10 points. It was his worst execution of not only the playoffs, but also the entire season. A month before, the debate around Harden was whether or not he deserved to be the MVP. After this loss, it was whether or not he had been drugged.
LaMarcus Aldridge: Down
Uggetti: There’s rock bottom, and then there’s Aldridge — no player’s public perception took a bigger hit this postseason. Just two years ago, he had both Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley fly out to court him as he was readying to leave Portland, seemingly unwilling to become the second fiddle to Damian Lillard. In San Antonio, he wasn’t expected to be a star — nobody really ever is — but he was forecasted to become the Duncanesque figure to a rising Kawhi Leonard that would keep the Spurs relevant for years to come. Instead, Aldridge underwhelmed and flamed out in these playoffs. On defense, he was overwhelmed by players smaller and quicker than him, while on offense, his patented midrange shot just wasn’t falling. Forget first or second fiddle. These playoffs have left us wondering if Aldridge can even be the third piece of any team with title aspirations.
Shea Serrano’s social media army christened Aldridge with a new nickname: LMAo. The unwritten, but expected law of competition says that winners will be lauded, and losers will deal with the shadow of negative perception cast upon them. The shadow looming over Aldridge is as large as it’s ever been. He’s got some image rehab to do this offseason.
Victor Oladipo: Down
O’Shaughnessy: Dipo arrived in Oklahoma City with some of that "Dwyane Wade upside" still intact. Sure, the guard had regressed during his third year with the Magic, but this was a player who played for three different coaches over a span of 32 games. What if his lapse in play was a product of his environment? What if a change to stable scenery was all he needed to keep his ceiling high?
Well, after this year’s playoffs, Oladipo’s first, the conversation turned to his floor.
After Kevin Durant left, OKC pined for shooters. Oladipo was averaging a healthy 16 points when he was acquired, but was in no way a consistent outside threat. Off-ball shooter should’ve never been his role, and the rims in Houston can attest: Dipo attempted five 3s a game in the playoffs with 24 percent accuracy. Even Andre Roberson, the worst deep shooter on a roster chock-full of bricklayers, made more postseason 3-pointers.
But penalizing a non-shooter for shots he’s not hitting is not why Oladipo’s stock dropped this postseason. The true letdown came when Billy Donovan trusted him to run relief point and play his game. Even with the ball in his hands, Dipo lacked aggression and struggled to finish. His appearances at the charity stripe were a rarity, as he averaged only one attempt per game, and he dipped well below his regular-season accuracy at the rim. Oladipo finished the five-game series against the Rockets with 54 points total to his name. That’s only three more than Westbrook scored in Game 2 alone.
Patrick Beverley: Up
Uggetti: Here’s a fun fact that should be printed underneath the bottle cap of your (my) favorite Diet Peach Snapple: Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley is allergic to fear.
Don’t believe me? Just watch:
In the Rockets-Thunder series, Beverley stepped into Russell Westbrook’s warped world with confidence, and his hounding play helped Houston dispatch Oklahoma City with ease. Though the Rockets fell to San Antonio in the second round, Beverley, a known defensive stalwart, had several offensive outbursts. In the regular season, Beverley scored 20 or more points only once. In the playoffs, he did it twice, and shot 40 percent from 3 overall, the best of any Rocket playing more than 10 minutes per game.
This postseason confirmed that Beverley is one of the league’s elite defenders: He showed he could get into an opponent’s headspace as easily as he could get into their physical space. As our own Kevin O’Connor pointed out, a 3-and-D player is a must-have in the today’s NBA. Beverley is no Kawhi in that realm, but if he can parlay his lockdown defense with the same kind of shooting he showed in these playoffs moving forward, look out.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Up
O’Shaughnessy: The Greek Freak’s postseason experience, however brief, was rich and full. So were his stat lines, which were stuffed on multiple levels, like boxes of jelly donuts. He averaged 24.8 points (53.6 percent shooting, 40 percent from 3), 9.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.7 blocks. He is, without a doubt, the future of the elbow-block movement —
— and just the future, in general.
Paul George: Down
Uggetti: April 15, 2017 — "Situations like that, I’ve got to get the last shot." — Paul George, after C.J. Miles missed a potential game winner against the Cavs in Game 1 of their first-round series.
Paul, you should’ve had a V8.
Russell Westbrook: Stayed the Same?
Brad Stevens: Up
O’Shaughnessy: Countering in real time has become Brad Stevens’s art form. For all that didn’t work this postseason, like playing too much Amir Johnson and trying Isaiah Thomas on John Wall, there were the corresponding adjustments that did: starting Gerald Green against the Bulls and hiding IT in the corner against the Wizards.
Boston entered the series against the Cavaliers almost predestined to lose; they were just a small aside in Cleveland’s larger plotline. But thanks to this after-timeout play in Game 3, the Celtics at least broke up the sweep.
Al Horford said the Celtics "didn’t really know [what] was coming" as the team watched Stevens draw it up. Neither, apparently, did the Cavs.
Doc Rivers: Down
Uggetti: Following the Clippers’ loss to the Blazers in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Doc Rivers told reporters: "Every year I tell our team that you have to be willing to get your heart broken to be a champion." As poetic as that may sound, the Clippers’ perpetual postseason demise has transcended the point of heartbreak.
After going out with a whimper against the Jazz in Game 7 of the first round this year, they appeared desensitized and almost accustomed to the mundanity of their postseason failure, which has been a product of injury, inadequate roster construction, poor in-game execution, and … whatever happened in 2015. Two of those reasons can be directly tied back to Doc, who assumed the president of basketball operations role following the Donald Sterling debacle. Doc has proved to be a serviceable coach, but has appeared out of his element as the head of basketball operations, signing former players of his as often as those who have given his teams trouble in seasons past. His deficiency in management has affected the perception of his coaching. Another injury to Blake Griffin helped expose the team’s lack of depth and the fallacy that a top-heavy roster can compete for a title.
As the Clippers head into an offseason riddled with uncertainty, free agency may likely decide Doc’s fate, but if Chris Paul wants the most money and Griffin doesn’t want to leave L.A., this group may get one more chance at running it back. It’ll be an opportunity to finally achieve their goal, or yet another path to heartbreak.