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The Five Most Interesting Players of the NBA’s First Round

Can Ben Simmons snap out of his playoff funk? Will Michael Porter Jr. be this postseason’s breakout star? And how will Kevin Durant fare while anchoring Brooklyn? Here are the players demanding our attention.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a 2020-21 NBA season that simultaneously felt like a sprint and a slog, and a week of play-in contests to finalize the brackets, the playoffs will officially tip off on Saturday. Sixteen teams, four rounds, and nothing but open space and opportunity between here and the great big golden ball at the end of the line.

Before the first round gets underway, let’s take a look at the five most interesting players in the 2021 NBA playoffs, in terms of both the questions facing them and the possibilities they could unlock for their respective teams. As always, these are the most interesting players to me; I would not presume to work in absolutes on matters of personal taste. (Though I would encourage you to entertain the possibility that I am right.)

We begin with the swing piece in the City of Brotherly Love:

Ben Simmons

It’s funny: I haven’t heard nearly as much “the Sixers are going to have to trade Simmons or Joel Embiid” talk this season, have you? I guess scoring at a rate in their shared minutes that would top the league-leading Nets offense and earning home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs has a way of quieting things down.

As much as Philly’s signature stars aced the regular season, though, graduate-level work lies ahead, if not in early-round matchups against the Wizards, Knicks, or Hawks, then in looming showdowns with star-studded heavyweights—Brooklyn, Miami, Milwaukee, the best of the West—capable of crafting the sort of game plan that we’ve seen stifle Simmons in the playoffs before.

You know the story by now: Simmons, one of the league’s most breathtaking offensive weapons when he gets the chance to attack in transition, becomes muted when opponents build a wall to keep him out of the paint on the fast break. That takes away one of the 76ers’ most reliable sources of points—the other, of course, being Joel Embiid Eating Souls—and forces them to try to generate good looks against set defenses. That process is complicated by Simmons’s famed aversion to shooting outside the paint, which makes it easier for defenders to put Philadelphia’s offense to sleep: The Sixers scored 98.9 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the floor during their second-round loss to the Celtics in 2018, and just 103.2 points per 100 possessions in his minutes against the Raptors in 2019; both marks would’ve finished dead last in the league in offensive efficiency in their respective seasons.

Why might things be different this postseason? Well, we can start with the fact that things were different during the regular season. Lineups featuring Embiid and Simmons scored 104.1 points per 100 plays in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass—the best mark the pair have managed in their four years together, and a full 10 points more per-100 than last season.

Shipping out Al Horford and Josh Richardson, two shaky-at-best long-range shooters, in exchange for Danny Green and Seth Curry, two excellent long-range shooters, has created more room for Embiid to embarrass and Simmons to slice. You still have to do something with all that new space for activities, though, and Simmons and head coach Doc Rivers have found some ways to get the former no. 1 pick into his comfort zone—which is to say, within arm’s reach of the rim—even when things slow down and Embiid is on the floor.

Philly will put Simmons in position to attack off screens—sometimes set well above the 3-point arc so he can build up a head of steam, sometimes lower ones set along the free throw line, sometimes snug pick-and-rolls with a teammate coming to stick his man on the block. From there, all he’s got to do is turn the corner and take one long stride and then he’s already in position for a dunk, layup, or hook:

Simmons has also been more effective using his size down low, bullying smaller defenders into the post or hunting deep seals in the paint:

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of disposition. Oh, you’re going to back off and dare me to shoot? My counterproposal: I drive into all that space and ram the ball down your throat.

Even without the credible threat of a jumper, Simmons is capable of making the plays—the purposeful off-ball cuts, the hard drives deep into the paint, the decisive duck-ins and flashes into the key from the dunker spot—that can elevate Philly’s offense rather than allow it to bog down when it matters most. If he can consistently bring the sort of juice that makes him a dangerous offensive player, even in the half court, Philly’s chances of winning the East improve dramatically. If he’s again minimized against the best opposition in the biggest moments, though … well, that tired old trade talk might come back again, this time louder than ever.

Kevin Durant

He’s not going to finish high in Most Valuable Player balloting, and he probably won’t make many voters’ All-NBA teams after missing more than half of the regular season with various injuries. But given his track record as one of the most versatile world-breakers the sport’s ever seen, and given what he’s shown this season—26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game, with the highest true shooting and assist percentages of his Hall of Fame career, and the Nets scoring a frankly absurd 124.6 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in his minutes—would you bet against Durant being the best player in the world for the next two months?

On the flip side: Given how much time he’s missed and the grueling task ahead—Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks or Jimmy Butler’s Heat loom in the second round, followed by a potential conference finals tilt against the Sixers, and a final-boss showdown with whoever survives out West—how confident can you feel betting on KD to not just rise to that nearly peerless level, but remain there through the end of the postseason?

Durant played just 35 games in his second season as a Net, missing nearly two months due to a strained left hamstring. That didn’t derail a Brooklyn team with top-end talent and coaching creativity to spare, but it did blow a hole clear through the middle of his triumphant return from a year lost to arguably the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer. Durant’s been a radiating sun over Brooklyn hidden by persistent cloud cover; only twice this season has he played in five straight games without sitting out for load management or injury maintenance.

One of those streaks, though, came in the Nets’ final eight games of the season. It’s absolutely possible that Durant has finally gotten totally healthy at the absolute right time for the Nets, and that the presence of James Harden (who only just returned from his own six-week hamstring ailment) and Kyrie Irving (who just became the fourth player ever to average at least 25 points per game on 50/40/90 shooting) will reduce the strain on the 32-year-old in the early stages of the postseason, allowing him to be firing on all cylinders at the most important moments of the season.

“A big goal for us was to be as healthy as possible by the end of the year, keep everyone on the same page, and be excited about what we’re doing,” Nets coach Steve Nash told reporters after Brooklyn’s regular-season finale. “Mission accomplished there.”

Even with Harden and Irving there to supercharge the offense, Brooklyn will need a fully operational KD to compete against the best of the best on the defensive end.

DeAndre Jordan brings size and strength on the interior, Nic Claxton’s been excellent defending in space, and Jeff Green and Blake Griffin have performed well splitting the difference between them. But Nash may well need Durant, even with a disastrous leg injury in his rearview mirror, to be his best frontcourt defender in the postseason crucible, bringing weak-side rim protection and perimeter versatility to bear to boost a Nets squad that enters the playoffs with the worst defensive rating of any East playoff team.

Durant has proved himself capable of turning in elite defensive work in the playoffs, spending some time dominating as a wildly overqualified backup center during Golden State’s championship reign. That was before the injuries, though; how often, and at what level, can he shoulder that sort of responsibility now? The answer could go a long way toward determining whether Brooklyn is able to muster even an average defensive performance … which, given how ridiculous that offense looks, might well be enough to win it all.


Donovan Mitchell

Utah’s front office has used every available avenue to stockpile talent over the years, from home-run swings in the draft (Rudy Gobert in 2013, Mitchell in 2017) and savvy signings out of European leagues (Royce O’Neale) and off the waiver wire (Joe Ingles, Georges Niang), to shrewd free-agent moves (Bojan Bogdanovic) and killer trades (Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson). The Jazz have finished the regular season with a top-five net rating three times in the last four seasons, and led the NBA in point differential this season. They were also the only team to finish 2020-21 in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They defend, shoot, and share the ball at elite levels. They can match physicality or finesse with just about any team they face. They have done virtually everything they can do to make themselves into a bona fide championship contender … except, of course, for the biggest thing.

Utah doesn’t have LeBron, or Kawhi, or KD, or Steph—the all-time talents who have dominated the NBA Finals for the last decade, the kinds of players who can provide an irrefutable answer to any question an elite defense asks in the season’s tightest moments. Mitchell isn’t on that level. But he’s the closest thing the Jazz have to that sort of late-game locksmith and crunch-time closer. Their chances of taking advantage of their pole position as the West’s no. 1 seed and coming away with the franchise’s first conference title in 23 years—fitting number, that—may well rest on whether Mitchell can elevate into even more rarefied air.

Mitchell has built to this point, bit by bit, from his star-making performance in his maiden playoff voyage to earning his first All-Star berth last season and becoming one of the breakout performers of the bubble with his opening-round duel against Jamal Murray. After that sweet showdown came to a bitter end for Mitchell—an exhausted 9-for-22 showing in Game 7 with one assist and nine turnovers, including a backbreaker in the closing seconds, as Utah blew a 3-1 lead—he set the bar higher, averaging 26.4 points and 5.2 assists per game while drilling 38.6 percent of his 3-pointers on just under nine attempts a night, all career highs.

He assumed an even larger share of the creative workload within Utah’s offense and didn’t buckle, cementing himself as one of the league’s most bankable high-volume creators—one of just 10 players to use more than 30 percent of his team’s possessions, dish assists on more than a quarter of his teammates’ baskets, and score at least 25 points per night.

“The shots he’s taking, they have been perfect,” Conley told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. “He’s getting what he wants in key moments of games. He’s not putting himself in a position where the defense dictates where he shoots.”

Mitchell was kicking it into an even higher gear, averaging 30 points per game in the month after the All-Star break as the Jazz looked to salt away first place in the West … and then he suffered a high ankle sprain that cost him the final month of the season. He stayed engaged during his downtime; Clarkson joked that he got so invested in acting as an auxiliary assistant that he “sat on a bench and was talking to an invisible team like he was the coach and started drawing up plays.” But four weeks of rest, rehabilitation, and an abundance of caution mean that Mitchell’s first live action since mid-April won’t come until the heat of a playoff series.

Given how daunting the Western Conference bracket is, he won’t have the luxury of taking his time to knock off rust or reestablish rhythm. The Jazz don’t just need Mitchell back; they need him better than he’s ever been to go from regular-season rabbit to real-deal contender.

“He’s the guy,” Conley recently told reporters. “He knows he’s the guy.” Opponents know it, too. And the Jazz will go only as far as he takes them.

Michael Porter Jr.

In searching for a silver lining after Jamal Murray tore his ACL and sent Denver’s present and future into a tailspin, here was the best I could do last month: “The Nuggets could need more dynamism and scoring oomph—not to mention someone else to carry the offense when [Nikola] Jokic needs a rest, given that Denver has scored at a near-bottom-five rate with both Jokic and Murray off the court this season. That might be music to the ears of Michael Porter Jr., whose elite combination of size and touch makes him an attractive option to soak up some of Murray’s opportunities.”

My suggestion that Porter might be OK with more touches and shots in an increased role has turned into what you might call “a galactically dramatic understatement.”

Porter Before and After Murray’s Injury

MPJ Minutes/G Points/G Touches/G Points Per Touch Points Per Shot Usage Rate True Shooting
MPJ Minutes/G Points/G Touches/G Points Per Touch Points Per Shot Usage Rate True Shooting
Before Murray's Injury (44 games) 30.5 17.3 38.8 0.447 1.292 21.1% 64.5%
After Murray's Injury (17 games) 33.4 23.5 48.2 0.487 1.418 24.0% 70.2%
Data via Basketball-Reference.com, NBA Advanced Stats, and Cleaning the Glass

That Porter is shining in a featured role isn’t stunning in and of itself; he was already coming into his own operating as a complementary stretch 4 before Denver traded for Aaron Gordon, and the two jumbo playmakers quickly found a rhythm together alongside MVP-to-be Nikola Jokic in a super-sized and super-skilled frontcourt. It’s the way Porter’s blowing up that’s raising eyebrows.

When Gordon first got to Denver, he experienced the sort of uptick in efficiency that we typically see when a player’s usage decreases and his role gets winnowed down to doing just what he does best. Porter, on the other hand, has been a wild outlier, producing even more efficiently in a greater volume of scoring opportunities despite receiving more defensive attention as Denver’s new no. 2 option. My Ringer teammate Kevin O’Connor recently broke down MPJ’s stunning play since Murray’s injury, with a particular focus on the growth he’s shown in creating his own chances and the potential that he could get even better as a ball handler and playmaker in the years to come:

You can almost see Porter putting the pieces together in real time. His offensive rebounding is down—a function of operating more frequently on the ball and from the top of the floor, as The Athletic’s Seth Partnow recently detailed—but his defense, a glaring weakness as a rookie and into the early stages of his sophomore season, has improved enough to earn heavier minutes and frequent praise from Nuggets head coach Michael Malone. That his production has continued to skyrocket even as he’s moved up a spot on the scouting report bodes well for his chances to hold steady as a dangerous threat in the postseason … which is good, because given the spate of injuries Denver’s dealing with and a high-octane and awfully tough opponent in the Trail Blazers waiting in Round 1, Malone and Co. will need every last bucket Porter can muster.

“With Jamal out, with PJ [Dozier] out, with Will Barton still working his way back, Michael’s going to be ultra-important for us on both ends of the floor,” Malone told reporters this week. “He’s got to be that second scoring option for us.”

How well the 22-year-old handles the pressure of being game-planned in a playoff series could determine whether the Nuggets’ hopes for another Western Conference finals run can stay alive. Those hopes seemed to be dashed when Murray went down. When talents like MPJ burst into full bloom, though, new possibilities quickly come into view.

LeBron James

The shot drew all the attention, and that’s fair; I mean, how could it not? A couple of days later, though, it’s worth revisiting how much LeBron took control of all the proceedings against the Warriors in Wednesday’s second half.

LeBron completely transformed the Lakers’ energy at the start of the third quarter. He sprinted into his spots to show Stephen Curry extra bodies, loomed as an opportunistic off-ball menace, and snuffed out layups as the last line of defense, helping shut off Golden State’s water and forcing turnovers to kickstart fast breaks that quickly cut into the Warriors’ 13-point halftime lead and changed the tenor of the contest:

After a quiet offensive first half, James put his imprint on the game on that end of the floor too. He set screens and rolled, puncturing the defense and attacking downhill before kicking the ball out to open teammates. He surveyed the floor from the high post, dropping beautifully weighted bounce passes through tight windows that led to layups. And, when necessary, he put his head down and barreled his way to the rim, no matter who was waiting there for him:

L.A. outscored Golden State by 22 points in James’s 17 minutes after intermission, during which the four-time champion and MVP poured in 16 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a block. LeBron did a hell of a lot to win that game before he ever lofted that end-of-the-clock desperation heave, locking in on both ends to reach a level that—even at age 36, in year 18, playing in just his fifth game back from a nasty high ankle sprain—puts him head and shoulders above just about everyone else in the league.

He receded from view a bit during that lengthy stint on the shelf, but it’s perhaps worth restating, just for the record, that yes, LeBron is still that friggin’ good. The Lakers scored like a top-10 offense with him on the court and a bottom-five outfit with him on the bench during the regular season, and, for the second straight year, they’ve remained elite even when James runs without Anthony Davis. (The reverse has not held true.) He remains an integral part of a defense that’s one of the NBA’s most disciplined in its help and rotations, and among the league’s stingiest overall—no. 1 in points allowed per possession, according to NBA.com’s numbers, second in the Cleaning the Glass efficiency metrics that filter out garbage time.

While a repeat title run would be unprecedented for the seventh-seeded Lakers, Wednesday’s win did set a fairly friendly table for LeBron and Co. The Suns have been one of the best teams in basketball this season, but save for Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, all of Phoenix’s most important players lack postseason experience, and you’d imagine James and Davis feel pretty confident in their ability to get busy against a frontcourt led by Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, and Frank Kaminsky. Survive the Suns’ All-Star guards, and the Lakers move into a matchup against either the Nuggets without Jamal Murray or a Blazers team that’s owned one of the league’s worst defenses for most of the season. And if the Lakers can make the conference finals healthy, it’ll probably be hard to cast their opponent as the favorite, no matter who’s left standing.

There are obstacles to overcome: the lack of home-court advantage, the persistent issues with the center rotation, the always looming prospect of Father Time finally catching up, etc. But there’s nobody in the league you’d trust more than LeBron to safely surmount them and land softly on the other side. If he and the Lakers can, there’s a path here—one that, if things break right, could lead to an 11th Finals appearance and, just maybe, a fifth NBA championship to tie Magic, Kobe, and Duncan.

I’m not sure repeating as the no. 7 seed would be as impressive as running through the bubble at the height of a pandemic, and I know it won’t replace the 3-1 comeback in 2016 atop the infinite scroll list of LeBron’s greatest accomplishments. It’s still a pretty gnarly challenge, though, and I’m eager to see how he tackles it. This year’s playoffs will feature a galaxy of stars and compelling talents; as he has for nearly two decades, though, it’s LeBron who most demands our attention.