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Friday, June 18, 2021

Who’s under the most pressure to win the NBA title this season?

As the Los Angeles Lakers prepare to defend their title, many around the league are entering the playoffs under immense pressure

In a flash, the NBA regular season has come and gone. With the conclusion of 72 games for each squad, a relatively large number of teams will walk into the playoffs either missing or having a player deal with an injury that kept them out multiple games. Regardless, the NBA playoffs are always a time of immense pressure that makes or breaks a player’s legacy.

When looking back at those regarded as all-time greats, the majority of them have had success when the playoffs come around and it only enhances their legacy. But, if you look at all-time greats who retire with a lot of postseason shortcomings, the argument for them changes a bit. Some players thrive in these pressure-packed situations and others wither away. Although full capacity arenas won’t be a factor this year, the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent announcement that vaccinated individuals no longer had to socially distance or wear a mask indoors or out could change the amount of fans in the building. 

Whatever the case may be, this year’s playoffs are stacked with players and teams in desperate need of the NBA title. Whether it’s past shortcomings or time running out, The Aggie looks at which players and teams are under the most pressure to take home the championship this year. 

Shooting Guard James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

After Harden forced his way out of Houston back in January, he joined fellow superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. With that much star power on one team, many questioned how the team and first-year head coach Steve Nash would figure out a system to make sure all potential is maximized at all times. But, soon after Harden arrived with the Nets, they rotated injuries among the stars, oftentimes leaving the Nets with a pair of the stars at once. Having played less than 10 games together, the Nets are confident that they can figure it out. A lot of it, however, will come down to Harden and whether he will be able to overcome his playoff demons. 

After six straight years in Houston without an NBA Finals appearance, Harden’s inability to show up in the big moments was on full display on the Rockets as his overall shooting and play declined massively compared to his normal MVP self. This year, he will by far have the most talent on his team than he’s ever had, and with the Nets labeled as the frontrunners to win the Eastern Conference, Harden will have a chance at redemption. Playing alongside that level of superstars could decrease the pressure of some stars, making it easier for them to play their natural game without overthinking. How he will respond to not being the main guy in the playoffs anymore remains to be seen, but what’s certain is that, after all of the criticism and trouble he caused in Houston, Harden is under loads of pressure to not only perform great these playoffs, but also win the NBA title. 

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers’ franchise history has revolved around failure and falling just short. Having never made it past the second round, the other Los Angeles team had their season ended last year in grand and embarrassing fashion. After going up 3-1 in the second round series against the Nuggets, the Clippers went on to blow three straight double-digit leads and flame out before the Western Conference Finals once again. All the talk that the Clippers had last year after their additions of stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George made the criticism for coming up short that much greater.

Making the change at head coach, the Clippers added former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyron Lue to man the helm in Los Angeles. Lue has reshaped this Clippers offense, making it one of the best offenses in NBA history. With their impressive shooting and great acquisitions of role players, they have managed to put themselves on the topic of favorites once again. After last year’s catastrophe, Leonard and George will have all eyes on them as they lead the Clippers on their run this year. Specifically, George, he has had a great and impressive bounceback year, but it won’t matter unless he keeps up that level in the playoffs—something he has been unable to do. Nonetheless, the Clippers as a franchise is under immense pressure to win the NBA championship this year, as coming up short again for a second straight year could bring drastic changes.

Both Power Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwuakee Bucks

This option could have been the one with the most pressure had Antetokounmpo not signed a contract extension to stay in Milwaukee and was set to become a free agent this summer. Nonetheless, you could make the case that both Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are under a lot of pressure this year and it would still be valid. But, Antetokounmpo’s past two postseason runs have not been what the two-time MVP had expected as he has struggled to get the Bucks back to the NBA Finals. Although his numbers haven’t been drastically different like other superstars, he has had his fair share of shortcomings as the Bucks’ best player. His inability to make shots at the perimeter has made it hard for him to get his baskets in a long seven game series where the other team has the time to prepare and strategize for him. 

While the young MVP does deserve some flack for not being able to get over the hump, some of the blame could also go at his teammates and their inability to make open shots. Since Antetokounmpo generally operates close to the basket, teams often stack the paint and force him to pass it out. This, however, leaves a lot of his teammates with open opportunities that they just haven’t been able to convert. All of these factors come together to explain why the Bucks enter this year’s playoffs with a lot of pressure on their backs. With the emergence of the Philadelphia 76ers, the creation of the Brooklyn Nets super team and other teams in the Eastern Conference getting better, the clock is ticking for Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee to win a championship before it’s too late. 

Point Guard Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

Speaking of clock is ticking, 36 year old point guard Chris Paul continues to disregard time as he has led his Phoenix Suns near the top of the Western Conference and its first playoff berth in 11 years. Next to young superstar Devin Booker, Paul has been able to stay healthy for the second straight season and continues to wow fans with his fantastic point guard play. Even though his numbers aren’t jaw dropping, his leadership to this young Suns team has been huge and a big part of why they stand in that position heading into the playoffs. 

This pressure is different than those previously mentioned. While Paul also had his playoff failures with the Clippers, he has been able to turn it around in recent years. The problem, however, continues to be health. As mentioned, he has been pretty healthy the last two years. But, at 36 years old and yet to win a championship, time is running out to win a championship. This Phoenix team has the potential to make a deep run and could be Paul’s best shot at an NBA title since the 2017-18 season with the Houston Rockets.

Small Forward LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

How could a team that won the NBA championship last year be under pressure to win it again this year? While it is true the Los Angeles Lakers were able to capture their 17th NBA title last October in the bubble, this pressure exists in a grand scheme of things. Like Paul, James is 36 years old and is now playing in his 18th season. Known for his ironman durability, James has suffered injuries that kept him out for an extended period of time for the second time in three seasons. Still, the four-time NBA champion enters this year’s playoffs healthy and if anyone knows what it takes to win a championship, it’s him.

The reason for the pressure comes from an all-time perspective. A fifth championship ring for James would make his argument against the “Greatest of All-Time (GOAT)” Michael Jordan even stronger, as he would stand just one away from tying him. At this point in his career, James has defied father time and is still playing at an MVP level even after 18 years in the league. The only thing left for him to do in his career is accumulate and rack up accolades to the point where it would make his GOAT argument impossible to dismiss. Nobody knows how long James has left at this all-time level, but with his team looking to repeat, another championship title with the Lakers could be another thing that could make his legacy even stronger. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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