Legacies can be defined, re-defined and permanently solidified in the NBA Playoffs.
That’s because leading your team to an NBA title victory puts you in a pantheon of all-time great players – as not many can say they’ve accomplished that feat – while failing to ever even reach the Finals gives you a far more dubious distinction, that of being a player who wasn’t a winner, even despite how great they may have been at their peaks.
Unfair as that may be, oftentimes, what we remember most about legends like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Elgin Baylor is the fact that they never won a championship.
Well, the 2020-21 NBA playoffs feature a few players who could one day be seen in the above unfavorable light, but before they do get permanently branded as non-winners, this postseason will give them another fantastic opportunity to improve their reputations forever.
Below, check out the nine players we believe have their reputations most at stake in the upcoming playoffs.
Rudy Gobert (Utah)
Since entering his prime, Rudy Gobert has been nothing short of the elite among centers, and the analytics back that up.
Dating back to 2016-17, Gobert’s first campaign where he started in every contest for the Utah Jazz, the big man ranks third among all players in combined Win Shares (interestingly enough, trailing just two players who are also featured on this list), 15th in Value Over Replacement Player and 21st in Box Plus/Minus.
And yet, Gobert, be it due to his lack of outside shooting touch or the fact he’s not quite a top-tier perimeter defender when forced to switch, still gets little respect from fellow players or the average fan on NBA Twitter.
Just this year, Gobert went last in the All-Star draft, an irreverent fact but one that somewhat indicates how other top-notch players feel about him. Kevin Durant also took not-so-subliminal shots at Gobert when he talked about guys who get played off the floor in the playoffs, as the belief is, if you force Gobert to defend shooters and drag him out of the paint, his impact decreases dramatically.
The numbers also show that Gobert hasn’t been quite as effective in the postseason. In his first three playoff runs with Utah, the Jazz were actually 10.1 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor. Last year, however, that did start to change, as Utah was 8.6 points per 100 possessions better with their French star manning the paint.
Of course, if that latter trend continues in this postseason, the narratives surrounding Gobert would change instantly, as a strong run and the Jazz making it at least to the Western Conference Finals, a stage that the big man has yet to reach in his career, would silence a lot of critics.
However, another early departure for Utah would only feed fuel to the fire.
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)
The quintessential Joel Embiid playoff moment came in 2019 after Kawhi Leonard sank the unbelievable fadeaway baseline jumper that hit every part of the rim before trickling in to send Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, after which Embiid was seen crying as he walked back to the locker room.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that form of expression after a highly emotional battle between two elite teams, but at some point, Embiid needs to start finding some form of postseason success before the questions surrounding his playoff reputation get even louder.
Things got even worse last season, when Embiid, without star point guard Ben Simmons due to injury, saw his Sixers get swept out of the first round by the Boston Celtics, despite him averaging 30.0 points and 12.3 rebounds in the series.
The postseason prior to that, Embiid was almost completely erased by in the series against the Raptors by Marc Gasol, granted, a former Defensive Player of Year, but one who wasn’t quite at his peak at that point anymore. In that seven-game showdown, Embiid averaged just 17.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists while shooting a paltry 37.0 percent from the floor.
What’s more, for his playoff career, Embiid has shot it far more poorly than he has in the regular season. The big man’s shooting splits in the regular season for his career are 48.7/32.9/80.8. For the playoffs, however? 43.7/28.6/78.6.
The fact that even his free throw percentage goes down in the postseason indicates the pressure could be getting to Embiid when it’s playoff time.
This postseason will be a massive one for the 27-year-old, as Philadelphia clinched the No. 1 seed in the East after Embiid posted the best regular season of his career, so they’ll have home-court advantage at least until the Finals.
However, another early playoff departure for the Sixers could raise even more questions about Embiid’s postseason impact and whether or not he’ll ever be able to lead a team to a championship.
Ben Simmons (Philadelphia)
Unlike Embiid, Simmons’ numbers don’t differ as much in the playoffs in comparison to his regular-season marks.
Simmons in the regular season averages a 15.9/8.1/7.7 stat line on 56.0 percent shooting from the floor and 59.7 percent from the foul line for his career. In the playoffs, his stat line is 15.0/8.1/6.8 while shooting 55.2 percent from the field and 65.3 percent from the free-throw stripe.
However, in the playoffs, when the floor shrinks and referees swallow their whistles, Simmons’ lack of shooting is even more painful for Philadelphia, and the results for the Sixers show that.
During Simmons’ last full postseason run, Philadelphia’s offensive rating was a mediocre 109.1 points per 100 possessions over 12 games, the No. 9 mark among all playoff teams that year. That preceding regular season, the 76ers’ offensive rating was 111.6, the eighth-best mark in the league that campaign.
This postseason could be a great opportunity for Simmons to legitimize himself as a playoff performer and improve his reputation, though, as the Sixers have surrounded him with very solid shooting through Embiid, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green, so all he’ll really have to do for Philadephia to succeed is set the table for everyone and continue playing the ridiculous defense he’s played all year.
Chris Paul (Phoenix)
For a player with as much time in the NBA and as many opportunities as he’s had in the playoffs already, Chris Paul’s reputation is pretty close to being set, and he likely only has a handful of chances left to change it.
Of course, Paul’s reputation as someone who’s been more of a regular-season performer than a playoff savant hasn’t all been his fault, as bad luck with injuries has really hampered his career to this point. (Yes, there was a meltdown or two for Paul during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs – like in 2015 when Paul’s Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead in Round 1 to… Houston, of all teams – but injuries certainly haven’t helped matters.)
The best example of that came in 2017-18, when Paul, then with the Houston Rockets, hurt his hamstring and missed Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals with the Rockets leading the series against the dynastic Golden State Warriors three games to two.
The Rockets would go on to lose the final two games of the series by a combined 38 points without their elite floor general, thus ending Paul’s best chance – by far – to this point of winning a title. Houston would have had to face LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in those Finals, but even at least making it to one championship series in his career would have been a huge boost to Paul’s legacy.
Never even having reached the Finals, however, solidifies the reputation he has right now, that of an all-time great, one of the best players ever without a ring, but one who has consistently fallen short in the postseason, a legacy the future Hall-of-Famer must hate.
All eyes will be on Paul and the Phoenix Suns these playoffs, perhaps more so than with any other player on this list, considering his age and how much time at the top he likely has left, which probably isn’t much.
Devin Booker (Phoenix)
Paul’s backcourt mate, Devin Booker, has a reputation that is far from being set, considering it’s his first time ever in the playoffs.
At the same time, the fact it took Booker until his sixth season to even qualify for the postseason probably contributes to his reputation, which, prior to this season, was that of being a great-numbers, bad-team guy.
Then again, it’s hard to fault Booker for that, as the Suns did a pretty terrible job until the last couple of seasons surrounding the dynamic 2-guard with the appropriate talent.
Now, however, the question will become: Can Booker continue to post the same kind of numbers in the playoffs – around 25 points per game, based on his latest regular season – and prove himself as an impactful postseason player?
It does seem like the former Kentucky standout has the temperament, shot-making ability and self-confidence to be a great playoff performer, as those attributes tend to translate well in postseason play among elite shooting guards.
The closest sample we have of how Booker might perform in a playoff setting came in the bubble last season, where the Suns needed to win out to even have a chance at making the playoffs. Phoenix would go 8-0 in those contests, just barely missing the postseason last year without Paul, with Booker leading the way in a massive way, putting up 30.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 6.0 assists while shooting over 50 percent from the floor.
The playoffs are a different animal, though, so Booker will have a lot on the line in his first taste of postseason action.
Paul George (LA Clippers)
Along with Chris Paul, Paul George may have the most in the line this postseason.
Another postseason failure could spell disaster for not just George, but the Los Angeles Clippers as a whole, as Kawhi Leonard is one of the few top players who can hit free agency this offseason.
George has made it out of the first round of the playoffs once since 2013-14, and the one time he did make it to the conference semifinals, with the Clippers last season, resulted in the Pandemic P nickname and Los Angeles embarrassingly blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets.
Over his last five postseasons, George is shooting just 41.5 percent from the floor and 36.3 percent from beyond the arc, down from his 43.7 percent/39.1 three-point percentage marks from those regular seasons.
The Clippers failing to walk the talk last season has led to them having a huge target on their backs, one that, in fairness, they have responded to fairly well to this point, finishing the regular season with the second-best net rating in the Association (+6.1) in 2020-21.
Nevertheless, none of that will matter unless George and Co. make it at least to the conference finals this year, if not to the Finals. Anything less will undoubtedly lead to an uncomfortable offseason for the club, one revolving around Leonard-related free agency rumors.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
There’s slightly less pressure on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, considering Antetokounmpo has already signed an extension with the club that will keep him in Milwaukee through 2025-26.
But as far as legacies are concerned, Antetokounmpo’s is still very much up in the air, as although he’s a two-time MVP already at the age of 26, he’s only been to the conference finals once, and there already appears to be a blueprint to slowing him down in the playoffs by building a wall around the paint.
The Miami Heat proved that last postseason in a 4-1 semi-finals victory over Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee. Granted, the Greek Freak did get injured relatively early on in Game 4 of that series, but by that point, Miami was already up three games to zero and he hadn’t exactly been lighting things up prior to going down, averaging just 22.7 points and shooting 45.1 percent from the floor (and a laughable 15.4 percent from three) in Games 1 through 3.
Luckily for Antetokounmpo and Co., the Bucks will get a shot at redemption right away, as Milwaukee will face Miami in the opening round of the 2021 playoffs. A convincing series win for the Bucks could be a huge boost for the team’s confidence going forward and might even help propel them farther than they’ve been in the postseason in recent history.
Another playoff dud by Antetokounmpo, though, will only continue to feed his naysayers, and though it won’t lead to speculation about him leaving Milwaukee anytime soon, it surely won’t do much for his reputation.
James Harden (Brooklyn)
One of the most notorious poor playoff performers – by a superstar’s illustrious standards, at least – in recent history has unquestionably been James Harden, who has failed to reach the Finals since leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to lead his own team.
Like with Paul, some of that has been due to bad luck, as who knew the Warriors would build such a fierce dynasty during Harden’s prime with Daryl Morey, who did everything in his power to build a winner around the bearded 2-guard in Houston.
But some of Harden’s reputation has been well-earned, too, as his numbers have been far less impressive in the playoffs than in the regular season.
During the former league MVP’s eight full seasons with the Rockets, he put up huge numbers: 29.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists nightly. In those eight postseasons with Houston, though, those numbers fell to 28.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists, and, most importantly, perhaps, his three-point percentage fell from 36.2 percent in those regular seasons to 32.4 in the following playoff runs.
That lack of elite shot-making from beyond the arc could be one reason why Harden has seemed to struggle in the postseason, though other factors were undoubtedly at play as well, perhaps even exhaustion from having to carry so much of the load on his own with Houston.
That surely won’t be a problem this postseason, however, as now with the Brooklyn Nets, not only does Harden have two other superstars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to share the rock with, but he’s also played in just three games since March 31, so he’ll be completely fresh heading into a vital playoff run for his legacy.
If Harden and the Nets fail to impress this postseason, the questions surrounding future Hall-of-Famer’s legacy will only get louder.
Donovan Mitchell (Utah)
Two things make Donovan Mitchell’s spot in this list a bit questionable.
For starters, he’s coming off an absolutely astounding playoff run in 2020, one in which he led all players in scoring, albeit over just seven games, at 36.3 points while also chipping in 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists on fiery shooting marks of 52.9/51.6/94.8 percent.
Second off, Mitchell is coming off an ugly ankle injury, and it’s not even clear when exactly he’ll be returning. It’s not even a guarantee he’ll be ready for the start of the playoffs.
Even so, Mitchell, a two-time All-Star already in his young career, has plenty of naysayers, with many, ranging from those who favor the eye test to those who trust analytics more, questioning whether or not he’s a legitimate franchise player.
Those questions should have been answered this regular season, where Mitchell graded out as roughly a Top 30 player in two popular per-game advanced metrics, Box Plus/Minus (Mitchell ranked 25th there in 2020-21) and Win Shares per 48 Minutes (28th), but still, they persist.
Provided he’s healthy, this postseason could be a great opportunity for Mitchell to silence those questioning him once and for all and prove he’s an impactful, star talent and not just a somewhat impressive scorer.