How 2022 NBA Playoffs can impact legacies of Chris Paul, James Harden and other stars
The NBA Playoffs are where legacies are changed forever.
Every year there are players who have the opportunity to alter their standing in NBA history with one playoff run.
Just last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo took a leap to the next tier of all-time greatness when he added an NBA title and Finals MVP to a resume that already included two MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award.
The narrative quickly shifts from a player who can’t get over to the hump to a player who has championship pedigree. But while putting up huge numbers or making a deep run on the brightest stage can uplift a legacy, coming up short when it matters most can have the opposite effect.
These playoffs are no different with several superstars gearing up for legacy-defining outcomes.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
After 12 playoff appearances filled with injuries and shortcomings, Paul finally broke through the Conference Finals stage to reach the NBA Finals for the first time last season.
Paul is already considered to be among the best point guards in history. I don’t think anyone would argue he belongs in the conversation with guys like Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Stephen Curry and Isiah Thomas. But there is one thing that those four greats have that Paul doesn’t – an NBA championship.
He has more career points than Magic, Steph and Isiah. He has more assists than everyone in NBA history not named Jason Kidd or John Stockton. The same goes for steals, except you have to include Michael Jordan with Kidd and Stockton, too.
He has 12 All-Star nods, 10 All-NBA and nine All-Defensive Team selections, led the league in steals six times and assists four times. His legacy was already solidified as a member of the NBA 75 team, but that elusive championship is the final missing piece.
Leading the Suns to the best record in the NBA, Paul will have as great a chance as ever to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in his career.
James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers
The pressure is on for Harden.
The 32-year-old already boasts a lengthy list of regular season accomplishments. He’s an MVP, a 10-time All-Star and a seven-time All-NBA member. He led the league in scoring for three straight seasons from 2017 to 2020, earning his place as one of the most prolific bucket-getters in NBA history. He’s also led the league in assists and even has a Sixth Man of the Year award on his resume.
But ever since he made the NBA Finals with the Thunder, Harden has not been back, and he’s starting to earn a reputation as a player who folds in the postseason.
His playoff averages since leaving Oklahoma City in 2011-12 are still Harden-like — he’s averaging 27.6 points, 7.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds over his last nine postseason appearances — but his efficiency drops off a cliff, shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from 3. It doesn’t help that he’s disappeared in some key moments.
After demanding a trade from Houston to Brooklyn and Brooklyn to Philadelphia, Harden is now in the situation he supposedly wanted to be in all along. He’ll always be one of the greatest players and shooting guards of all time regardless of how this postseason shakes out, but his legacy will change forever if he can elevate his game alongside an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid to earn his first NBA title.
Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
You could already make the case that Durant is one of the 15 greatest players in NBA history. He has the regular season accolades and he’s gotten it done in the playoffs as a two-time NBA champion and a two-time Finals MVP. Add that to his resume of an MVP, 12 All-Star bids, nine All-NBA honors, four scoring titles and a Rookie of the Year award, and you’re looking at an active Hall of Famer.
But even though Durant already has two championships and two Finals MVPs, there will always be people who discredit those achievements after he joined the Warriors dynasty. To some, it doesn’t matter that Durant was the best player on those teams. It rubbed NBA fans the wrong way when he elected to leave Oklahoma City for the team that defeated him in the playoffs the year before.
Earning a third NBA title – and Finals MVP – on a team that is undeniably his would take away any argument for Durant naysayers. Especially when you consider the journey started in the Play-In Tournament.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
You already know where this is going – the elusive Finals MVP award.
Curry’s resume speaks for itself. He’s a three-time champion, two-time MVP and he’s the greatest shooter in NBA history. He’s one of the most impactful players to ever play the game.
When you zoom out with that lens, the void of a Finals MVP trophy doesn’t even matter. But you don’t think Curry wants one?
Curry is the cornerstone of the Warriors dynasty. Without him, they don’t win a single championship. But with Andre Iguodala earning one Finals MVP and Durant taking the other two, Curry still has yet to hoist that trophy alongside the Larry O’Brien.
If Curry could add a fourth NBA title and a Finals MVP to his trophy case this season, would he have a case as… the greatest point guard of all time?
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last year, Antetokounmpo began to make his case among the all-time greatest players in NBA history.
In leading the Bucks to his first NBA championship, Antetokounmpo joined Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to ever win an NBA title, a Finals MVP, a regular season MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year award. If you bump the criteria to two regular season MVPs, that list trims down to just Antetokounmpo and Jordan.
The craziest part? Antetokounmpo (26 years old) achieved the feat faster than both Jordan (27) and Olajuwon (31). And now he has the chance to add another championship and Finals MVP to his resume at 27.
As Antetokounmpo begins to enter his prime, one has to wonder where he’ll end up in conversations when discussing all-time greatness. The best international player ever? One of the best players ever?
Nothing is out of the realm of possibility for Antetokounmpo at this point.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: Doncic is different from every other player on this list because he is yet to even win a playoff series in his career. Doncic has been incredible in his first two playoff appearances, averaging 33.5 points, 9.5 assists and 8.8 rebounds per game, but he hasn’t gotten out of the first round. However, at 22 years old, in the fourth year of his career, it’s hard not to draw the parallels between Luka and LeBron James, who carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals as a 22-year-old in his fourth NBA season.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: Jokic is well on his way to winning back-to-back MVPs and has already experienced postseason success. In three playoff appearances, Jokic has never been eliminated in the first round. He’s already reached the Conference Finals, so the only next step is the NBA Finals. While the shorthanded Nuggets drew a tough first-round opponent in the Warriors, don’t put it past the reigning MVP to pull off an upset and add to what is already an impressive legacy at 27.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: Tatum has already seen more postseason success at 24 than some players experience in their entire careers. In just four playoff appearances, Tatum has already been to the Eastern Conference Finals twice. But with that success comes increased expectations, and after Tatum took another leap to become one of the best players in the entire NBA this season, anything short of the Conference Finals will be seen as a disappointment. He’ll have to go through Durant and (most likely) Antetokounmpo to get to the NBA Finals, but if he makes that happen and helps Boston earn Banner 18 to retake the all-time lead for a franchise in NBA history, it would be the beginning of an all-time great legacy.