2021 NBA Playoffs
10 players looking to reach The Finals for first time
These 10 players -- from accomplished veterans to young superstars -- have yet to play on the NBA's championship stage.
Nothing is ever promised in the NBA — not playing time, good health, winning, max deals and certainly not championships.
It’s the latter that dominates conversation now, here after the first weekend of the playoffs. And especially with LeBron James having a monopoly on trips to The Finals over the last decade. His greatness has denied All-Stars and future Hall of Famers not only championships, but trips to The Finals themselves.
But it’s not just LeBron (and before him, the Golden State Warriors) serving as roadblocks. Injuries (Derrick Rose is a perfect example), timing, an inability to be surrounded by quality teammates all conspire to keep good players from reaching the championship stage. Take DeMar DeRozan for example: a beloved player in Toronto who couldn’t reach The Finals (blame LeBron), yet had a solid run with the Raptors. They then traded him for Kawhi Leonard and the rest is history.
The graveyard is littered with All-Star veterans in similar situations, some of whom came and went without reaching The Finals. For other players, they’re just getting started: Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, to name a few, who await their turn which may or may not happen.
Here are the 10 players in these playoffs with the highest degree of desperation to make their first Finals appearance:
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
With a pair of Kia MVPs and every other important award and honor in his pocket already at age 26, there’s really only one piece of candy left for Giannis to snatch. The basketball world hasn’t reached the point of holding the lack of a championship against Giannis, but knowing that fickle crowd, that label is coming soon especially if he doesn’t at least reach The Finals. The good news is he’s still in his prime, still improving his skills and there’s no shortage of fire and desire in his belly. The so-so news is the Bucks are essentially locked into this nucleus of Giannis, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday for the near future based on their rich and lengthy contracts. Are those two co-stars capable of great performances in big moments? The bad news is should the Bucks fail to at least reach the conference finals this year — which is possible, since they would see Brooklyn in the semifinals — it could spell the end of Mike Budenholzer as coach. In order for Giannis to take up residence among the greats, he’ll need a title, but again, there’s still time.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
This is his 13th postseason and he has reached the conference finals only once, in 2018 with the Rockets, when he had the misfortune of suffering a hamstring injury with a 3-2 lead against the Warriors. There were other injury-spoiled chances during his stint with the LA Clippers, too, that arrived at the wrong time and served as bad luck. Also, the image of Paul not being prime-time enough for the playoffs is faulty — he entered the 2021 playoffs with postseason averages of 20.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 8.3 apg. Those are slightly higher averages than his career regular-season stats and he’s really only had a pair of underperforming postseason series. Still, because of his greatness, the lack of a championship appearance is a stain on the resume of a future Hall of Famer, and Paul must live with that until retirement or he finally plays in June. He has a challenge with this Phoenix team, which is rather young, and will have a tough first-round test against the Los Angeles Lakers. Should Paul come up short again, the ball’s in his court: He can opt-out of the final year of his contract this summer and sign with a contender — Lakers? — although it’s tough imagining him walking away from $44 million.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
There is no more dominant low-post player in the NBA than Embiid. He’s blessed with lower-body strength, soccer-trained footwork and a better attitude about how best to use his size. With that status comes expectations: Embiid will now be judged on what he does in the postseason. In the recent past, critics questioned his commitment to fitness which plays such an important role in the stamina needed for deep playoff runs. Embiid listened and made changes. With a championship-proven coach in Doc Rivers and a complimentary co-star in Ben Simmons, Embiid should have ample chances to play for a title with the Sixers, beginning with these playoffs. Those chances, though, will largely depend on him and how far he’s willing to go to be dominant.
Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers
This season, he celebrated cracking the top 10 among career scorers, which is rarified air and an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame (not that there was any doubt). However, Anthony is the only member of that top 10 without a Finals trip. The only player in that Top 10 without a ring is Karl Malone (who made three Finals in his career). The news doesn’t get better for Melo — he’s 36 and has arrived at that veterans-minimum salary stage, where former stars go to ride out the sunset. It’s a bitter pill for someone who, as a young scorer with the Denver Nuggets seasons ago, reached the 2009 conference finals and had so much promise. The flip side is Melo, like most aging stars, struggled with the concept of being a role player once the shot stopped falling with regularity. He still has another year of two of NBA life left, and where he chooses to spend it next season will have a big say in his Finals and championship fate.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Much like his Philly co-star Embiid, Simmons is starting to generate the traction needed to reach The Finals. The odds of Simmons arriving at that doorstep will depend somewhat on Embiid’s help. They are joined at the hip as long as the Sixers keep them together. Simmons can pull his weight by developing more confidence in his outside shot and maintaining his reputation as a versatile, elite defender. Simmons is just 24 and timing is in his favor. It helps that Rivers is his coach and Daryl Morey the general manager. Unless the Sixers, Embiid or Simmons are victims of misfortune, a Finals trip is seemingly in the near future. But then again, Anthony and Paul had that same vision at 24, too.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Winning the Kia MVP, which is certainly possible, comes at a price: Suddenly, the hoop world judges you on a higher plane and a stricter one in terms of championships or at least trips to the promised land. Jokic has plenty of time to reach The Finals — he recently turned 26 and is staring at another 10 years of excellent basketball (assuming good health). It also helps that the Nuggets are a well-run organization without any serious salary cap issues and that Jokic is easy to build around because of his passing skills. If Jamal Murray were healthy, Jokic would have a stronger chance at a breakthrough in these playoffs. Should Murray return in peak form, and with Michael Porter Jr. on the rise, Jokic could get over that hump next season.
Paul George, LA Clippers
George has heard all the slander by now, some of it warranted, about his playoff failures. His best previous chance to reach The Finals was with the Indiana Pacers in the early 2010s. But James and the Heat’s Big Three stood in his way. Since then, George has team-hopped to position himself for that next step, to no avail … so far. This is arguably his best shot, with a Clippers team that’s well-seasoned, has a championship coach, and most importantly brings Kawhi Leonard to the argument. George will need to hold his end of the deal, and maybe a bit more, to erase the stench of previous failures. For sure, nobody would appreciate a first championship more than George, but each year he comes up short, that boulder on his back gets bigger.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
He wants to win a title in Portland, the only team he’s known, which is why Dame refused chances to leave town in the past. Well, that, and the fact Portland gave him a supermax deal to stay — there’s no loyalty without money. By tying his championship chances exclusively to the Blazers, Lillard could be limiting himself and running out of time. The Blazers reached the 2019 Western Conference finals, but will need an influx of top talent to make a return trip in the near future. Not only is Dame loyal to the Blazers, he’s also loyal to CJ McCollum, and Portland will never trade CJ for front-line help unless Lillard gives the OK … which he won’t. Lillard has four more big-money seasons remaining on his deal and is essentially a Blazer for life. If that means he won’t win a championship with a Portland franchise that isn’t on the wish-list of top free agents and will never be bad enough to get a No. 1 overall pick, apparently he’s fine with that.
Blake Griffin, Brooklyn Nets
In 8 1/2 seasons with the Clippers, he didn’t reach the conference finals. In three-plus seasons with the Detroit Pistons, he made to the playoffs once. A solid career hasn’t been kind to Griffin from a deep playoff-run standpoint — perhaps his only consolation was getting a max deal and jumping over a car to win the Dunk Contest title. It would be bittersweet if Griffin, now in his career twilight, finally reached the promised land — bitter because he’s now a role player on a team with bigger stars, sweet because a championship under any circumstances is valued. Griffin made peace with his situation by taking a buyout from Detroit in order to join Brooklyn. It’s a perfect situation for a former All-Star: he can live in the big city, play without much burden and never worry about seeing a double team.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Staying with the Wizards has made Beal rich and he’ll be 28 next season, so he’s still in his prime. He must now decide if he’s willing to spend the rest of that prime in Washington and with a team in transition. Beal has one more season left on his contract and a player option for 2022-23, meaning he could ponder forcing a trade this summer or waiting for unrestricted free agency in 2023. That makes him very valuable to a contender searching for a missing piece, and also valuable to the Wizards if they’re looking for a big haul in a trade. Beal is prideful and feels he hasn’t received his proper respect from the NBA world. In the past two seasons, only James Harden has a higher scoring average — yet Beal, unlike Harden, has yet to make an All-NBA team in that span. He may believe the only way to change this perception is with a fresh start elsewhere.
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