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The 50 most fascinating figures of the 2018 NBA playoffs

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The X-factors. The people with the most on the line. The breakout stars. The superstars. Here’s everyone you need to know for the next two months.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 2018 NBA playoffs begin on Saturday, and they’ll be with us for two solid months. With 16 teams and about 240 players involved, there’s a lot to take in. In an effort to help make sense of it all — and all of the spectacle around it — we present this list of the 50 most fascinating figures of the postseason.

Note that this is not a ranking of the best players in the derby — that will be evident by the first name you see below. These are players, coaches, and personalities with intriguing postseasons ahead of them, however long those postseasons last.

That said, you will find the best players in the NBA concentrated toward the top of the list. What is more fascinating than excellence tested to its limits?

And excellence will be tested. Some of the best players in the world have absolute wars coming up in the first round, and that will continue as the contenders winnow from 16 to eight to four to two. Anything can happen in the NBA playoffs, and we’re betting than the most compelling stuff will come out of these 50 figures. Enjoy.


50. Jeff Green

The nomadic Green has been tapped as the Cavaliers’ random fifth starter between Kevin Love and LeBron James, and not much is expected of him. But with Cleveland intending to go deep into the playoffs again and all attention being paid to the other two frontcourt Cavaliers, Uncle Jeff will have every opportunity to surprise and delight viewers. If nothing else, it will get him another NBA contract. What more could you ask for?

(Please note that if you prefer TMZ to Basketball-Reference, you can substitute Tristan Thompson in this spot. What a turn for that guy.)

49. Sam Hinkie

Hinkie definitely won’t be participating in the NBA playoffs, unless his Twitter fingers get active. But he looms over the proceedings in Philadelphia, and really over the NBA as franchises shuffle their front offices. Will he be back? How will the Sixers react? As the principal architect of the most exciting young team in the NBA, he casts a long shadow, even from his perch well outside the league.

48. Al-Farouq Aminu

Aminu is one of the least appreciated players in the NBA. He’s so much better than his box score stats indicate -- he’s behind only Damian Lillard on the team in on-court plus-minus. Aminu is central to the Blazers’ magical defensive renaissance and a useful offensive complement to the star backcourt.

47. Darren Collison

The Pacers revolve almost entirely around Victor Oladipo, but Collison has been shockingly effective for Indiana. He’s one of the top three-point shooters in the league on a team that needs that skill desperately. Collison has quietly had a solid career as a non-star point guard, and he fits the Pacers’ vibe and style well. Opponents will focus on slowing Oladipo. Collison needs to make those defenses pay.

46. Carmelo Anthony

Melo has had another trying, difficult season, this time as the third weapon on a good team. The writing is on the wall: the Thunder probably should not have traded for Anthony after acquiring Paul George, unless said trade guaranteed that Russell Westbrook would re-sign. (That is not clear.)

But OKC has him, and Billy Donovan has kept him in a prominent role that has led to plenty of second-guessing and probably a couple of losses. That’s not going to change now with the playoffs upon us. How will Melo — and perhaps more importantly, his teammates — respond to struggles on a huge stage?

45. Jabari Parker

We’ve talked about the confusing nature of the Bucks, and the oft-injured Parker has been part and parcel to that. There’s still something special about Jabari’s scoring nose, though, and it peeks out often enough to keep hope alive. Approaching restricted free agency, he has plenty to prove. Will he?

44. DeJounte Murray

The second-year point guard officially took Tony Parker’s starting spot this year. While he’s clearly still growing into the role, Murray has games that drop your jaw. He’s one of the best backcourt rebounders in the league already and his shooting numbers since the break have improved.

The Spurs are asking a lot of Murray. How he answers could decide whether San Antonio has a shot at upsetting the mighty Warriors.

43. Kelly Olynyk

Olynyk has quietly become one of the most important players on the Heat, to the point where watching Miami makes one believe that the offense almost revolves around Olynyk’s multi-faceted game. K.O. is shooting well lately, his passing is fantastic, and he holds his own on defense. He was expensive, but that was a useful pick-up for Miami.

(For the record, I realize that three Miami players made this list, but the objectively best Heatian — Goran Dragic — did not. Dude’s just solid and kinda boring. Sorry.)

42. Kiki Vandeweghe

The NBA’s discipline czar has had a relatively quiet season as more attention has been heaped on the officials than the league office. But there’s little doubt that at some point in the playoffs, a player will do something on the fringe of acceptability, and Vandeweghe will have to decide on potential suspension. Vandeweghe tends to err on the side of leniency. What a difficult job.

41. Eric Gordon

Gordon is the No. 3 weapon for the Rockets behind the two maestros, and would be a shoo-in for Sixth Man of the Year if not for Lou Williams. Gordon is a big piece of what makes defending James Harden and Chris Paul so hard. You can’t afford to leave Rockets like Gordon for a second, because he’ll make you pay. If you close hard, Gordon is smart and quick enough to go off the dribble and attack.

After so many false starts in New Orleans, it’s a joy to see Gordon thrive with the league’s best team.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

40. Terry Rozier

A series of unfortunate events in Boston have left Terry Rozier as the primary playmaker and scoring threat for the No. 2 seed Celtics heading into the playoffs. How wild is that? Boston loves Rozier and there’s a lot to like and appreciate. This isn’t what anyone signed up for, but we’ll take it because it’s so gobsmacking to consider and fun to watch.

39. Rajon Rondo

Rondo isn’t the Pelicans’ best point guard (hello Jrue Holiday) but he has something special going with Anthony Davis. It almost feels like Rondo is embracing the company of an ultra-athletic superstar for the first time in his career. Late Kevin Garnett, Sacramento Boogie Cousins, and, uh, late Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t get up like Davis.

So Rondo is using it as a sort of canvas, tossing up increasingly absurd alley-oops to The Brow just to explore what is humanly possible. It’s great fun.

38. Markelle Fultz

Fultz just returned to action after spending most of the season in a fugue state fixing his shooting mechanics. He’ll be a supplemental bench option for the Sixers for now, but his teammates appear to absolutely adore him, and that matters.

So do the facts that he’s lightning quick and no one in the league has seen him enough to know how to defend him.

37. Joe Ingles

Slow Mo Joe got paid last summer and didn’t have a wonderful start to the season, but that all changed when the Jazz flipped a switch (coinciding with Rudy Gobert getting healthy, natch). Ingles has been on fire for months now and reminded everyone why he was considered so integral to Utah’s whole vibe a year ago. The symbiosis of the Jazz relies on Ingles’ many talents. What a joy to experience.

36. Clint Capela

Capela is another vital, fascinating Rocket. His defense has been a huge reason for Houston’s supremacy, and the Swiss giant is a perfect match for the penetrating style James Harden and Chris Paul play. He’s also a restricted free agent in July, adding extra attention as teams with cap space decide just how much money to throw his way.

35. Al Horford

Horford is the most important and best player surviving on the No. 2 seed Celtics. The dirty little secret is that he might have been the most important and best Celtic all along. Boston thrives on its defense, and the brainy Horford anchors the team at that end. He’s solid in every facet of the game, but with the Celtics needing offense to advance, he likely won’t get the attention or credit he deserves.

Appreciate his brilliant, subtle play so long as Boston sticks around.

34. Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins is a Rorschach test. Often, so is his shot chart. The most divisive player in the league will have a big audience as Minnesota enters the killing fields of the Western Conference playoffs, and he could burgeon or damage whatever credentials he has.

33. Donovan Mitchell

No one knew how the Jazz would score any points with Gordon Hayward gone and George Hill replaced by Ricky Rubio. Mitchell was the answer. The rookie has been an electric weapon for Utah and the rare dangerous fast-break threat for an otherwise sober, systematic Jazz offense. He’s jumped over all walls so far, and we’ll soon find out if he can be the rare rookie who excels in the postseason, too.

32. Dwyane Wade

The monarch of Miami has fit right back in since being traded in February, and turns the Heat into a different kind of threat to East opponents. Goran Dragic is still the predominant offensive force, but Wade has a certain cachet and presence that few NBA players can match. I’m already getting goosebumps for Wade’s first playoff ovation from the Miami crowd.

31. Hassan Whiteside

Whiteside quietly remains one of the most enigmatic, odd personalities in the NBA. His status in Erik Spoelstra’s good graces is also an open question, and you never know if he’ll be on the floor when crunch time hits for Miami.

Yet he’s one of the most impressive centers in the East and, really, the league when he’s on. We think of the Heat as a clutch of overachieving grinders. Whiteside’s something different, something we still can’t quite square with Miami’s identity. How he fares in the playoff will be interesting to watch, even if it tells us nothing about his future.

30. Victor Oladipo

Oladipo is Indiana’s celestial center, and he’ll be the almost exclusive focus of defenders when on the court. How will he deal with that? He’s been graceful under pressure all year, and has a strong head. How we performs this spring — however long the Pacers stick around -- could give us clues as to how high Indiana can reach in the near future.

29. Jusuf Nurkic

Even the Blazers acknowledge that Nurkic has the highest variance of any player in the league. He can look like an All-NBA center one night and a Big Sky Conference fifth-year senior the next.

But with the Blazers, those swings have settled, and Nurkic is more reliable than ever. His partnership offensively with Damian Lillard and defensively with Al-Farqou Aminu has been wonderful. You still don’t know exactly what you’re going to get night-to-night with Nurk, but the good is way more frequent than the bad.

28. Draymond Green

Green has had a remarkably quiet season for such a loud person. His defensive brilliance and offensive versatility remains core to the Warriors’ identity, and both will be incredibly important so long as Stephen Curry is injured. With James Harden likely looming in the Western Conference Finals -- if the Warriors get there, which feels like a crazy thing to say -- Green is going to matter.

27. @OfficialNBARefs

The referees’ union’s official Twitter account isn’t afraid to disagree with fans, analysts, or the NBA itself. You can bet on few things confidently this postseason, but betting on @OfficialNBARefs explaining why last-2-minute reports are bad is easy money.

26. Brad Stevens

The renowned brainiac coach of the Celtics sure has his work cut out for him. He’s received Coach of the Year push for keeping the decimated Boston team in good playoff position, but that honestly had a lot to do with the Cavaliers’ foibles and how big a cushion the C’s had built up when (relatively) healthy. The real test is in the first round with a dilapidated roster relying on teenagers and role players.

25. Kevin Love

Ignore anyone who compares this Cavaliers team to the 2007 squad LeBron carried to the NBA Finals. Why? Kevin Love is an incredibly talented player. Those pre-Decision Cavaliers didn’t have any co-star on Love’s level.

This isn’t to say what LeBron has done is less impressive than 2007. Just that Love deserves some damn respect.

Denver Nuggets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

24. Jimmy Butler

Butler helped rescue the Timberwolves’ season by returning from injury in the nick of time. All things told, this season has been a massive success. But it can be greater if Butler can be greater and carry the young Wolves with him.

23. Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi hasn’t played since Jan. 13. The odds of him actually suiting up for the Spurs in the playoffs would seem to be extremely low.

But this situation is so unbelievably weird that you never know what twist could come. Is there a bigger X-factor in the entire league right now? Imagine the look on the Warriors’ faces if he’s back for Game 1.

22. Steve Kerr

Kerr has openly questioned the Warriors’ seriousness and attention to detail for months now. It feels quite like Phil Jackson near the end of his first run of success with the Lakers, when Kobe Bryant was mad all the time and Shaq was delaying toe surgery.

It’s interesting because we’ve never really seen Kerr have to openly question whether the Warriors were engaged. That championship hangover is real, and there’s much less margin for error in the playoffs this time around. Everyone else is too good.

21. Bradley Beal

Beal officially became the best Wizard a few months ago. All eyes are on the relationship between Beal and John Wall, the man he supplanted and the point guard presiding over a brand new confidence crisis in Washington, D.C. (This is a tradition, honestly.)

If the Wizards shock everyone and make noise in a fairly open East, Beal will be a major reason. If they crash and burn? Watch Beal’s body language and, well, verbal language to gauge the future of the backcourt partnership.

20. John Wall

What a strange, sordid season for Wall and the Wizards. Eclipsed by Bradley Beal in the pecking order and quietly questioned by almost everyone who pays close attention to the team, Wall has to prove his worth all over again.

That’s not exactly fair, but when you have a max contract and this many questions, you get it all. Wall could really use a good playoff showing.

19. DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan continued his star rise, and should make the All-NBA team again, but he and the Raptors have an earned reputation of struggling in the playoffs. If Toronto is going to reverse that, the anachronistic DeRozan is the biggest reason. His shooting has slipped since the break, and the Raptors need it back.

18. LaMarcus Aldridge

The Spurs’ best healthy player reminded us he was a huge reason the Blazers were so good back in the day this year. He and a team-wide commitment to hard defense got the Spurs into the playoffs for the 21st straight year. Whether San Antonio makes any noise at all this postseason comes down to Aldridge’s play and, well, the status of No. 23 on this list.

17. Giannis Antetokounmpo

No one in the league is more capable than Giannis Antetokounmpo of stretching the bounds of what we believe to be physically possible on the court. The Bucks are underwhelming in whole; Giannis could never be that. He’s in that select cadre of stars who can single-handedly twist a series to his will, especially against an opponent missing theirs.

Will he do it in 2018? No idea. But he can.

16. Rudy Gobert

Some of us wondered aloud a year ago if Gobert was the best player on the Jazz, and whether that could ease the pain of losing Gordon Hayward.

Guess what? Gobert was probably the best player on the Jazz. He’s been overshadowed a bit by Donovan Mitchell, because rookies this good are rare and Mitchell’s game is particularly easy on the eyes. But it’s no secret: Gobert is what makes this team tick, and he’s a huge problem to solve for teams that run up against him.

15. Ben Simmons

The presumptive Rookie of the Year has had an absolutely fascinating season, recalling memories of Magic Johnson with an aggressive manner, deft passing, and a complete lack of faith in his outside jumper. He held up Philadelphia after Joel Embiid broke his face. The NBA playoffs will be a mammoth, challenging stage for Simmons, and I can’t wait to see how he responds.

14. Karl-Anthony Towns

Towns led the Timberwolves to their first playoff berth in 14 years. Because of a certain joylessness in Minnesota’s whole vibe, KAT really hasn’t gotten enough respect for his otherworldly offense. He needs the ball more than he gets it, and you wonder if this is the time for him to begin asserting his centrality and dominance a little more. What better stage for a peaceful coup than the postseason?

13. Anthony Davis

This campaign registers as AD’s greatest yet, and he’ll likely finish in the top three in MVP voting for his trouble. Finding a way to thrive alongside a high-usage, high-power co-star like DeMarcus Cousins, bringing the best out of Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore, and carrying the Pelicans after Boogie went down — it all speaks to Davis’ inherent greatness. The question now is whether that’s all there is, or if The Brow has another surprise for us in the playoffs.

12. Doris Burke

Burke became the first woman to be named a full-time national color commentator this season, and she’ll go into the playoffs as a major analyst for ESPN. No offense to Mark Jackson or Jeff Van Gundy, but I wish we could land her an NBA Finals game or seven in the analyst role, too.

Alas, action in the first and second rounds and work from the sidelines later on will do. Hopefully she works another game in Toronto.

11. RAPTORS BENCH

Raptors Bench isn’t a lineup, it’s a religion. It’s telling that Toronto has a halfway serious campaign to get Raptors Bench votes for Sixth Man (Men?) of the Year. Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, maybe even PLAYOFF NORM POWELL. Legends.

(Let’s hope VanVleet is OK after leaving the season finale with a nagging injury).

10. Russell Westbrook

Westbrook didn’t have a glorious playoff run in him a year ago after carrying the Thunder on his back in such an extreme way. His load has been somewhat lighter this season with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in town. We’ll see if that translates into a better postseason performance, or whether the innate traits we love or hate Westbrook for — what some call selfishness and some call singular passion — manifest in positive or negative ways.

The duality of Westbrook, coming soon to a playoff series near you.

Portland Trail Blazers v Miami Heat Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

9. Damian Lillard

Lillard is the Blazers’ heart, soul, brain, and body. He never fails to show up in a big moment, he has the backing of his home crowd like perhaps no other current NBA star, and, oh yeah, he’s one of the best scorers in the NBA. Portland is dangerous because of Lillard.

No one in the West can afford to look ahead, but that potential second-round series between Lillard’s Blazers and a Warriors team perhaps without Stephen Curry could be incredible. (Yes, I know that sentence was thrice conditional. Hope and glory are uncertain enterprises!)

8. Paul George

Here’s what will not be fascinating to watch: any words that come out of PG-13’s mouth about his looming free agent decision. He’s just not going to say anything interesting, and if he does, chances are he doesn’t mean it.

But on the court? How he responds to being the No. 2 option on a playoff team for the first time in his career should be fascinating. Russell Westbrook isn’t exactly Danny Granger or George Hill!

7. Kyle Lowry

The Raptors gave Lowry a bag of money last summer knowing that Toronto would be highly competitive in the East so long as the core stayed together and stayed healthy. The Raptors have been even better — better than ever — as Lowry’s peak has continued unabated.

But given Lowry’s recent playoff struggles, this is the point as which everyone north of the border holds their breath. If Lowry falls short in the postseason again, there are going to be questions galore.

6. Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is almost assuredly going to make his NBA playoff debut in a mask. Is there more fitting a cap to this magical season? Perhaps only Embiid dancing at center court after leading the Sixers to sweet playoff victory in front of his adoring, patient fans.

5. Chris Paul

CP3 has been one of the very best performers in the NBA playoffs over the past decade. As everyone and their goldfish knows, he also has never advanced past the second round.

That should change this season because the Rockets are stacked and the Paul-James Harden partnership is glorious. With that pressure relieved, perhaps we can bask in CP3’s glory and ignore the baggage.

4. Kevin Durant

If Stephen Curry doesn’t get right this postseason and the Warriors fall short of a title, no one is going to pay any mind to that 2017 Finals MVP that Durant has on his mantle. If Durant thought winning a ring would squelch further questions about his legacy, he has another thing coming.

Will he shape the Warriors in his image and take over while Curry recovers, or is this still going to be Steph Curry’s team with a Steph Curry-sized hole? Time will tell.

Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets - Game Four Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

3. Stephen Curry

Curry is slated to be back in action right around the (potential) second round, if all goes according to plan. For as great as individual and all-around player Kevin Durant is, the Warriors’ identity revolves around and depends on the presence of Curry. He’s both an incredible player and the straw that stirs the drink. His health could quite literally decide who wins the championship.

2. James Harden

The likely Most Valuable Player, maybe one of the three best basketball players on the planet, and a man with plenty of postseason demons to slay. This will be a defining month or (hopefully) two for James Harden’s burgeoning legacy.

1. LeBron James

Do we really need to explain why you should watch LeBron James this postseason? With his legacy an open topic, with his future in the air, with some real doubt as to his team’s NBA Finals potential for the first time in eight years? Really?