Who’s Got the Most At Stake In The NBA Playoffs?

Jake Ruderman ’26

Sports Editor

With the NBA Playoffs in full swing, it’s a good time to examine what each star has at stake this year, and who’s the most in danger of falling out of favor with the public. Here’s a light power ranking of all the stars left in the playoffs, based on how long is left before their narrative flips. 

At the top of the list is the NBA’s best rivalry, everyone’s favorite pair of ultra-skilled big men, Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Philiadephia’s Joel Embiid. These 7-footers have dominated the game for years, but with great acclaim comes expectations, and neither of these players has yet delivered the ultimate goal. If either of them were able to prove themselves this year, it would change the entire NBA discourse around them and potentially settle a long lasting debate.

Next on the list comes a pair of dynamic duos, arguably the game’s greatest dual wing threats: the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both of these incredibly talented pairs have shown they can put together winning seasons followed by some level of playoff success – but neither of them have been able to reach the pinnacle. If Kawhi and PG fail to win again this year, they might go down as one of the biggest flops in NBA history, and the Clippers might be forced to re-examine their strategy and overhaul their roster. As for the J’s in Boston, they have a bit more slack, but are still up against the clock. Despite serious roster turnover and front office shakeup, their years of play have been impressive, and culminated in a run to the Finals last year. But a tough loss has left fans questioning whether the two of them could ever go all the way as a duo. If Tatum and Brown are able to fully come through this season, they’d cement themselves as the league’s premier duo and force Boston to give Jaylen Brown the Supermax extension.

Outside of these top four, every other playoff team has a legitimate excuse if they fall short, or has already proved themselves beyond any doubt. Giannis and the Bucks won the championship back in 2021. A loss for them would be ugly, (especially to an 8-seed), but would only cause noise about their coaching staff and supporting roster. The Warriors have won four rings in the last eight years, but an early playoff loss would certainly be a wrench thrown into Golden State’s well-oiled machine. The Lakers, like the Warriors, have nothing really left to prove. Lebron has already cemented himself as a top two player of all time, although a Finals run in year 20 would certainly inject new life into his GOAT case.

The Cavs and Knicks have both already surpassed their expectations with strong seasons thus far. The Cavs are still a very young team with almost no prior playoff experience. A playoff loss would only reinforce these ideas, but the pressure will start mounting next season. The Knicks are absolutely playing with house money right now, having surpassed any and all expectations by taking a 3-1 lead against the Cavs in their first round series. A playoff loss to the Cavs would be ugly at this point, but wouldn’t take away from the fact that they had a great year. Finally, the Heat seriously underperformed this season but have suddenly taken a 3-1 lead over the Bucks. A first round upset over one of the greatest players of all time would certainly flip the narrative on this Miami season and anything after that would be a given. 

The Grizzlies held a tremendous amount of baggage coming into the playoffs, with the complications surrounding Ja Morant, and the amount of smack they talked to the rest of the league. A playoff loss could spell a moderate shakeup of things in Memphis, but a playoff win would vindicate their years of trash talk. Regardless, it feels like the Grizzlies aren’t in their final form yet, and will probably be more serious contenders in the years to come. The Kings share many of the same qualities as the Knicks. Their fantastic season will be fantastic regardless of their playoff destiny, and no one will blame them if they lose to the Warriors in a close series, no matter how sad it will be. The Suns are another team in an odd spot, because Chris Paul has infamously never won a ring, but has the chance to dispel that in the late stages of his career, thanks to newfound teammate Kevin Durant. If he were to win a ring with this Suns team, perhaps his career would be looked on more favorably by fans… or perhaps people would continue to harp on Durant for building superteams and taking the easy way out. Regardless, it feels like the Suns will be back again next year in similar form, but with more reps under their belt. Finally, the Nets, Hawks, and Timberwolves all came into the playoffs with no expectations, and will leave the same way. These teams just simply aren’t constructed well enough to hang with the top half of the league, and will have to answer crucial questions this offseason.

Featured image courtesy of NBA Playoffs Menu

Categories: Sports

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