The 2021-22 season ended with Stephen Curry celebrating his crowning achievement, his fourth championship and first Finals MVP trophy in a series when he was finally, indisputably, the best player on the court.
Curry can still add to his resume, but his legacy is no longer in question, if it ever was. He carried a team to a title, breaking apart a historically-great defense in the process. His status among the upper echelon of all-time guards is secure.
That security is something several players are chasing this year. What Curry has achieved is an unfair bar to clear, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot at stake for another crop of stars looking to prove themselves. Here are some players we’ll be keeping an eye on in 2022-23.
There’s an argument that Kevin Durant has already accomplished more individually than Curry, but it’s less convincing after this past season. Now, Durant’s the guy who was soundly outplayed in a first-round sweep against the Celtics, reportedly demanded a trade AND for his head coach and general manager to be fired, and then left in limbo all summer as no team was willing to empty its war chest to trade for him.
Now Durant’s back leading the Nets with two, shall we say, unreliable co-stars. He hasn’t been in the conference finals since 2019, and the talk around Durant has mostly been the drama he’s involved in rather than the fact that he’s one of the most automatic scorers of all-time. It’s time for Durant, a self-described hoop obsessive, to get the conversation back on basketball. This season is his chance to prove he can still lead a contender, like he did from 2016-19 in Golden State. If this year falls apart again, even if it isn’t necessarily Durant’s fault, he won’t have many more years.
Regular season James Harden has proven himself as one of the most efficient scorers in basketball history. He revolutionized isolation scoring with his stepback jumper, and he’s consistently been at the helm of elite offenses, ripping apart defenses with his passing out of drives and the pick-and-roll. The defense will never be anything to write home about — check out his tape in transition in the opener against Boston — but he’s a guard, and that doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that Harden always makes good things happen on the other end of the floor.
But Harden could lead the 76ers to the best record in the league, earn All-Star and all-NBA honors in the process, and it wouldn’t mean anything. What Harden has to prove is that he can bring it at the highest levels, a task that he has failed at time and again since becoming a starter. The James Harden that dazzled as a sixth man in the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs in 2012 hasn’t really come to play in the postseason in the decade since.
The 2-of-11 stinker in an elimination game against a hobbled Spurs team in 2017 stands out, but Harden has more than a few clunkers on his playoff resume. There are poor shooting nights and also games where he has shrunk from the moment and strangely given the ball up too often, like when the Sixers lost to Miami in the conference semifinals last season.
Harden’s a former MVP and a likely future Hall of Famer, but he’ll be regarded as an 82-game player instead of a 16-game one until he can dominate a second-round postseason series. Philadelphia should advance that far this year given the quality of their roster, but whether the Sixers make any further noise will depend on Harden’s ability to rise to the occasion.
During the 2020 postseason, Anthony Davis was the best sidekick LeBron James has ever had during a playoff run. Were there a Western Conference Finals MVP trophy at the time, Davis may have even won the honor over his far more decorated teammate. At that point, the sky was the literal limit for a 27-year-old Davis, who appeared to finally be fulfilling the promise he had as the no. 1 pick in 2012.
The sky has fallen on AD since. Injuries are partly to blame, but his level of play took a dive even when he was on the court over the past two years. A once deadeye free-throw shooter saw his percentages plummet to the low-70s, and he completely lost control of his outside jumper. Without a defensive center (or any meaningful defensive talent) on the court next to him in 2021-22, Davis also proved unable to anchor a defense on his own.
Davis was supposed to be the bridge linking the end of the LeBron’s career to the next great era of Lakers basketball. Thus far, LeBron’s extended prime has outlasted AD’s peak, raising the question of whether the Lakers can count on Davis to carry them into the future.
Unlike The Beard, The Brow doesn’t need a dominant playoff run to prove himself. For one, he’s already done that in the recent past, and secondly, no one expects the Lakers to have the juice for a long postseason with their current roster. This year isn’t about winning for Davis; It’s about proving that he has the durability to put a team on his back for a full regular season and lead that group into the playoffs. Until then, there will be questions about Davis’ status as a franchise star.
Has the NBA passed Dame Lillard by? Once one of the most formidable postseason assassins, Lillard has yet to make noise in the playoffs since 2019, as the Trail Blazers haven’t won a series since. His team tanked hard last year, and his trusted running mate CJ McCollum is now on a new Western Conference darling.
Portland retooled over the offseason but isn’t yet a lock to get back in the West’s top eight. Lillard spent most of the season on the shelf — when he was on the court, he didn’t look quite right, shooting just 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from distance. His threes are no longer a novelty, but rather an logo common trend across the league, his inability to make more of an impact off the ball makes him a curious fit next to the up-and-coming Anferne Simons.
Seeing the ball in Lillard’s hands used to strike fear in opposing hearts in the not-so-distant past, but one serious injury later, on a team that’s getting creakier by the day, it’s fair to wonder if Lillard poses that same threat. Unlike other stars (Kawhi Leonard, John Wall, Zion Williamson, and Jamal Murray, for example) who are returning to soft landing spots, Lillard will once again be required to be the alpha in Portland. This is a chance to prove that he still has it in him to make the Blazers relevant, and he that remains one of the premier guards in the NBA.
Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. doesn’t come close to the pedigree of the other players on this list, and there’s a good chance he’ll never belong in their company. Even a best-case scenario for Porter this season would make him the third-best player on his team.
But considering that team could be a title favorite if Porter reaches his potential, the stakes are high enough for the Nuggets forward.
Ater a lost season that led to his third back surgery, Porter has to prove that he can remain on a basketball court, first and foremost. Denver has invested too much in the 24-year-old to see his career break down before it really gets started, and its championship hopes hinge on Porter’s ability to be the unguardable offensive threat he was in 2021-22, when his ability to hit contested shots all of the floor gave some breathing room to Nikola Jokić.
Porter isn’t the only Nugget returning from a major injury, as Jamal Murray will also have to prove his fitness following an ACL tear. But Porter lands on this list because of the defensive concerns he brings to the table. The Suns made Porter’s life a living hell the last time he suited up in the playoffs, and there’s already talk about how Denver may have to play Bruce Brown in his place during crunch time if Porter remains a liability on the defensive end.
That means Porter has to prove that he’s a player who belongs in a championship rotation, who can stay on the floor in the biggest moments. If he does, his team may just be the best of any on this list.