10 NBA players facing the most pressure down the stretch

Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The final five weeks of the NBA regular season and the playoffs are going to be both action packed and drama filled. More so than any other season since the Golden State Warriors started their dynasty, the 2018-19 campaign seems to be wide open.

This is going to place a ton of pressure on individual players.

Whether it’s stars looking they can prove to be that No. 1 guy on a championship team or others looking for big pay days in free agency, here’s a look at 10 NBA players facing the most pressure down the stretch.

  • Stats current through Friday, March 1.

Kevin Durant, forward, Golden State Warriors

By now, Durant’s pending free agency is well known. What’s not known is whether he’ll return to the Warriors as they relocate to San Francisco or join another NBA franchise. Rumors have persistently linked the two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP to the New York Knicks.

No matter what happens this summer, Durant faces a pressure-packed stretch run. Starting in the playoffs, the focus is going to be on him leading the Warriors to a third consecutive NBA title. Should that not happen — only to see him leave — it will not be a great look. On the other hand, winning another title with an opportunity to make history in 2019-20 could ultimately make Durant’s decision for him.

Kyrie Irving, guard, Boston Celtics

Much like Durant, Irving is an impending free agent who has not yet committed to returning to his current team. After playing second-fiddle to LeBron James for so many years in Cleveland, this All-Star is out to prove that he can be the guy to lead his team to a championship.

At issue here are recent struggles from the Celtics. They have lost four consecutive games and are now the fifth seed back east. Irving himself has called out his young teammates. Are things about to reach a boiling point? If so, will this be Irving’s cue to bounce in free agency? The stretch run and the playoffs will tell us a lot about this guy.

James Harden, guard, Houston Rockets

Harden just recently snapped the second-longest streak of 30-plus points game in Association history. Not surprisingly, said streak coincided with Houston jumping up a number of spots in the Western Conference playoff race. In fact, Harden and Co. boast a 27-11 record in their past 38 games. They enter this weekend’s action as the fifth seed out west. It’s also coincided with Harden putting up some absolutely absurd individual numbers.

The issue here has been a lack of playoff success for Harden specifically. He shot just 42 percent from the field and averaged five turnovers per game in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors last season. The previous year saw Harden average just 24.5 points and turn the ball over 34 times in a six-game playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs. He simply needs to up his game when the postseason comes calling. Period.

Kawhi Leonard, forward, Toronto Raptors

No matter what happens down the stretch, Leonard will be one of the most attractive free agents when July comes calling. But given the drama-filled end to his tenure in San Antonio, Leonard’s performance and attitude over the next couple months will certainly be telling.

A legit MVP candidate this season, Leonard is averaging a career high in points (26.8) and rebounds (7.6) while shooting at a robust 49 percent from the field. This has Toronto with the second-best record in the NBA and battling with Milwaukee for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

DeMarcus Cousins, center, Golden State Warriors

This is more about Cousins proving that he can return from last season’s Achilles injury and become a true star once again. Despite suggestions that the All-Star is open to returning to Golden State at a discounted rate, he could be looking for a lucrative pay day in free agency. It’s all going to be about how well Cousins performs down the stretch.

From a statistical perspective, he has done well recently — averaging 17.4 points and 11.2 rebounds per game over the past five outings. Unfortunately, the Warriors are also minus-21 with him on the court during that span. Can Cousins not only up his minutes, but prove to be valuable down the stretch? That’s going to be telling when it comes to his market value.

Jimmy Butler, guard, Philadelphia 76ers

As his Sixers continue to make a push back east, Butler has acted the part of just another player since joining the team back in November. That’s been more prevalent recently. The All-Star is averaging just 15.4 points and shooting 17 percent from distance over the past seven games. That’s not exactly the way to display your talents heading into free agency.

Butler will likely receive a max contract this summer. His track record suggests that. But what we’ve seen in Philadelphia is a player that can’t be counted on to be the No. 1 guy. That could limit Butler’s market in free agency. The next couple months will tell us more.

Blake Griffin, forward, Detroit Pistons

Rumors persisted earlier in the season that Griffin wanted out of dodge less than a calendar year after he was acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers. Still under contract for at least two next season seasons, said rumors have been replaced with Blake playing the best basketball of an already borderline Hall of Fame career.

Griffin is averaging 25.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. He’s also shooting at a robust 47 percent mark from the field en route to leading Detroit to playoff contention back east. How he performs moving forward will tell us a lot about the future of Pistons basketball and whether Griffin fits into said future.

Damian Lillard, guard, Portland Trail Blazers

Already considered one of the best offensive guards in the game, Lillard’s recent performance suggests he’s ready to dominate down the stretch. He’s averaging 26.4 points and 7.2 assists over the past 16 games. It’s not a coincidence that the Blazers are 12-4 during that span and making a run out west.

But much like we’ve see in previous years, it’s all about how these Blazers perform in the playoffs. Right now, they’d be locked up against a game Utah Jazz team in the first round. Despite earning a playoff spot each of the past five seasons, Portland has not made it out of the conference semifinals. In fact, it has lost in the first round each of the past two years. For his part, Lillard short just 35 percent in a sweep at the hands of New Orleans last season. It’s time for him to step up once spring comes calling.

Paul George, forward, Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently playing at an MVP level, George still must have a bitter taste in his mouth following last season’s performance in the playoffs. He shot just 2-of-16 from the field in a Game 6 loss to Utah in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. It was one of the worst statistical performances of his career and led to Oklahoma City’s premature exit from the postseason.

Given the two-way ability we continue to see from George, there’s little reason to believe this will carry over to the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Here’s a dude that’s averaging 28.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and an NBA-high 2.3 steals per game. He’s also shooting at a 40 percent clip from distance and is a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate. However, George must show out in the playoffs to overcome the struggles we saw in that one game last year.

LeBron James, forward, Los Angeles Lakers

The 2018-19 season — James first in Los Angeles — could very well go down as the most frustrating of his career. Los Angeles heads into this weekend’s action with a 30-31 record and on the outside looking in when it comes to the Western Conference Playoff race. James himself has seemingly lacked effort on at least one end of the court since returning from injury.

The backdrop here is real. Drama plagued the Lakers’ organization in the lead up to February’s trade deadline. It led to James pretty much calling out his young teammates. Can the King salvage what could be a lost season in LaLa Land? If not, how will that impact what many expect to be an active summer for the Lakers? Yeah, the pressure is on Mr. James once again here.