The topic of legacy and all-time player rankings will always be a revolving door among discussion topics. To be considered among the best, championships and major awards are considered. Some players pushing for a higher spot on the ladder have some work to do. That is why the 2022-23 season could be the most important season for some.
At the end of the day, only one team can win a title. One player can win an MVP Award and so on. While that may be true, some players have come so close but haven’t been able to get over the hump. That includes some players ranking at the top of the standings with their team only to be defeated in the second round of the playoffs. If you want to be considered great, that cannot happen.
As the league turns to another chapter, these 10 players have a lot to prove.
10. Chris Paul
2021-22 Stats: 14.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 10.8 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Since breaking into the league in 2005, Paul has been named among the best point guards of all time. Currently ranking third in all-time assists and fourth in all-time steals, Paul has created a Hall of Fame-worthy career. The only drawback of his career has been his lack of winning an NBA championship. The 2021 Finals were his first appearance on the grand stage. He followed that up by leading the Suns to the best record in the league last season, but the team was bounced in the second round of the playoffs.
Losing to the Mavericks in Game 7 could equally be about Luka Doncic’s rise to stardom. However, the Suns were the more experienced team on paper and had more talent around Paul than Doncic had. There was no excuse for the way the team lost, either. Paul is running out of time before he pushes for the title of the greatest player without a title.
9. Rudy Gobert
2021-22 Stats: 15.6 PPG, 14.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.7 SPG, 2.1 BPG
How many players are truly worth five first-round picks? In the past, Paul George, James Harden, and now Gobert have translated to the most draft capital we have seen in a while. Gobert could have easily been the second-best player on the Utah Jazz too. Needless to say, Gobert is coming off of a season where he led the league in rebounding and contended for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Given the trade and what it cost the Timberwolves, all eyes will be on what Gobert brings to the table. Remember, the team already has a center in Karl-Anthony Towns, who will be pushed to the power forward position because of this trade. There are real questions about how this is going to work. If it does, the Timberwolves could be championship contenders. Yes, you read that right. The team that has made two playoff appearances since 2004 could be a contender next year. That is, only if Gobert works out.
8. Zach LaVine
2021-22 Stats: 24.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 4.5 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.3 BPG
There is no denying that LaVine is an All-Star when he stays healthy. LaVine has 50-40-90 Club potential if that happens. The problem is that LaVine has proven nothing in the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls just agreed to pay LaVine $215 million, which is the largest contract in the history of the franchise. It seems like a lot of money to give a player that has played one playoff series and has never made the second round of the playoffs.
LaVine was part of the Jimmy Butler trade in the 2017 offseason. Since then, Butler has played in the NBA Finals in 2020 with the Heat and pushed the Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference playoffs this past season. Butler also went 4-0 against the Bulls this season. We didn’t talk about his knee. He has had surgery on it either. There are a lot of questions about how this works out.
7. Damian Lillard
2021-22 Stats: 24.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 7.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG
For the first time in his career, Lillard didn’t look like a superhero. Lillard battled injuries last season and played in only 29 games. Instead of being weary, the Trail Blazers gave Lillard a two-year extension that will give him $122 million over time. The team was so scared about losing Lillard that the team was going to nearly pay Lillard half of the team’s salary cap a few years down the line.
Lillard has led the Trail Blazers to one Conference Final in his tenure. The team recently traded away C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington. They replaced those players with Jerami Grant and then retained Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic. This doesn’t seem like a championship team and the team has very little money left over with how much they pay Lillard. If this team believes that Lillard can lead the way, he is going to need to prove it.
6. Jayson Tatum
2021-22 Stats: 26.9 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.6 BPG
How could Tatum be on here? He just made the NBA Finals. Let’s explain. For starters, remember when the Celtics were 18-21 in January? Crazy things have happened before, but the team magically turned everything around. Luck is a powerful element, and this could have been luck. The next point is that Tatum is seen as the All-NBA force that could be the face of the league in his prime.
Tatum could have been packaged for Anthony Davis when the team had Kyrie Irving, but they chose to keep him. Kevin Durant is on the market, and the team will likely bet on their All-Star. This is not to say that is the wrong decision because Tatum is younger and is budding into a star. With that said, if the franchise is refusing to talk trades, it means they believe in you. It’s time to prove why.
5. Zion Williamson
2021-22 Stats: None (Injured)
Since being drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, Williamson has played a combined 85 games. That includes zero appearances in the postseason. Yet, the New Orleans Pelicans offered Williamson a five-year, $193 million contract. One argument could be made for Williamson that when he is healthy, he is an All-Star talent. After all, Williamson averaged 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists while shooting 61.1% from the field in 2020-21 in 61 games.
The issue is that Williamson can’t stay on the court. He has not proven he is the true best player of this draft. While Williamson has been riding the pine, Ja Morant has turned into the most electrifying player in the league that has led the Grizzlies to the playoffs and even the second round. Williamson has to prove that he is worth this contract; otherwise, he will go down as a bust of a pick.
4. Ben Simmons
2021-22 Stats: None (Injured)
Remember, Zion Williamson and Ben Simmons both play in the NBA. Both players are also former No. 1 overall picks. The 2017 No. 1 overall pick decided to hold out on the 76ers. He was upset with how the team hung him out to dry after the 2021 playoffs concluded. Questions about his offensive development and ineptness became national news, and he wanted to be traded. Instead, the 76ers called his bluff and waited until James Harden was available. Then, the team swung a deal that sent Simmons to the Nets.
With references to his mental health and recovery from back surgery, Simmons didn’t see the floor last year. While many wanted to criticize his offensive skills, many forget that Simmons was the second-best defender in the league in 2021 He also owns a career average of 15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.7 steals, and 0.7 blocks as a point guard. In the end, questions about his character have risen. There is also going to be concern about his game after surgery and taking a year off.
3. Russell Westbrook
2021-22 Stats: 18.5 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.1 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG
The Lakers were the talk of the 2021 summer. The team made headlines when they completed a trade to acquire Westbrook to pair him alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers were supposed to be the best team in the NBA. This had to work. Westbrook was coming off his fourth season of averaging a triple-double and is an All-Star talent. Well, you know how the story ends. It didn’t work. The Lakers won 33 games and missed the playoffs.
The season was a debacle and a waste of a very good season from James. Westbrook will have to change his game if this works. Westbrook and James cannot have the ball in their hands two-thirds of the time. Westbrook is in a similar position as Paul. His clock is ticking on his career and he does not have a ring. He owns just one NBA Finals appearance in 2012 and that was playing with Durant. Westbrook has an Oscar Robertson career stat line, but Robertson finished his career winning at least one title.
2. Kyrie Irving
2021-22 Stats: 27.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Kyrie Irving wants to be paid like one of the top players in the league. Irving may not understand why he hasn’t been offered this money. It’s a simple business. Irving has played a combined 103 games in three seasons with the Nets. That ranges from injuries to his unwillingness to be vaccinated, which went against the laws in place in New York.
While forcing a player to get vaccinated is a debate in its own right, Irving’s decisions over the last two years have overshadowed his play on the court. When Irving played 54 games in 2020-21, he made the 50-40-90 Club. In 29 games last year, he averaged 27.4 points and 5.8 assists. He is an All-World talent when he is focused. However, his focus isn’t always on basketball and the team. With questions about his future in Brooklyn, combined with his history since leaving the Cavaliers, Irving’s legacy is at a fork in the road. It’s going to be up to him on how we remember him.
1. Kevin Durant
2021-22 Stats: 29.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 6.4 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.9 BPG
The question of where to rank Durant is a hard one. Durant owns four scoring titles, one MVP award, two Finals MVP Awards, and a slew of All-Star and All-NBA selections. Fans like to talk about his decision to join the Warriors and diminish his two titles since he joined a loaded team. That is why when he joined the Nets, it seemed like this was going to be his chance to prove himself. The team acquired Irving and then made a deal for James Harden. This team was loaded. Instead, the team never clicked and Harden was gone before we could even say hello.
Now, Durant wants to be traded? With four years on a very expensive contract, this isn’t an easy request. It’s a slap in the face to the Nets, who let Durant run the franchise. The Nets gave him every opportunity to succeed. Durant, Irving, and Harden should be good enough to make the NBA Finals. Ben Simmons and Seth Curry could have surrounded Durant and Irving. Again, the team just gave him a massive extension a year ago. Durant was given money and talent and it was still not good enough. Who is to say this doesn’t happen again? Wherever Durant plays next year, all eyes will be on how the team performs and where the team ends up at the end of the season.