Outside, Looking In: NBA All Stars who stayed home for the post-season
“The regular season is where you make your name. The playoffs you make your fame.”
Kenny Smith, former NBA champion and current NBA analyst, who said the quote above, knows a thing or two about the differences between the regular season and the playoffs. No matter how great a player’s performances are from November to March, it is really what he does from April to June that rises him up into the stratosphere of basketball greats.
As we go deeper into the playoffs and watch the true championship contenders rise above the pack in the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, a number of big name NBA players – like Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, or Klay Thompson – find themselves fighting for the title in the summer. The earlier rounds of the playoffs brought us some memorable performances by superstars, too, players like Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, John Wall, Marc Gasol, and more. The playoffs are when the light are brighter, the stage is set higher, the unknown become famous and the good become great.
Unfortunately, more than any recent year in memory, a number of stars stopped shining this year even before the playoffs began. By the time the field of 16 of the playoffs was set, an astonishing seven current NBA All-Stars were sent home on an early vacation. The NBA is about team-play, but this is also a league of superstars, and – due to injury or team conditions – many of those superstars haven’t been playing meaningful basketball in the most important time of the year.
Here are the NBA All-Stars who have spent the postseason on the outside, looking in.
Westbrook couldn’t carry the banged-up Thunder into the playoffs and didn’t make it to the All NBA First Team. And yet, when fans think back to the highlights of the regular season, the memories of Westbrook as a supernova of rage, shining and destructing with equal ferocity, with stand out the most. Westbrook had one of the most individually dominant seasons in recent NBA history, recording 11 triple doubles (including six in eight games), and leading the league in scoring (28.1 ppg). On different occasions this season, he set career highs in scoring (54), assists (17), and rebounds (16). The Thunder missed the playoffs on the very last day, but Westbrook’s legend of 2014-15 – where he carried OKC to within one game of the eighth spot in the West mostly in the absence of previous MVP Kevin Durant – will always be remembered.
Speaking of Durant… There was no player in the league whose absence has most-affected the current outcome of the season. Lest you forget, Durant was sensational last year, claiming the MVP award with ease and again finishing as the league’s leading scorer. But a Jones fracture and an ankle injury limited KD to just 27 games in 2014-15, and despite being unstoppable whenever he was healthy, he wasn’t on the court long enough to assist Westbrook in the quest for the post-season.
He may have once been among the top three players in the league, but in recent, injury-plagued years, he has been getting to All Star status more on fame than game. Curiously, this year – without the services of LeBron in Miami – Wade actually deserved to be an All Star, averaging 21.5 ppg and helping to keep the short-handed Heat in the hunt. Unfortunately, with fellow All Star Chris Bosh missing 38 games, there wasn’t enough firepower to help Wade carry Miami into the postseason.
For one day when the Heat traded for Goran Dragic, it seemed that they had found the perfect formula to get back on top again. Unfortunately, blood clots in Chris Bosh’s lungs flattened all hopes of contention just a day later. Despite another strong season where he again made the All Star team, Bosh only played 44 games in 2014-15 and his Heat couldn’t make the playoffs without him in the final stretch.
No current player has a higher gap in team performance in contrast to individual performance this season. Individually, Cousins had his best season yet, making the All NBA Second Team, making to his first All Star game, and averaging career-highs across the board in points (24.1 ppg), rebounds (12.7 rpg) and assists (3.6 apg). But his Sacramento Kings suffered with a lot of coaching drama and could never figure out the right balance of depth around him, finishing with just 29 wins at 13th place in the West. Unless there are drastic changes in Sacramento or Cousins leaves, he is destined to hold the crown of ‘superstar outside the playoffs’ in the near future.
Remember Kobe? You know, the guy who has won five titles, been to seven Finals, has an MVP award, has been in 15 All NBA teams and was named an All Star for the 17th time in his career this season? That’s the same Kobe who only managed to play 35 games this season due to a variety of injuries and a season-ending shoulder surgery. The rebuilding Lakers never had the talent to mount a real challenge this season, and without Kobe, they fell even further down the West. Before he left, however, Bryant did manage to take his scoring up to third in the NBA’s All Time list, overtaking his idol Michael Jordan.
How quickly things change! In 2012-13, Anthony was the NBA’s leading scorer, finished third in the MVP race, and led the Knicks to the second-best record in the East. Two years later, the Knicks finished bottom of the East and Melo finished with perhaps with his forgettable season yet. Anthony wrapped up his season soon after playing in the All Star game, playing in a career-low 40 games in 2014-15.