Key Players to Watch in This Season’s NBA Playoffs

The NBA Playoffs have begun, and like last year, there is no clear favorite. These playoffs may well come down to how individual All-Star players perform. So let’s take a look at some of this year’s key players and the questions surrounding them, and assess whether they will be able to carry their teams to the Promised Land.

The first player on the list is Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden, one of two key players on one of the most talented (but confounding) teams in the league. After being traded from the Brooklyn Nets to the Sixers in February, he averaged 26.5 points, 12 assists and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in his first four games, which were all won by the Sixers. Pretty dominating. Since then, not so much. Although for the season he has averaged 21 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 10.5 assists, this is considered underperforming for Harden. Most surprisingly, his field goal percentage this season was 40.2%, the second-lowest of his career. If Harden can get his stroke back and continue to build chemistry with all-world center Joel Embiid, the Sixers should be a contender. If he does not, well, then they could disappoint in the postseason.

The other side of the trade that sent Harden to Philly also looms large. High potential guard Ben Simmons went to the Nets. Simmons has not played this year after he received an abundance of criticism last season in Philly. His jump shot is considered not only a liability, but perhaps even nonexistent. Simmons shoots an abysmal 14.7% from three for his career on less than one attempt per game. However, the three-time All-Star and two-time First Team All-Defense player is a key defensive presence, which the Nets could definitely use. According to, the Nets ranked in the middle of the pack in defensive rating in the regular season and could use the former league steals leader to bolster the team on that end of the floor. Not to mention, Simmons is also an elite passer. If Nets guard Kyrie Irving (27.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists) and forward Kevin Durant (29.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.4 assists) can both stay healthy, and Simmons can come back in some capacity, the Nets will be a force. That mostly hinges on the KD-Kyrie connection. For the last two years, there has been an overwhelming amount of hype surrounding the pair (with the presumption of one or more championships in Brooklyn), so the ultimate question is whether they can rediscover their chemistry at the right time. 

Another top player to watch is Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, who has truly put on a show this year. For the season, he averaged 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 6.7 assists. He has a remarkable combination of skill and athleticism and is the key to a team that finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference. Morant has been dealing with slight knee issues as of late, which is cause for some concern. But if his knee can hold up, the Grizzlies have a chance to be a serious contender. 

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young had one of the most incredible playoff performances last season, starting by single-handedly dismantling the New York Knicks in the first round and ending with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. This season, “Ice Trae” continued to dominate, averaging 28.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 9.7 assists. However, for Atlanta to get back to where they were a year ago, Trae will have to continue his playoff performance as a one-man wrecking crew, which seems unlikely following a somewhat disappointing season for the Hawks, in which their record was barely above .500. Without a Young masterclass, the Hawks have very little hope to survive even their first round matchup with the top-seeded Miami Heat. 

Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry is an interesting case study, given his age (34). This season, Curry averaged 25.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 6.3 assists, while also breaking the all-time three-point field goal record. He also scored 30 or more points in 11 straight games, the oldest player ever to accomplish that feat. Can he keep it going in the playoffs? It would be silly to count him out. The third-seeded Warriors will only go as far as Steph can take them.

But let’s not forget about the big men. Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists) and Minnesota Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns (24.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists) will both play key roles for their respective teams this postseason. They are both dominant forces inside the paint and out (Towns even won the 3-point shooting contest at the NBA All-Star game), and will be essential to their teams’ success. Ayton, paired with the amazing guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker on the West’s top-seeded Suns, will look to bring a revenge tour through Phoenix after last season’s loss in the NBA Finals. Meanwhile Towns, paired with dynamic rookie forward Anthony Edwards on the resurgent T Wolves, can certainly make some noise.