BY CHRIS FOSS
Most NBA teams honor beloved ex-players by retiring their jerseys. The Los Angeles Lakers honor their greats with statues. Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and radio announcer Chick Hearn, icons not just of the team but of the league, have received this honor. On April 6, the Lakers unveiled a statue of someone who is not a household name to most modern NBA fans: Elgin Baylor. The 83-year old was one of the league’s pioneers: he was one of its first African American stars, and arguably the player that put over the Lakers when they struggled to find a foothold in Southern California sports in the 1960s. Baylor still holds the NBA Finals record with 61 points in a game, his above-the-rim style of play contrasted with every other offensive player of his generation, and he’s considered the forerunner of high-flyers like Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. Baylor retired as a top-five all-time scorer and rebounder and ranked among the NBA’s fifty greatest players ever in a 1996 poll. If the league does a 75-year poll in 2021, he’ll certainly be on that list as well. But Baylor left the game—both as a player and an executive—with a huge asterisk. He never won an NBA championship.
In his playing days, Baylor’s Lakers reached the NBA Finals in 1959, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, and 1970. In each of those years except 1970 (when they lost to the New York Knicks), they were topped by the Boston Celtics. Baylor retired early in the 1971-72 season (or depending upon whom you believe, he was forced out by new coach and ex-Celtic great Bill Sharman) as it became apparent that his skills had diminished in light of up-and-coming team stars like Jim MacMillian and Gail Goodrich. One can only imagine how Baylor has felt over the last 45-plus years, because the day he retired, the Lakers began a 33-game win streak (still the NBA record), won 69 games that season, and finally won a championship. He’s in the team photo taken at the start of the season, but he never received a ring.
Baylor spent much of the rest of the decade on the coaching staff of the New Orleans Jazz, who, despite the presence of “Pistol” Pete Maravich (another Hall of Famer who never won a championship) never got out of the league’s cellar. He then spent twenty-two thankless years (from 1986 to 2008) as an executive in Los Angeles—for the Clippers. The team made the playoffs a grand total of four times during his tenure. Snakebitten repeatedly by injuries to star players and hamstrung by owner Donald Sterling’s notoriously skinflint mentality toward paying good players, Baylor nevertheless won the league’s Executive of the Year award in 2006 after the Clippers won a playoff series for the first time since the franchise moved from Buffalo in 1978. That was his high-water mark, however. After Baylor was fired, he sued Sterling for age and race discrimination, but his case was rejected by a jury in 2011, three years before Sterling was banned from the league for making--wait for it--disparaging racial remarks caught on tape. No, it hasn’t been a charmed career for Elgin Baylor.
Although Baylor’s bad luck with regard to the NBA Finals is in the spotlight right now, you could make similar remarks about many other former great NBA players, like Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Steve Nash, Tracy McGrady, and the aforementioned Maravich. So, as we enter the NBA’s 72nd playoffs, who is at risk of becoming the next Baylor, Barkley, or Malone? Take the period of time since the 2011 lockout. In that stretch, there have been a lot of Hall of Fame-quality players in the NBA, but the league has been dominated by LeBron James and Steph Curry (with one last ring for five-time winner Tim Duncan in 2014). Some great players are, therefore, at risk of seeing their window close as they head into the 2018 NBA playoffs. Here we look at a few prominent examples and their chances of breaking their personal playoff hexes.
Russell Westbrook (10th season): If he can’t somehow get the job done this year, unless he forces a trade out of Oklahoma City—and this after recently re-signing with the Thunder for big bucks—Westbrook stands a strong chance of never getting a ring. The Thunder have closed the season strong, and they have a good shot of beating Utah in the first round. But then (likely) comes Houston. The odds are long for this team this year. Westbrook has played a lot of minutes the last two seasons, and he has a history of injuries, so it’s unclear how much more he has in the tank beyond this season.
Carmelo Anthony (15th season): Then there’s the matter of Westbrook’s supporting cast, including the once-great Anthony. He’s no longer The Man, and he’ll never be The Man again, but his Hall of Fame-worthy career numbers warrant him a spot on this list. Teaming up with Paul George and Westbrook was supposed to give him a shot at a ring, and still might. Don’t count the Thunder out despite their lackluster season—the West is a bit more muddled this year than last year with Golden State’s injuries and Houston’s rise. But the Thunder are on the wrong side of the bracket in the West, and that will likely put Anthony one year closer to ending his career without a ring. Maybe he should look into teaming up with his friend LeBron in Cleveland (or L.A.?) next season.
James Harden (9th season): But conversely, Anthony’s prospective second-round opponent and former teammate is also under a lot of pressure to win now. Harden has a less-checkered past than Westbrook with regard to injury, but he has played a ton of minutes since going over to Houston in 2012. With a No. 1 seed, however, and a weakened Golden State team as their biggest challenger in the West, this year looks like it could be Harden’s best chance to shake the loser label. As the alpha dog, he’s only gotten Houston to one conference finals—in 2015—but this year he has Chris Paul and a deep bench. At least he did until forward Luc Mbah a Moute got hurt on April 10 against the Lakers—word is he could miss at least a couple of weeks. Don’t shrug this off, because even that little loss can hurt a lot—just ask the Portland Trail Blazers after Maurice Harkless and Ed Davis went down earlier this month.
The aforementioned Chris Paul (13th season): Like with Anthony, Father Time is against Paul. Houston was a big upgrade for him over the turbulent Clippers, but with Paul’s injury history and a bum knee earlier this season, the pressure is on. It’s tough for stars to get championships late in their career unless they team up with an alpha player like Harden and become the second option. Think Nate Archibald with Larry Bird in 1981, Clyde Drexler with Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995, and Jason Kidd with Dirk Nowitzki in 2011. This is a great opportunity for Paul this season, albeit (like with Anthony) not as the first option on his team.
LaMarcus Aldridge (12th season): Give credit to Aldridge for becoming the leader of a weakened Spurs team this year, improving his points and rebounds from 17.3 and 7.3 per game to 23.1 and 8.5. He never made it to the conference finals until last season, then had a horrible series after Kawhi Leonard’s quadriceps injury in Game 1 doomed San Antonio against Golden State. Except for one shining (first-round) series with the Blazers in 2014, Aldridge is a guy who perennially disappears in the playoffs after Hall of Fame-quality regular seasons. Even a Steph-less Golden State is going to be a tough hill to climb this year for a guy who is now on the wrong side of Father Time. Aldridge is a really nice guy, but he seems to lack the killer instinct that James, Steph, and even other guys on this list like Westbrook and Harden have. It’s hard to imagine him ever getting a ring unless Leonard regains his 2014 Finals form next year for the Spurs—if he even re-signs in San Antonio.
DeMar DeRozan (9th season): Stuck in the East with LeBron, age is creeping up on DeRozan as well. This year he got the Raptors to a No. 1 seed, but as with Harden in the West, will that really be enough to get them over the hill against a proven conference rival? As every other player in the East knows this year, when DeRozan gets out on the floor, he’s no match for LeBron. If James stays healthy (and that doesn’t seem like a big “if” at this point), the Cavs should not have any trouble with the Raptors. Then the next question becomes, how long does LeBron keep playing? If he stays in Cleveland and goes a few more years, DeRozan’s window (with the Raptors, at least) is going to slam shut.
HONORABLE MENTIONS FOR PLAYERS NOT IN THE POSTSEASON THIS YEAR
--Vince Carter: After 20 years, he may have finally reached the end of the road. Despite Hall of Fame stats, Carter has bounced among middling and mediocre teams throughout his career, narrowly missing out on championship windows with New Jersey and Dallas. His final impression on fans is likely to be his career-threatening takedown of Patrick McCaw late this season.
--Blake Griffin: He’s already played eight years but been in the league nine injury-plagued seasons if you count a lost 2009-10 campaign. Yes, he led the Clippers to respectability (along with Chris Paul), but never to a conference final. Now he’s on a Detroit team facing an uncertain future after failing to make the playoffs yet again, despite being in the Eastern Conference and despite Griffin’s formation of a “twin towers” duo of sorts with Andre Drummond.
--DeMarcus Cousins: An eight-year vet now, he’s out injured, even though the Pelicans are back in the postseason. The good news is that there is a window for New Orleans to potentially go deep into the playoffs thanks to Anthony Davis, so it is foreseeable that Cousins could be the second banana on a strong team in the next couple of years. Even so, with his injury history mounting, you have to start getting concerned about Cousins’ long-term viability.
--Dwight Howard: After 14 seasons, Howard has an NBA Finals appearance under his belt, but if you take that away, his teams have consistently underperformed. In fact, getting rid of him seemed to instantly make Houston better. You can’t ignore his stats: he’s approaching top 10 all-time in rebounding and blocked shots, and in a couple of years he’ll probably cross the 20,000-point mark. You also can’t ignore that he’s a cancer making too much money. If Charlotte unloads him, Howard might be a good piece on a team needing a defensive stopper, but he needs to check his bad attitude at the door wherever he goes in order to win a ring.
Finally, here’s the TP’s official NBA first round picks:
#1 Toronto over #8 Washington in 6: The Wizards have two stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal, and if they can get Wall going again (he’s just back from injury), they can give the Raptors a good fight. Toronto has more overall firepower, though, and should win this series.
#7 Milwaukee over #2 Boston in 7: We’re going with the upset here. No Kyrie Irving and no Gordon Hayward means big trouble for the young Celtics in the postseason. They’ll lean too heavily on Al Horford, who is not a number-one option; as well as young guys like Jayson Tatum who may not yet be ready for prime-time. Yes, Giannis is young, too, but he does have a little bit of playoff experience, and he’s by far the best player on the floor in this series. Teams with the best player on the floor tend to win, so we’re going with the Bucks for their first playoff series win since 2001.
#3 Philadelphia over #6 Miami in 6: This matchup could be trouble for Philly, especially if Joel Embiid doesn’t come back soon from the injury sustained in a collision with Markelle Fultz on March 28. In fact, Embiid has been ruled out for Game 1. On the other side, D-Wade still has some game for the Heat, and don’t sleep on Goran Dragic. We still think Philly will prevail thanks to its superior talent, but the Heat definitely have the advantage in terms of experience, so we wouldn’t be surprised if this thing goes the other way.
#4 Cleveland over #5 Indiana in 5: This one looks like the easiest pick, and if LeBron gets going, this could easily be a sweep. The Cavs don’t have the overall talent that they did in the past, and Victor Oladipo is the real deal in Indy, so we think the Pacers will get a game at home, but probably no more than that. Kevin Love is back, and the Cavs are mostly healthy, so this series shouldn’t take too long.
#1 Houston over #8 Minnesota in 5: We’ll call it a relatively easy series for Houston, but one in which the games will be close because of the talent of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, and the supporting cast. Minnesota is just going to end up being over its head late in games, however, with all of the Rockets’ 3-point shooting and good free throw shooters. Houston will mis Luc Mbah a Moute, though.
#2 Golden State over #7 San Antonio in 6: The banged-up Warriors probably got the best possible first-round draw they could have hoped for in the Spurs, who themselves are going without Kawhi Leonard and an aged Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Neither Kevin Durant nor LaMarcus Aldridge are true alphas, but we’re taking the guy with the ring in this match of Texas basketball stars. Steph should be able to rest easy until the next round.
#3 Portland over #6 New Orleans in 7: This is a tough series to call. The Blazers have slid of late, and the Pelicans have the best player on the floor in Anthony Davis. The loss of DeMarcus Cousins may prove to be the deciding factor here, however. Portland will get healthier with Maurice Harkless’ expected return by Game 3, and if C.J. McCollum finds his shooting touch again, the Blazers should be able to pull this one out.
#5 Oklahoma City over #4 Utah in 6: The Jazz have had a remarkable run behind rookie Donovan Mitchell, and they should be able to get a couple of victories against the occasionally-boneheaded Thunder. But all the OKC-bashers forget that the Thunder went 40-22 to finish the season, the fifth-best record in the league over that stretch. Forget Carmelo—the two-headed Westbrook/George monster should be enough to get the Thunder by a collection of solid role players and a rookie. The Jazz will be back, but this year they’re getting an education in playoff basketball.
 For more on the Baylor retirement saga, see Jack McCallum’s interesting new book comparing the 1971-72 Lakers and the recent Golden State Warriors teams, Golden Days (2017).