The Playoffs are famously the place Where Legacies Are Formed. For stars, their success or lack thereof provides grist for the debate mill regarding their place in history as fans will forever refer to these games to showcase how they delivered, or failed to, on the game’s biggest stage. This is why Stephen Curry, despite being one of the greatest guards in NBA history is criticized for failing to win a Finals MVP, as if that is the missing link in his otherwise impeccable resume. It’s also why some people seem to believe Robert Horry belongs in the Hall of Fame and why Leon Powe will never have to buy a meal in Boston again. These games don’t merely matter more in an empirical sense, determining who will be this season’s champion — they also matter more in a more mythical, less easily definable but nevertheless real sense, proving to fans who is and is not a legend, a true immortal. But the legends are the exceptions.
By any definition, Klay Thompson is a star. This season, he was named to his fifth consecutive All-Star team, and has averaged over 20 points per game each of those seasons. C.J. McCollum and Khris Middleton are of a bit lower standing than Thompson is -- McCollum has never made an All-Star team despite being one of the league’s more consistent scorers and shot creators, and Middleton, while not undeserving, only made the All-Star team by virtue of being on the best team in his conference. It was kind of a Kyle Korver or Jeff Teague in 2015 sort of deal.
These are players that any team would be happy to have as their second or third best player, but it’s hard to imagine any franchise being eager to have them as their primary option. Each, while obviously very good individually, have been lucky to garner open shots due to the gravity of their star teammates. Thompson in particular benefits from this as few players in league history ever have. Think back to his sixty point game where he took only eleven dribbles, or the forty-three point game from earlier this year where he only dribbled four(!) times. Middleton also feasts on catch-and-shoot 3’s, though he has improved his pull-up game this season as just over 60 percent of his 3’s have been assisted this season as opposed to 84 the year before. Somewhat humorously, while McCollum is the only one of these three players to never be named an All-Star, he’s likely the best of the three at creating his own shot, either by taking a defender off the dribble or by stepping back for an easy jumper, as he did to clinch Game 7 against the Nuggets.
Thompson exudes equanimity on the court and off it. It’s not that he is uncompetitive, though he truly seems like someone who would be perfectly content just hanging out with his dog all day if he weren’t so good at this basketball thing. Watching Thompson play, it feels more like he is just playing an intense game of pick-up ball with his friends than at the game’s highest levels — not because of his abilities themselves, which are clearly undeniable, but because of the seeming chill and lack of effort that informs that very high level performance. So while it’s easy to say that the pressure does not get to him, it may be more accurate to say that the pressure isn’t on him. If the Warriors fail to repeat as champions it will not be Thompson who bears the brunt of the blame. Any failing of the Warriors to win the title this season will be a referendum on Curry and Durant, who are not merely trying to earn recognition among of the greatest shooters in league history, but as two of the greatest players ever. Similarly, Middleton and McCollum are not being judged here — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard are. They are the ones with legacies rather than just reputations.
The unfortunate flip side of this freedom is that, even when they play tremendously, their teammates are still likely to get much of the credit. You can currently see this most pointedly in McCollum’s case. Even as his contributions were instrumental in their Game 4 quadruple overtime victory, and his step-back isolation jumper practically decided the Conference Semifinals, it is Lillard’s reputation who will most improve as the Trail Blazers advance to the Conference Finals for the first time in nearly two decades. While the Blazers would not have advanced without McCollum, Lillard is still seen as the team’s unquestioned best player and leader so all of the team’s achievements are taken to be reflections of him rather than his teammates.
One interesting wrinkle is that, this summer, both Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton will be unrestricted free agents (Middleton has a $13 million player option that he’s practically guaranteed to turn down). It will be genuinely intriguing to see what the market is for these two players who, while clearly tremendous players, have not been in a position to display that they can lead a team. Will their incumbent franchises be willing to go well over the cap in order to retain them and maintain continuity in light of how valuable they are to their success? Or will another team take a flyer on them in the hopes that they can bring the team wide success they’ve enjoyed in Oakland and Milwaukee to a franchise that has not enjoyed such winning ways in recent years?
It’s a near certainty that both Middleton and Thompson will garner max contracts this summer. Whether they will or not is not the question — the question is under what circumstances will a team offer this money, and if it will be justified. If they are re-signed by their current franchises, there is a decent chance that they will go on to win a championship, and for many teams, any investment is worthwhile if it brings a championship. The more interesting question is what happens if either player decides to branch out, to take on a greater responsibility as a team’s undisputed leader. Of course, sometimes leaving a question tantalizingly unanswered is a better option than unsatisfactorily addressing it.
Thompson, Middleton, and McCollum are all crucial to their respective team’s success. It’s truly impossible to imagine their teams advancing to the Finals or winning a championship without them playing to their fullest capabilities. And yet how good they actually are in a vacuum is a question that is not likely to be answered in this postseason, as they have all been placed in situations tailor-made for their skill sets, enabling them to succeed as they may not be able to otherwise. What will be intriguing moving forward, especially in the immediate cases of Thompson and Middleton, will be to see if they are eager to prove they can take on a bigger burden on a different team, giving up the freedom to fail they currently enjoy in order to seek becoming one of the select few who are trying to establish legacies and attain immortality.