- J.A. Adande, NBA
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There's so much more than the Larry O'Brien Trophy at stake in the NBA playoffs.
There are jobs to be saved or lost, reputations to be created or extended. Someone will win the Tyronn Lue award for best contract earned in a single series. Someone will have a Nick Anderson moment, and the way we think of that player will be altered forever.
The great contradiction of the playoffs is that while the best team will win, the lasting memories will be of individuals. Last year's playoffs gave us LeBron's legend and Dirk's disappointment and the incredible cross-country saga of Derek Fisher, to name just three.
Consider this your program to the drama, a preview of who from each playoff team has the highest stakes, the most to gain or lose in this postseason.
16. Mike Woodson, Atlanta Hawks
How would you like to be Woodson, whose team beat out the New Jersey Nets for a playoff spot? Now he has to hear that Nets coach Lawrence Frank's job is safe, while there's been no such proclamation from his own boss, who reportedly tried twice to fire him.
It's been a season's worth of disappointments for the Hawks, who played only when they felt like it or were sufficiently motivated. That was about half the time. Even their playoff kick was a sporadic, win-lose-win-lose yo-yo.
Now the Hawks' only hope for advancing and for Woodson to present a strong case for his career is for them to pull off the biggest upset (ever?) in the playoffs and beat the Boston Celtics.
The thing is, no one outside of Atlanta is concerned about Woodson's fate. Come to think of it, not that many people past Buckhead, Ga., care either.
His scoring, rebounding and shooting numbers have all dropped from his rookie year. He's had three scoreless games in the past month.
Do you think he'll average 12.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in the postseason? If he doesn't, that means he won't match Kwame Brown's numbers from Brown's second trip to the playoffs. Just as baseball has the Mendoza Line, the Kwame Numbers would have to be the modern standard for No. 1 overall draft pick bustdom.
You draft guys No. 1, you expect them to win championships for you. Or at least get you to the Finals. From 1980 to 2000, 10 of the No. 1 overall picks played in the NBA Finals with the teams that drafted them. Bargnani needs to show some signs he won't be in the other group.
Right now he's in as good a place as he's ever been in his career. He's got The Man status all to himself on a championship contender. He still has to show he can win a playoff series without Shaq, which is why he's on the list. But if the Lakers don't win a championship this year, they'll probably still start next season as the favorite.
Another good sign: As improbable as it once seemed that the Lakers could hold the No. 1 seed, as hard as they worked to get here, they could lose at practically any point and it wouldn't be considered a giant upset or something that would make them rethink their entire organizational philosophy.
No need to check on LeBron. He's ahead of the curve, reaching the Finals at an earlier stage than three-fourths of the Dream Team did. And he'll probably be back again at some point.
This is about the ability of his teammates to help him. And the biggest burden is on Ben Wallace.
The Cavs will pay him more than they'll pay LeBron next season ($14.5 million to about $14.4 million). More than that, Wallace will be clogging the salary cap the next two seasons. If he's going to inhibit Cleveland's financial flexibility, he can't be a nonfactor in the playoffs the way he was last year, when he averaged a postseason career-low 9.5 rebounds per game.
The cheapest name on this list, he made only $2.8 million this season. These playoffs could go a long way toward determining how much he gets next season. This is the time to make your money. And your name.
See, Iguodala's name is a problem here. Four syllables in the last name. Who was the last great NBA player with that many? Abdul-Jabbar? At least you could call him Kareem and everyone would know who you're talking about. Iguodala might not even be the most important Andre on his team. And Allen Iverson is still the OG A.I. in Philadelphia.
In theory, the playoffs should be the time when Duncan becomes more of the focal point. But now that the Suns have Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers have Pau Gasol to counter, it won't be as easy to have Duncan carry the load.
The pressure's on Ginobili to be the man.
Last week Paul was talking about the common perception that the Hornets lack playoff experience. He noted that Peja Stojakovic, David West, Morris Peterson, Tyson Chandler, Jannero Pargo and Bonzi Wells have all played in the playoffs before. "I'm the only one," Paul said of his status as a playoff virgin.
But when that "one" is responsible for so much of the offense, that's where the doubt kicks in. If Paul doesn't get up to playoff speed right away, the Hornets could get bounced by Dallas in the first round.
Of the 16 names on this list, he's the only playoff newcomer.
Chris Paul got moved into a better conversation. It used to be: Paul or Williams, who's the better point guard? Now it is: Paul or Kobe, who should be MVP? That's the conversation you want to be in.
For Utah, Carlos Boozer is already a superstar, except no one knows it. He's the only player to average 20 and 10 in each of the past two seasons.
Another good run for Williams will force people to pay attention again. It could be his year to escape the orbit of Paul and make his own name.
As fun as All-Star weekend was for him, you don't want the most memorable image of your season to involve a cape.
Yao Ming is injured. Either Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal is guaranteed to be out in the first round. If the Magic can get past the Raptors and Pistons and then take out Kevin Garnett and the Celtics, Dwight Howard could be the last great big man standing.
If so, like LeBron, he could earn a pass from this list for a few years. And he could earn a spot in the upper rankings of the MVP race.
Think about it: A guy who averaged 21 points and 14 rebounds for a division-winning team ought to get more MVP consideration than Howard. To move up in next season's MVP talk, he needs the head start a big playoff run would provide.
You know why. But keep in mind, he'll turn 29 on May 24. We have no idea how well Yao will recover or if he can get back to the way he played in the first half of the season.
His team's 22-game winning streak still wasn't enough to give the Rockets an upper seed in the playoffs (the Jazz got the 4-seed for winning the Northwest Division, but the Rockets got home-court advantage due to a better record). So the Rockets will have the first two games at home, but they'll also play the first two without Rafer Alston. In other words, last year's Game 7 at home against Utah might have been as good a shot as McGrady will ever get to do you know what.
The Washington Wizards' season after Arenas went down went beyond Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory. This is not just a case when a team does better without you. This is a case of people inside and outside the organization believing the team is better without you.
With an opt-out and potential free agency looming, how does Gilbert prove he's still got it without disturbing what Washington had going on this season? It looks like he'll get his chance by coming off the bench for the Wizards.
This is all about the Team USA bus rides in China this summer.
If Carmelo can't get out of the first round of the playoffs again this year, how does he sit next to his 2003 draft classmates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. What's he going to do when they start swapping stories about playing in the NBA Finals? Excuse himself and go up front with the coaches?
And as awkward as it was for Dirk Nowitzki to rearrange vacation plans to pick up the MVP trophy last year, it wouldn't be as bad as Anthony making a court appearance for his DUI arrest following another early playoff departure. At least Dirk was reminded of something that went right for him. So far it's hard to think of a high point of the Carmelo Era in Denver. And that's the biggest problem.
4. The Detroit Pistons
It only makes sense for Detroit to go on this list as a single unit. There is plenty at stake for the Pistons' individuals, most notably coach Flip Saunders, whose job status is in doubt. But this group has flourished as a team and will ultimately be judged as a team.
But what kind of a team? A fluke that took advantage of a dysfunctional Lakers squad to get one banner? Or a team with championships, plural, able to hang a pair of banners alongside the Bad Boy banners?
If they fall short, they'll be just like the Atlanta Braves: good enough to be in the hunt year after year, but converting at a low rate.
3. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
Garnett and Steve Nash are the only two MVP winners who have not played in the NBA Finals. The only reason this isn't a complete desperation play for Garnett is because the Celtics could give it another run next year. And as well as Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Leon Powe have played this season, they figure to be even better after making a run through the playoffs, no matter how long this one lasts.
This is Garnett's season, though. It's rare that a man can show up and change the fortunes of a franchise and the attitude in a town. Charles Barkley did it for Phoenix in 1992-93. But he couldn't cap the season with a championship because he had to go against Michael Jordan's Bulls. Garnett has no such excuse.
2. Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks
Yes, Dirk Nowitzki has the chance to redeem himself and Jason Kidd can validate the trade. But the person with the most invested, literally and figuratively, is Cuban.
It's not just the extra $11 million it took to get the Kidd deal done. The playoffs are also a referendum on all the decisions he's made, most notably his refusal to part with Nowitzki in any number of potential trades over the years.
He's anointed Dirk as his guy, and what if his guy -- and Cuban's plans -- just aren't good enough? What an expensive way to experiment. Because if they go out in the first round in back-to-back years, it should be time to start over. New coach, new core, new philosophy.
1. Shaquille O'Neal, Phoenix Suns
How can a man with four championship rings have anything to prove?
Because the Suns staked their postseason hopes and sacrificed their future for him. Because there still hasn't been full closure with the Lakers and him. Because he can either take a fourth team to the NBA Finals or allow Tim Duncan to stake a claim as the era's best big man, at Shaq's expense.
Or he can meet the Lakers in the ultimate "Who Was Right?" referendum in the conference finals. He did get a ring first, showing that he still had something left when he was D-Wade's sidekick in Miami. But if he goes home and the Lakers go to the Finals, the Lakers can say the decision they made for the future is paying off right now -- that they were justified when they jettisoned Shaq.
As Mike D'Antoni said, mocking the coverage of his team: "If we don't win the whole thing, it's a disaster."
If O'Neal has to yield to Duncan or watch the Lakers celebrate, then as far as he's concerned, it will be.
And you know what? It looks like that's the way it will play out.
The Suns likely won't have the home-court advantage in any series. The Lakers have the most balance and should come out of the West.
Who will they see from the East? The Pistons have what it takes to get there and to drop the Lakers once again. And get themselves off this list.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
Here's how the playoffs look from the viewpoint of the person who has the most to gain or lose from the postseason, J.A. Adande writes.