The top player on each team is often clear, but the leading scorer is not always the one who makes the largest impact in a game. Role players and All-Stars alike have the ability to shift a result, with one big performance making or breaking a series.
Players who have performed poorly in past playoffs are chasing redemption, while newcomers are hungry to make their mark. It is those players who have something to prove—and that opponents will need to keep their eye on.
Everyone has a role to play on their respective teams, but a few must rise to the occasion to give their teams a chance at the title. Here is a player on each playoff and play-in team who will play a pivotal role in his team’s postseason success.
1. Stephen Curry, Warriors
There is arguably no player more important to his team’s playoff hopes this season than Stephen Curry. The Warriors have a tough play-in matchup against the Lakers, but if any player can will Golden State to victory in a play-in game, it’s the two-time NBA scoring champion.
2. Russell Westbrook, Wizards
The Wizards overcame a poor start thanks in large part to another triple-double season from Russell Westbrook. He plays a crucial part in Washington’s ceiling in the play-in tournament as the Wizards face a Celtics team that will be without Jaylen Brown but can also exploit Washington’s lacking defense.
3. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
The Blazers have had first-round playoff exits in four of their last six seasons, and now Damian Lillard has another chance to go the distance this year. Lillard has helped run one of the top offenses in the NBA this season and will be tasked in keeping that production up against the likely MVP Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets.
4. LeBron James, Lakers
The Lakers find themselves in the play-in tournament, whether LeBron James likes it or not. L.A. enters its matchup against the Warriors with more starpower, but the result—and the Lakers’ ceiling—will likely come down to James’s long-term health.
5. Paul George, Clippers
Playoff P has a chance to redeem himself after the Clippers’ poor postseason and semifinals exit in 2019–20. Kawhi Leonard leads the team in points per game, but George will be a key piece as he has to prove consistency and the clutch factor in the postseason.
6. Julius Randle, Knicks
Julius Randle has powered the NBA’s most unlikely success story this season, but the challenge does not stop there. The Knicks will need to show they have the chops to hang around in the postseason after an eight-year absence, and while the team has relied on its defense, Randle’s offensive production will make or break that effort.
7. James Harden, Nets
The Nets have many players who can prove to be the most important in a series, but Brooklyn’s ceiling boils down to Harden and his health. Harden played just one game following his hamstring injury at the end of the season and Brooklyn will need his steadying hand if it hopes to escape the East and follow its championship aspirations.
8. Tobias Harris, Sixers
The Sixers claimed the Eastern Conference crown largely thanks to Joel Embiid’s big season, but Tobias Harris brings an important shooting presence into the postseason. Harris missed some games with a sore left knee but will be relied upon in the postseason to buoy Philly’s offense and keep up his reliable production.
9. Nikola Jokić, Nuggets
There may be motivation behind Nikola Jokić to prove that his MVP-caliber play can continue in the postseason with a contender. Many will doubt the Nuggets’ staying power in the playoffs, but Jokić will not allow Denver to go away easily—even without Jamal Murray.
10. Luka Dončić, Mavericks
The Mavericks were able to escape the play-in tournament and will face the Clippers in the first round, putting pressure on Luka Dončić against one of the league’s top defenses. Dončić has the ability to take over a game, and his clutch end-of-game skill set can swing a series in Dallas’s favor.
11. Jayson Tatum, Celtics
The Celtics have had their challenges this season, but Jayson Tatum’s offensive ability gives Boston a chance in the play-in tournament. The Wizards have their own volume scorers in Westbrook and Bradley Beal, so Tatum will need to step up in Jaylen Brown’s absence to extend Boston’s season.
12. Bojan Bogdanović, Jazz
Bojan Bogdanović finished the regular season as one of the NBA’s hottest scorers, averaging 25.8 points over his last 10 games played. The production was needed as Donovan Mitchell dealt with an ankle injury and will continue to be vital if the Jazz want to escape as the top team in the Western Conference.
13. Devin Booker, Suns
It is difficult to pinpoint the Suns’ most important player after Chris Paul helped bring the team to a new level this season, but Devin Booker plays the biggest role in the team’s postseason potential. Booker has the potential to be one of the most lethal scorers during the playoffs, and if he can maintain that level, the Suns are in good position to reach the NBA Finals.
14. Jrue Holiday, Bucks
Jrue Holiday has added a much-needed dynamic to a Bucks team that topped the NBA in points per game (120.1) in the regular season. Milwaukee has yet to prove itself in the postseason, but Holiday’s performance can be the piece that swings the Bucks past the Sixers and Nets with Eastern Conference competition as steep as ever.
15. Ja Morant, Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have their work cut out for them if they want to earn the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, and they will have to lean on Ja Morant’s steadying hand and offensive production. Memphis has multiple players who have stepped up throughout the season, but none more explosive than Morant, who will set the tone for the Grizzlies.
16. LaMelo Ball, Hornets
The Hornets have experienced their fair share of injuries this season, but LaMelo Ball’s return gives Charlotte a spark heading into its play-in game against the Pacers. With the result potentially coming down to the most explosive player on the court, the Hornets will especially need Ball’s floor presence against an Indiana team with multiple weapons.
17. Domantas Sabonis, Pacers
The Pacers and Hornets enter their play-in game relatively well-matched, but Domantas Sabonis has the potential to be the best player on the court. Especially as Malcolm Brogdon enters the game listed as questionable with a hamstring injury, Sabonis can be relied on to win his matchup and pick up the offensive production to advance and try to claim the No. 8 playoff seed.
18. DeMar DeRozan, Spurs
The Spurs’ offense has relied on its depth in the absence of volume scorers, but DeMar DeRozan brings something invaluable: experience. The Spurs ended the regular season on a losing streak and will need DeRozan’s leadership and offensive production to help keep San Antonio’s season alive against the Grizzlies.
19. Bam Adebayo, Heat
We all know Jimmy Butler is capable of powering the Heat to a landmark postseason, but Bam Adebayo can make or break a series with his impact on defense. If Miami wants to make another run to the Finals, Adebayo will have to supplement Butler’s performances and dominate the interior to get past the Bucks for a second straight postseason.
20. Trae Young, Hawks
The Hawks and Knicks are well-matched entering their playoff matchup, and Trae Young will be tasked with countering the offensive production of Julius Randle. New York exceeded expectations this season thanks to its staunch defense, and if Young is impacted by the pressure, it will be difficult to see Atlanta advancing to the second round.