With less than two months to go before the start of the NBA playoffs, both the Eastern and Western Conferences are starting to take shape. With just 16 playoff places available in total, competition over the remaining few weeks will be intense. Now is just the right time for any playoff hopefuls to start to find their form and to look to put a run together that will take them to the finals beginning on June 4th.
At this stage in the season, the big guns are just beginning to hit their straps and are looking to make their mark on basketball history. Last season Kawhi Leonard was named MVP in the finals, picking up the Bill Russell award as his San Antonio Spurs team beat the Miami Heat 4-1. Leonard was outstanding, averaging 17.8 points per game over the course of the five meetings and delivering 61% shooting accuracy. Few predicted Leonard's rise to prominence, and he has struggled to live up to expectations this year as the Spurs have disappointed in the Western Conference. But he may come to the fore again if San Antonio can sneak into the playoff picture.
Other than Leonard, whose abilities are far more widely recognised now, there are any number of players who could make a significant mark between now and June. Whether it be a vital block, a steal or a nerveless free-throw in the final, NBA fans will look back to a performance by one man when they remember the 2015 season. The question remains, who will that man be? As the excitement builds ahead of the playoffs we look at the eight men who could have the biggest say on where the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy ends up this season.
Atlanta Hawks power forward Paul Millsap is enjoying an excellent season in 2014-15 and has been central to his side climbing to the top of the Eastern Conference. In his first 56 games of the campaign Millsap recorded a field goal attempt percentage of .471- a .15 improvement on his performance over the course of last season. Millsap has scored 942 points so far this season and is on course to at least match his 2014 tally of 1,328. Last season, his first since joining the Hawks from Utah Jazz, was Millsap's most productive in terms of points since he was first drafted in 2006. Having come into the NBA with high expectations after becoming the first man in NCAA history to lead the nation in rebounding for three consecutive years, he started his NBA career relatively slowly but soon became one of the Jazz's regular starters. The switch to the Eastern Conference came at just the right time for Millsap and last year he was named in the All Star team for the first time. Having been voted in by the coaches again this year, he will be hoping to cap his season with a playoff run. Throughout his nine years in the NBA the furthest Millsap has ever gone is to the Conference Final with the Jazz in 2007, at 30 years of age he will be hoping to go at least one stage further this year.
Kyle Lowry may have been his own harshest critic in recent weeks - apparently referring to his game as 'trash' - but he has exceptionally high standards. If a man can be so self-critical, then it is clear that he has supreme talent. In Lowry's case, his talent is for scoring points and making the most of Toronto's possession. It is true that in recent weeks he hasn't been his usual self and much of this may have been down to securing his first ever NBA All Star call up a few weeks ago, securing a starting position for the Eastern Conference. If he can get back to the form he showed before the big game in New York, then Toronto will be confident of going all the way in the playoffs. The 28-year-old has amassed nearly 7,000 points during his career, and already scoring more 1,000 this season. Having been drafted by Memphis in 2006 before joining Houston then Toronto, Lowry has improved consistently throughout his time in the NBA and the only thing now missing is a playoff run. His longest post-season to date came in 2009 when he reached the Western Conference semi-finals with Houston.
Pau Gasol is an NBA veteran currently in his 15th season in the US having initially been drafted in 2001 by the Memphis Grizzlies following a successful spell with Barcelona in his native Spain. Having spent a number of years with the Grizzlies, Gasol then moved on the LA Lakers and was traded again ahead of this season when he moved to the Chicago Bulls. At 7ft tall Gasol stands out amongst the field of NBA giants and he uses his gigantic frame to his advantage. Having endured a difficult few seasons, the European has returned to his best form since moving to the Bulls and was rewarded with an All Star spot - his first since 2011. Gasol's most prolific season came in 2010-11 when he scored 1,541 points. After 55 games of this season he has already scored more than 1,000 points and will be hoping to challenge his best if the Bulls make a playoff run. Gasol already has two NBA Championships to his name from his time at the Lakers, but he has not been past the conference semi-final stage since. Last season the Lakers failed to make the playoffs all together so Gasol will be desperate to make a mark this time around and ensure that the Bulls are amongst the contenders come the end of the season. It will be worth keeping an eye on the odds with the bookmakers of the likes of betfair and others, to see how the chances are rated.
The Wizards currently sit fifth in the Eastern Conference and much of the success that they have enjoyed in recent months can be put down to the form of 24-year-old point guard John Wall. Wall has been with the Wizards ever since he was drafted in 2010, and the former University of Kentucky man has lived through a number of below-par seasons for the team. Last year, however, they made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and, despite their conference semi-final defeat to the Pacers, they will have been pleased with their progress. This time they will be desperately hoping to better that performance. If the Wizards are to make it to the business end of the playoffs, then Wall, whose form was recognised with a second all-star call up a few weeks ago, will be central to that success. In his first 58 games of the season Wall recorded 987 points. In addition to this, Wall has 31 double doubles already this season (fifth best in the NBA) and is the top performer in the whole competition when it comes to assists (he averages 10.1 per game). If Wall performs to the best of his ability, then the Wizards are a very hard team to beat.
Golden State Warriors Point Guard Stephen Curry is enjoying another outstanding season. Having picked seventh overall in the 2009 draft Curry always looked destined for big things, but injury struck as he became settled into the NBA and it was unclear whether or not he would ever fulfil his potential. Having missed much of the 2011-12 season with ankle and foot problems, he returned fitter, stronger and better than ever and he is now one of the most lethal point guards in the league. This season Curry has already scored more than 1,200 points at an average of 23.7 per game, and looks like coming close to matching his record of 1,873 points set last season. As well as boasting an impressive free throw percentage of .906 this season, Curry is also top of the NBA for steals and will be a vital part of Golden State's efforts in the remaining rounds of the regular season. Curry's form was rewarded with a second call up to the NBA all-star team this season, but he will now have mind firmly focused on team goals. During his time with the Warriors the closest they have come to NBA glory was a conference semi-final defeat to the San Antonio Spurs in 2012-13. Curry will want to make history and be a key part of the first Warriors Championship winning team for 40 years.
Having already highlighted his older brother, Pau, as a key man in the run up to the playoffs it would be remiss to overlook the vital role that his younger brother, Marc, plays for the Memphis Grizzlies. The 30-year-old center was recently described in an article as being 'untradeable' and he has been central to everything that the Grizzlies have achieved this season. Gasol is the linchpin at the heart of the Grizzlies defense and, at 7ft 1" tall he forms a formidable barrier. He was rewarded for his personal efforts by being named as NBA defensive player of the year in 2013 and he been named in the all-star team twice, first in 2012 and then again this year. Gasol and his Grizzlies team-mates have made it to the play-offs in each of the last four seasons but the furthest that they have gone in the competition was to the conference final in 2012-13 when they were comprehensively beaten by the San Antonio Spurs.
Houston Rockets' shooting guard James Harden is amongst the hottest property in the NBA right now. Having been drafted by Oklahoma City Thunder as third overall pick in 2009, Harden holds the distinction of being the Thunder's first ever draft signing. The 25-year-old enjoyed a successful three-year stint with Oklahoma, including reaching the 2012-13 NBA Finals where his team were beaten 4-1 by Miami Heat, before attracting attention from Houston and trading to the Rockets ahead of the 2013 season. Harden is a three-time NBA all-star (2013-15) and has continued to build upon his earlier potential since the trade. This season Harden averages 1.9 steals per game and is currently top of the NBA stats for average points per game. The former Arizona State man has already scored more than 1,500 points this season and looks likely to smash his record of 2,023 points scored in the 2012-13. If he can keep up his average of 27 points per game, then Houston will be extremely hard to beat in the coming months and they will be confident of reaching the NBA final for the first time since 1995.
Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is currently in his ninth season with the Pacific Northwestern team and has consistently improved since he was initially selected as second pick, second overall by the Bulls in the 2006 draft. Having been traded straight away to the Trail Blazers it was unclear what the University of Texas man would achieve in the game but he has gone on to become a mainstay in the Portland team and has been central to all that they have achieved in recent years. Aldridge has recently been touted as a trade target for the NY Knicks but, for the time being at least, he will be going all out to deliver Portland's first NBA championship since 1977. This season Aldridge has already scored more than 1,100 points and is on course to match his best ever season. That best season was in 2010-11 when he scored 1,769 points. On a personal level Aldridge has been selected for the NBA all-stars in each of the last four years, and was named in NBA all-rookie first team in 2007. Despite this, Aldridge has yet to pick up the team silverware that his performances deserve and the furthest he has ever gone in post-season basketball was to the conference semi-finals in 2013-14 when the Trail Blazers were defeated 4-1 by the San Antonio Spurs.