Athlon Sports looks at the NBA’s most impressive stars to miss this year’s playoffs—usually for reasons beyond their control.
5. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
The Suns’ dynamic point guard was the last man standing after the team underwent a dramatic shift at the trade deadline. A trio of big-time ballhandlers—Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas—was more than just a folly in the name of novelty; the unusual arrangement actually worked for a while, and had Phoenix improbably in the Western Conference playoff hunt for much of the season. But Dragic’s dissatisfaction with how often he was seeing the ball crescendoed to the point that he demanded a trade in February, and was sent to the Miami Heat. Thomas, too, was shipped off—to the Boston Celtics. Bledsoe remained with Brandon Knight, who Phoenix acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks, but the change in his roster was too significant to acclimate to, and the Suns slowly faded from contention.
4. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Drummond, like Bledsoe, was a victim of major change of context throughout the 2014-15 season. He had a historically impressive year on the offensive glass, seeming on certain nights as if his dominance as a second-chance creator was built into his team’s playbook. But the Pistons kept reshuffling their roster all season, so Andre’s brilliance was only augmented by a proper system during the more promising streaks of a very inconsistent year. Pistons coach and executive Stan Van Gundy should know by now, though, which player to build around as he moves forward.
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
“The Stifle Tower,” as they call him, was the NBA’s breakout player this winter. If the 22-year-old Frenchman isn’t already the best rim-protector in basketball, he’s certainly near the top of the race for that honor, going into next season. His Jazz took a few months to put him into the starting lineup in his second season—it took a trade of Enes Kanter, to the Oklahoma City Thunder, to truly pave the way for his spot. But once he paired with Derrick Favors in the front court, first-year coach Quin Snyder was able to position him as the anchor to a defense that was arguably the best in the league after the All-Star break. Don’t be surprised if you see Utah’s coming-out party rise to the level of playoff contention in 2015-16, with Gobert’s dominance down low as the glue to their success.
2. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
Big Boogie is perhaps the most disheartening player in the NBA. An amazing talent who’s also a touchy personality, his situation in Sacramento has been rocky for every season he’s been there. DeMarcus has never been anything less than one of the most tantalizing, powerful forces around, as a center who can either steamroll you or beguile you with footwork and shooting range. But he’s had as many coaches as he has seasons with the Kings—and even more starting point guards—so his game hasn’t been able to blossom at the core of a winner. Culture matters in this league, and Cousins will continue to falter without a better basketball family around him. Is new coach George Karl the answer he’s been waiting for? Next year will tell.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook’s Waterloo will be spoken of in nonplussed tones for years. Russell’s insane season, highlighted by eleven triple-doubles, is only made more legendary by his team missing the playoffs. His ceaseless blitzes down the court were the must-see event in the game for two months or more, and the twinge of dissatisfaction we feel in his postseason absence is fitting for what’s going on with the dramatic, ever-changing Thunder. Once a promising title contender, OKC has turned into a rabbit hole of what-if scenarios after momentous trades and injuries, and increasingly intriguing battles with the media. Westbrook snarling that his 2015 scoring title “doesn’t mean [s—-]“ will go down as the iconic quote from an unforgettable season.
— John Wilmes