One of the greatest appeals of the NBA Playoffs is how it exposes the truth about our favourite players, for better or worse. The contrast of the postseason is especially stark in today’s climate with stars routinely missing a fifth of the regular season, giving way for playoff nonfactors like Cam Thomas to drop 40 points three games in a row in February.

Not to mention the uptick of off-court distractions that have plagued a number of franchises in recent years. Random events like teammates Donkey Kong punching each other in the head in training camp, a certain franchise player brandishing a firearm on Instagram live (now twice), and Kyrie Irving’s very existence can hurt the predictive power of the regular season with so many teams discombobulated on any given night.

When coaches have to narrow their rotations, scout and design gameplans for just one team, and play against them four to seven times in a row, it’s nearly impossible to hide who you really are as a player.

2023 is no different. With the conference semifinals complete, some clear winners and losers have emerged from the 68 playoff games played. This isn’t simply an exercise of who’s playing well or not, because what we’re actually witnessing is something deeper: the birth of legacies, rehabilitated careers, and precipitous downfalls that may shape the NBA for years to come.

WINNER: Jalen Brunson

There isn’t a player that’s been more underestimated this season than Jalen Brunson. The Dallas Mavericks were unwilling to extend an offer before the trade deadline or outbid the $104M, four-year deal that the New York Knicks signed him for in the offseason. Passing on Brunson’s extension was and still is a baffling decision, especially for a franchise that had a taste of the Western Conference Finals a year before. A team hasn’t let a player of this calibre walk in free agency since… Mark Cuban and the Mavericks let Steve Nash return to the Phoenix Suns in 2004.

Fans and pundits didn’t fully recognize the gravity of letting Brunson walk at the time. Many felt the Knicks had overpaid for the undersized point guard who played second fiddle to Luka Doncic for his first four seasons in the league. He was considered a consolation prize in the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes, who, at the time of the Brunson acquisition, was still on the trade market.

Brunson not only outdueled Mitchell in the first round, he was also the Knicks most consistent star across their two series. He averaged 27.8 points, 2.4 threes, 4.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 1.5 steals – a near across-the-board uptick from his regular season stats (6.2 assists in the regular season). He had at least 20 points in all 11 contests. His marquee performance was in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semis (ECS), where he played all 48 minutes and rained 38 points on a Heat team that showed him every defensive coverage in the book.

For the first time in a long time, Knicks fans witnessed a playoff exit that was less bitter than sweet. New York finally has a franchise guard who’s a bona fide winner and embodies the toughness that defines New York basketball, and he brings direction to a ship that has felt rudderless for decades.

LOSER: Dillon Brooks

How does the old adage on bear safety go? “If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s black, fight back. If it’s LeBron, maybe don’t poke it?” There are some players you just don’t provoke under any circumstances. LeBron James is still at the top of this list, even if he is now “old.” This is especially true if you’re a role player without any history of winning championships. Dillon Brooks learned this lesson in the most embarrassing way possible.

Since instigating this one-way verbal conflict with LeBron after Game 2, Brooks averaged just 9 points on 28 FG% in 28.9 minutes. Meanwhile, LeBron sent Game 4 to OT with a tough game-tying layup at the end of regulation. He then proceeded to take Brooks to school with a driving and-1 layup over his head in the extra period. The Grizzlies were finished off in Game 6 in a poetic 40-point loss. You can’t let that happen after boldly claiming, “I don’t respect somebody until he gives me 40.” Nor should you run away from the media after such losses.

The Memphis Grizzlies have already dramatically announced Dillon Brooks won’t be returning to the team, “Under any circumstance.” It’s a tough blow for someone who just finished up a contract year and becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. 

Brooks, despite a tough playoffs campaign was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team

WINNER: De’Aaron Fox

After six long seasons dwelling in the basement of the NBA, De’Aaron Fox made his playoff debut, and he looked like he had been there many times before. Against the defending champions, he went toe-to-toe against Stephen Curry and took them to seven games. He averaged 27.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and a league-leading 2.1 steals. You also have to imagine he could’ve done more had he not fractured the index finger in his shooting hand in the second half of Game 4.

Fox’s performance had a cleansing effect on the Sacramento Kings franchise. Of course, snapping a 16-year playoff drought is an accomplishment in itself, but it was only during the playoffs when the narrative regarding last season’s controversial Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis trade fully flipped. Monte McNair’s heavily critiqued move was validated in part by the wily Fox, and with it, renewed the confidence and hope of a starving fanbase.

LOSER: Joel Embiid

Nothing taints an MVP like a horrible playoff exit. Losing is one thing. Failing to show up in a Game 7 against a bitter rival is another. The talented seven-footer settled for jumpers when he’s the biggest and strongest player on the floor at all times. He barely touched the ball to end Game 6 and didn’t seem to care to have the ball in his hands much in Game 7. His previous four exits in the ECS did nothing to inform his behaviour in the win-or-go-home match. He still sulks when the going gets tough and appears to forget how to play basketball when he’s in that gloomy mood. He’s the only MVP in NBA history without a conference finals berth in his career.

This is not to mention how Embiid continues to miss playoff games for the Sixers. It’s his third year in a row missing at least one ECS game. There have always been questions around Embiid’s fitness and durability, but some hope existed that Embiid is capable of a healthy (and therefore dominant) playoff run. That hope is fading, and fast.

With Doc Rivers fired and his Hall-of-Famer teammate hitting free agency, the Sixers appear to be flipping to a new chapter in the Trust the Process era. Will James Harden return or will he go back to Houston who in all likelihood will be adding another exciting rookie? If Harden doesn’t return, will he be replaced by yet another guard who will pass up on open layups exclusively in the playoffs? Will the new coach handle Embiid with a pair of kid gloves during the regular season? Whatever the answers are, Embiid’s career will go down as one of the most bizarre among NBA MVPs.

WINNER: Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Nickeil Alexander-Walker started the 2023 season languishing on the Utah Jazz bench. Quin Snyder barely played him after the Jazz acquired him at the 2022 trade deadline. This was a trade where the 24-year-old Canadian was simply a throw-in piece for the Pelicans as they acquired CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. from the Trail Blazers. Portland then flipped him to Utah a day later. Snyder’s successor, Will Hardy, similarly felt little reason to give him any run to start the 2023 season. Alexander-Walker was a healthy scratch in half of their first 20 games and averaged just 7.9 minutes for 2.8 points in the ones he suited up for.

For a player just entering his mid-20s, this is usually a signal by the league that your value as a player has tanked. And yet, his season ended with the Minnesota Timberwolves giving him starters minutes in the playoffs – a clear beneficiary of Jaden McDaniels fracturing his hand to end the season. He put forward one hell of a defensive effort against fellow Canadian Jamal Murray. He also knocked down huge 3-pointers in OT of Game 4 to secure the only dub in the series for his team. He then brought some of that magic in the Game 5 nailbiter.

With everything the Timberwolves gave up to acquire Rudy Gobert, it’s absolutely imperative for them to hit on their small bets. Between the development of Anthony Edwards and the emergence of Naz Reid, McDaniels, and Alexander-Walker as high-value role players, the Timberwolves are in a great position to compete for years to come.

LOSER: Jordan Poole

Admittedly, it feels a bit harsh to go in on Jordan Poole for a poor postseason given that his trusted veteran teammate, Draymond Green, punched him in the skull during training camp. It was a culture-shattering blow that, according to recent reports, planted the seed towards a divided locker room with the veterans in one clique and the young up-and-comers in the other. Bob Myers’s two-timeline plan had crumbled, though no one knew it at the time. These events outside of Poole’s control would affect any young player, especially when the lights are brightest.

That said, it’s what Poole has control over that is turning people off to his game. He has to recognize that a 27-foot shot with nine seconds left on the clock is a bad shot. It’s even worse when one of your teammates is Steph Curry and it’s Game 1 of the playoffs. He can also control his development as a defender. The eye test and every advanced metric suggests Poole has regressed on that side of the ball. It’s not what you want to see from a fourth-year player who’s about to start a $128M extension, especially for a team that’s already well over the cap under a more punitive CBA moving forward.

Monitoring Poole over the next season is already shaping up to be a major story. Whether he patches things up with his current teammates or goes to a new team, he’ll have to prove that his down year was a product of poor circumstances rather than the apathy that so often comes with securing a bag.



  • Austin Reaves: The third best player on a Lakers team with Anthony Davis and LeBron James. If you legitimately get to yell, “I’M HIM!” at any point during the playoffs then your career is on the right track.
  • Rui Hachimura, Lonnie Walker IV & Duncan Robinson: Three players who have lost opportunity throughout the season and have shown up in the playoffs.
  • Jamal Murray: The Nuggets look unstoppable, and Murray is a huge reason why. He may have the greatest comeback from a full ACL tear in NBA history.
  • Jimmy Butler: In case anyone wondered if Miami’s bubble run was a fluke, Butler is on a mission to prove that his game is anything but.
  • Anthony Edwards & Devin Booker: A couple of stars who announced to the world that they’re ready for superstar status.
  • Russell Westbrook: A waning star who showed he can still make a positive contribution on the right team.


  • Kawhi Leonard & Paul George: It’s unclear if they can be healthy at the same time.
  • Julius Randle, Deandre Ayton & Karl-Anthony Towns: A few big fellas who seem to shrink in the face of playoff adversity and have turned their fan bases against them.
  • Klay Thompson & Draymond Green: Two parts of the Warriors dynastic core who are clearly regressing and have their futures as Warriors under threat.
  • Jonathan Kuminga & Malik Beasley: A couple of players who couldn’t crack the playoff rotation despite a sizable regular season role.
  • Jarrett Allen: An All-Star vet who has some soul-searching to do after getting dominated by Mitchell Robinson on the boards.

*views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views on On Point Basketball

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