The NBA has reached duopoly. The Warriors beat the Cavs in 2015, the Cavs beat the Warriors last year, and this year they are the only two real title contenders. Every other team has lost at least four times in the postseason, while they have breezed through the first two rounds with 8–0 records.
The other four teams that are still alive sure are entertaining — the Celtics and Wizards are ripping each other’s limbs off in each game, and the Spurs and Rockets are tangled in a Texas hootenanny that’s been a joy to watch. But they feel a bit meaningless. Whoever emerges from those series will be battered, and likely unable to contend with a better-rested — and, um, better — opponent.
In the Olympics, they give out bronze medals. But not in the NBA, where being third-best just means you lost. The Thunder pushed the 73-win Warriors to seven games last season and got nothing to show for it but franchise turmoil.
So let’s take a moment to imagine a world without the Warriors and Cavaliers, one in which the other 28 teams in the NBA have a chance to win the NBA Finals. Specifically, let’s imagine a world where right after the All-Star break, the Warriors’ and Cavs’ players, coaches, and owners all disappeared, like in The Leftovers. This Sudden Departure doesn’t affect the whole world — just its two best basketball teams.
The NBA would take a few weeks or months off to cope, hoping the teams would return, but there’s too much money to be made. Eventually the league would forge on and crown a 2017 NBA champion. Here’s what the playoffs would look like in a world where the Warriors and Cavaliers vanished.
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Miami Heat
The Heat make the playoffs instead of missing the postseason by a game. Dion Waiters, a former teammate of now-disappeared superstars Kevin Durant and LeBron James, comes to believe he has been left here for a reason. You’d think the top-seeded Celtics would be a potential title contender with the Cavs gone, but think about how they struggled in real life against a lackluster 8-seeded Bulls team. The Heat are hotter and have a star with a god complex. They edge Boston in seven.
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Chicago Bulls
Team president Masai Ujiri constructed this team to face LeBron. Of course, he failed in real life, as Toronto was swept by the Cavs, but it’s perhaps worse in the post–Sudden Departure world, as the Raptors feel overcome with a lack of purpose. The Guilty Raptors begin to wear all white and refuse to communicate verbally on the court, which is actually fine, since coaches already have whiteboards. Raptors in seven.
(3) Washington Wizards vs. (6) Indiana Pacers
With the disappearance of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant, Nike has lost three of its four signature shoe pitchmen, meaning Paul George is now the face of the company, and Nike not-so-gently suggests he move to a larger market in the offseason. With an unmotivated star, the Pacers get swept.
(4) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Milwaukee Bucks
When the season resumes, teams begin to fear that Mike Dunleavy, traded by Cleveland mere days before the Sudden Departure, was somehow responsible for the Cavs’ disappearance. NBA players become deeply convinced that getting too close to Dunleavy is dangerous, and virtually no player is willing to guard him. Dunleavy averages 73.6 points per game, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point mark on seven occasions. Many call to have him banned from the league, but the players’ association stands by him. On the Bucks, only Spencer Hawes is willing to guard him, and while his efforts are good enough to prevent the Hawks from winning every game, Dunleavy still averages 43 points per game in a six-game series win.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Denver Nuggets
Nothing is different about the Spurs. They win in five.
(2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) Portland Trail Blazers
Like many, Evan Turner becomes convinced that the 3-point-shooting tendencies of the Warriors and Cavs led to their disappearance. He becomes high priest for the Way of the Midrange, a fanatical cult that refuses to attempt 3s and uses butter knives to scrape the 3-point line off the court at every NBA venue before each game, hurling three headless chickens, bound together by twine, at the arena workers responsible for reapplying the paint. The Blazers attempt zero 3s in the series, losing to the 3-happy Rockets by an average of 47 points per game in the sweep.
(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Memphis Grizzlies
The Clippers are happy with the disappearances — for once, they feel, something bad has happened to somebody other than them. L.A. in six.
(4) Utah Jazz vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder
Before the Sudden Departure, Russell Westbrook played like a man on a mission, trying to single-handedly achieve everything in an attempt to prove Kevin Durant wrong for leaving for Golden State. After Durant’s disappearance, he takes a step back, in part mellowed by the loss of his ex-friend and in part freed from the obligation to do everything himself. With a more cohesive game plan not entirely based on Westbrook doing everything, the Thunder are more well-rounded and can survive his visits to the bench. They win in five.
(4) Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Miami Heat
No Heat players are willing to guard Dunleavy. He scores 96.3 points per game, as the Hawks lead by at least 20 points after the end of each first quarter. The Hawks sweep the Heat.
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (3) Washington Wizards
The Guilty Raptors have taken to smoking in public as a sign of rebellion, which leaves them completely gassed by the ends of games. Wizards in five.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder
Even with a more team-oriented style of play, the Thunder are not on the same level as the Spurs. San Antonio wins in five.
(2) Houston Rockets vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul breaks his left foot in Game 2, DeAndre Jordan suffers a lacerated spleen, and Blake Griffin’s right arm falls off. These three things are unrelated to The Leftovers theme, but they happen anyway. The Rockets win in six.
(3) Washington Wizards vs. (4) Atlanta Hawks
Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat happily volunteer to guard Dunleavy. For the first time in months, the Hawks have to play actual basketball. They get crushed by a physical Wizards team and lose the series in five games.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (2) Houston Rockets
Even with the Sudden Departure, this series is more normal than the Spurs-Rockets series we’re watching now, in which Danny Green, Jonathon Simmons, and ancient Manu Ginobili are the stars. It’s a thriller, because it’s the damn Rockets and the Spurs, and it would be a thriller in any universe. The Rockets win in seven.
Houston Rockets vs. Washington Wizards
Honestly, if I had to pick, I’d say the Rockets are the third-best team in the NBA. It’s a tight battle between them and the Spurs — Houston has the no. 2 offense in the NBA and a mediocre defense, San Antonio has the no. 1 defense in the NBA and a good offense. The Spurs had the better record and are up 3–2 in their series, but I’m still riding with the Rockets’ Live By The 3, Live Even More By The 3 offense if I have to pick a champion for a league with no Warriors or Cavs.
But my belief that they’d win in this universe is not based on that. As anybody familiar with the universe of the 1996 documentary Space Jam knows, the Rockets are built for these situations: Take away the NBA’s best player, have aliens zap the talent from five other superstars, and the Rockets somehow remain unaffected, a championship-level squad in a world where others have stranger things to worry about than championships. They dominated the Jordan Absence of the mid-1990s, and they will be champions if ever the league’s superstars vanish once more. Rockets in six.