The NBA playoffs will look very different this season. Barring a miraculous turnaround by the Lakers, LeBron James will be sitting at home for the first time since 2005. He has cast an outsize shadow over the league. The past seven Finals MVPs have been either LeBron or the player who guarded him (Kawhi Leonard, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant) in that round. It will be weird to not watch LeBron in May and June, but his absence will also create opportunities for everyone else.
The Cavaliers and Warriors have faced off in the Finals for the past four years, and like a lot of long-running franchises, the pairing ran out of steam in the third and fourth installments, leaving the NBA stuck in a holding pattern. LeBron could beat the rest of the Eastern Conference almost single-handedly, but there was nothing he could do against Golden State once it added Durant. The playoffs should be a lot more unpredictable this season. The Warriors are still the favorite, but everything else is wide open. The top of the East is as strong as it has been in a long time, and no one has taken control of the other side of the bracket in the West.
The playoffs are still six weeks away, but it’s not too early to start rooting for the most exciting matchups possible. There could be some titanic clashes between teams with Finals aspirations as early as the first round. With so many star players set to enter free agency this summer, the stakes are incredibly high. The balance of power in the league over the next few years could be decided over the next few months.
Philadelphia vs. Boston
These two teams were supposed to be in the next three Eastern Conference finals, not a 4-5 first-round matchup. (Indiana will have to hold on to the no. 3 seed without Victor Oladipo for this series to happen, but it has been surprisingly competitive in his absence.) The series would be incredible theater. Philadelphia could knock out one of its biggest rivals in the same way that Golden State eliminated Oklahoma City in 2016. There are scenarios where losing in the first round would push Kyrie Irving and Al Horford out the door in Boston, making a potential trade for Anthony Davis this summer—which the team has spent most of the decade preparing for—dead on arrival.
A series with those stakes might be the best thing that could happen to a Celtics team that has spent most of the season bickering about roles and pointing fingers at one another. The blueprint from last season’s playoffs could still work. They can use Horford to stonewall Joel Embiid in the paint and drag him out on the perimeter on defense, build a wall in the lane and dare Ben Simmons to shoot, and pick on J.J. Redick with a longer and more athletic wing.
While Philadelphia has dramatically upgraded its supporting cast, there will be a lot of pressure on 76ers head coach Brett Brown to maximize his new players. It wouldn’t take much for the fault lines on his team to be exposed. Both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will be unrestricted free agents in the offseason, and they could wash their hands of this entire situation if things go the wrong way. Philadelphia is all in on this season. It had to nearly empty its cupboard to acquire Butler and Harris in midseason trades. Should those two leave in the offseason, the Sixers could be left with Embiid and Simmons and not much else around them next season. The future is never promised in the NBA. The team that loses this series might see its run end before it even had a chance to get going.
Oklahoma City vs. Houston
The stakes wouldn’t be quite as high in this potential first-round series since James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Chris Paul are all under contract for a few more seasons. The takes, though, would be incredible. My eyes are already bleeding from what would be said if Westbrook were to lose in the first round for the third consecutive season, or if Harden were to be knocked out early after a regular season in which he shattered the limits on usage and 3-point rate. Westbrook and Harden are two of the most polarizing stars of their generation, and it would only be fitting for them to square off with their reputations on the line.
This series should be better than the lackluster one between the two in 2017, when the Rockets defeated the Thunder in five relatively underwhelming games. The overall talent level is much higher on both sides: Neither CP3 nor PG-13 were in that series. Both teams have spent the past two seasons loading up to complement their franchise player rather than trying to wait out the Warriors. The winner of this series would probably be the biggest threat to the two-time defending champions in the West.
The series, either a 4-5 or 3-6 matchup, could come down to which team does the better job of exploiting the other’s weakness. Houston would try to spread out traditional big men like Steven Adams and get them isolated in space against Harden at the 3-point line. Oklahoma City wouldn’t even need to use screens to get George going. At 6-foot-9, he should be able to shoot over any of the undersized perimeter defenders the Rockets could throw at him. The Thunder need “Playoff P,” not the guy who was outdueled by Joe Ingles in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The odds are against OKC if it comes down to Westbrook vs. Harden. They need George to play Harden to a draw and turn it into a Westbrook vs. Paul series.
Milwaukee vs. Toronto
Any combination of the top four teams in the East would make for a great Eastern Conference finals, but the matchup between the two best regular-season teams would create the most interesting story lines on the court, even if it drives TV executives to nightmares. A battle between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard could tell us who will replace LeBron as the new King of the East. The era of the big-man battle is over. The wing positions are where the heavyweight fights happen these days.
Giannis and Kawhi have not matched up much in the regular-season games between their two teams, but there would come a point in the series when the best two-way player on each team would have to guard the other. It would be the rare one-on-one matchup that would be equally as compelling on both sides of the ball. Could Kawhi, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, slow down Giannis, who has been playing like a new-age version of Shaq? And could Giannis take his defensive reputation to the next level and use his length to erase Kawhi, like LeBron used to when he was in his prime?
The series could come down to which head coach in his first year on the job (Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee and Nick Nurse in Toronto) does a better job of manipulating matchups. They both have the luxury of deep rosters, but having more lineup options also creates more opportunities to choose the wrong ones. Both now have a Gasol brother on the second unit. Which one will blink first and go small? Will we see a T-800 frontcourt of Kawhi, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby before we see Giannis reach his ultimate destiny as a point center?
Denver vs. Utah
The Nuggets have enough of a cushion in the race for the no. 2 seed out West that this hipster’s paradise of a basketball series couldn’t happen until the second round. Could a non-first-round series be relegated entirely to NBA TV? The on-court product would be fascinating, though, even if it would never be talked about on First Take. The series would be the rare clash of styles in an era when many of the best teams play a similar brand of spread pick-and-roll basketball. It would be offense vs. defense in a matchup of two of the most unconventional stars in the league: Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic.
Gobert has gotten the better of Jokic in the 10 games between the two European 7-footers in their NBA careers. His absurd physical dimensions present an unusual challenge to Jokic. Gobert has the length and quickness to cover him up on the perimeter while still having the strength to body him up in the lane. Everything in Denver goes through Jokic, and he would have to dig deep into his bag of tricks to come up with a way to consistently score over Gobert, much less command the double-teams necessary to free up his teammates. Jokic has skipped a few steps this season: He’s a 24-year-old who has turned himself into an MVP candidate despite never playing in the postseason. This could be his opportunity to turn himself into a household name.
That’s what happened to Donovan Mitchell when he got the better of Westbrook and George in last year’s playoffs as a rookie. Utah traded up to grab him in the 2017 draft, sending Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon to Denver in a draft-night deal that looks like an all-time heist in retrospect. However, he would not be a star with the Nuggets, where he would have been stuck behind Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. The NBA is all about making the most out of the opportunities in front of you, and both teams would have the chance to position themselves as the rising young team out West with a victory over their division rival.
Golden State vs. Anyone in the Finals
This version of the Warriors, with both Curry and Durant, has never really been pushed in the Finals. Their two series with the Cavs were over before they began. Golden State would still be favored over any team that comes out of the East this season, but it would at least offer new scenery. And whoever they face will be in a much better position than Cleveland was last season to take advantage of any fatigue or nagging injuries from having to run through the gantlet out West. This might be the last dance for the most talented team in history. It would take a historic effort to beat them, and it would be awfully fun to see Durant and Curry forced to take their games to a new level before they get broken up.