“A lot of people say that I can be the face of the league.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo passed those words on—not his words, but the words of a lot of people—to reporters in March. Modesty is part of what gives Antetokounmpo Face of the League potential: He’s humble (yet confident!), charming (yet all-powerful!), relatable (yet superhuman!). Even the current face of the league loves everything about him, man: In February, LeBron James found Antetokounmpo after the All-Star Game, dapped him up and said, “I love everything about you, man.”
Yet saying James passed Antetokounmpo the torch that day is premature. Yes, Giannis and LeBron were there as equals, both selected All-Star captains, and yes, James is now 34, and yes, Antetokounmpo’s season surpassed expectations while James’s fell well short. It would’ve been perfect torch-passing timing … if the rules of time applied to James. He has too much clout as a legend (and Antetokounmpo too little) to not still be the Face of the League, even after one unfortunate season.
But the 2018-19 season has brought to the forefront the idea that, while James is The Man now, he soon won’t be any longer. There’s a space where those two realities can coexist, and that’s where you can find the 2019 playoffs, which feature Antetokounmpo playing for a 1-seed and James sitting on the couch: somewhere between out with the old and in with the new.
This postseason could be the last time some basketball truths (X coach is bad in the playoffs; Y player is elite; Z franchise is cursed) hold true. New phenomena like the Greek Freak are on the horizon. Here are a couple of things we could be seeing in these playoffs for the last time, and a couple of things we could be seeing in the playoffs for a long time to come:
For the Last Time: The Golden State Dynasty
The most interesting team to juxtapose with the Warriors isn’t the Rockets. It’s Golden State in the near future. This team could win it all in June, then break up in July. Wilder things—like the second-best player in the world joining the best team in the world—have happened.
Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson can enter free agency this summer. Thompson is expected to re-sign for the maximum; Durant is expected to leave. He should, if he’s as unhappy as he’s seemed this season. And even if KD stays, there’s a chance the Warriors will near a self-destruction (two of the lowest moments of the season are Draymond Green’s calling out Durant for not committing to the team earlier this season, and Durant’s saying in March that it’s a “stupid-ass motherfucking game we playing” after losing to the Suns). We’re familiar with all the diagnoses by now. The Warriors are tired. Exhausted! Bored! Lethargic! Weighed down by the three big, fat gold rings they have to wear every day.
Durant isn’t the only star player the Warriors may lose. The team could try to trade Green or just not re-sign him during the 2020 offseason. (If the money isn’t right, Green could be the one walking.) Some days, losing both seems likely. Either way, this could be the last time this iteration of the Warriors—one of the best teams in history—will play as a unit.
For a Long Time: Not Knowing Who “The Man” of the Playoffs Will Be
For the past five years, Golden State has been the unshakable team and James the unshakable man. No matter how trash the roster around him was, James created a path to the Finals. This season ended that streak. Were the team healthy all year long, the Lakers would’ve likely made the playoffs, sure. But it’s still difficult to buy into the idea that the Finals were in play. The Warriors overshadow everything.
You could count on LeBron advancing before, beating the odds and growing younger by the series. He leaves behind a gap in the narrative where an unshakable man used to be. These playoffs could mark the beginning of someone else earning that designation.
For the Last Time: Chris Paul Being a Playoff X Factor
Houston knew it was locking itself into a tight Finals window when it acquired Chris Paul in 2017. (That didn’t stop the Rockets from agreeing to pay him the max until he’s 37.) Paul’s body has withered and recovered, recovered and withered again, for nearly his entire career. It takes less to wither and longer to recover the older you get; Paul, 33, missed 24 games this season with a hamstring injury. Last season he also missed 24 games, and that’s not including the playoffs—Paul’s hamstring kept him out of games 6 and 7 in the Western Conference finals against the Warriors. Remember those? Houston lost both, and in the latter, the Rockets sure as hell could’ve used his jump shot. He won’t be James Harden’s change agent (at least, to the degree he is now) with another year of wear and tear on his body in the next playoffs.
Fortunately, the Rockets could face the Warriors in Round 2 this year. Why is that fortunate, you ask? The Warriors are like the assignment you have to do—better to take care of it while you have energy than at 4:27 a.m., worn out at the last second. Facing Golden State is inevitable. For Paul, a man with a serious injury history, and Harden, whose historic scoring season could catch up to him in exhaustion, it’s better to see Golden State as soon as possible. Of course, as the 4-seed, Houston will need to get past Utah’s defense first, which is already taxing.
For a Long Time: The East Being More Top-Heavy Than the West
Houston is Golden State’s most strapping competitor. Schematically and in terms of talent, the next-best West teams are a tier below the reigning champs, all muddled together in a postseason bracket that could go any which way. But the East has two teams that loom over everything: Milwaukee and Toronto. The conference could feature similar favorites at the top for some time.
Say Philadelphia blossoms after another year of growing up, and New York really does sign Kyrie Irving and Durant, or Boston re-signs Irving and trades for Anthony Davis. The East, even if Kawhi Leonard leaves, will start to tip the scales. Oh yeah, and remember what Giannis said about being the “new face” of the NBA. A new Eastern Conference will emerge in this playoffs.