With the NBA season finally in the books, the playoffs are underway! For the next few weeks (from April 13 through the start of June), sixteen different teams will vie for the title of ‘world champions,’ and the opportunity to be immortalized in basketball history forever. For those interested in catching up on the action, here are some of the top developments so far.
The biggest story of the playoffs, so far, is the absence of the NBA’s biggest star — LeBron James. James, long the “face” of the league, had not missed a playoff appearance since 2004, making nine NBA Finals and winning three of them. Alongside his superhuman athleticism and unforgettable moments, ‘King James’ also has an extensive off-court influence — his own school, lucrative endorsement and entertainment deals, and a globally-recognized brand. Any team that managed to sign him would instantly become title contenders, and have a guaranteed playoff spot. So when the Los Angeles Lakers announced they had signed James, the expectations were clear — a return to the glory days of the old Lakers dynasties, and immediate Finals contention.
So when the Lakers missed the playoffs completely this year, ending with a mediocre 37-45 record and a tenth-place conference finish, people were in shock. The fantasy of the unstoppable James, who could will any team to the postseason and win any game, was shattered. Much of the blame was laid upon injuries — James sat out 27 games — and the change in supporting cast, surrounded by unproven rookies and a motley crew of odd free agents. But some blame also laid with James — playing with far less enthusiasm and energy, and taking numerous plays off defensively.
In terms of an immediate impact, the biggest change has been in the Eastern Conference. Since 2011, LeBron’s teams had dominated the conference, winning the conference for eight straight years. Now, without him, the East is wide open, with several of James’ former rivals – the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers, and Boston Celtics, all hoping to take the King’s former place atop the Eastern Conference throne.
The other major story revolves around the heavy-favorite Golden State Warriors, and their star small forward — 10-time All-Star Kevin Durant. After falling to the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, Golden State managed to recruit Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder. In doing so, they accomplished two goals — crippling their chief rivals in the Western Conference, and creating a core of four All-Stars (Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) that made the Finals all but a foregone conclusion.
Now on pace for his third Finals victory, though, Durant appears to have finally satiated his desire for championships. Now, most rumors indicate that Durant will likely move on from the team, looking to establish himself as the face of his own franchise. Several major names have been floated out as potential landing destinations — the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, and Boston Celtics, among others. Even the Lakers have been considered as a destination, with Lakers fans holding onto the dream of a LeBron-Durant duo.
Regardless of where he goes, though, the balance of power will shift drastically within the NBA. Arguably the premier scorer in the league and still in his prime, Durant would launch any team into instant-contender status, but more importantly remove one of Golden State’s chief weapons, dropping them from their perch of overwhelming favorites.
Of course, Durant’s departure hinges on a number of factors — the Warriors winning again, Durant finally being satisfied with three championships, and wanting to head elsewhere to be the star of the team. Which will emerge – a continuation of the NBA’s latest dynasty, or a new era of unpredictability? Only time will tell.
Thus far, the playoffs have largely gone as expected, save for two series — those between the San Antonio Spurs and the Denver Nuggets, and between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. While the favorites have dominated every other series, the seventh-seeded Spurs have fought to a 2-2 series tie against the second-seeded Denver Nuggets. The series has shown the Spurs’ resilience, bouncing back not just from the loss of their franchise superstar Kawhi Leonard, but also the departures of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the last holdouts of the Spurs dynasties of the early 2000s. In a season where many expected the Spurs to miss out on the playoffs, they roared back, stunning the Nuggets at home — a place where Denver had only lost seven games all season. Led by DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio has also been aided by its supporting cast, exemplified by Spurs point guard Derrick White. After averaging 9.9 points all season on 48% shooting, White has exploded against Denver, averaging 19.3 points at a 65% clip. This was capped off in Game 3, when he scored 36 points on 83% shooting. Instead of rolling over and accept their fate, the Spurs have refused to die just yet.
Meanwhile, for the Thunder, it’s yet another story of disappointment. Oklahoma City entered this season with promise — after star forward Paul George signed a long-term deal, their core of George, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams looked poised to make a splash in the Western Conference. The first-round embarrassments of the last two years would be forgotten, in a return to form of the old Thunder, when Westbrook and Durant led OKC to the NBA Finals.
Instead, it’s been the same old story. After a mid-season skid pushed them back to the middle of the pack, the Thunder finished as the fifth seed, losing home court advantage to the Portland Trail Blazers. Four games later, they find themselves facing elimination again, down 1-3 and heading back to Portland for a decisive Game 5. Much of the credit for Portland goes to the Blazers’ dynamic backcourt duo of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, who have averaged a combined 55.1 points per game.
But just as much credit — or blame, depending on which side one roots for — goes to Westbrook’s erratic play thus far. Aside from a breakout Game 3, the Thunder superstar’s shooting has been abysmal, a mere 36.3% from the field, highlighted by Games 2 and 4, where he shot a combined 10-for-41 (24.4%). While he has contributed through his playmaking and rebounding abilities, Westbrook’s failing hero-ball may be what costs Oklahoma City the series.
At the end of the playoffs, only one team will be left standing, with the title of NBA Champion. But until then, to find out how all these stories unfold, sit back, tune into the playoff matchup of your choice and enjoy!