In truth, the NBA had not been building smoothly to a classic postseason before its March 11 shutdown. The league’s issues with China spurred by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong, the deaths of Kobe Bryant and David Stern, and injuries to Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving left the league limping toward a weakened field. After five straight Finals trips, the Golden State Warriors were going to be watching the postseason from home. And unlike most years, the defending champions were cast as underdogs as soon as Kawhi Leonard left the Toronto Raptors for the Los Angeles Clippers last summer.
The great hope was that the playoffs could redeem a season marked by controversy, tragedy and power shifts. There was plenty of history at stake. Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James was seeking his fourth title, which would have brought him one step closer to greats such as Michael Jordan (six) and Magic Johnson (five). Giannis Antetokounmpo was chasing his first with the Milwaukee Bucks while attempting to outrace speculation about his upcoming free agency. Leonard was in pursuit of a third title with his third franchise.
The game’s biggest superstar (James), its reigning MVP (Antetokounmpo) and its reigning Finals MVP (Leonard) were set to go head-to-head-to-head to claim the title of “best player in basketball.” Their matchups this season had been riveting. Leonard outdueled James on opening night and on Christmas. Antetokounmpo crowned himself during a December win over James. James exacted revenge over both in memorable March wins.
James and Leonard also might have faced off in the first true battle for Los Angeles, given that the Lakers and Clippers have never met in the playoffs. It only would have gotten better from there. If Antetokounmpo and Leonard had faced off in the Finals, it would have been a rematch of their showdown in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. If the Bucks and Lakers had met in a “Schlitz vs. Glitz” matchup, Antetokounmpo vs. James could have been the modern equivalent of the famed Jordan vs. Johnson clash in the 1991 Finals.
On top of those juicy possibilities, ESPN had planned to air “The Last Dance,” its 10-part documentary on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, on off days during the Finals. Jordan and James — the “Greatest of All Time” and his chief challenger — could have been in a nightly competition for viewership and social media attention.
These playoffs also promised plenty of stories beyond the headliners. The Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers entered as volatile commodities. Would James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Houston’s revamped small-ball approach have succeeded in pushing basketball strategy in a new direction? Would Philadelphia have gotten healthy in time to salvage its disappointing campaign? Would one or both teams have combusted so badly under postseason scrutiny that coaching changes or blockbuster trades would have followed in the summer?
There were also rising stars looking to make the leap. Jayson Tatum sparkled down the stretch, averaging 29.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in nine games after the all-star break. The third-year forward had been poised to be the Boston Celtics’ playoff alpha dog for the first time. Ditto for Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, who ably played the Scottie Pippen role for Leonard during their 2019 title push. And fresh off his first playoff series victory last year, Nikola Jokic had the Denver Nuggets positioned as potential spoilers for the long-assumed Lakers/Clippers showdown.
Go even younger, and there were some tantalizing playoff debuts on deck. Luka Doncic spent most of the season as a top-five MVP candidate while giving the Dallas Mavericks the NBA’s most efficient offense. The 21-year-old playmaker was set for his first taste of the postseason and possibly for his first exposure to backlash if the Mavericks’ joyride stalled out early.
The West’s final playoff spot hadn’t been set, but projection models pegged the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies as the leading favorites to round out the field. Either way, a thrilling rookie sensation — Zion Williamson or Ja Morant — would have been thrust to center stage for a first-round date with James’s Lakers.
Past and future chess moves hung in the balance, too, awaiting verdicts. Would Anthony Davis’s sharp-elbowed move to the Lakers pay immediate dividends? Would Leonard’s plan to team with Paul George steal the show? Would Harden’s swap of Chris Paul for Westbrook blow up in his face? Would the Bucks advance far enough in the playoffs to convince Antetokounmpo to re-sign?
All of those questions, story lines and career arcs now hang, like a jump shot paused in midair. Commissioner Adam Silver hasn’t canceled the playoffs, holding out hope they can be played in empty arenas in the coming months.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to have any closure if we do not have an opportunity to finish this season,” James said on a conference call this week.
He spoke for everyone.
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