Indeed, the conference semifinals opened Saturday with new blood everywhere, owing to a delayed, shortened and condensed regular season that was hampered by injuries and coronavirus health protocol disruptions. The final four teams in the West — the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers — have combined for zero NBA titles and just four Finals appearances in their franchise histories. The final four East teams — the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks — have combined for five titles and 17 Finals appearances, but the most recent championship was in 1983 (76ers) and the latest Finals appearance was in 2003 (Nets).
Here’s a simple way to summarize the massive wave of unfamiliar faces in the postseason: None of the East’s remaining teams have won a title since before Michael Jordan’s rookie year, while none of the West’s contenders have even reached the Finals since the Chicago Bulls legend buried Karl Malone and John Stockton in 1998.
The upshot, though, is that a major star will be crowned as a champion for the first time no matter what happens over the next seven weeks. Only three of this year’s 28 all-star selections — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard — remain in the playoffs and have won championships, and none of them did it with his current team. If Durant and Irving succeed in leading the Nets to a title, James Harden will land his first ring. If Leonard carries the Clippers to the promised land, Paul George will be along for the ride.
“It’s only a handful of teams that have an opportunity [to win a title], and we’re one of those teams,” Harden said last week before suffering a hamstring injury in a Game 1 win over Milwaukee. “I’ve run into some very, very good teams [in the past], which is one of the reasons why I’ve been short.”
Harden, Nets forward Blake Griffin and George are among the many prominent players hoping to get over the hump. That conversation begins with Suns guard Chris Paul, who has been dogged by playoff failures throughout his 16-season career. A head-to-head victory over James’s Lakers in the first round has resulted in Paul’s best shot to win a title since he teamed with Harden on the 2018 Houston Rockets. Not bad for a 36-year-old point guard on his fourth team in five years.
Meanwhile, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, 76ers center Joel Embiid and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic have been patiently waiting their turns in their mid-20s to take over the NBA. Antetokounmpo and Embiid lost to Leonard’s Toronto Raptors in 2019 and were bounced before they got a shot at James’s Lakers in the bubble. Jokic reached the 2020 Western Conference finals before losing to the Lakers. These three international MVP-caliber talents are seeking the same championship validation that greeted Lakers forward Anthony Davis last fall.
An even younger generation of under-25 stars has entered the mix, too. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton shined in the Suns’ dismantling of the defending champions. Donovan Mitchell’s return from an ankle injury powered the Jazz to four straight wins after a Game 1 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. And Trae Young cooked the New York Knicks in the first round before helping the Hawks steal Game 1 on the road against the 76ers on Sunday. If Phoenix, Utah or Atlanta breaks through this season, the perception of their centerpieces could change dramatically, much like when Dwyane Wade won his first title with the Heat in 2006 at age 24.
While national television ratings are up considerably compared with the bubble playoffs, which had stiffer competition from other sports in the late summer and early fall, it remains to be seen whether audiences will embrace this year’s wholesale changing of the guard. The Nets and 76ers are the only remaining teams that ranked among the top nine in team merchandise sales during the first half of the regular season; Antetokounmpo and Brooklyn’s Big Three of Durant, Harden and Irving are the only remaining players to rank in the top 12 of jersey sales during that period.
Nothing sparks interest and fame quite like winning at the highest level, and there have been enough unpredictable twists this season to allow all eight remaining fan bases to harbor Larry O’Brien dreams. The crystal ball has only gotten hazier in the playoffs: Harden, Paul, Embiid, Jazz guard Mike Conley and Clippers center Serge Ibaka are dealing with various ailments, while the Nuggets have been playing without Jamal Murray and Will Barton because of injuries.
Most years, the NBA Finals feel like an exclusive club with a stiff cover charge and beefy bouncers. This year is shaping up to be an open bar.