NBA Storylines Left Unfinished
The plot threads we’re most excited to see continue when the NBA season resumes
By Wesley Marsh | June 02, 2020 - 09:44 PM
The NBA is like a long-running TV Drama; with every season comes new challenges for our heroes to face--and exciting narratives formed through clashes with foes both old and new. The 2019 NBA offseason brought massive changes around the league, with many stars switching conferences and teams. New contenders arose in a fresh NBA landscape where the race for the championship has been the most wide open it’s been in years. The 2019-20 season was poised to deliver on the fans’ anticipation built from the offseason through its opening months; both conferences have been competitive, and stars like Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard have fit in nicely with their new teams.
Unsurprisingly, each of their teams has gotten considerable media attention for their success this season, along with tantalizing narratives for the fans to latch onto. After all, this is a star-driven league and having something good to debate about is what keeps our attention.
Unfortunately this was cut short when the season had to be placed on hiatus due to the global pandemic; fans have been without the NBA for weeks now and it seemed as if there was no clear end in sight. But, there is hope! Recently talks of the NBA resuming play have been heating up with a target of mid to late July to begin games. This would follow after a short, multi-week training camp for players to get back into the swing of things. The NBA has been in talks with Disney to conduct the games, as well as house the players and staff, at its ESPN Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando, Florida.
Thus, with momentum shifted in favor of the league returning to action soon, let’s take a look at five of the most tantalizing plot threads left hanging when the season was put on hiatus.
5) The Memphis Grizzlies making the playoffs.
In the Western Conference, every game from the opener to the season finale is a battle for playoff seeding. In a conference that hosts multiple title contenders every season, having favorable playoff matchups is key to advancing deeper in the postseason. Unfortunately eighth seeds rarely, if ever, make it past the first round--but that doesn’t stop teams from fighting desperately for a chance at history by pulling it off. (It’s only happened five times in NBA history, the last coming in 2012 when the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Chicago Bulls)
With no real talent on roster entering the season, many saw this as a down year for Memphis, doomed to lose a bunch of games headed for the lottery. But the Grizzlies have defied expectations this season by being surprisingly competitive--they’ve managed to keep a firm grip on the West’s eighth seed over teams such as the San Antonio Spurs, (Who haven’t missed a playoffs since 1998) the Sacramento Kings, (Who finished 9th in the West last year) and the Portland Trailblazers. (Who bowed out during last seasons’ Conference Finals) They’ve done so in large part due to the contributions of rookie sensation Ja Morant, who’s averaging solid numbers behind 17.6 points and 7 assists on 49% shooting from the field. The Grizzlies’ other young stars in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillion Brooks have turned in solid contributions as well. Likewise, the addition of veteran center Jonas Valančiūnas, whom they acquired from the Raptors for All-Star big Marc Gasol--the last remnant of the “Grit-N-Grind” era, has given them a steady locker-room presence.
This team is fun to watch; they play at a fast pace and aren’t afraid to dunk all over you. Ja Morant has a seemingly endless bag of tricks to get to the rim with, to go along with otherworldly bounce. Jaren Jackson Jr. is developing into a key defensive tool with an accurate three-point shot match. Now, this is one plot thread that’ll only be resolved if the NBA opts to finish its regular season, instead of going directly to the playoffs; Memphis went 4-6 in its last ten before the shutdown, while teams like the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings were picking up steam. Even if they did make the playoffs, they’d most certainly lose to the Lakers or Clippers. But still, what an impressive season it would be if the Grizzlies were able to hang on for that playoff spot right?
4) The Battle of L.A.
The Battle of L.A. has been one of the NBA’s most marketable rivalries ever since Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers in 2011. The battle...never quite lived up to the hype. In the first years of the Lob City and post-championship Lakers era, the clashes were exciting; both teams were competitive and legitimately vying for bragging rights as the best team in L.A. But once the Lakers fell out of contention and Kobe Bryant retired, the “battle” became increasingly one-sided.
The Clippers made the postseason every year from 2012-2017 led by Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. By 2018, the pair had been shipped off to new squads and the future wasn’t looking bright for L.A. But with smart roster changes they were able to remain competitive without needing to go into a full rebuild. Even with a less-than-stellar roster, they managed to steal two games away from the defending-champion Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. LeBron James choosing the Lakers in 2018 free agency and the acquisition of star forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George by the Clippers last summer reignited this rivalry to new heights.
For decades the Clippers have always been seen as the “JV team” in L.A. But unlike the Lob City era, this Clippers team is being taken seriously as a title threat. Analysts have been predicting for months a clash between the two powers in the Western Conference Finals, with the winner of that series the favorites in any finals matchup that would follow. Kawhi Leonard is fresh off leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship behind a dominant playoff run that ranks among one of the best ever. Teammate Paul George also finished third in the MVP race last season with a career year on both sides of the floor. The Clippers also post a deep bench with talented players like reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and heavy candidate for the award this year in Montrezl Harrell. Needless to say, the Clippers are in a prime position to compete for multiple championships and claim supremacy over L.A. with the clock ticking on LeBron James’ NBA career. The Clippers and Lakers have been on a crash course since the season bega-- and no matter what the circumstances may be, when these teams meet again, all eyes will be watching.
3) The Houston Rockets and Small-Ball
Innovation is what the Houston Rockets are all about. Built around the offensive wizard that is James Harden, the Rockets have consistently pushed the definition of what NBA basketball is. GM Daryl Morey is known for his love of advanced statistics, and by building a roster heavily leaned toward three-point shooting and high-percentage shots, (like layups and fouls) the Rockets have found considerable success in the last decade. Along with the Golden State Warriors, the Rockets are responsible for bringing the league into the “Pace-and Space” era we have now.
This success hasn’t always translated into the postseason however; the James Harden-led Rockets have not been able to make it past the Conference Finals in his seven seasons with the team. Harden’s high usage rate during the regular season and his somewhat predictable, isolation-heavy game has contributed to Houston's underwhelming playoff record during this time. Their coach, Mike D’Antoni has been the brain behind some of the best offensive teams in history, pioneering the Seven Seconds or Less style during his time with Steve Nash in Phoenix. So with the 2019-2020 season being the last on his contract, Houston has elected to go all-in on the concept of position less basketball, swapping starting center Clint Capela for 6’7” forward Robert Covington in a midseason trade. This was done to open up the floor for All Star guard Russell Westbrook, whom they received in a trade for Chris Paul with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Having moved the 6’5” PJ Tucker to the center position, the Rockets now boast a starting lineup of players who can either reliably shoot threes, attack the basket, or do both.
The results have been...mixed. Initially, the changes appeared to have done wonders for their offense, which has looked less crowded and inspired some dominant wins over rival teams. But glaring holes have been formed on the defensive end too, as the Rockets are unable to stop opposing teams from out-rebounding them--as was the case in an embarrassing March loss to the terrible New York Knicks. And with no one taller than 6’8’’ getting any real minutes, they can do little in the way of rim-protection as well. (Something you’d think Houston would prioritize given how much they stress scoring close to the basket) They’d have to go through either L.A. squad to reach the finals; teams boasting strong inside presences that will surely give them trouble, and if their loss to the Knicks is any indication, would likely send them home in the second-round. Backed into a corner with an uncertain future, the limits of small-ball will be put to the test for Houston once the season resumes--and we’ll be able to judge for ourselves whether this experiment was a stroke of genius, or of madness.
2) Who Runs the East?
Since LeBron left Cleveland for L.A. after eight straight NBA Finals appearances, the Eastern Conference throne has been for the taking. Last season many saw the Milwaukee Bucks with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as the next team to rise, but the Kawhi-led Raptors had other plans; after dropping the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Bucks, the Raptors stormed back and won four straight to take the series. This season the Bucks have been on a revenge tour of sorts; with a record of 53-12, Milwaukee posts the best record in the NBA and was on pace to win 70 games at one point in the season--which if completed would’ve made them just the third team to reach the 70-win mark. Giannis is in the midst of another MVP season and will likely come away with the award again. For these reasons, Milwaukee has been the favorite to represent the East in the Finals this year.
But the road to the Finals isn’t so clear cut; the Toronto Raptors, despite losing Kawhi in free agency, has remained vigilant in their title defense. They hold the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference and pose a considerable challenge for any top team, led by the coaching of Nick Nurse with strong team play from Kyle Lowry, Fred VanFleet and first-time All-Star Pascal Siakam. The Boston Celtics are close behind the Raptors in the standings, and have refocused themselves following two underwhelming seasons with star Kyrie Irving. The biggest surprise in the East however, has been the Miami Heat; they’ve got a core of talented young players and veterans in Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, and newly acquired star Jimmy Butler. After missing the playoffs entirely last year, Miami is positioned now to make a deep run.
One team that’s disappointed this year is the Philadelphia 76ers; they find themselves sixth in the East currently, and while being one of the best teams at home this season, have lost nearly every game on the road. Chemistry concerns between their two stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have floated through the media for months, creating a question mark around how the franchise will capitalize on their championship aspirations. After being eliminated last year in an intense seven-game series with the Raptors, the Sixers will be looking to make another push for the Finals. But with more quality teams up for the challenge, who will make it out of the East is a question no one can be certain of.
1) LeBron’s Quest to win a Fourth Championship
L.A. winning another title would be huge for the Los Angeles Lakers. Currently, they have won 16 during their history--one short of their perennial rivals, the Boston Celtics. Winning #17 will not only tie them with the Celtics, but will also have earned them a title much faster than their rivals. It's been just over a decade since each team last won a title with both franchises entering a rebuild in 2013. Boston however, completed their turnaround quickly and has been in title contention since 2017. For the Lakers, this is the first season in which they’ve had a real shot at the title.
But winning a championship will mean far more for LeBron James than anyone else. The biggest shadow over James’ career has been his quest to claim the title of Greatest of All Time from Michael Jordan. With The Last Dance having aired and reaffirmed Jordan’s GOAT status to the media and public, LeBron finds himself in a unique position. To many, LeBron is already the greatest; he’s been the single most dominant player during the 2010s, and has proven he can win championships and do the impossible in Miami and Cleveland. But his detractors will point to his many Finals losses and unproven ability to win in the stronger Western Conference. By coming to the Lakers and leading them to the #1 seed this year, LeBron has dismissed most claims of the latter, but the postseason still awaits. The Lakers have the talent to make it at least as far as the Conference Finals, and while it certainly won’t be easy you should never bet against LeBron in the playoffs.
For a franchise so deeply ingrained in the history of the NBA that radiates success, anything short of a title is a failure. LeBron is just the latest in a long list of legends that have come to L.A. championship aspirations, and all have delivered; Wilt Chamberlain did, Kareem and Magic did, so did Shaq and Kobe. Dwight Howard was supposed to continue this tradition, but he cracked under the pressure. (Ironically, he’s playing good minutes off the bench with L.A. again this year) I’m sure LeBron is well aware of the criticism he’ll receive if he doesn’t bring L.A. a title, and maybe he doesn’t care. But part of me believes it’s no longer just about his own legacy; a Lakers title would do so much for the city after the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant earlier this year, who was one of LeBron’s closest friends and rivals. Since then, the Lakers’ season has essentially been, for Kobe--and winning a championship for L.A would be the ultimate way of honoring his legacy. LeBron may not care about the Jordan comparisons, but losing a friend ignites a fire in the heart that will lead you to greatness. Will LeBron be able to do it? If not this year, then what about next season, the last on his Lakers contract? This is one storyline the fans, media, and NBA need to see completed, and the one we’ll be following the most closely.
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