We are smack dab in the middle of the NBA playoffs. If you’ve been paying close enough attention, you’ll notice one thing rings true much more so than in recent years.
We might be about to witness a changing of the guard, for we are in a time where the league’s eventual champion is no longer a foregone conclusion.
Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers
Damian Lillard is one of the deadliest shooters in the NBA. We have seen this guy make big shot after big shot from basically anywhere on the court. He is single-handedly expanding the meaning of the high percentage jumper. If it wasn’t for Steph Curry, Lillard would have the rangiest jump shot in the league. Even with Curry considered, he still might.
Here’s an interesting tidbit. The Portland Trailblazers have been in the league since 1970. They have been to the Finals three times, winning a title only once behind Bill Walton. Bill Walton is also the only Portland player in history to have won an MVP award, this coming in the 1977-78 season. Those other two Finals appearances came from Clyde Drexler-led teams that ultimately lost to Isiah’s Pistons and Michael’s Bulls. So, for those counting at home, that’s only one title and one MVP for Portland in fifty years. No one would like to see that change more than Damian Lillard.
Since winning Rookie of the Year in 2012-13, Lillard has made the Blazers his team, all but carrying them to their current success, reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2018-19 where they ultimately lost to the far better Golden State Warriors.
Lillard has made six all-star teams, one all-NBA team and three all-NBA second teams but has yet to sniff league MVP. The closest he’s come in voting was fourth in 2017-18 behind James Harden, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Now I’m not suggesting that he should have won one yet (am i?) nor am I suggesting that he win it this year. However, I am suggesting there might be a small market bias considering the last six seasons, all this guy has done is average 25, 27, 27, 26, 30 and 29 points per game. There might not be a player in the league who is more riveting to watch, more important to his franchise and who, when he takes an impossible shot, you’re not the least bit surprised when it goes in more than Damian Lillard.
Your Other MVP
Speaking of underrated players, let’s talk about Nikola Jokic. Like Lillard, he is doing something NBA fans have never seen. We don’t know yet whether Jokic will win league MVP this season although he’s the prohibitive favorite. That would make him the first Denver Nugget player ever to do so.
Even with the season he had (26.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 8.3 apg), some naysayers don’t think he’s worthy of the award. To those naysayers, I reply with a hearty nay of my own.
In a season which saw multiple, uber-talented players vie for the award, Jokic’s stat line and style of play combines old school, post-up basketball with an inherent court vision that only superstars possess. He’s doing something that few centers have ever done, which is make teammates around him better and he’s doing so better than anyone in the league. To put things into comparison, only one center in league history has won MVP while averaging as many assists in a game as Jokic. That man’s name is Wilt Chamberlain.
Your Lakers, the gel and a changing of the guard
Last year, the Lakers went into Orlando’s bubble and won themselves a title. In a year that can best be characterized as a league full of dynamic duos, LeBron and Anthony Davis proved to be the best of the bunch.
The problem is, too many of those duos added a third piece to their puzzle in the off-season whereas the Lakers did not. The Nets added James Harden. The Bucks added Jrue Holiday. And the Suns, who appear poised to beat L.A., added Chris Paul.
Sure, the Lakers bolstered their roster by adding Andre Drummond, Dennis Schroeder and Marc Gasol but these three have yet to figure out how to gel into the Lakers lineup in a consistently productive manner, or rather Coach Frank Vogel has yet to get them to do so. That combined with injuries to both LeBron James and Anthony Davis means we are one Lakers loss away from crowning a new champion and seeing LeBron James bounced in the first round of the playoffs since as long as anyone can remember.
The Treacherous Three
In the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets’ Big Three continue to astound. Sure, they beat up on an undermanned Boston Celtics team, sending GM Danny Ainge into retirement but all series long, Brooklyn seemed to score at will, which is pretty much what everyone expected them to do. We are who we thought they were.
It’s hard to imagine a team in the history of the league with three such players who could score from anywhere on the floor like Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The problem is (at least we think it’s a problem?) so far in this post-season, the big three have combined for 70% of the Nets’ total points. Sharp-shooting Joe Harris is the only other Nets player averaging double-digits in scoring.
To put things in their proper perspective, the Miami Heat’s big three of James, Wade and Bosh accounted for 63% of their team’s offense in 2012-13 and the Golden State Warriors’ Curry, Durant and Thompson accounted for 64% in 2017-18. Like the Nets and Harris, both those teams only had one other player scoring in double digits (Ray Allen with the Heat and Draymond Green with the Warriors). In other words, winning a title with that sort of offensive imbalance is not entirely unheard of.
While depth and defense remain a concern, in a league increasingly built around offense, this team is constructed to do just that, break you down however and whenever they please. The questions marks remain whether they can stop anyone on the other end. They may not need to.
My money is still on either the Lakers or Nets to take home the title despite their flaws. That being said, if they fail to do so, that means we’ll see a changing of the guard, just as we did when Michael retired and later when Kobe retired. Whether it’s Embiid, Trae Young or Giannis, Damian Lillard, Luca, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul or the Joker, for the first time in a long time, we will have crowned a new champion.
With countless other superstars in the league ready to create their own legacy, it appears the future of the league is in good hands, when that baton is finally handed over. The question remains whether that will be sooner rather than later.