Every Friday, I’m compiling a list of five things that meet one criterion. “What is that criterion,” you ask? Well, it’s going to change every week and you’re just going to have to try and keep up.
Five Intriguing Subplots Brewing in the NBA Playoffs
While many fans (and the television networks) are talking about and hoping for match-ups of marquee franchises and superstars like 2008’s wonderful Celtics-Lakers Finals, Tim Duncan squaring off against Dirk Nowitzki, or even *gasp* a Lebron James vs. Kobe Bryant battle for the title, there are many stories that aren’t getting all that much attention on the eve of the 2010 NBA Playoffs.
Naturally, I find these less-publicized angles much more interesting.
What could’ve been
I don’t like to dwell on the negative but I can’t help but think that these playoffs could have been even more entertaining than they promise to be, if several principal players were completely healthy.
The playoffs figure to be missing Andrew Bogut (who had an undeniably terrific season derailed by a horrendous elbow injury two weeks ago) and Brandon Roy, huge cogs in the wheels that are the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trailblazers, respectively. While both teams bear rosters of talent that runs deeper than one player, it’s undeniable that both the Bucks and Blazers are fundamentally changed with Bogut and Roy on the sidelines (probably for the worse, if we’re talking about engaging seven-game series).
Additionally, (deep breath) Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, Andrew Bynum, Shaquille O’Neal, Carlos Boozer, and Tony Parker will ALL be struggling to return to top form after injuries.
(Truthfully, even a completely healthy Shaq may not contribute all that much to the Cavaliers but his six fouls may come in handy when they eventually face the Magic and Lakers.)
Playing for contracts
A great deal of praise has been heaped upon Amar’e Stoudemire’s improved level of play since the All-Star Break (he’s had eight 30-point games in that time). Curiously, the normally-very-cynical NBA media and fan base have not really pointed out that this turn may have had something to do with the fact that Amar’e has the option of becoming a free agent this summer and these past two months definitely represent the annual “I’m going to earn myself some serious money” contract push. This routine always continues into the playoffs – do not be surprised if he suddenly returns to that pre-knee surgery, pre-sharing-time-with-Boris Diaw, pre-trade rumors level he reached in 2005 when he averaged an unbelievable 37 points per game in a series against the-then MVP-candidate Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.
Joe Johnson has not increased his effort level to blatantly obvious Stoudemire-levels during the regular season but with the Hawks drawing the Bucks in the first round (a team that will probably struggle to defend him), it’s not out of the question that Johnson could easily average 28 points in this series and swindle the Knicks into giving him a giant contract this summer.
Also keep your eyes on Carlos Boozer who is definitely leaving Utah on July 1 (whether he likes it or not) and will definitely appeal to a number of teams with money to spend this summer (see: Miami, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma City).
The last stand(s)?
For what seems like the umpteenth time this decade, the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs will be meeting in the playoffs. Coincidentally, this may be the last time either team has a legitimate shot at a championship.
The Spurs have been a formidable contender in the title race for over a decade, claiming four since 1999. But the dynastic run appears to be winding down. Tim Duncan has over 35,000 minutes on his legs and while he has not completely fallen off the cliff, it seems foolish to believe he may be able to single-handedly control a playoff series at this point. Tony Parker, as mentioned above, is on the way back from an injury (a broken hand, sure to affect all aspects of a point guard’s game). Manu Ginobili cranked out a few good weeks of basketball to ensure his contract extension and generally will step his game up in the playoffs but it’s tough to know just how many good games he’s got left in him (while he’s only 32 and didn’t reach the NBA until 2002, he started playing professionally overseas at age 18). The acquisition of Richard Jefferson last summer has not panned out quite as much as they (or anyone else, really) expected. All things considered, this season’s Spurs team seems perfectly fit for a 7-seed, even if it is a bit of unceremonious way for them to officially end their run as The Spurs with a capital T.
The Mavericks, on the other hand, have not won a single championship this decade but to say they haven’t known success in that time would be false (ten 50+ win seasons, three 60-win seasons, and a Finals appearance). That being said, Dallas surprised a great many people by looking like one of the best teams in the league for weeks at a time, throughout this season. Though they added the pleasantly surprising (based on his “showings” in Miami and Toronto last year) Shawn Marion in the offseason and pulled off the one-sided trade of the year when they took Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood from the Wizards in February, it was tough to believe that this team (which many people rightfully identified as looking more like the 2003 All-Stars rather than a viable 2010 title contender) would eventually grab the #2 seed in the loaded Western Conference.
But they did. Why? Mainly because of Dirk Nowitzki, who routinely turned in performances that rivaled – and occasionally overshadowed – those of his MVP campaign of 2006-07 (while his assist and rebound averages were not as high this year, there’s no way to argue that he seems to have completely reached a level of “clutch” that was lacking in his game from years past). The team lives and dies with Dirk and he may never be surrounded with a better supporting cast playing at a consistently high level than he is, right now. Plus, though every Western playoff team posted 50 wins or more, the Mavs drew a very favorable road to the Finals (first the Spurs and then the winner of Phoenix/Portland) so… it’s entirely plausible that an opponent will not challenge them until they reach the Conference Finals (where they presumably will play the Lakers).
Whichever way it shakes out, the loser of this first round series between Dallas and San Antonio will probably return to the drawing board this summer in an attempt to more effectively figure out the next decade of their franchise lives.
Youth vs. experience
The most intriguing series in the entire first round promises to be the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder. Why? In short: The Black Mamba vs. The Durantula.
Frightening nicknames aside (and disregarding the fact that they probably will not be guarding each other for most of the series), the idea of Kobe Bryant facing off against Kevin Durant is endlessly fascinating. On top of that, consider that Oklahoma City is the youngest team in the league (with most of those players having precisely zero playoff experience) with a very young coach and the Lakers are the defending NBA champions with a 10-time champion head coach Phil Jackson. Both teams play well at both ends of the court and both have something to prove; the Lakers played poorly down the stretch and the Thunder, as you would guess, want to make sure everyone learns who they are.
There’s also an honorable mention for the Suns-Blazers series that, even without Brandon Roy, will pit a team that has endured what seems like an infinite amount of playoff battles (Phoenix) against a team that got their first taste of the postseason last year (Portland).
The fate of the future
Allow me to be the 583rd person to use the words “2010 free agency” in a sentence with the names “Lebron James” and “Dwyane Wade”. Ok, good. We’re ready.
James and Wade are the two biggest fish on this summer’s market, without question. And while the playoff performances of the aforementioned Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, and Carlos Boozer may be relevant to the free agency market and other interested teams, Lebron and Dwyane will likely be observing the playoff performances of their own team to determine their summer plans.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the odds of Lebron leaving his hometown are slim to none. However, if the Cavs fail to reach the Finals, it’s going to be hard to believe Lebron won’t at least re-evaluate things, this summer. And if the Heat are quickly eliminated by a struggling Celtics team… well, it’s safe to say that that sort of poor showing certainly wouldn’t appeal to Wade.
The stars of Cleveland and Miami each probably have a specific reasonable goal in mind as to where they expect their team to finish in the playoffs and if either the Cavs or Heat underachieve in the eyes of the King and Flash, respectively… the balance of power in the Eastern Conference and the NBA as a whole may slowly start to shift.