The 5 Top Storylines Heading Into the (Real) NBA Playoffs

With a more wide open field, this year's tournament for the right to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy is teeming with compelling narratives

April 14, 2023 1:16 pm
LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers laughs on the court during the first half against the Utah Jazz at Arena on April 09, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
A perennial question: What will Lebron's team do in the playoffs?
Photo by Harry How / Getty Images

Because the NBA seems to have mastered parity — with two weeks left in the regular season this year all but four teams were still in the playoff hunt — it’s become an annual tradition to say the league’s postseason tournament is “wide open.” That’s because the vaunted superteams of Lebron, Wade and Bosh, as well as Curry, Durant, Draymond and Klay, are not around today to make very predictable runs to the Finals, where they’d then be certain favorites to actually hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy — which is why superteams suck, folks.

So without those sucky superteams making columns like this one not only boring as hell but completely useless, we see some pretty compelling narratives heading into the weekend’s slate of games, when the real playoffs start after the money-grab play-in tournament ends this evening. The NBA postseason is wide open this year, but we’ll do a bit better than that and leave the hacky headlines to CBS Sports.

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Here are our five favorite storylines heading into the NBA Playoffs:

Is this Lebron’s last dance?

Lebron James is at least in the conversation for “greatest player in NBA history,” and given his team’s struggles the past couple years, as well as the injuries that have befallen him of late, you can’t help but wonder how many championship runs he has left in him. With a truly wide-open Western Conference (we legit had to say it at some point because it’s really the case this time, particularly out West), the Lakers have a shot at a Finals appearance, which would be awesome to see.

FiveThirtyEight gives them a 3% chance to win the NBA Championship. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and it isn’t, but the Lakers are trending up, not just in terms of their odds but the strength of their squad relative to the rest of the league as well. Both figures are about the the highest they’ve been been all year on the site.

The Lakers’ midseason trade of Russell Westbrook boosted their betting odds back in February, and right now on FanDuel they boast the eighth-best odds in the entire league to capture the crown, well ahead of Lebron’s former squad, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who sit at ninth.

The Lakers still have Anthony Davis, a healthy four-time All-NBA Team member, who believe it or not is just 29 years old and helped Lebron win his last championship in 2020. The other day Fox Sports 1’s Nick Wright picked them to win it all, and if you’re still not convinced, some guy named Pat Riley also said he believes in the Lakers this year. He said as much before they traded Westbrook, who became increasingly problematic on the court in the run up to his move to the other team in Los Angeles.

As a seven seed, sure, the Lakers could easily be one-and-done. But are you really going to bet against Lebron James — especially with everything so wide open?


The one team you literally can’t bet against

Like Lebron’s Lakers, the Golden State Warriors are an enticing pick to play for the championship from out of the wide-open West. (We give up…) First of all, they’re the defending title holders and have retained all of their core players from not only last year’s Finals-winning team, but the ones who helped the Dubs appear in five straight Finals, with three wins, in very recent memory. Granted, those guys — you know who we mean — are getting a bit long in the tooth but, again, like with Lebron, they’re hard to bet against. In fact, for anyone in their right mind, they’re impossible to bet against.

When the Warriors’ core three players start together in the playoffs their series record is…well, it’s perfect. They have never lost. If you’re turned off by the fact that they only managed 44 wins in the regular season, that can easily be blamed on injuries and off-the-court challenges. When the Warriors are at full strength, FiveThirtyEight rates them well above the league average. They’ve just won eight of their last 10 contests, which tells you they’re playing their best ball at just the right time, making them prohibitive first-round favorites against the Sacramento Kings who, let’s face it, should definitely have “We’re-just-happy-to-be-here” energy.

Not only are the Dubs at full strength, they’re incredibly confident.

“Steph Curry healthy?” said Draymond Green on a recent podcast. “Klay Thompson? I can tell you personally, I’m pretty healthy. No one’s 100 percent at this point but I’m pretty healthy. Body feels good. Looney’s healthy. Jordan Poole’s healthy…I think the Warriors should be the favorite.”

Added Klay Thompson in another interview: “I don’t see a team who can beat us in a seven-game series when we’re healthy.”

The team with the most exciting possibilities

Yes, there are teams above the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference standings that have way-better chances at winning the championship than they do. But in the much-less-wide-open-but-still-kinda-wide-open East (at least at the top), the Knicks have an opportunity to do some damage in the playoffs. For a franchise in the country’s biggest market, which plays in a place called not only “the World’s Most Famous Arena” but also “the Mecca of Basketball,” and has struggled to be truly relevant in the NBA for (gasp!) nearly a quarter century, it’s big news for the entire league when the Knicks are good.

But how good are they?

Between the start of December and the beginning of April, shortly after the Knicks lost Julius Randle to a sprained ankle, the team won 35 games. That’s one more than their first-round opponent, the Cavaliers, and just one fewer than the Boston Celtics, who finished a single game behind the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed, the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks won just five more times than New York did across that four-month span; the third-seeded Philadelphia 76ers won just four more times.

Ultimately in sports, it’s all about winning games, so when healthy and since the team gelled with new addition Jalen Brunson, the Knicks have been nearly as good as any team in the East, and better than the Cavs. If Julius Randle is less than 100% the Knicks probably don’t make it out of even the first round, but there are reports his ankle’s doing much better and he should be ready for, at worst, game two against the Cavs. With Randle and with the rest of the team clicking, they could give the New York faithful their best playoff basketball run since Bill Clinton was President.

The star who can get right

Ja Morant is arguably one of the 10 best players in the entire Western Conference, and in a league where one player can carry a team all the way to the title, the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies have reason to talk championship with him on the roster. According to StatMuse, the team is 40-21 with Ja Morant in the lineup this year, which would have made them a 54-win team across the entire regular season. That would have been good enough for the top seed in the West and tied for the third-best record overall in the NBA. The question with Morant — and, thus, the Grizzlies — is whether or not he’s completely focused on his basketball performance.

He’s had a number of off-the-court issues this past calendar year, which reached an apex a month ago when the NBA suspended him for eight games. Morant sought mental health counseling at that point and when he returned he said his focus was entirely on “eliminating off-court distractions,” as Yahoo! put it.

Above all else, Morant has to put his wellbeing first — full stop. However, he has made a commitment to his team, and just a couple weeks after saying his attention was fixated on the court, he filed a countersuit against a teenager, Josh Holloway, who said Morant assaulted him and threatened him with a gun. Among other charges in the filing, Morant said that gun claim was a lie and that Holloway could have ended his NBA playing career after throwing a basketball at his face.

It’s Morant’s right to file such a lawsuit, but is he “right” enough to play up to his potential? For the good of the league, the Grizzlies and, most especially, Morant himself, we hope so.

Will someone win their “first” NBA Championship?

You do not have to mind the quote marks above when thinking about Morant, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell or Devin Booker, some of the league’s best players — all of whom are at or close to their respective primes — in search of their first NBA title. Chris Paul, point guard of the Western Conference’s fourth seed, the Phoenix Suns, is also on the hunt for a literal first championship, after 18 seasons in the league, 11 All-NBA Team picks and membership on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary team.

If Paul, who’s 37, and his teammate Booker lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year, they’ll do so alongside Kevin Durant, another one of the greatest players in history, who is arguably trying to win his first “real” championship in 2023.

Durant sports two rings as a member of the Warriors, yes. But he famously joined what was already a title-winning team to form one of those “sucky” superteams I mentioned earlier in Golden State. There, he always seemed like an outsider. Then he tried to start another superteam in Brooklyn with the Nets, which imploded in stunning fashion.

This year, he ostensibly picked the team for which he wanted to go play for a championship. At 34 years of age, with a lot of mileage on him that’s probably helped cause a number of injuries in recent years, this could also be his and Paul’s “last dance.” Durant acknowledged the pressure he’s under as a member of the Suns, a franchise that’s never won an NBA championship. But he also said that’s nothing new for him.

If he pays attention to his Twitter mentions at all — and there’s evidence he does — there’s even more pressure for him to win another ring. When he posted on the platform at the beginning of this season that he’s “old as shit,” many fans told him that before he retires he needs to win what would feel like a “real” championship for the first time.

If online fan chatter means nothing, well, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley also said Durant’s Warriors rings weren’t terribly impressive in the grand scheme of NBA history. And Barkley should know! As great as he was, he never won any championships, real or fake.

With that many stars seeking a first ring, and even the ones who have working hard to beef up their legacy, like Durant, Lebron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, there’s that many reasons — and more — to watch the NBA Playoffs in 2023.

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