With LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry already eliminated from postseason basketball, the NBA league office is likely pretty bummed that a few of their biggest stars won’t be around for a deep playoff run. Those guys attract more casual viewers than some of the small market teams do. It’s just a fact.
That does not mean, however, that it HAS to be that way.
This isn’t meant to be a hot-take or even an original take. Jon Krawczynski (ask him about A Quiet Place 3!) and several other media members have talked about this frequently over the past few days. I just see such a fantastic opportunity for the league to blend the more established stars of yesterday/today with the stars of tomorrow. And let me tell ya, “tomorrow” is coming a whole lot sooner than I thought it would.
No Steph, no LeBron the rest of the way. That doesn't have to be a bad thing for the NBA. There is so much talent in the league. Sooner or later others have to get their chance on the stage. Here it is.— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) June 4, 2021
The ratings may go down (we’ll see!) but the games will be great and that’s what should matter.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) June 4, 2021
What the NBA now has in front of them is a challenge. They don’t have LeBron and Steph to do the heavy lifting for them, so it’s time for their marketing department to, you know, do their jobs.
As Jon noted, there is SO much talent in the league right now, and many of the stars remaining are the next generation. A generation, mind you, that looks ready to carry the torch from LeBron and Steph. Those guys could and probably will be back healthier and with better supporting casts next year. It feels unlikely that neither player advances to the second round again. It does however feel like the torch passing is in motion, and this new era of stars is ready for that.
It’s not as if the league isn’t without a few of the older generation of stars, mainly from the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Chris Paul, but the up-and-comers are here, and they’re putting their stamp on the postseason.
In the West, it starts with Luka Doncic. It feels like a matter of when, not if, he becomes the best player in the league. At the very least, he figures to share that crown with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. Truthfully, the league already markets Doncic quite a bit though, so let’s take a look at the other guys.
While Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley may have been Utah’s most impactful pair during the regular season, it’s evident once again that Donovan Mitchell is the best player on that team in a playoff setting. Utah isn’t a glamor market by any means, but Mitchell showed out in last season’s first round series against Denver (36/5/5 on a .696 TS%), and did so again against Dillon Brooks and the Grizzlies this year (28.5/3/6 on .609 TS%).
The league would be wise to market Mitchell as a premier player moving forward, especially given his propensity for making the “wow” plays with his shot-making and impeccable athleticism. The jokes are fun, but the reality is the Jazz are the top-seed in the West. Mitchell deserves more shine.
Looking at the bottom part of the Western Conference bracket, the league is sitting on a goldmine in the series between Phoenix and Denver.
DeAndre Ayton just dominated a massive Lakers front line that still included Anthony Davis for three-plus games, and now he gets his shot at prospective-MVP Nikola Jokic. That matchup should be a headliner.
Jokic in particular should receive even more coverage and promotion than he gets. He is truly one of the most remarkable players I’ve ever seen, and is one of the only big men in the league who can operate as an offensive hub during crunch time. There’s no answer for Jokic. If the league chooses to put the spotlight on Jokic, they’ll be better off because of it as viewers will fall in love with his GOAT-level passing and quirky scoring methods.
As great as other players were this season, we don’t have to pretend like Jokic isn’t the clear-cut, obvious MVP. He played every single game, averaged 26.4/10.8/8.3 on .566/.388/.868 shooting, and blows everyone away in pretty much every single impact metric. Using catch-all metrics to compare players is often a messy and futile measure, but when ALL of them are telling you the same thing, it might be time to listen.
And lastly but certainly not least, that Devin Booker guy will be playing in this series as well. You know, the guy who just put up 77 total points in Games 5 & 6 to close out the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. That guy.
Booker is the smooth, aesthetically pleasing play-making wing that the league should be drooling over. Given Denver’s injury situation, it feels more likely than not that Phoenix should advance to the Western Conference Finals. The league and their TV partners should get a jump-start on building up Booker now, so as to begin a crescendo on Booker coverage leading into the biggest and brightest spotlights. Those moments are coming, and Booker showed that he’s ready for them.
The West is obviously loaded with these younger stars, but the East is too.
Hopefully Joel Embiid is able to play, but even if he isn’t, the allure of Ben Simmons and Trae Young should be enough to make the Hawks-Sixers series pop.
In fact, an Embiid absence makes the continued breakout of postseason-Trae Young more likely, and Trae has shown he’s more than willing to embrace being the center of attention and the villain. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see this series go the distance if Embiid isn’t there to blow-up Trae/Capela PnR.
In the same way that people said they could “relate” to Steph because of his stature, Trae should feel “relatable” for the average viewer. Can the average viewer actually bomb away from 40-feet and throw marvelous lobs and skip-passes? Nope, but it looks more attainable than a 360-dunk does, anyways.
Finally, we have the Eastern Conference version of Luka and Jokic in terms of where they stand in the hierarchy of the league, Giannis.
Say what you want about Giannis, and maybe this will look remarkably silly after the Nets series (I doubt it), but I truly believe the league is his, Jokic, and Luka’s for the next 10-plus years. He has improved more than you’ve been led to believe over the past year, and the gradual shift to using him more as a screener is going to open up countless opportunities for him.
The league’s TV partners have spent hours trying to decide where Antetokounmpo should leave Milwaukee for. That was frankly embarrassing, but a good start on reparations would be building up the heir to LeBron’s throne before he shows out in a playoff series against Kevin Durant. I believe he’ll be the best player on the floor in that series given his impact on both ends. It’s time the league promoted THAT aspect of Giannis, as opposed to just pointing out his shortcomings and potential free-agent destinations.
We just took a little bit of time to knock out a few paragraphs on these guys, and it doesn’t include guys like Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum, or Jaylen Brown who have already been bounced or didn’t make the playoffs at all. Yes, from an entertainment perspective it’s natural to be slightly bummed about some of the bigger names bowing out early, but if they aren’t good enough to advance, maybe we should be looking at the guys who knocked them out.
People will embrace these young players games if we let them, as opposed to doing stuff like this.
My apologies for even sharing that, but we don’t need to do that. We don’t need to speculate on where Bradley Beal should go to chase a ring. We don’t need to wonder if Ja will need to leave Memphis or Zion needs to leave New Orleans to play for a winner. The list goes on and on and on. These talking points do nothing to make the league sustainable after LeBron, Steph, and KD eventually are gone for good.
The reality is this: the new era of stars is ready for the spotlight, so long as the NBA, ABC, and Turner Sports are smart enough to give it to them.