Why you should care
Because greatness doesn’t wait its turn.
It was May 2012 when the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder faced the 16-time NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant and his band of veterans were hoping to keep the league’s most talented young team in check for one more season. But by the end of the 4-1 series beat down, a baton had been passed. Kevin Durant was the best player in the West, with Russell Westbrook close behind. The Thunder would defeat San Antonio before losing to an angry Miami Heat team in the NBA Finals. Bryant never made it back to the finals, and a new generation of stars officially had arrived.
This year feels eerily similar. Young players across the league are seeking to oust the tired finals regulars, Golden State and Cleveland, and you get the sense the title might be up for grabs. The list of rising stars looking for their own Oklahoma City moment stretches from Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo to New Orleans’ Anthony Davis to Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Consider these NBA playoffs an introduction to the future of the league.
He’s a baby LeBron … and he’s just now scratching the surface.
Jason Terry on Giannis Antetokounmpo
Inside the Philadelphia locker room minutes before his team’s final regular-season game on April 11, Embiid made it clear that the young 76ers are ready for showtime. “Our goal is to get to the finals,” said Embiid, donning a protective face mask as he prepared to return from an orbital fracture. “We have a lot of talent, and we know that we have a chance every season.”
The affable big man prone to long-winded media sessions is not blowing hot air.
This year’s Cleveland team is James’ worst supporting cast since 2008. So would anyone be shocked if Indiana — led by breakout star Victor Oladipo, the most popular Pacer since Reggie Miller — sends Cleveland packing in the first round? And if James does carry his limping Cavaliers to the conference finals, Philadelphia and Boston both have the talent to end the reign of “the King.”
To be sure, the 33-year-old James will remain a force in this league until retirement. But he has already played more career games than Michael Jordan, and at some point, time catches up with us all. So, who’s ready to fill James’ shoes? It’s an unenviable task, but the best bets are Simmons and Antetokounmpo — aka “the Greek Freak.”
In Antetokounmpo, 23, Milwaukee has a star the likes of which this league has never seen. The Bucks, currently down 2-0 to Boston in the first round, are not finals contenders. But with Antetokounmpo, they will be one day. Just ask Bucks guard Jason Terry, a 19-year NBA veteran who has played with legends like Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett. “He’s a baby LeBron … and he’s just now scratching the surface,” Terry said on his Sirius XM radio show The Runway last May. “He’s definitely the most talented [player] that I’ve been around.”
If Giannis is a young LeBron, then Simmons is Magic Johnson. The 21-year-old Aussie makes up for a lack of shooting range with exceptional rim attacks, a smooth midrange game and unrivaled vision. And he knows it. “I’m not here to be compared to other rookies,” Simmons said last week, brushing aside the Rookie of the Year race between him and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. With Simmons and Embiid leading the way, the Sixers recorded their most wins (52) since 2001. They’ve adopted both the joyfulness of Embiid and Simmons’ stoic moxie. Even with Embiid sidelined, Philadelphia rattled off nine straight wins before dropping Game 2 of the playoffs. “I’ve had to step up and do more vocally,” says Simmons. “I think I’ve taken over that role.”
Of course, that Game 2 loss came at the hands of unrelenting aging superstar Dwyane Wade, and his 28 points, seven rebounds and game-sealing steal. The old dogs won’t go quietly into the night.
With Houston and Golden State in charge, the Western Conference is easier to predict — but the opening rounds will provide clues to the future. Look for Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, Utah’s Mitchell and New Orleans’ Davis to rack up valuable experience on the road to that career-changing fortune cookie reading: “Persistence precedes rings.”
Davis is by no means a new star in New Orleans, but the 2012 No. 1 draft pick has finally blossomed into a superstar who wins, and the Pelicans have the early first-round edge on Portland. But there are levels to this. For a true title chance, Davis may have to emulate James and swap jerseys in free agency. Elsewhere in the West, Mitchell is clearly a future star who has filled Boston-bound Gordon Hayward’s void in Utah — but Jazz fans shouldn’t expect Mitchell to unseat Steph Curry’s Warriors atop the West just yet. (Houston’s James Harden, a heady veteran and likely MVP, has the better shot this year.)
The most crucial “moments” occur when transcendent players mature alongside their supporting cast. That’s what happened with the 2012 Thunder and 2015 Golden State, and it’s what could be in store for Philadelphia’s deep, young core. Will it take one more major free agent signing for Philadelphia to finish the job? Perhaps.
One Pennsylvania company went so far as to pay for #PhillyWantsLeBron billboards in Cleveland. At least then, the baton pass would be amicable.