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Is it The Beard's time or can the Greek Freak break through? 8 storylines to follow in the NBA Playoffs

The league ‘second season’ gets underway later.

THE 2019 NBA Playoffs begin tonight, and there is a sense that this year could signal the end of a the current cycle of dominance.

The Golden State Warriors, with three titles in the last four seasons, are still very much the team to beat.

But there are plenty of other teams and storylines to follow, as basketball’s “second season” Stateside gets underway. Here are the main points to look out for going in, as the journey to June’s NBA Finals begins with 16 organisations all dreaming of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy when all is said and done.

1. A LeBron James-less playoffs will be a weird one

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans Lebron James: The King stay the king. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Not since 2006 has the NBA’s King, LeBron James, missed out on the playoffs. In fact, before his move to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, he had made the finals eight straight times. Firstly with the Miami Heat, where he won two championships, before returning home to the Cleveland Cavaliers to end a 52-year wait for a title.

Not even the great Michael Jordan can say that, so to see him miss out on the playoffs altogether this year is a disaster both for the player’s legacy and the league as a whole. Many fans love to hate James, loathing his quest to try and dethrone Jordan as the best to ever play the game. Others love him, eating up the “hero, to villain, and back again” storyline which his career arc has followed.

Everybody has an opinion on the man, and they tune in accordingly. His first season with the Lakers was a disappointment, James missing 17 games as a result of a groin injury. During this period the team had an ill-planned attempt at trying to trade for Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, alienating the young players on the roster who would have gone the other way in the process.

Much will need to be rectified this summer to put the Lakers back in position to challenge for a championship, starting with the replacement of Magic Johnson. The President of Basketball Operations stepping down in stunning fashion to close out the regular season, announcing this to the media before speaking with Lakers President Jeanie Buss.

Players such as Lonzo Ball (once injury free) and Kyle Kuzma are also going to have to step up, or find themselves moved on in favour of more proven talent. For now though James will be forced to watch the action unfold, just like the rest of us.

2. Who will be the surprise package?

With each round of the NBA Playoffs being a potential seven-game series, the room for an upset is small. There are always exceptions however, especially if a lesser team matches up well with a superior opponent for whatever reason. The Los Angeles Clippers looked like they could fill this role up until recently.

Head coach Doc Rivers, who will likely receive the Coach of the Year award, is doing a fantastic job of steering the ship. This despite trading away their best player in Tobias Harris midway through the campaign. They fell away late, and as the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference will play the Warriors. Little hope of an upset there.

An honourable mention may also go to the Orlando Magic for winning 21 of 30 games late in the year to make it to the playoffs after a seven-year absence, but the obvious answer is the Indiana Pacers. As the fifth seed, they have a first round series against a wobbly Boston Celtics outfit that many had fancied to win the Eastern Conference to look forward to.

They lost their best player, Victor Oladipo, to a season-ending injury in late January, but never let it derail their campaign. Veterans such as Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison and Tyreke Evans splitting the load between them. Domantas Sabonis, son of the legendary Arvydas, provides punch off the bench. If one group is going to upset the pecking order, it is the Pacers.

3. Last ride for these warriors?

Cavaliers Warriors Basketball Is this the end of the road for the Warriors? Source: Tony Avelar

With some of the best and most marketable players in the NBA today, the Warriors are the organisation that all others aspire to be. They have a pair of guards in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson that are among the best duos of all time, and a superstar in Kevin Durant who joined them in an unprecedented move to win championships back in the summer of 2016.

But these playoffs could represent the end of the road for one of the league’s great dynasties. Durant can opt out of his current deal this summer, and rumours of teaming up with Kyrie Irving in The Big Apple to try to revive the New York Knicks have persisted.

Thompson too could leave, while former All-Star DeMarcus Cousins was signed on a small, one-year deal as a result of tearing his Achilles last season. He is sure to be gone next year. Throw in the fact that Curry is now thirty-one, and that the heart and soul of their team, Draymond Green, has lost some of his edge, and there is reason for hope across the rest of the league.

Not before they have one more go at winning it all, capturing a third straight title which would put them alongside Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers teams featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal as the best ever.

4. Which team will advance in the East?

LeBron’s move out west did more than just put a dent in his reputation, it allowed other contenders to emerge from the Eastern Conference. A place he has had a stranglehold over since 2010. The Toronto Raptors, victims of James in the playoffs for a number of years, sensed the time to strike was now. They did this by trading DeMar DeRozan, an All-Star in his own right, for Kawhi Leonard, one of the five best players in the league when healthy.

Although Leonard could skip town as an unrestricted free-agent this summer, the Raptors pushed all their chips to the centre of the table. They are all in on this season, and alongside the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the favourites to make it to what would be their first ever NBA Finals.

A notch below them is the Philadelphia 76ers, who made serious moves themselves to pair the aforementioned Harris and Jimmy Butler with their two prized draft picks “The Process” Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They have had an up and down year, with injuries not helping matters either, but they now have an MVP candidate in Embiid and deadly players around him.

Who you see advancing depends on what you value more from a team. The Raptors have the deepest bench, and a former finals MVP in Leonard. The 76ers have a starting five that, as well as all having scoring averages in double-figures, is the best of the three teams too. The Bucks though, have Giannis Antetokounmpo, but we’ll get to him in a bit. The three-way battle that is about to take place for bragging rights in the newly structured east is sure to be memorable.

5. Can the Houston Rockets go all the way?

NBA: New York Knicks at Houston Rockets The Beard: James Harden. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Of every organisation in the playoffs, none have had the kind of season that the Houston Rockets have. Fresh off taking the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference finals last season, one in which James Harden picked up the MVP award, they faltered out of the gates. At one point they languished in 14th spot in the West, out of a possible 15 teams (it is unclear if the last placed Phoenix Suns count as a team at this point either).

Despite ill-timed injuries to Chris Paul and Clint Capela, the Rockets managed to turn it around, all thanks to Harden. He averaged 36.1 points per game, an absurd number and miles better than the 30.4 of his MVP campaign. He put the team on his back, carrying them back up the standings with all manner of huge performances. The step-back 3-point attempt he has patented defining the season as a whole.

It is a move Harden uncorked on many unsuspecting opponents, usually making its way onto social media and often going viral seconds after happening. Harden attempted 1,013 3-point shots this season, taking on average 13.2 attempts from deep per game. The ridiculous makeup of these numbers cannot be overstated, but it has put Harden in position to reclaim the MVP crown.

Harden will need help in the playoffs if they are to win it all, but few teams in the league have a roster built around them as specifically as Harden does. All are happy for him to be the hero and take the bulk of the shots, while guys like Capela, mid-season pickup Kenneth Faried and P.J. Tucker are high level defenders. Paul is aging, and this team’s window won’t stay open for ever. The time to capitalise on Harden’s prime is now.

6. Will the Celtics figure it out?

If Houston’s season was strange, then the one that the Boston Celtics have endured has been downright awful. On paper they have the best team in the East. All-Stars in Irving and Al Horford, two young studs in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and hard-nosed defenders like Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes. They even have a backup point guard in Terry Rozier who would start in plenty of other places and was integral to their journey to the Eastern Conference finals last year.

That magical run came with both Irving and former All-Star Gordon Hayward out injured, but now that both are back it has only served to clutter lineups and rotations. There’s too much going on in Boston now it seems, with the leadership of Irving in particular a peculiar one. On some days he speaks like he’s destined to leave this coming summer, and on others he is throwing younger teammates under the bus.

The feeling persisted around the Celtics that they would get their business in order and be a problem come playoff time. Only the regular season games ran out, and they have a tricky first-round series against a Pacers team who know what they are to contend with.

Head coach Brad Stevens has been adored by media types and fans alike since making the transition to the pros from Butler college in 2013, but nearly six years later people are starting to ask questions. He navigated them through a rebuild of their roster on the fly, and he did so extremely well, constantly overachieving. Now that he has an abundance of elite talent at his disposal, and with expectations raised as a result, why is everything failing to come together like it should?

7. Are the Denver Nuggets for real?

The Denver Nuggets started the season hot, and despite most thinking they would fall away in the tougher conference, that never quite happened. They did relinquish the top spot in the West to the Warriors, but not after holding onto it for much of the season. The history of the league is littered with teams who did well in the regular season, only to get eliminated early when the rotations tightened and the games really mattered.

The Nuggets look like the most likely team to fall into this category, but they will be doing their best to make sure this is not the case. In Nikola Jokic they have a centre who looks even less athletic than the people sitting courtside calling the game. He’s doughy and slow, yet passes the ball like few big men ever have. He can shoot from distance at ease too. Their quirky offensive style revolves around him, and it just works.

Paul Millsap is their veteran playoff leader, having been a part of that sixty-win Atlanta Hawks organisation of a few years ago. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris provide scoring, while former Boston hero Isaiah Thomas is still there off the bench if needed. There is a lot to like here, but teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers simply have more star power.

Which leaves the Nuggets in a difficult spot. They have already had a successful season in racking up over 50 wins, but bowing out of the postseason early after showing such promise would be a blow to their confidence as a group moving forward. Denver is not a premiere destination for free agents, so the core they have in place will have to do going forward. We’ll know soon enough how far it can take them.

8. Are we entering the Greek Freak’s time?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks the ball against the Atlanta Hawks. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like the heir apparent to LeBron’s throne once he has called it a day, but the way he has played this season suggests he may not wait until that happens. “The Greek Freak” has led the Bucks to the best record in the league, and along with Harden is the strong favourite to take home the MVP award. Whether this happens or not, he surely won’t have to wait much longer to win his first.

Giannis is also in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Only two individuals have ever won both MVP and DPOY gongs in the same season. Jordan and arguably the best centre ever, Hakeem Olajuwon. If he could pull this off, he would be in elite company.

It is the way Giannis defends however, that could come to revolutionise how two-way stars play on that end. He doesn’t always pick up the opponent’s best player, as a result of playing alongside other strong defenders in their positions like Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton.

But the way he is able to come over as a second defender and help wherever he is needed each possession, gave the Bucks the best defensive rating in the league (104.8) throughout the season. With the third best offensive rating to go with that (113.6), the Bucks are going to take some stopping.

With a superstar capable of roaming on one end to cover where needed while also being the focal point of their offensive scheme (he is averaging a career high 27.7 points per contest), the Bucks will be in contention for years to come. Putting small market organisations on the map, which is great for the league as a whole.

Antetokounmpo looks like an alien on the hardwood, capable of getting from the centre of the court to the basket in two steps. His only weakness is his ability to shoot from deep, but even that saw modest improvement in the last thirty or so games. The Bucks look like the team to go through in the East, and it is because of the gangly kid from Greece that this is the case.

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About the author:

Luke Duffy

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