- The Cavaliers and Warriors dominate the NBA landscape, but there could be a new rivalry bubbling to the surface. Keep an eye on John Wall vs. Isaiah Thomas.
It’s hard to imagine, but one day the NBA’s Eastern Conference will be more than LeBron James’s warm-up routine. James looks comfortably headed toward his seventh straight Finals, in large part because he’s lacked a true individual rival his entire career. In the East’s most exciting series, however, the seeds are being planted for a positional rivalry that could realistically carry through for the next few seasons. Can John Wall vs. Isaiah Thomas help save the Eastern Conference?
The NBA is in a great place but it’s not without its issues. There’s no problem with the league being top heavy, but the separation between the Cavs, the Warriors and their respective conferences has cast almost an air of pointlessness to the playoffs. It’s one thing to have favorites, but right now it feels like no other team has a chance.
At least the pre-Kevin Durant Warriors had moments of fallibility. That team obviously lost in the Finals, and the Thunder—with Durant—looked to be in a position to push them year after year. LeBron’s Heat teams were far from invincible, with the Celtics and Pacers both pushing those Miami teams to the brink on multiple occasions.
Even with the salary cap boom, the Cleveland-Golden State stranglehold won’t last forever. Looking ahead, both Wall and Thomas are young and talented enough to position their teams as contenders in the next era of East basketball.
Thomas, bluntly, is an incredible scorer. His array of finishing moves at the rim flummox even the most well-intentioned big men hell-bent on blocking the diminutive point guard. Thomas is also a willing passer, and his ability to pull up from three makes him tiring to guard in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. In the playoffs, Thomas has shaken the narrative that small guards can’t lead their team to success. His 53-point game on what would have been his late sister’s birthday was a legendary performance for a franchise known for legendary performances.
Wall’s style of play is a little bit of a throwback in this era of bombs-away point guards. The former Kentucky star is a committed distributor, and he pokes and prods the defense until he can find a teammate an easy lob or an open corner three. But when needed, Wall will turn on the jets and find buckets for himself, darting to the rim if a defender takes a breath or pulling up from midrange to show off his much-improved jump shot.
Watching Wall and Thomas try to outdo one another, sometimes on successive possessions, has been the most fun part of the East playoffs. Both have played some of the best basketball of their career during the postseason, and the result has been a conference semifinal series filled with wild swings, a healthy amount of trash talk, and a tossup feeling about who is going to win.
That the Celtics and Wizards are fairly evenly matched is a positive for developing rivalry. These teams already hate each other, and there’s a very good chance they see each other in the playoffs multiple times over the next few seasons. With Wall and Thomas both essentially in their primes, we would be lucky to see them square off at the height of their powers.
The NBA is always going to be somewhat predictable, but it’s kind of lacking intrigue right now. LeBron has never had anyone who could match him at his position, and he never played a high-stakes game against an in-his-prime Dwyane Wade. Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook could have had something if Westbrook’s best teammate didn’t join Curry instead. James Harden’s Rockets are a cut above Westbrook’s Thunder but a cut below Curry’s Warriors.
Celtics vs. Wizards and Wall vs. Thomas provides the rare blend of two great teams with two fringe-ish MVP candidates who happen to play the same position and are also ascending at the same time. When was the last time the NBA has really come close to that?
There’s been some talk this postseason about the Warriors and Cavs’ path to the Finals, and which team has had the easier road. In the East, sometimes it’s hard to tell if the teams are that bad, or if LeBron is just that good. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but one day that will actually happen even if it seems impossible right now, one day the East’s Finals participant won’t be a foregone conclusion.
And right now, Wall and Thomas look like the players with the best teams to fill a LeBron-sized void in the near future. In an ideal world, those two players will battle for Eastern Conference supremacy on the court for years to come.