Saying the stakes are high in a playoff series is like suggesting that a surgeon needs to be sharp on the operating table or engines are a key component of cars. Legacies are forged in the postseason. Coaches keep jobs and lose them. What happens from April to June sticks to teams forever.
But don’t these Eastern Conference semifinals feel a little different?
The first round was a formality, a 16-2 blowout for the top seeds, all leading to this: Four teams—Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston—will begin second-round series’ this weekend, and it’s not too strong to say for most, the future of the franchises could be at stake.
Take Milwaukee, which of the top-four is on the firmest ground. The Bucks have the likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo signed through 2021 and Mike Budenholzer around to coach him. Eric Bledsoe recently agreed to an extension. But the Bucks have key free agents in Khris Middleton (who will likely opt out of the final year of his contract), Malcolm Brogdan (restricted, and will be very much in demand) and Brook Lopez (arguably the biggest bargain of last summer’s free agency class). Milwaukee has to be careful—bringing everyone back at a premium will swell the payroll, limiting any flexibility.
Which is fine if your team marches into the NBA Finals.
Not so much if they bow out in Round 2.
Speaking of bloated payrolls, there’s the Sixers, who with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons needing help pushed all their chips in, first moving a pair of solid role players in Dario Saric and Robert Covington to Minnesota for Jimmy Butler then swapping two first round picks and promising rookie Landry Shamet to L.A. for Tobias Harris.
Butler and Harris will be in demand, unrestricted free agents this summer, and you can bet both will be seeking max-level deals. Sixers ownership has pledged to pay what it takes to keep this group intact, but will they feel the same way if Philly bows out in the second round for the second year in a row? More importantly, what would it say about the Sixers' decision to abort a stay-patient plan with two 20-something stars to try and patch together a title contender over the next few seasons?
And we haven’t even talked about the future of Brett Brown.
And what about Toronto? The Raptors could be a Finals contender this season and nosedive into the lottery in the next one. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m sure that a deep playoff run ensures a Kawhi Leonard return—I’ve written two deep profiles on Leonard for Sports Illustrated, including one this past January, and I have no real read on him—but it seems more likely than not that an early exit will make it easier for him to walk out the door.
And as Serge Ibaka told me, “no one is safe if he leaves.” The Raptors could rebuild. Kyle Lowry could get traded. Ibaka, too. The Pascal Siakam/Fred Van Vleet Era could begin in Toronto earlier than anyone thought. Raptors president Masai Ujiri could be forced to strip down the team and start over.
Then there is Boston. Been a pretty sweet rise for the Celtics, huh? Flip an aging core for those Nets picks, watch them turn into Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, sign Gordon Hayward, swap one of those picks for Kyrie Irving and poof, one of the more masterful rebuilds in NBA history is complete.
Or is it? Hayward’s injury, Irving’s season-long frustration and the constant chatter about a deal for Anthony Davis has thrown a wrench into Boston’s master plan. It’s still intact—Irving elects to stay and the Celtics will throw everything at New Orleans to land Davis, believing an Irving/Davis pairing is the foundation for a long championship run. But what if the Bucks handle Boston in the second round? What if the divide between Irving and the team is deeper than anyone realized? What if the siren song of New York is as strong as so many think?
Irving wants to win, so it’s hard to see him walking away from a five-year, max-level offer from Boston if the Celtics roll through the East playoffs—or at least get back to the conference finals. If Irving walks, the Celtics will still have the foundation of a contender—it says here that Terry Rozier, the real Terry Rozier, is more like the player we saw blossom in the 2018 playoffs than the Zombie Rozier we have seen struggle to find his footing this season—but one with a shorter ceiling.
LeBron James’s exit has opened up the conference and someone will emerge from this playoff Game of Thrones to take his. The others could be headed for uncertain, anxiety-ridden futures.
Shall we begin?