Would Anything Be Surprising at This Point?

In a postseason when uncertainty has been the norm, we know one thing: The Finals matchup isn't going to feature the usual suspects. Hawks-Nuggets? That's a good thing.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Trae Young took his shock-and-awe campaign to Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, sucked the air out of another hostile crowd and reminded us all yet again: ain’t nothing normal or predictable in this still-nascent NBA postseason.

The Hawks—the young, plucky, apparently not happy-just-to-be-here Hawks—took down the top-seeded 76ers in Game 1 of the second round, behind another dazzling display from Young: 35 points, 10 assists, four gasp-inducing deep threes. No one is forecasting a Hawks upset, but … really, would anything be surprising at this point?

Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks and Seth Curry of the Philadelphia 76ers

Young led the Hawks to their first victory in a second-round game in six years.

We’ve already witnessed the early demise of three of last year’s four conference finalists—including both Finals teams. Only the Nuggets advanced past the first round. We’ve seen the star-studded Clippers flirt with disaster, going down 0–2 against the Mavericks, and then win two straight elimination games to advance.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are gone. Jayson Tatum, home. Jimmy Butler and Luka Dončić and Dame Lillard, all ousted in the first round. Steph Curry never made it that far.

Joel Embiid is playing on an injured knee, leaving the Sixers vulnerable. James Harden is again coping with a hamstring injury, reducing the Nets’ superteam (for now) to a Big Two.

There have been no momentous upsets yet, but everything about this postseason feels a little tenuous, a little fragile, as if the slightest flap of a butterfly’s wing might scramble everything. Hey, who’s up for a Hawks-Nuggets Finals?

Whether it’s happenstance, the pandemic hangover or just the vagaries of the universe, this NBA postseason just looks and feels vastly different—and, injuries aside, that’s a wonderful thing.

Of the eight remaining teams, not one has been to the Finals in the last 15 years.

The Nets last made it in 2003, when they played in New Jersey. The Sixers last made it in '01, when Allen Iverson was in his prime. The Jazz haven’t been since 1998, when Michael Jordan claimed his sixth ring. The Suns haven’t been since '93, when MJ claimed his third ring. The Bucks’ last Finals came in '74, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Hawks’ last appearance came in '61, when the franchise was in St. Louis. The Clippers and Nuggets have never been at all.

No matter how the coming weeks unfold, we will see something new and fresh in the 2021 Finals. We’re already witnessing a tectonic shift in the landscape.

This will be the first Finals since 2010 that won’t involve James or Curry. There’s no telling whether either one will ever be back. (Indeed, as Forbes’s Tommy Beer points out, this will be the first Finals since 1990 not to involve at least one of: Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, James or Curry.)

Although we could see some familiar names in the Finals—Kawhi Leonard with Los Angeles, Kevin Durant with Brooklyn—the next generation of stars is clearly starting to seize power: Young in Atlanta, Nikola Jokić in Denver, Devin Booker in Phoenix, Donovan Mitchell in Utah, Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philly, Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Dončić in Dallas.

This field of eight also provides a glimmer of hope to small-market teams. The Bucks, playing in the nation’s 37th-ranked TV market (per Nielsen), have a legit shot to win it all. The Jazz (30th) and Nuggets (16th) are firmly in the mix. All three franchises should be postseason fixtures for the foreseeable future. And all three got here through shrewd drafting, trades and player development—showing it’s still possible, even in a superteam era, to build a powerhouse without relying on free agency or conspiring superstars.

The Jazz drafted their two stars at 13th (Mitchell) and 27th (Rudy Gobert), both with picks acquired through trades. The Nuggets got Jokić, the presumptive MVP, with the 41st pick, and their other young stars at seventh (Jamal Murray) and 14th (Michael Porter Jr.). The Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo at No. 15 and added their other stars—Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday—via trades. The Sixers, Hawks and Suns were all built primarily through the draft.

Of course, two big-market behemoths—both built in free agency—loom over everything: the Nets, who leveraged New York’s magnetism to land Durant, Kyrie Irving and later Harden; and the Clippers, who used L.A.’s glitz to attract SoCal natives Leonard and Paul George. An L.A.-N.Y. Finals would only reinforce notions of big-market supremacy, and small-market despair.

Yet it’s no certainty that either the Nets or Clippers will make the Finals, despite their formidable star power. The race is that muddled, the field that strong. And that’s a good thing.

A Nets-Clippers Finals would surely be a ratings bonanza—a welcome sight to the league’s marketing folks. But any other combination would arguably provide something more valuable, at least to the nonglamour teams (and their fans) in the nonglamour markets, in nearly every other part of the country. Hope.

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