Assuming the NBA has moved past the disquieting 18 months that yielded its past two champions, it makes perfect sense to expect a more “traditional” Finals in 2022. And for myriad reasons, the most traditional-looking Finals would pit the Nets against the Lakers—a clash the NBA has reportedly scheduled for Christmas Day.
We’re still 10 months away from any such series actually taking place, but this pair of preseason contenders supplies a thrilling need for conjecture, with big-picture ramifications and considerable hyperbole. The star power and name recognition would be extensive. The story lines would be overwhelming. The basketball would be intoxicating. And the result would transform how we view several participants for generations to come. That’s the power held by every Finals, but few in the last 30 years, if ever, could carry more historically relevant substance than this one.
Before we slide toward speculative anticipation, it should be said that 0% of this exercise is meant to disregard the Jazz, Warriors, Heat and every other team that has a championship on their mind. It especially should not be interpreted as a referendum on the Suns and Bucks, two very good teams that have too easily been dismissed as serious threats to get back where they just were. (The skepticism is unfair albeit unambiguous, largely due to the atypical season every player, coach and staff member just endured and the relative injury luck enjoyed by both teams.)
It should also be acknowledged that predicting anything even two weeks ahead in the NBA has become a fool’s errand. In the blink of an eye, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard or Kawhi Leonard’s surgically repaired knee could rearrange the season’s pecking order and place a Lakers-Nets bout in serious limbo. But if all remains static and everyone is healthy, a potential series between each conference’s odds-on favorite is more intriguing—and fun to think about—than any other. (Best believe no other matchup—save maybe the Warriors and Nets—would provide higher ratings or broader interest, either.)
There are eight guaranteed Hall of Famers here, and one potential Hall of Famer (Blake Griffin) whose résumé would likely cement itself by winning this very series: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Griffin. In total, that’s 85 All-Star appearances, 11 scoring titles, nine rings, seven MVPs and the league’s last five assist leaders.
Those last three names are all on veteran’s minimum contracts, aged well beyond their respective primes, but the first four head into next season as serious MVP candidates. Then you have the nominal point guards: For all their warts on the court (Westbrook’s being more detrimental than Irving’s), both still produce at an All-Star, if not All-NBA, level.
An ongoing heavyweight rivalry between LeBron and Durant—one that has decided the outcome of almost every postseason for the past 10 years—is what makes this series indelible. The two preeminent players of their generation have squared off in 14 playoff games. Durant has won nine of them across three Finals, with the last two existing as a couple of anticlimactic poundings after Durant joined forces with Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala—all of whom knew what the score was at the end of regulation in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals. (James and Durant averaged absurd numbers that essentially crossed each other out.)
LeBron will be 37 years old when the 2022 Finals begin. Durant will be 33. Neither is quite operating at the absolute peak of his powers, but both are still close enough to make this showdown as captivating as any before it. In all likelihood their battle wouldn’t be revelatory. LeBron and Durant secured their legacies long ago. But in capping off the NBA’s 75th anniversary by penning yet another monumental chapter in basketball lore, the victor would elevate his standing to a height that may ultimately be considered peerless.
Durant is coming off a magnificent postseason run and historic Olympic Games. To many he’s the best player in the world, and another Finals MVP over LeBron could catapult the Nets into the type of dynastic claim that’s individual to every generation. (It’s reductive to change that statement because of one playoff series, but if the Lakers were to win with James’s reasserting himself as the single clearest reason why, it would.)
Durant has a lot of great basketball left and recently signed a four-year, $198 million extension. Assuming Harden eventually signs a similar deal and both stay healthy through their mid-30s, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for Durant to end his career with more titles than LeBron and more playoff points than Michael Jordan.
For Durant, LeBron and several other key contributors in this series, there’s little to prove but much to lose. Between Harden and Westbrook, one would get a ring and the other would be left still searching for his first. Pending their actual impact, Melo and Blake would have their reputations reexamined. But beyond what this series could do for the careers of certain players, it would also be the pinnacle of the superteam era, and, in conjunction with several other variables, may even signal the beginning of its end. Where would it even go from here?
We’re neck-deep in a period that sees franchise players frequently change teams. In this case it’d create a scenario where several ex-teammates are forced to confront each other head on—some of whom split with a level of acrimony that (seemingly) remains unsettled.
To start, there’s the cupcake-infused friction between Durant and Westbrook, which includes a recent slight by the four-time scoring champ when asked to list his five greatest teammates. Last year, LeBron admitted to feeling “hurt a little bit” by Irving’s belief that KD was the first teammate he had confidence in to make game-winning shots. Westbrook asked out of Houston when it became clear Harden no longer wanted to play with him. Harden and Dwight were not kindred spirits.
Some of these rifts are likely water under the bridge, if they ever were actual rifts to begin with. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more than enough background drama to inspire the most tragically committed talking heads to liquefy their own brains trying to outdo whatever they just heard leaking out of the nearest television. Until this series ends, food, water and air would be replaced by the energy that can be generated by only the most theatrically absurd take. It would also double as NBA Twitter’s darkest hour/all-time apex.
We’re admittedly getting ahead of ourselves, but while on the topic it’s worth a quick peek at the schematic advantages and adjustments Frank Vogel and Steve Nash would need to make. Who would stop Davis from mosh-pitting through the paint? Would he single-handedly mash Brooklyn’s preference to stay small while fully embracing the center position? On the other end, how would the Lakers—suddenly bereft of quality on-ball defenders—handle an isolation-heavy offense unlike any we’ve ever seen?
The Finals do more than crown a champion. They clarify the league’s trends and often show us what matters on a strategic level. They draw blueprints for every other organization to copy and create sliding door—alongside “I remember where I was when …”—moments that reverberate through time. Some matchups are more consequential than others. A few live on as time capsules that signal a shift in who rules the league and how they’re doing it.
This series would be like a comet, manifesting a couple of weeks of hype, excellence and desperation. There’s no guarantee of it being the most entertaining series ever played, but limitless subplots combined with a remarkable amount of skill, athleticism and pride could make it the NBA’s most anticipated Finals in a very long time.
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