Unlikely NBA Finals Matchups We Actually Want to See
Keep your Los Angeles Lakers-Milwaukee Bucks NBA Finals. And your Los Angeles Clippers-Bucks Finals. And your Houston Rockets-Bucks Finals. And—well, you get the point.
Also: Don't actually keep any of these prospective Finals matchups. They would all be amazing, and we should consider ourselves lucky to potentially see them. But this exercise is for the less likely head-to-heads, the possible championship clashes that aren't too far off the beaten path but at the same time aren't especially likely.
Striking this balance of realistic versus unexpected isn't too difficult. It merely entails avoiding extremes. This is not a space for the hypothetical New Orleans Pelicans-Brooklyn Nets Finals. Nor is it for a Lakers-Boston Celtics duel. It is for the collisions in between.
Ground rules will be implemented to keep us honest, and because, frankly, roughly six teams in the Western Conference have plausible paths to the Finals. All hypothetical sparrings must include at least one seed, from whichever side, outside the top three. This hurts my soul because seeing the defending champion Toronto Raptors square off against their Finals MVP from last year, Kawhi Leonard, would be amazing. But including both would imply it's mega-unlikely the Raptors return to the title round, which just isn't fair...or accurate.
Similarly, squads that haven't yet clinched a postseason spot are ineligible for inclusion. This eliminates those scrapping and clawing for eighth place in the Western Conference, and that's just fine. Relative to the Finals path in front of them, they wouldn't receive serious consideration anyway.
Regular-season context will also be thrown out the window. The NBA hasn't hosted an actual game in over four months. Now is not the time to assume that the past informs the future.
Potential Finals dust-ups will instead be chosen using the fun factor. Off-court storylines, player-vs.-player subplots and general curiosity all have a role in shaping these possible-but-not-probable selections.
Nuggets vs. Sixers
Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic? Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid?
Is the answer Karl-Anthony Towns? Or Anthony Davis?
It definitely isn't Rudy Gobert.
Embiid and Jokic are no strangers to being pitted against one another. They are the primary headliners in the best-big-man discussion. (KAT and AD are right there.) Embiid has held what seems to be an appreciable advantage when he's at his peak, but limited availability coupled with Jokic's playmaking, inside-out scoring and profound impact on the Nuggets offense has turned this into a neck-and-neck affair.
This season specifically belongs to Jokic. He's played nearly 800 more minutes and kept the Nuggets in play for a top-two finish in the West. Embiid's Sixers, by comparison, have made competing in the East look hard.
That context goes out the window in a best-of-seven series. A fully available and engaged Embiid is one of the league's two or three most impactful defenders, and there is an unstoppable-force-marries-immovable-object dominance to his offense when it's not compromised by the lineups in which he plays.
Would a Finals matchup settle this argument once and for all? Not quite. But championship bragging rights last forever.
A few other subplots that make this an interesting dance-off: Al Horford tussling with former teammate Paul Millsap. Jerami Grant playing the team that gave him his start. Jamal Murray trying to score on Josh Richardson...and sometimes Ben Simmons. And, my personal favorite: Michael Porter Jr.'s place in the rotation.
Nuggets head coach Mike Malone hasn't given the rookie consistent run this season. Higher-stakes games aren't convenient teaching moments, particularly if Denver makes it all the way to the Finals. But the size and length of Philly's five best players is terrifying. Murray is at risk of getting neutralized, in which case the Nuggets would more than ever need another shot-creator who can exist within the larger flow of the offense. MPJ would, as ever, be their best option.
Lakers vs. Heat
Maybe too much time has passed since LeBron James left South Florida, but the idea of his squaring off against a regenerated version of the team he spurned, built by the man players typically flock toward rather than jilt, Pat Riley, ranks pretty high on my "This is juicy" scale.
Ever the portrait of serenity, Riley was clearly rattled by James' decision to leave Miami in 2014. "My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down," he told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan in 2018. "That team in 10 years could have won five or six championships. But I get it."
This reaction is hardly dripping with resentment—he even said James made the right decision by returning to Cleveland—and even more time has passed since. But you just know Riley would extract a special pleasure in winning a title at James' expense barely six years after their dissolution. And for James' part, he'd probably enjoy chasing his fourth ring, as the favorite, with Riley on the opposite side.
Other elements of intrigue push this matchup over the edge. Give me Anthony Davis vs. Bam Adebayo right now. Jimmy Butler was once upon a time, like every other superstar, a potential Lakers free-agency target. And he apparently has "always" wanted to don purple and gold.
Who among us doesn't want to see Dion Waiters face off versus the team that facilitated his career reboot only to then oversee its derailment? I mean, Waiters definitely doesn't profile as a prominent part of the Lakers rotation, but imagine if he catches fire for a couple of minutes in a meaningful game. That's just good TV.
And let us not forget that Jae Crowder, now of the Heat, played with James in Cleveland for a minute and seemed happy to get out. And definitely don't forget that Andre Iguodala is also in Miami. Rumor has it he and James have, um, a little bit of history.
Celtics vs. Mavericks
Torch-carriers abound in a theoretical Boston Celtics-Dallas Mavericks Finals.
Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum are the main attractions of said meeting. Two under-23 superstars leading their teams within at least four victories of a title is the stuff from which drunk-on-the-moment thinkpieces get written.
Can't you see the possible headlines now? "What GOAT Debate? Luka Is Better Than MJ and LeBron Ever Were Combined." Or "Jayson Tatum Seizes Best-Player-Alive Crown from Giannis as Celtics Begin Decadeslong Dynasty."
Boston versus Dallas would also be a showdown of two next teams up. The Celtics have been in line to run the East since before LeBron James left it. They're ready now, and they have Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker, but two of their best players remain unfathomably young. Tatum doesn't turn 23 until next March, and Jaylen Brown will be just 24 in October.
Insofar as the West has a next team up, the Mavericks are battling the Nuggets and Pelicans for that future pole position. They're ahead of the curve in that they have the best player of the three—though both Nikola Jokic and 2024 Zion Williamson would like a word. Still, a Boston-Dallas matchup now could be a precursor to many more over the next decade-plus.
Sneaking into the Finals would end up meaning much more to the Mavericks. They'll be heavy underdogs in at least two series beforehand, and a potential Cinderella run would presumably be a feat of validation for their investment in Kristaps Porzingis.
What's more, their core isn't as set in stone. They have a path to opening cap space this offseason or, more importantly, next summer. A Finals berth and possible victory would go a long way when pitching other stars in 2021, including you-know-who.
Rockets vs. Sixers
Picture the stylistic contrast of a potential Houston-Philadelphia showdown.
The Rockets have leaned all the way into nanoball. PJ Tucker is their de facto center, they spread the floor and they attack like hell when Russell Westbrook—finally surrounded by four shooters for the first time in his career—is on the court.
The Sixers are the Rockets' aesthetic opposite. Their shooting guard, Josh Richardson (6'6"), is taller than Houston's "center." And they don't spread the floor. They junk it up. They'll run when they can, but they mostly overwhelm with size and physicality.
Would Philly overpower Houston? Would the Rockets mismatch the Sixers into oblivion? Does Ben Simmons guard Westbrook or James Harden? Or split time between the two?
And who in the bleepity bleep is taking Joel Embiid for Houston? Tucker? Robert Covington? Bruno Caboclo? Al Horford is coming off the bench in this series, right? Do the Sixers go full Jazz and stick Embiid on Westbrook at the other end?
Oh! Speaking of which, what's the over/under on how long it takes Embiid and Westbrook to get into it again? Two games? One game? One quarter? Either way, I'll take the under. And you just know Embiid or Westbrook will wave goodbye to the other if his team wins.
For anyone who considers this a matchup of two quasi-likely Finals participants, I hear you. I just don't agree with you. Houston is an offensive extremist unlike any other in league history, and Philly has not earned the benefit of the doubt.
For anyone who likes to be punched in the feelz during the Finals, this hypothetical has you covered. Covington is the homegrown impact player the Sixers sacrificed for a superstar who left them/they let walk away. Seeing the two sides meet in the Finals would be surreal. And RoCo not only potentially winning a title first, but at Philly's expense, would be extra poetic.
Heat vs. Thunder
Sign me all the way up for seven games of the "See What You Missed Out On Bowl." The sheer unlikelihood of it should be enough to catch anyone's attention.
Pretty much nobody billed the Heat as title contenders after acquiring Jimmy Butler. Perception of his services soured following an ugly breakup with the Minnesota Timberwolves and blase stay with the Sixers. "How much better does he actually make Miami?" was actually the more prevalent question.
It turns out a lot better. The pressure he puts on the rim powers their offense, even though he's apparently no longer allowed to make jumpers, and he's led some truly questionable lineups into league-average-or-better defensive standing.
The Thunder are the even more unlikely participant. They dealt away their two best players, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, last summer under the pretext they'd eventually cannonball into some sort of rebuild. That rebuild never came. They instead kept Danilo Gallinari and Chris Paul and have contended for a top-four seed in the West. Their 9-17 record against squads above .500 is troubling, but they're also 17-5 with a top-four offense and top-10 defense since Jan. 18.
Both teams would at once be sticking it to the league at large, as well as certain players, by making the Finals in the first place. Miami's appearance and potential victory would be one helluva recruiting tool if Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Oladipo hit free agency in 2021. Beating two previous trade targets, Gallinari and Paul, to get a title would be fairly funny.
Oklahoma City's cameo would be a middle finger to no fewer than six other Western Conference playoff teams. And my God, just imagine how George and Westbrook would feel if the Thunder make and win the Finals before them—particularly if their trek to the championship round includes series upsets over the Clippers and/or Rockets.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.