Superstar Matchups We Want to See in the NBA Playoffs
Though many things will be different about the 2020 NBA playoffs, we can take comfort in one particular certainty: Some of the league's best stars are guaranteed to clash in each round of the postseason.
The NBA is overflowing with stars in this day and age, and it is a delight every year to see them match up when the stakes are highest. It's even juicier when they have history with one another or some other sort of inherent narrative that gives the series added meaning.
Today, we're exploring those star matchups that would be most exciting to see in this year's playoffs. Whether it's personal history, positional supremacy or legacy-related, most of these battles have implications that go beyond mere wins and losses.
One logistical note: We're only talking about matchups that seem possible.
For instance, as much fun as seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo take on Zion Williamson in the NBA Finals would be, the Pelicans are looking less likely to survive seeding games, let alone make the Finals, so their potential battle was not considered. Similar reasoning goes for Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid vs. Nikola Jokic and several other head-to-head battles.
Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James, Anthony Davis
We'll start with the matchup fans around the world are clamoring to see.
On the verge of winning a second consecutive MVP award, Giannis has become a global star. In a potential Finals against the Lakers, he could solidify his global status while also making meaningful strides up the Hall of Fame Pyramid, to borrow a framework from Bill Simmons.
Standing in Giannis' way, however, are LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
An All-NBA-caliber defender this year, Davis has the length and agility to bother the Greek Freak, while LeBron has limited Giannis to just 2-of-10 shooting in the teams' two matchups. Of course, there's legacy implications for the Lakers duo as well, with a fourth title capping LeBron's case as the second-best player ever and a first championship for Davis putting him on the historical map as more than just a stat-monger.
On a basketball-only basis, several other potential matchups are just as intriguing as this one. But all things considered, it's the juiciest of the bunch.
Nikola Jokic vs. Rudy Gobert
Despite potential fireworks from Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, the outcome of a Jazz-Nuggets series would likely hinge on the play of Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic.
Though Jokic is arguably the modern big man, whipping passes all over the court and making threes like someone half a foot shorter, centering (sorry) these two in a series would be a fun old-school complement to the hyper-athletic stylings of players like Giannis, LeBron, Kawhi Leonard and more.
Much has been made about Jokic’s weight loss, and for good reason. The Joker became an average defender just because of his high basketball IQ, but now he could combine those smarts with more athleticism and improve even more on that end.
With that said, Jokic’s girth was actually a positive against Gobert, one of few star-caliber players in the NBA as big as him. Without it, the Frenchman may be more effective against him.
A series between Gobert and Jokic would be a nice throwback to a time not so long ago when big men ruled the sport.
Joel Embiid vs. Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler has found a home in Miami, but he maintains connections with past places he's played.
Until recently, he had a home in Chicago, and despite being in Philadelphia for six months, he's remained friends with Joel Embiid. Butler playfully recruited Embiid to Miami when the big man was struggling with the Sixers and seems to have found a kindred spirit in the Cameroonian.
However, as Embiid knows well, Butler is a brutally intense competitor and doesn't play favorites on the hardwood, which would make a Sixers-Heat series fascinating.
Miami owned Philly this year, winning three of their four matchups and punctuating its dominance with a 31-point destruction that sent the Sixers soul-searching. And despite Philly's continued insistence that benching Al Horford will unlock a title winner, Miami remains a bad matchup.
With Bam Adebayo, Butler, Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, the Heat have several defenders to bother the Sixers' scorers, and they easily outflank Philly with regards to shooting.
These two teams gave us an entertaining series two years ago, and Miami stood no chance against that Philly team. Imagine how thrilling this year's version will be when either team could come out on top.
James Harden vs. Luka Doncic
It would be exciting for most Texan NBA fans if the Rockets and Mavericks were matched up this postseason. But this matchup would be compelling for more than just geographical reasons. We'd also get to see the face of NBA analytics present take on the face of NBA analytics future.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey and James Harden himself have staked their reputations on being the logical conclusion to basketball's analytics movement. Harden barely takes mid-range jumpers anymore (two-pointers longer than 10 feet made up just 2.3 percent of his attempts this season), and he's driven opponents and opposing fans crazy with his foul-drawing tactics.
Ironically, people who've recently soured on Harden may embrace Luka Doncic, even though he takes after the Beard in many ways. Behind Doncic's All-NBA-caliber production, the Mavericks produced the best offensive rating in league history in 2019-20, ahead of any Nash-era Suns, Miami Heatles or Durant-era Warriors teams.
The stakes will become more clear when we know what round this potential matchup takes place, but a clash of the league's two most analytically minded superstars would nevertheless serve as a good progress report for where each of them—and the NBA's stats movement more generally—stands.
Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
For fans of the modern NBA and wing-dominated small ball, this is about as good as it gets.
Most teams succumb quickly to Giannis Antetokounmpo because they don't even have one defender to challenge him. However, we've seen teams with numerous capable stoppers slow the Greek Freak down. For instance, the Raptors used an interchangeable assortment of wings on Giannis in the playoffs last year, and their seemingly endless parade of defenders slowly wore the 25-year-old down.
A Milwaukee-Los Angeles finals would be a good progress report in this vein, because the Clippers are arguably the most well-equipped team to stop Giannis in the whole league. That responsibility will start with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who might be the two best perimeter defenders in the NBA when engaged.
Leonard's strength and huge hands and George's lateral quickness, wingspan and active hands make them ideal candidates to stop Antetokounmpo.
As fun as it would be to see Giannis win his first championship, Milwaukee beating the Clippers in the Finals is a scary thought.
If Leonard and George can't slow him down, then nobody else has a prayer for the next half-decade.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis vs. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
The Lakers and Clippers have played four times this year, and each matchup was riveting. Though the Clippers have a deeper roster from top to bottom, the sheer greatness of LeBron James and Anthony Davis has made the Lakers a perfectly legitimate opponent, which is why the two teams are generally considered favorites to meet in the Western Conference Finals.
At the center of a Lakers-Clippers series will be the matchup between its four best players. All sorts of legacy and personal history comes into play here. For instance, LeBron and Kawhi seem to bother each other, and both are among the most proven postseason stars of the 21st century.
However, their co-stars are both itching to prove themselves on a big stage. Davis never made it past the second round with the Pelicans, and George has yet to duplicate his magical duel with LeBron in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, notably falling flat for the Thunder in each of the past two seasons (yes, he had a torn rotator cuff in 2019, but still).
This is arguably the most anticipated matchup of the 2020 playoffs, and it will be disappointing if either team falls short before they can meet.
Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Pascal Siakam
Speaking of slowing Giannis down, let's hope for a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals.
After Milwaukee jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, Toronto packed the paint with big men and forced Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe to bail Giannis out, a gambit that succeeded. However, Kawhi Leonard is now on the Clippers and Giannis is set to win his second straight MVP award. Can Toronto do it again?
Like with most teams, it would take a tremendous team effort for the Raptors to slow down Giannis, an effort led by Pascal Siakam. The Cameroonian was a major part of Toronto's game plan against the Greek Freak last year, but being Kawhi Leonard's teammate and being Kawhi Leonard are very different, and Siakam isn't Kawhi (yet).
Can he handle the burden of guarding Giannis through most of a series while also shepherding the Raptors offense?
Thankfully, tired legs hopefully won't be an issue for Siakam like they might have been in a season without a hiatus. If he and Toronto can again halt Giannis before the Finals, then the North's reputation as a consistently innovative and competitive organization will continue to spread.
James Harden, Russell Westbrook vs. Chris Paul
It's easy to understand why this superstar matchup would be must-watch on a base level. Paul and Westbrook were traded for each other last offseason, so just watching Harden play against his old teammate (and seemingly former friend) and watching Westbrook take on his longtime team is worth your time.
But this series would also likely be quite competitive as well.
Oklahoma City won two of these team's three regular-season matchups, and all three of those games took place before Houston's full-time commitment to ultra-small ball. Though Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker are both highly pedigreed defenders, it's easy to visualize them getting tired quickly against Steven Adams, perhaps the strongest player in the NBA.
And given the Rockets' past reaction to losing close playoff games, it wouldn't be surprising to see some on-court back-and-forths, potentially leading to a Harden-Paul confrontation. Picture the chaos!
Neither of these teams likely has a Larry O'Brien Trophy in its near future. But considering they engaged in a blockbuster deal just last year, the result of this series could have direct ramifications on how each franchise proceeds into the future.
LeBron James vs. Chris Paul
Somehow, these two charter members of the Banana Boat have never met in the postseason. With time ostensibly running out on their careers, let's hope that gets fixed!
No matter how this series played out, it would be exciting to see LeBron James and Chris Paul, two friends, intense competitors and future first-ballot Hall of Famers, go to battle in the postseason. But this Lakers-Thunder matchup is especially interesting because it won't necessarily produce an open-and-shut outcome.
Los Angeles is one of the NBA's top teams but is depleted in the backcourt, especially without Avery Bradley. On the other hand, Oklahoma City's strength lies with its guards: Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. The trio has recorded an astonishing 28.6 net rating in 401 minutes this year and makes up 60 percent of an elite clutch lineup.
Add in strongman Steven Adams, the underrated Danilo Gallinari and a quartet of defense-first wings in Andre Roberson, Hamidou Diallo, Terrance Ferguson and Luguentz Dort, and the gap between these teams starts closing.
The Lakers might sweep the Thunder. But if Oklahoma City keeps these matchups close, they could be some of the bubble's most intense games.
Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons
It wasn't so long ago that the Bucks and Sixers were consensus favorites to meet in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.
Well, one of the teams has held up its end of the bargain.
Regardless of whether Philly plays better with its new starting lineup, watching Giannis take on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons would remain exciting. Though Embiid isn't quite at Giannis' level, he can be unstoppable around the basket on both ends.
Simmons offers a more direct challenge to Giannis. The two are similarly sized, boast comparable skill sets and operate mostly within the three-point arc. Giannis has dominated their matchups historically, calling Simmons a "baby" last year and limiting him to just one field-goal attempt over 53.9 partial possessions this season, but hopefully the Australian can combat the Greek Freak in Philly's new rotations.
The Sixers' best game this year came against the Bucks on Christmas when Embiid and Simmons combined for 46 points, 18 rebounds and 17 assists in a 12-point victory. If Philly stands a chance against Milwaukee, it'll need several more performances like that one.
In that case, we would be in for some brilliant basketball.
LeBron James vs. Zion Williamson
Between the Pelicans potentially not making (or losing) the play-in tournament and Zion Williamson's minutes restriction extending into the playoffs, there are many scenarios in which this matchup either doesn't occur or is a letdown.
On the other hand, the best-case scenario for a series between LeBron James and Zion is mouthwatering.
When analysts try to find an accurate player comparison for Zion, they usually arrive at Charles Barkley because Chuck also combined his girth and athleticism in a unique way. But an even more accurate parallel would be a young version of LeBron himself.
Zion lacks the handle to be a lead ball-handler like LeBron (though his handle is very good for a big man), but both are once-in-a-generation athletes who simply overpower their competition. In addition, Zion has been anointed as one of the future faces of the NBA, and it's always interesting to see LeBron interact with players who've been given that title, from Kevin Durant to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It's unlikely that this series would be close. New Orleans has had a devastating starting five of late, but it stands no chance against LeBron and former Pelican Anthony Davis. Nevertheless, watching two supernova talents collide would be a joy.
Kawhi Leonard vs. Pascal Siakam
A Raptors-Clippers Finals might not be ideal for virtually anybody outside of Canada or select portions of Los Angeles. In a quiet moment, Adam Silver himself might admit to disliking such an outcome, if only because of its potentially dismal ratings.
But that doesn't mean the series would be devoid of conflict.
Now, because Raptors fans and players are on good terms with Kawhi Leonard after he delivered a title, it may seem like this matchup isn't dramatic. But as much as we like to characterize him as an emotionless machine who just knows how to hoop, Kawhi left an impact on his former teammates, and it would be fascinating to see how they game-plan for him in a series.
In particular, the matchup between Kawhi and Pascal Siakam, the Klaw's heir apparent, would be must-watch television for serious basketball fans. Both started in the 2020 All-Star Game and are among the best two-way players in the sport, and though neither is particularly flashy, they both dissect opponents with ferocious precision.
This Finals wouldn't have Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron James in it. But it could be just as entertaining as a Bucks-Lakers clash.
LeBron James vs. Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard has talked at length about his desire to make the playoffs this season. But this is a real "be careful what you wish for" situation.
If Lillard is able to lift the Blazers above their myriad competition and claim the West's eighth seed, he'll face off against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers in the first round. There's an easy-to-imagine scenario in which LeBron and Davis completely erase Lillard and CJ McCollum on defense, torch Carmelo Anthony and Jusuf Nurkic in pick-and-rolls repeatedly on offense and win all four games by double figures, an outcome which might actually make Portland and its fans feel worse than if the team had just not made the playoffs at all.
That previous paragraph may look harsh in hindsight. After all, from making the second round following LaMarcus Aldridge's departure to securing a Western Conference Finals berth one year after a first-round sweep, Lillard has historically thrived when he's counted out, so why should this season be any different?
Even if the Lakers win the series comfortably, it'll be entertaining to have two top-seven players square off in the first round.
Ben Simmons vs. Jayson Tatum
For long-suffering Ben Simmons supporters, this matchup would be a chance to set the record straight on his standing among the league's star class.
Make no mistake, Jayson Tatum is already great. He made the All-Star team for the first time this year and elevated even higher shortly thereafter, averaging 29.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 47.6/46.8/75.2 shooting splits in February and March.
But the gap between the reputations of Tatum and Simmons is far larger than it has any right to be.
While it's evident that the Australian has some sort of mental block regarding his jumper (and he agreed to see a sports psychologist about the issue, so there's progress on that front), the never-ending conversation around Simmons' hesitation to shoot obscures the fact that he's excellent in virtually every other area.
He's already elite in transition and has emerged as one of the most dynamic defenders in the NBA. Few players spend more time guarding the opponent's best scorer, and few are better at it.
A Celtics-Sixers series would be highly entertaining for numerous reasons, and these two ascendant players finally clashing would be its centerpiece.