Ranking Best Possible 2021 NBA Finals Matchups
When the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets tip off Sunday, fans will get a glimpse of a legitimate NBA Finals preview.
It will be one of many.
This unusual season, defined by uncertainty and parity, could produce any number of possible Finals matchups. Between star-laden rosters, legacy-seeking GOATs in pursuit of more rings, first-timers trying to break through and all manner of intriguing personal narratives, the options are overwhelming.
The best Finals matchup is largely a matter of taste, but we'll do our best to lay out why the ones that make our list would be so objectively awesome.
To avoid repetition in our rankings, we'll limit each team to a maximum of two appearances. That way, we won't have LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers showing up in every entry with only the opponent changing.
Lastly, a key rule. To make the cut, the pairing has to be plausible. As much as a marquee meeting between the Lakers and New York Knicks tilt would titillate, that's too far-fetched for consideration here. The Knicks look like a playoff team, but a Finals appearance? Come on.
It's only February, but let's give July some thought.
5. Phoenix Suns vs. Toronto Raptors
As the late Kobe Bryant would have said, this matchup is a Bikram yoga stretch.
The Phoenix Suns are several games back in the standings from the West's elite at the moment, and the Toronto Raptors are hovering around .500.
There's a lot of season left to be played, and both of these squads have major upside. They could easily wind up among their respective conferences' top three. Phoenix has only recently hit its stride, and imagine what's going to happen when it quits losing the minutes it plays with Chris Paul and Devin Booker on the floor—which is inevitable as the pair of backcourt stars figure one another out with more reps.
The Raptors have a championship pedigree worth betting on, and they're 7-3 in February, despite playing all but one of those games on the road. Even after their horrible start, the Raps own a top-10 offense and are barely a point per 100 possessions shy of ranking in the top 10 on the other end.
The East lacks a juggernaut. Knowing that, do you really want to bet against Nick Nurse, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet?
More than anything, we need to see Paul in the Finals, and what better opponent than Lowry, a kindred point guard spirit in so many ways? Those two are the craftiest edge-seeking competitors at the position.
We need CP3 and Lowry going at it for seven games under the brightest lights.
If they guard each other, just imagine the call-baiting flop-off we're in for. It'll be like the most extreme version of the Spiderman pointing meme, or that wildly unsettling fight between Natalie Portman and her creepy mirror image at the end of Annihilation.
4. Utah Jazz vs. Brooklyn Nets
Who's up for a study in contrast?
The Brooklyn Nets, star-studded and flung together with no regard for balance, depth, defense or system could hardly be more different from the meticulously constructed, tactically clinical and no-frills Utah Jazz. Three conventional superstars on one side and maybe one—depending on your feelings about Donovan Mitchell—on the other.
One selling point here would be Mitchell showing he belongs in the same class as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. What better proving ground for one of the league's brightest up-and-comers than the Finals? If Mitchell wants to validate that 36.3 points-per-game scoring average from last year's playoffs, well, here's his chance.
Don't forget about Rudy Gobert against the world.
The Jazz's entire scheme is built around their dominant two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Can he bring glory to the rim-protecting big man by denying three superstar scorers and a Nets offense that might go down as one of the best ever?
Big picture, this Finals matchup would go a long way toward shutting down criticisms that the NBA is homogenizing. Sure, most teams are aiming for similarly efficient shot profiles, and perhaps there's not quite as much stylistic variance across the league as there used to be. But if the Jazz and Nets square off, the differences will be staggering.
3. Los Angeles Clippers vs. Philadelphia 76ers
It's the Doc Bowl, baby!
Forget the on-court stuff for a moment. Can you imagine the narrative abundance of Doc Rivers leading a new team against the one that cut him loose after last year's playoff implosion? The Los Angeles Clippers' 2020 collapse was a complex situation with plenty of blame to go around. But if Rivers' Philadelphia 76ers knock off the Clips, history won't view it that way.
Right or wrong, we'll look back and think Rivers couldn't possibly have been the problem.
Drama aside, this matchup would also give us a chance to see the Process completed in Philly with a title and Joel Embiid validated as the franchise megastar he was always supposed to be. We might even start appreciating what Ben Simmons can do, rather than forever fixating on what he can't.
On the other side, we'd get Kawhi Leonard hunting (silently, of course) for his third Finals MVP. That'd bump him up into a tier occupied by Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Willis Reed. Only LeBron James (four) and Michael Jordan (6) have more, but Leonard could join James as the only two players in history with Finals MVP awards on three different teams.
Flipping the Doc narrative, a Leonard-led Clips title would shift all the blame for 2020's failure back onto the deposed coach. Plus, Paul George would get a chance to put all the smirking "Playoff P" criticism to rest.
Finally, what level of competitive skulduggery would Patrick Beverly ascend to on this stage? I've got it at 10-to-1 he tries to pants Embiid at some point.
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Milwaukee Bucks
We'll do it in the next section, but it's tough to top Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James squaring off in the Finals.
If James wants his damn respect, what better way to get it than winning a head-to-head matchup against a two-time MVP 10 years his junior? And if Anthony Davis wants to cement his reputation as one of the best two-way bigs anyone has ever seen, shutting down Antetokounmpo's relentless rim attacks wouldn't hurt.
On the other side, Giannis could dethrone the king, completely reframing his and his team's history of playoff disappointments. Suddenly, the Milwaukee Bucks' early bow-outs in 2019 and 2020 would look less like failures and more like necessary precursors to a breakthrough.
Michael Jordan took years and years of lumps from the Detroit Pistons before dispatching them and winning a ring in his age-27 season. Nobody's arguing Antetokounmpo is on MJ's level, but a chip in his age-26 season could similarly change everything about his career arc and narrative.
For the Bucks as a team, nothing could more completely validate their work over the last few seasons than a title earned against a defending champ led by an all-time great in James. Nobody could ever disparage Milwaukee as a choker, as a system team that only ever fell flat when the competition picked up and adjustments were required.
One of the most remarkable powers of a championship is the way it alters the perception of everything that came before. Giannis, Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks could change their place in league history.
And who knows, somebody might even notice that Khris Middleton is really, really great. Give him some damn respect.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Brooklyn Nets
Our favorite potential Finals matchup features the most stars possible, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis pitted against Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
That's not where the intrigue and excitement stops, of course. Perhaps most importantly, we get James lined up for what could be his fifth ring, a total that would tie him with Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan and put him just one behind Michael Jordan. The LeBron-KD angle adds an extra charge to the whole thing, as Durant has gotten the best of James in each of their last two Finals meetings.
KD, who would be in line for his third Finals MVP and third ring, walked away with those honors in 2017 and then did it again even more decisively in 2018. His Golden State Warriors swept James' Cavs in that year, upping KD's Finals record against James to 9-5. Justifiably, KD operated as if he, not James, was the best player on the floor in those meetings. Nobody will ever forget his ultra-confident identical daggers in Game 3 of both the 2017 and 2018 series.
Unless James forces them to by burying KD's Nets.
We'd get LeBron going against former protege Irving in a Finals series, plus Harden trying to validate his career with a championship—possibly by embracing a facilitating role that cuts counter to the bucket-getting bend that defined his best seasons with the not-quite-good-enough Houston Rockets.
Throw in first-year Brooklyn coach Steve Nash seeking the championship he couldn't capture as a player and Nets assistant Mike D'Antoni possibly getting over the hump working on his two-time MVP's staff, and you've got an overflow of rooting interests.
The other Finals matchups in this rundown would all be incredible. But we need this one.