The NBA game is built for stardom. It’s a small number of players on a small court, and there are no hats, helmets, or masks. The NBA especially shines during the playoffs. The stars are on the court, and the seven-game series are built for drama and shifting storylines.
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The NBA playoffs are where stars are (mostly) created. To become the man, to become a Superstar, NBA players need to win. They need to succeed on the brightest stage when the world is watching. The playoffs provide the stage, and the interplay between the stars creates the stories.
As the playoffs move towards the conference finals, we can anticipate the media narratives. We can also think through the likely impact on the current and next generation of stars. We don’t know how it's going to play out – will Chris Paul cement his legacy, or will Trae Young become the new face of the league? But we know the possibilities.
Phoenix versus Denver: Can Chris Paul Finally Make it to the Finals?
The aging star Chris Paul is leading a young team full of (relative) unknowns to a deep playoff run and maybe to his first championship. It is the story of the long-time star that has never been able to reach the ultimate prize. It has its epic elements as the path went through an all-time great in LeBron and then the current league MVP. But, it is also a story of legacy as a championship run will lead to discussions of where Paul ranks among the all-time great point guards. This storyline also highlights the dynamics of the playoffs. In the first round, the Phoenix story seemed to be a young superstar Devin Booker breaking through to lead the Suns against the injury-depleted LeBron Lakers.
Alternate: None – it’s over
Los Angeles (Clippers) versus Utah: A New Sheriff in Town
With LeBron done for the year and the Laker’s future seeming shaky, we can roll out the story of the Clippers and Kawhi taking over LA. The Lakers have long owned LA, and they are an iconic American sports franchise. So when the Clippers acquired Kawhi Leonard, it had to be about trying to win titles and escaping the Laker’s shadow. On the other side of the matchup, we have the Jazz led by Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell is 24 and has improved every year. He is reaching his peak years, and the next few seasons are his opportunity to become a leading star?
Alternative: Donovan Mitchell Comes of Age
Brooklyn versus Milwaukee: The Hero’s Last Stand
Brooklyn began the playoffs as the bully that bought an all-star loaded championship roster. Now with injuries to Harden and Irving, Kevin Durant stands alone against Giannis and the Bucks. A side note to this story is that LeBron failed in his one-man stand against Pheonix. Durant’s legacy will always be impacted by his playing in the same era as Lebron. Can he carry his injury-riddled team when Lebron couldn’t carry his? If the momentum shifts back to Milwaukee? We can tell the story of Giannis taking advantage of circumstances to become the league’s dominant star.
Alternate: It’s now Giannis’ League
Philadelphia versus Atlanta: Can Philly’s Stars become Superstars?
The number one seeded 76ers led by Joel Embid are leading the upstart Hawks led by Trae Young. Young is young and has arguably won the star power competition in the playoffs (defeating the Knicks while becoming an enemy of the Knicks fans). But now, Young is taking on an established NBA team with established stars like Joel Embid and Ben Simmons. I say “established” twice because the 76ers seem to be stuck. They are winners and have stars. But in the NBA, there are stars, and then there are Superstars. If the series swings to Atlanta? Trae Young becomes THE up-and-coming star and probably starts to get seriously rich.
Alternate: Trae Young comes of Age
Lots of great storylines; coming-of-age stories, overcoming adversity, and playing for legacy. The NBA playoffs are the ultimate star-building machine in sports.
Of course, there is a downside to the “star” system. Maybe more than one. What if your team doesn’t have a star? Then the whole thing feels pretty irrelevant. Being without stars is like being without hope. There is also a more profound and perhaps generational question about whether fans prefer rooting for teams or stars. Is there a danger of making the league about a guy or some guys? What happens when your stars become politically active cultural icons? Or maybe 50-year-old fans prefer to root for 100-year-old franchises rather than 20-year-old kids.