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The Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers are the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. On paper, no teams come close to matching the star power of Brooklyn’s trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving or L.A.’s dynamic duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
But plenty of questions still surround these two juggernauts.
Both teams have dealt with injuries: The Nets’ big three has played only seven games together since Harden was acquired in January, while James (right ankle) and Davis (right leg) remain out for the defending champs.
Both teams will face elite challengers on their paths to the Finals, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and defending champion Miami Heat standing in the Nets’ way. Battles lie ahead for the Lakers in the form of the NBA-best Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Staples Center rival LA Clippers.
Which star-studded team will have the easier playoff path? Which should care more about its seeding? And just how fun would a Nets-Lakers matchup actually be?
Our NBA experts debate what lies ahead for Brooklyn and L.A.
1. Fact or fiction: Playoff seeding will matter to the Nets’ and Lakers’ title chances.
Note: This assumes the Lakers avoid the play-in
Tim Bontemps: Fact. Even if you say both of these teams are the favorites in each conference, getting a better seed, by definition, ensures an easier road. In the East, for example, there are three clearly superior teams: Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Whichever team gets the top seed will have to beat only one of those teams to reach the NBA Finals. The Lakers, meanwhile, might find themselves facing their Staples Center co-tenants in the first round. That obviously will be a more difficult road than if they finish at the top of the conference and get a play-in team instead.
Tim MacMahon: Fact, at least for the Nets. It could make a significant difference in a series against the 76ers, in particular. Philadelphia is a drastically better team at home (20-4 entering Sunday) than on the road (14-11), so it’d be foolish to dismiss the location of a potential Game 7. Utah (22-2) is the only really dominant home team in the West, and it’s not like the Lakers have any hope of catching the Jazz in the standings.
André Snellings: Fact for the Nets, fiction for the Lakers. There are between three and four teams that could legitimately win the East, with the Nets battling with the 76ers and Bucks for supremacy, while the defending conference champion Heat can’t be discounted as dark horse challengers. It’s important for the Nets not to have to go through multiple rounds against these teams, especially without home-court advantage. If the Lakers are healthy, they’re clearly the best team in the West. If not, the seeding doesn’t matter anyway.
Nick Friedell: Fiction. When you’ve got high-level superstars on your team, you’re not worried about seedings. Plus, if there are fans in the stands at most of these arenas — it still likely won’t be many. Both of these teams know they can win anywhere if they’re playing at their best.
Dave McMenamin: Fiction. Back in March 2018, LeBron James was asked about the Cavs’ underwhelming place in the standings and the possibility of starting the playoffs as the road team. “It doesn’t matter to me if I’m a 6 seed, or a 3 seed, or a 2 seed, 8 seed,” he said. “If I come into your building for a Game 1, it will be very challenging.” LeBron’s done just about everything in his career except start off the playoffs as a No. 5 seed or lower. Assuming good health, I think he’d relish the challenge. As for the Nets, they’re too good for seeding to matter (again, assuming health). And we don’t even know how hostile these road arenas will be with limited fans as the pandemic lingers.
2. Which East team is the strongest challenger to the Nets?
Bontemps: Both Milwaukee and Philadelphia will make life difficult for Brooklyn in different ways. But while Joel Embiid alone has the biggest advantage against Brooklyn, I think the Bucks as a whole would pose the bigger challenge. Milwaukee has the ability to at least approach Brooklyn’s firepower offensively — the Nets have no one to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the addition of P.J. Tucker gives the Bucks the ability to play a smaller, switching defense that they otherwise couldn’t effectively pull off.
MacMahon: Philadelphia can present the Nets’ most problematic matchup: Can Brooklyn keep Joel Embiid from dominating? The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge absolutely is not an answer for this issue. The 76ers also have enough outstanding on-ball defenders (Ben Simmons, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, maybe George Hill) and rim protectors (Embiid and Dwight Howard) to at least make Brooklyn’s trio of superstars earn their buckets.
Snellings: The Bucks are the team the Nets need to worry about the most. With Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton playing at high levels as offense creators, the “wall” defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo might not be as effective. This gives the Bucks enough general firepower to compete with anyone, with Giannis as the biggest defense-collapser in the NBA as the centerpiece. Defensively, the Bucks can play the inside-out defense that has been their strength, but with P.J. Tucker they’re also set up to switch as needed.
Friedell: Milwaukee. I’m buying what Giannis was selling a few weeks ago about flying under the radar. This team has played at a high level for several years, but hasn’t been able to make it work in the postseason. If the Bucks can get their defense sharpened heading into June, they’ll have a good shot to get out of the East.
McMenamin: Philadelphia. As great as Kevin Durant, Harden and Irving are — and make no mistake, they are all great — Embiid is so dominant that he could be the best player in that series. Add in that the Sixers have already taken their lumps as a group in the playoffs, rank No. 2 in the league in defensive efficiency and have a championship coach in Doc Rivers facing a rookie in Steve Nash, and Philly could make things interesting.
3. Which West team is the strongest challenger to the Lakers?
Bontemps: For all of their foibles, the answer here is still probably the Clippers. There is no one better equipped in the world to go toe-to-toe with LeBron James than Kawhi Leonard, and the Lakers don’t have anyone to effectively slow down Paul George. While the Clippers will obviously have similar issues with Anthony Davis, the Clippers’ incredible 3-point shooting this season — they are over 41% from 3-point range and make four more 3s per game than the Lakers — will also be a significant hurdle for the Lakers to overcome in a potential playoff showdown.
MacMahon: The Jazz have been the NBA’s most dominant team this season. Utah has the best record by a significant margin and an even bigger cushion when it comes to point differential, so it would feel disrespectful to claim another West team poses a bigger threat to the defending champs. If you want to point out the Jazz’s playoff shortcomings, how can you pick the Clippers after both blew 3-1 leads against the Nuggets in the bubble?
Snellings: When healthy, the Lakers have by far the best interior offense, defense and rebounding among Western Conference contenders. The Clippers and Trail Blazers could try to outscore them from the perimeter, but that’s a difficult proposition in a best-of-seven series. The Jazz, however, are the team that can best challenge the Lakers on the interior, at least defensively, with Rudy Gobert. They also have a strong perimeter attack on offense and could give the Lakers the best challenge in a series.
Friedell: I got burned last season believing in the Clippers, but I still believe that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have an extra gear they can hit in the playoffs together. The Jazz have been great, but I believe in the star power of Kawhi.
McMenamin: The Clippers. Tyronn Lue and Rajon Rondo are two of the brightest basketball minds to ever team with LeBron James to win championships and they have visions of applying that acumen to knock James and the Lakers off the mountaintop. And, much like the Brooklyn-Philly scenario, as great as James and Anthony Davis are, Kawhi Leonard could certainly be the best player in a Lakers-Clippers series. And the quickest way for Paul George to redeem himself for last year’s postseason debacle would be to show out in a Staples Center playoff showdown.
4. Which is more likely: Nets and Lakers make the Finals or neither team makes it?
Bontemps: Generally in the NBA, the best bet to make is on the most likely outcome. But in this chaotic season, the field is easily the better bet — especially with several credible options emerging in both conferences. All it takes is one injury for things to be completely upended, and both of these teams have already had plenty of them.
MacMahon: Neither team makes it. If the stars are healthy, they’re both favorites to make the Finals, but that’s a big if. There are enough legitimate contenders in both conferences — the Suns, Clippers and Nuggets joining the Jazz in the West, the Bucks and Heat behind the 76ers in the East — that it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if the Lakers and Nets both fall short of the Finals.
Snellings: Neither team makes it, for the simple fact that we don’t know the Lakers’ health situation. I don’t see the Nets as clear favorites to come out of the East, but if the Lakers were fully healthy they’d be enough of a favorite to tilt the scale in their favor. With both the Lakers’ current health uncertainty and the relative strengths of the other East contenders, I’d take the field right now.
Friedell: Nets and Lakers make it. Stars win in the postseason — and stars absolutely carry a team into the Finals. If both teams are healthy, there isn’t a team in either conference that can match what both franchises currently have at the top of their respective rosters. Giannis is awesome, Embiid and Simmons have been great, but they aren’t KD, Kyrie and Harden. The same goes for Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert — a healthy duo of LeBron and AD are on a different level.
McMenamin: Nets and Lakers make it. Only because the Nets are that much better than the rest of the field in the East. Harden, Irving and Durant have played only seven games together this season, but Brooklyn’s collection of talent top to bottom far exceeds the rest of the league — and it’s not particularly close. So with Brooklyn a shoo-in, the Lakers just have to hold serve. And if they are healthy, they have a great shot.
5. Fact or fiction: Lakers-Nets is the most fun Finals matchup.
Bontemps: Fiction. Lakers-Nets would easily feature the most star power of any matchup. But I would happily sign up for any combination of the eight teams — Nets, Bucks and Sixers in the East and the Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Lakers and Nuggets in the West — that I believe can reach the NBA Finals. All of them have compelling storylines, star players, and play fun, diverse brands of basketball. I can’t wait to see how it shakes out.
MacMahon: Fact. LeBron and the defending champs vs. the league’s latest super team would make for great theater. You could make the argument for the 76ers over the Nets based on Embiid’s joyful personality — a stark contrast to the Brooklyn trio — but the Nets just have so much starpower.
Snellings: Fiction. I most want to see LeBron face up against his successor at the top of the league, which I believe to be Giannis. This is the rare chance for the best of one generation to go heads-up against the best of the next, both at or near the peaks of their powers. Both teams are strong in the traditional sense, from the inside-out with excellent defenses, but both also take full advantage of the 3-point shot. Plus, you’d also get lieutenants who were former teammates — Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday — a secondary storyline.
Friedell: Fact. KD vs. LeBron in the Finals again? Kyrie facing off against the man he won a title with in Cleveland? Anthony Davis and James Harden fighting to improve the respective legacies — sign me up for all of that.
McMenamin: The NCAA tournament has reminded us the most fun in basketball comes from upsets and seeing the joy of young players finding out they’re capable of more than they even realized. So, the most fun matchup would be something like Mavericks vs. Knicks. (The league office would have a lot of fun with that, too, seeing one of its most marketable stars in Luka Doncic going against the sleeping giant of the Knicks’ fanbase.) So, I’ll pick another adjective for Lakers-Nets: enthralling. LeBron vs. Kyrie five years after they teamed to take down the Warriors? KD with a chance to go 3-0 in the Finals vs. LeBron? A potential fifth ring for LeBron to tie him with Kobe, Magic and Duncan? Harden looking to validate his career with his first championship? It would be wild.