4 sleeper contenders for the post-Bubble NBA title
It was all supposed to be so easy. After last year’s triumphant coronation in the quarantine bubble, the Los Angeles Lakers were primed to take advantage of the ever-stretching window of LeBron James’ prime, and his pairing with fellow superstar Anthony Davis, for at least one more title. And then injuries — the biggest story of the 2020–2021 NBA season, which wrapped up earlier this week — decimated the Lakers, shunting them from the top seed in the Western Conference to the league’s new play-in tournament.
This entire NBA season has felt like an extended hangover from the miraculous success of the quarantine bubble. Teams (with the exception of the Toronto Raptors, still stranded in Florida) have returned to their home arenas, playing before skimpy crowds. Star players like James, Davis, Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Donovan Mitchell have missed significant playing time this season, with some stars unavailable for the start of the playoffs.
Placing my unabashed Lakers homerism temporarily to the side, the playoffs offer a path to trumphant redemption for a number of teams who might have expected their path to the title to be blocked by James and Davis. The Lakers may still win another title, but with their steep climb, there is more room now for some of their rivals. With the Lakers in abeyance, many NBA pundits have crowned the Brooklyn Nets the likely champs, but James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving have hardly played together as a unit this season, and the playoffs are a tough time to begin distributing shots and compiling lineups.
My eye has strayed to a handful of other teams who intrigue me as slow-burn championship contenders.
I am intrigued, for one, by the Denver Nuggets, whose slow-moving center Nikola Jokic is unlikely to ever be featured leaping over a Kia. Jokic, who appears to have eyes inside his fingertips, and a preternatural ability to fling passes to teammates in a fashion that appears to bypass the laws of physics, will also likely be the NBA’s well-deserved MVP this year. Jokic will unfortunately have to face the playoff scrum without his teammate Murray, who was the breakout star of last season’s playoffs, but Michael Porter Jr., who appears to have gotten Jokic’s portion of…