When the playoffs return every team that descends upon Disney World will be playing for the same thing...
The Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
But just because the same trophy is up for grabs doesn't mean each individual with some skin in the game is on the same mission. For the biggest names in the game, everyone is playing for something different.
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Basketball players aren't created in a lab just how resumes, reputations and perceptions aren't viewed in a vacuum. A championship isn't just a championship. How we remember winners and losers depends on the unique circumstances surrounding each character in question.
And so with basketball seemingly just around the corner (insert knock on wood), here's a closer look at what's at stake.
As long as he's still lacing it up, it's LeBron and then everyone else.
That's the pecking order.
And when it comes down to the here and the now, "pecking order" might be the two most important words given how the last 12 months have played out.
For the first time since dinosaurs were roaming the earth, the NBA actually played a postseason without James last summer. In retrospect, it's no surprise that Raptors came out on top in a variation of the playoffs we haven't seen since the Mesozoic Era.
In terms of how the league took shape in the months to follow, the LeBron-sized void created a Black Hole the likes of which we haven't seen in quite some time.
Kawhi Leonard grabbed the mantle as the league's best player, but did so only after an injury sidelined Kevin Durant for all but 12 minutes of the championship series. Through certainly no fault of Leonard's, he took the unofficial crown without needing to go through either LeBron or KD who accounted for the three previous Finals MVPs.
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After everyone - rightfully so - fawned over Leonard, it was then Giannis Antetokounmpo's turn as the Greek Freak delivered a regular season for the ages en route to what will almost certainly be a second straight MVP.
So for 12 months, James sat idly by and watched while the two of them made a run at the throne. What could be more satisfying than going through both of them to restore order and assume his rightful spot at the top of the pecking order? In the moment, nothing.
Zooming out, there's of course more at stake for LeBron's legacy.
Only three players in NBA history have made it to 10 Finals.
Bill Russell (12) and Sam Jones (11) pulled it off in an era in which they mostly only needed to win one series to get there and half of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 10 trips came prior to the NBA moving to a 16-team format. Should James reach a 10th Finals, he will have needed to win 30 playoff series to get there, a longer and tougher gauntlet faced by any of the three previous legends.
A championship would make James the 38th player in league history with four rings and should he win a fourth Finals MVP, he'd rank second behind only Michael Jordan.
His historic stature stands so splendid that I'm not sure a championship changes it all that much, which is why how James is perceived in the present day pecking order might ultimately mean more.
To end his 17th season as the last man standing and title as best player of the game? Now that's history unmatched by any player that's stepped foot on an NBA court.
He's going to win a second straight MVP. Could he be out of the running for a third straight before next season even begins?
While LeBron was starting to break through in the eyes of some prior to the suspension of the regular season, it's all but certain that the Greek Freak will take home the hardware.
It's tough to oversell his dominance.
- 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game
- 34.5 points per 36 minutes, the third-highest in a single season in NBA history
- Arguably the best defensive player in the league
- On the team with the NBA's best record
This should be his league with almost no questions asked.
And yet... it's not. At least not yet.
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It would be absurd to suggest that the clock is ticking with regards to Antetokounmpo, who is still just 25 years old. But this is his seventh season, which just so happens to be the exact same number that James played in Cleveland before leaving to join the Miami Heat. If the greatest Buck since Kareem becomes a free agent after next season, he will have already played more seasons in Milwaukee than James did during his first stint in Cleveland.
Like it or not, the clock is ticking and for every day that goes by without a ring on his finger, the chorus and rampant speculation will only continue to grow louder.
If the Bucks fall short, it's tough to imagine a third straight MVP next season regardless of what happens. Three players in NBA history have won three straight MVP awards: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. All three of them won a title during those first two years and although it's a regular season award, it's one voted on by humans who will have a tough time looking beyond postseason success.
Antetokounmpo has reached that level reserved for only the top 0.1 percent of players and it's a level that comes with unreasonably high expectations.
Two titles in two years with two different teams would be quite the accomplishment for Leonard.
Throw in a Finals MVP with the Spurs, and Leonard - like James - can become the first player in NBA history to win three Finals MVP awards with three different teams.
While it's a feat that James is likewise going for, it's one that falls more in line with Leonard's overall trajectory following his lone season spent in Toronto. As it stands, Robert Horry and John Salley are the only two players to win a championship with three teams and safe to say, neither of them operate on the same plane as either Kawhi or LeBron.
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There's also somewhat of a pecking order issue at stake for Leonard as well. Although he emerged from last summer as the holder of the unofficial "best player" belt, he never really entered the MVP fray alongside Antetounmpo and James despite thriving with the Clippers in what's been statistically the best season of his career, establishing career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game.
If Leonard leads the Clippers to a title in Year 1, will there be any doubt whatsoever about his place in today's game? What about his place in the larger context of the sport itself?
Leonard may never win an MVP award, a casualty of load management but a casualty that nonetheless will impact the manner in which he's discussed among the legends of the game once all is said and done. If Leonard is going to enter those conversations someday, it will be based largely on his own mythology of a top-shelf player concerned first and foremost with winning when it matters the most.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook
These two are attached at the hip, though perhaps not for reasons you might think.
For Harden, it's ring or bust.
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Coming off a second consecutive historic season as a scorer, Harden has built a statistical resume that rivals the greatest shooting guards in the history of the game. It's a list that starts with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant before descending into a tier with Jerry West and Dwyane Wade, among others. Harden should be in that camp save for the one thing missing: a championship.
That he's been either unceremoniously bounced or come up short when presented with several golden opportunities will always stand out as long as he remains ringless. Even some of the greats to never win big - Charles Barkley and Karl Malone come to mind - reached the Finals as the guy.
No matter how many scoring titles or top-five MVP finishes he racks up, the conversation about Harden won't break through the glass ceiling if he doesn't first break through himself. For Harden to join the discussions that he should be a part of, he needs that hardware.
For Westbrook, it's about proving that his way works.
In three years without Kevin Durant by his side, Westbrook has not only bowed out in the first round but done so while simply not playing very well. Westbrook isn't teetering on the brink of those conversations that Harden is, so while I'm not sure he's in range of championship or bust, it would be nice to see an extended run without Durant.
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Allen Iverson proved he could reach an NBA Finals playing his way. And outside of that magical run in 2001, he advanced out of the first round three other times. I view Westbrook in similar fashion, a statistical marvel that runs at one speed and one speed only. Moreso than perhaps anyone else on this list, Westbrook could benefit greatly from a non-championship run in which he stands out.
No... the Golden State Warriors will not be among the teams vying for the title in Orlando. But that doesn't mean nothing is at stake for Curry.
As it stands in this moment - June 2020 - Curry stands incontrovertibly as the greatest guard of his era. We can debate where he fits among James, Durant and Leonard, but there's zero argument when it comes to the backcourt. That's the equity purchased with two MVPs and three championships, even if he failed to bring home a Finals MVP.
But what happens if Harden comes out on top? If Houston is the last team standing then suddenly there's a case to be made for Harden, who entered the NBA alongside Curry in the 2009 draft. I'd still lean Curry especially given their head-to-head playoff history, but it's no longer an unassailable position.
You know those "here's $15 dollars, build a perfect team" lists?
Jokic is never a five-dollar player.
You know that phone call with the league's best players about resuming the season?
Jokic wasn't on it.
No matter if he makes All-NBA First Team or even finishes in the top-four of MVP voting again, Jokic won't occupy that space reserved for the elite of the elite among casual fans or even current players until the Nuggets are taken more seriously. The math nerds (I'm one of them!) can scream all they want about advanced metrics and high IQ and passing and touches and underrated defence, but the fact of the matter is that Jokic just isn't a part of that group... even if he already should be based upon his absurd play from last year's playoffs.
Run through recent title teams and they're all built around perimeter stars. No Finals team has featured a big as a No. 1 option since Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks in 2011. And before you mention Tim Duncan, just know that Tony Parker finished either ahead of or tied with him in MVP voting in both 2013 and 2014.
Can Jokic buck that trend and prove that even in 2020 it's still possible to build from the inside-out? We'll see. Just know that depending on if and how the Nuggets fall short, there will be chatter about how Denver will only go as far as Michael Porter Jr.'s development takes it.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
Outside of Toronto, is there a team more impacted by Leonard's four-bounce dagger than the 76ers?
Had that shot not dropped, perhaps we'd be talking about how Embiid and Simmons are knocking on the door of becoming one of the greatest young duos ever to win back-to-back titles. Perhaps we'd be talking about how Embiid and Simmons are next in line beside Kareem and Magic or Shaq and Kobe.
Far from it.
Instead, we're asking about whether they will ever win together. We're asking about the fit of the puzzle and whether the Sixers need to trade one of them to reach their full potential. We're asking about whether Embiid will ever physically dominate the way that Shaq did and whether Simmons will ever learn to shoot.
Beyond any stat, perhaps this is the most important: 49.
That's the combined age of Embiid (26) and Simmons (23), which also happens to be the exact same combined age of Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway on the day that O'Neal joined the Lakers in the summer of 1996. (Totally random side note that I never knew until this moment: O'Neal signed with the Lakers on July 18, 1996, which just so happened to be Hardaway's 25th birthday).
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If the Sixers don't win and they eventually decide to give up on this duo, I wonder if in 20 years we'll look back and wonder "what if" about their time together, much in the same way we think about those mid 90s Magic teams with Shaq and Penny.
Don't make the mistake of treating Doncic like any other young star making his postseason debut.
He may be 21. He may be a second-year player. And the NBA may be different from Europe.
But this is a former EuroLeague Final Four MVP and three-time Spanish league champion in the ACB. A couple of playoff games at Disney World (or anywhere for that matter) won't cause a spike in Doncic's heartbeat as he's time and again proven beyond capable of delivering in the biggest moments when the stakes are at their highest.
The Mavericks might be flying further under the radar than any other of the eventual 16 playoff teams. Did you realize that they currently have the number one offense in NBA history? That should frighten anyone who has the misfortune of drawing Doncic's Dallas team that's capable of trading buckets with absolutely anyone.
This postseason provides Doncic with the opportunity to join the rank and file of the cream of the crop. He's an MVP contender every year moving forward regardless of what happens in July and August. Depending on how much damage he does, he might enter next season as the favourite.
We'll keep this one quick.
Let's just say that Davis has never had playoff expectations anywhere remotely close to what he's certain to face this time around.
It's akin to the type of pressure felt by Chris Bosh in that first season with the Heat.
I'm of the belief that the pressure won't really reach combustible levels until next season if the Lakers don't win it all now. Just like Bosh faced questions after the Heat got bounced by the Mavericks in 2011, which led to season-long speculation that lasted until after the 2012 Finals, anything short of a title could result in similar conversations about AD.
The Toronto Raptors
They are the defending champs and thus, they deserve some shine. Let's just run through a few quick hitter style:
- Pascal Siakam: can he be the best player on a true contender? We're about to find out.
- Kyle Lowry: he's good. Not sure how the conversation changes with Lowry no matter what.
- Nick Nurse: one of the league's best coaches can vault into another category with a spirited run.
- Marc Gasol: depending on how he holds up against the Embiids of the world, Gasol becomes an even more interesting free agent target despite the advanced age.
- Fred VanVleet: would a dramatic showing - positive or negative - dramatically alter his incoming payday?
Seriously though, it's all gravy at this point for Canada's finest.
The best of the rest
We could honestly keep going into perpetuity, but for brevity's sake, let's roll through several more with something at stake, but to a lesser degree.
Chris Paul: He's had a marvelous season and one which should earn him an All-NBA nod (whether he actually gets it or not is a separate conversation). If Paul stays healthy for the entirety of OKC's run - no matter how long that may be - could they try to parlay CP3's renaissance into yet another haul of assets for a team looking to swing big? Paul is 35 years old and on the books for $85M over the next two seasons.
Damian Lillard: If Portland ranked among the current top eight then Lillard would warrant a longer look. We can have that conversation if he gets there but the combination of a Conference Finals run in 2019 along with muted expectations for 2020 means there's really not much added to the talking head narratives regarding Lillard.
Jayson Tatum: The future shines immensely bright no matter what happens. But could Tatum emerge from the 2020 playoffs as a legitimate MVP candidate for 2021 if he balls out and propels Boston to a deep run? There are different layers of stardom and Tatum's in position to vault into a different stratosphere.
Jimmy Butler: For a player who carries himself in the manner in which he does, particularly when it comes to winning, you'd think Butler would have a long history of deep playoff runs. Well... he's never made it past the second round. This Heat team doesn't carry lofty expectations, but a one-and-done wouldn't look good for Butler's prospects as a bonafide No. 1 option.
Kevin Durant: He likely won't play. But... and it's a massive BUT... if he does, Durant gets the proverbial free roll. I suppose he could come back and the Nets could drop out of the playoffs, but assuming they're safe, he could play with zero expectations in a year that's as wide open as ever. I'm all in for a "Kevin Durant returns and immediately transforms the Nets into a contender" subplot.
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Kyrie Irving: What if Durant returns, Irving doesn't and the Nets make an extended run? Not necessarily title... but win a round or even two. What might that say about Irving's future in Brooklyn? Look, I get it and that's rampant speculation. But the cacophony would be unavoidable under those circumstances.
Zion Williamson: The Pelicans might not catch the Grizzlies and make it into the playoffs. And there's only so much at stake for a 19-year-old with a seemingly limitless future. But Zion already carries a Zeus-like presence and a standout postseason performance as a rookie would send forth quite the message to the other 29 teams.
Ja Morant: It's disrespectful to mention Williamson and not Morant, the Rookie of the Year frontrunner and the best player on the team AHEAD of Williamson's Pelicans. The explosive point guard doesn't back down from anyone and should Memphis draw the Lakers in the first round, he'd have a chance for a four-game spotlight to capture the imagination of fans who haven't tuned into Grizzlies games this season.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.