On the heels of a whirlwind season in the NBA, the playoffs tip off this weekend. By all accounts, this should be one of the most competitive and compelling postseasons in NBA history, especially in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. With the eight playoff teams separated by just seven games in the final standings, there is no such thing as a serious series upset in the West à la Golden State over Dallas last year. Any of the eight teams could make a run to the championship. The question is, who will they be dancing with at the end
Things are a lot less congested in the East where anything other than a Boston-Detroit matchup in the Conference Finals would be very surprising. All indicators point to the Finals beginning in either Boston or Detroit. But since the 2008 NBA Finals pairing won’t be known for nearly two months, all 16 teams can spend the next couple days dreaming of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
There are plenty of fine Finals couplings to pine for – matchups that would make the Finals must-see TV because of intriguing storylines on and off the court. Since one wants to go to prom alone, I’ve decided to pay homage to prom season by playing the role of NBA matchmaker, pairing each of the 16 playoff teams with their hottest date for the Finals – yes, even the Hawks.
Without further ado, here’s a countdown of the top 8 NBA pairings I’d like to see in the Finals.
Top Finals Couple #8: Toronto Raptors vs. Houston Rockets
The relationship: The first international NBA Finals just wouldn’t be the same with Houston’s former number one pick Yao Ming out of the lineup, but the Raptors have six foreigners on their squad, including last year’s number one pick Andrea Bargnani. Toronto was also the first NBA home of Rockets star Tracy McGrady before he left as a free agent. Raptors star forward Chris Bosh was born in Texas and point guard T.J. Ford played his college ball at Texas.
Prom king candidates: Bosh for Toronto; McGrady and Shane Battier for Houston.
Drama factor: Low. The north-of-the-border effect hurts here as most casual fans simply don’t know much about the Raptors. And without Yao, the Rockets’ red glow is a lot less bright.
Chances they’ll actually date (in the Finals): None. Unless Yao finds a miracle cure to return for the playoffs. And even that wouldn’t help the Raptors get there.
Top Finals Couple #7: Atlanta Hawks vs. New Orleans Hornets
The relationship: You may have heard about this already, but the Hawks could have drafted Chris Paul in the 2005 NBA Draft. They elected to go with Marvin Williams instead. Williams had his best season this year, averaging nearly 15 points and 6 boards. The problem is that Paul led the league in assists and steals while scoring 21 per game and leading the Hornets to a franchise-record 56 wins.
Prom king candidates: Al Horford, Joe Johnson for Atlanta; Chris Paul, David West for New Orleans
Drama factor: Moderate. Most would take the Hornets in no more than five games. The drama would be coming from watching Hawks fans watch CP3 terrorize them all series long.
Chances they’ll actually date (in the Finals): Very slim. The Hornets could make a magical run, but the Hawks are happy just to be in the playoffs. If they win a game in the first round, they’ll be overachieving.
Top Finals Date #6: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Denver Nuggets
The relationship: Denver and Philadelphia made the blockbuster trade of last season when Allen Iverson, who led the Sixers to the 2001 Eastern Conference Championship, was shipped to Denver in exchange for Andre Miller. Iverson received a warm reception in the City of Brotherly Love when he made his return as a Nugget in March, but Philly won the game 115-113 when Iverson’s last-second shot missed. Neither team has seen its fortunes greatly affected positively or negatively since the trade. If this matchup were to happen, it would be the ultimate measuring stick of that deal.
Prom king candidates: Miller and Andre Iguodala for Philadelphia; Iverson and Carmelo Anthony for Denver.
Drama factor: Moderate. The Iverson storyline would certainly carry the series as would Anthony’s ability to get join ’03 draft mates LeBron James and Dwayne Wade with a Finals appearance. The Sixers have no household names, however, they would be an ultimate Cinderella story.
Chances they’ll actually date (in the Finals): None. There’s a better chance of Rocky scaling the Rocky Mountains.
Top Finals Couple #5: Washington Wizards vs. Dallas Mavericks
The relationship: There’s something about the nation’s capital and Big D that just doesn’t seem to jive. Perhaps it’s the historic Redskins-Cowboys rivalry in the NFL or George W. Bush relocating from the Lone Star State. There’s also the Antawn Jamison-Jerry Stackhouse trade from a few years back. But the real intrigue here comes from the blogosphere where Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas surely would exchange a war of words. They are two of the most colorful characters in the game today, and who knows what kind of antics they’d stir up with the spotlight of the NBA Finals upon them.
Prom king candidates: Reigning MVP Dirk Nowitski, Josh Howard and Jason Kidd for Dallas; Jamison, Arenas and Caron Butler.
Drama factor: Medium-high. Plenty of big name players looking to win their first NBA title in this matchup.
Chances they’ll actually date (in the Finals): Slim. Both teams have the talent of a potential Finals combatant, however, they face difficult roads to get there and both would have to likely win three series on the road to do so.
Top Finals Couple #4: San Antonio Spurs vs. Detroit Pistons
The relationship: The Spurs and Pistons have been the dominant teams of the decade. The Spurs have more to show for it: three titles to Detroit’s one, but the Pistons have been a model of consistency with five straight trips to the conference finals. They met in the 2003 Finals with the Spurs winning in seven games.
Prom king candidates: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker for San Antonio; Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace for Detroit.
Drama factor: Medium. No seriously, medium. People complain about their style of play, but a true basketball fan knows that both the Spurs and Pistons play the right way – balanced attack on offense and solid, lockdown defense.
Chances they’ll actually date (in the Finals): Pretty good. No one would be shocked to see either team in the championship again. Both have great veteran leadership and championship experience.
Top Finals Couple #3: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Utah Jazz
The relationship: Bill Simmons of ESPN.com: “This saga becomes more astounding over time: Inexplicably (the version in which you believe Cleveland would just walk away from an option year worth $700,000 and allow Boozer to become a restricted free agent for no good reason) or explicably (the version in which you believe the Cavs made an illegal handshake deal to “forgo” Boozer’s option year, allow him to become a restricted free agent, then sign him to a $41 million deal), the one thing we know is Boozer used his newfound leverage to sign a six-year deal with Utah for $68 million and screw over Cleveland’s benevolent, blind owner in the process.”
Prom king candidates: LeBron James for Cleveland; Boozer, Deron Williams for Utah.
Drama factor: High. LeBron making a return trip to the Finals with a new cast of characters around him would be big. Doing it with his former sidekick-turned-all-star Boozer on the opposing team would be scintillating. With Boozer, the Cavs very well may have knocked off San Antonio last year. Without him, LeBron is a one-man wrecking crew.
Chances they’ll actually date (in the Finals): Fair. Each team is the four seed in its respective conference so they’re in contention, but they’ll need to catch some breaks to get there.
Top Finals Couple #2: Orlando Magic vs. Phoenix Suns
The relationship: The Shaquille O’Neal era in Orlando ended in a nasty divorce, and now he’s in Phoenix vowing to lead them to a championship. The Magic was the only team Shaq left without winning a championship, and he’s won four titles since departing. Phoenix also features Grant Hill, who played less than 30 games four times during six injury-plagued seasons in Orlando. Needless to say, Orlando has some beef with two of the Suns’ key cogs. The Magic’s new superhero? Dwight Howard, the cape-wearing dunk champion who many compare to a young Shaq. Wouldn’t it be great to see the most dominant center of the past decade square off against the man who may be the most dominant center of the next decade?
Prom king candidates: Howard, Hedo Turkoglu for Orlando; O’Neal, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire for Phoenix.
Drama factor: High. The Suns have come so close in recent years without making it to the Finals. If O’Neal can get them to the promised land, watching Nash and company go for the ring would be exciting to watch.
Chances they’ll actually date (in the Finals): Fair. Orlando has received next-to-no publicity for a 52-win season. If Howard can make the leap the way LeBron did in last years playoffs, who knows what Orlando is capable of. For Phoenix, it’s all or nothing. The Shaq trade was made for postseason – particularly championship – success. Anything less is a disappointment for the Suns. With their playoff experience only aided by O’Neal’s championship pedigree, they are a legitimate contender to win it all.
Top Finals Couple #1: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
The relationship: This one dates back generations. Jerry West and Bill Russell. Magic and Bird. Could Kobe and KG be next? Bryant and Garnett are among the top candidates for MVP and it’d be great to see their teams meet on the ultimate stage. Last season the Celtics were a joke and the Lakers were smoked out in the first round. This year? Best in the East and best in the West just like the good ol’ days. They’ve met in the Finals 10 times before but not since 1987.
Prom king candidates: Bryant, Pau Gasol for Los Angeles; Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen for Boston.
Drama factor: Ultimate. Because of the history between these two storied franchises, this is the ultimate matchup in the NBA. It should come as no surprise that the league’s resurgence this season has happened in a year when the Celtics and Lakers were at or near the top of the standings all year long.
Chances they’ll actually date (in the Finals): Good. Nothing is taken for granted, but with home court advantage, Boston and L.A. are favored to win their conference and make it to the championship. The uncertainty comes from the fact that neither team ahs won a playoff series as presently constructed. But if they both make it there together, it’ll be a fantastic spectacle and a hotly contested series. And the best part about it? Prom is only one night, but this series is likely seven nights of excitement.
For more information, visit MattHubert.com.