There are 16 possible matchups for the 2012 NBA Finals. LeBron James figures heavily in the best ones. But will his Heat make it?
The NBA playoffs are reaching their midway point, with semifinal series on either side heading to potentially decisive games this weekend. And so, it is time for us to figure out which NBA Finals matchups would be good -- and which ones would involve the Sixers.
LeBron James and the Heat, as the most entertaining team from the East, get a number of lofty placements because of their relative value compared to the rest of the conference, while the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant, the playoffs' most entertaining team so far, dominate the upper rungs when given good teams to play. Will we get the LeBron-KD and Heat-Thunder matchup NBA fans have salivated over all season? Or. will we be stuck with the Pacers playing the Clippers?
No. 16: 76ers vs. Clippers
Overview: The only No. 8 seed remaining in the playoffs rides Andre Iguodala to the Finals, somehow, and meets a Clippers team that Chris Paul has willed to the promised land with an assist from Blake Griffin. If this seems unlikely, it is.
Most compelling matchup: There's not a lot that Philadelphia can do on offense. Period. Ever. But the Sixers have lots of young, athletic players and could present the sort of puzzle that Paul sometimes delights in solving.
Most compelling storyline: Remember when Elton Brand told the Clippers he was going to re-sign with them and allow them to also add Baron Davis in the summer of 2008? I bet the Clippers do! And that is this series' most interesting plot: will the Sixers' fourth or fifth option be booed in Los Angeles?
This series would be awful.
Likelihood of occurrence: You have a better chance of picking the next 50 Kentucky Derby winners right now.
Series predictions: Everyone dies of boredom unless Iguodala and Griffin decide to have a dunk contest midway through Game 2, or Nick Young wins the Finals MVP, or both. And Clippers in six.
No. 15: 76ers vs. Spurs
Overview: The only No. 8 vs. No. 1 matchup available.
Most compelling matchup: Super sub Lou Williams against super sub Manu Ginobili.
Likelihood of occurrence: One of these teams could very well make the Finals. The other is the Sixers.
Series prediction: San Antonio in four.
No. 14: 76ers vs. Lakers
Overview: Remember when Allen Iverson led a Sixers team that couldn't score to the Finals against a Lakers team with gobs more talent? This is like that, except Iverson is not on this Sixers team. Viva Lou Williams?
Most compelling matchup: Iguodala is both one of the NBA's finest perimeter defenders and an underrated star. Iguodala manning up against Kobe Bryant for a full series would allow one of the best one-on-one matchups possible to happen.
Most compelling storyline: Kobe's from Philly, which you may hear a few (dozen) times in the run-up to this hypothetical series, but I really just want to see A.I. stepping over Tyronn Lue and taking his soul a dozen times.
Likelihood of occurrence: No.
Series predictions: Lakers in five. Kobe goes off. Andrew Bynum does something like step over Elton Brand.
No. 13: Pacers vs. Clippers
Overview: Two teams with inferiority complexes of different sizes (the Pacers' is smaller, and about the Indiana Hoosiers; the Clippers' involves that other team that plays at the Staples Center) meet, and one gets its first NBA title.
Most compelling matchup: Indiana's front line of Roy Hibbert and David West against DeAndre Jordan and Griffin is what you want to see if you like seeing how the low post should and should not be played in Gallant and Goofus fashion.
Most compelling storyline: In the year in which the New Orleans Hornets become a ward of the NBA's state, the two best players that franchise ever had in the Crescent City, Paul and West, would play for a title. Approximately 13 people in New Orleans would watch this Finals, but David Simon might write it into Treme.
Likelihood of occurrence: The Pacers would have run through the Orlando Magic, Heat and probably the Celtics; the Clippers would have beaten the Memphis Grizzlies, Spurs, and either quieted the Thunder or topped the Lakers in the most seismic series in Los Angeles sports history. Call the chances of this one slim.
Series prediction: Pacers in six, and a surprisingly lively series.
No. 12: 76ers vs. Thunder
Overview: The worst team left in the East takes on the West's rising juggernaut.
Most compelling matchup: Iguodala on James Harden, who might be the NBA's least desirable matchup on the perimeter right now; Harden goes hard at the rim a lot (just more than half of his field goal attempts in the playoffs have been at the rim) and smartly, which is not something that a lot of the NBA's stars still do.
Most compelling storyline: The Thunder might have a chance of winning their first NBA title in Oklahoma City with a sweep?
Likelihood of occurrence: This is the last time I have to pretend the Sixers are making the Finals, right? Whew.
Series prediction: Thunder in a sweep, and possibly terrible basketball, considering that the teams' only meeting this year was a rock fight.
No. 11: Celtics vs. Clippers
Overview: The last ride for Boston must go through the upstart Clips.
Most compelling matchup: Garnett knows just about everything about low post play, and especially low post defense; Griffin sometimes forgets the low post exists. The Paul-Rajon Rondo undercard is stellar, too.
Most compelling storyline: Bill Simmons will go to every game, and if the Clippers beat his Celtics for an NBA title, he may write a 56,000-word blog post.
Likelihood of occurrence: While the Celtics' road to this might include the Hawks, Sixers and Pacers, the Clippers' path to the Finals may as well be wading the River Styx ... while it's on fire. No matchup involving the Clippers is likely.
Series prediction: Celtics in five. Simmons' post about seeing them win in his new hometown only reaches 14,000 words.
No. 10: Pacers vs. Spurs
Overview: The first of the matchups I can plausibly call potentially great matches the East's most balanced team with the West's most balanced team.
Most compelling matchup: Massive talent Roy Hibbert vs. aging wizard Tim Duncan will do.
Most compelling storyline: Two former ABA teams meeting in the Finals for just the second time (Spurs-Nets, 2003) is cool, but it's all about figuring out whether the Spurs or Pacers won the George Hill trade.
Likelihood of occurrence: It looks a lot better after Thursday night's blowout in Indiana, certainly, but the Pacers are still no more than the third-most likely finalist from the East.
Series prediction: Spurs in six. The Pacers have enough length everywhere on the court to be troubling to any team on defense, especially if they go to Hill instead of Darren Collison on Parker, but San Antonio's just better.
No. 9: Pacers vs. Lakers
Overview: The East's surprise finalist comes for revenge for 2000 against the West's most-crowned champ.
Most compelling matchup: Kobe against Paul George and Danny Granger is good if you like seeing Kobe struggle before eventually solving a defender, but the Hibbert vs. Bynum/Pau Gasol matchup should get top billing, especially if Hibbert keeps improving as he has in these playoffs.
Likelihood of occurrence: Somewhat plausible, if the Lakers can right the ship against the Thunder and figure out a way to beat the Spurs.
Series prediction: Lakers in seven. Bynum is the Finals MVP. Just trust me.
No. 8: Pacers vs. Thunder
Overview: Young teams from great hoops atmospheres in the Midwest square off.
Most compelling matchup: The Pacers have decent point guards, in Collison and Hill, but nothing remotely like Russell Westbrook. And Derrick Rose, perhaps the most similar player to Westbrook, eviscerated the Pacers in the 2011 playoffs, averaging 27.6 points per game in a five-game sweep by the Bulls.
Most compelling storyline:
White people The Pacers have the sort of thick-or-thin, generational fan base that most teams want, even if they're not always the top team in most Hoosiers' minds; the Thunder are that and then some in Oklahoma City. You want passion? This is your series. (You want large TV markets? Sorry.)
Likelihood of occurrence: Thunder-Spurs is sort of a coin flip, but the Pacers still need to get by Miami, and probably Boston.
Series prediction: Thunder in six. Pacers don't win on the road.
No. 7: Celtics vs. Spurs
Overview: The elder statesmen of the East meet the elder statesmen of the West (and their new crew of youngsters).
Most compelling matchup: Kevin Garnett against Tim Duncan with an NBA title on the line, despite both players being a few seasons past their prime, is an awesome thing to be cherished.
Most compelling storyline: We don't often see lions in winter play each other, but that's not even the most interesting thing about this Finals; it's Gregg Popovich against Doc Rivers, maybe the NBA's two most unappreciated (and best) coaches finally meeting.
Likelihood of occurrence: Darn good. The Spurs still seem like co-favorites in the West, and the Celtics are probably the East's most solid team right now.
Series prediction: A seven-game classic that finally gets both teams their due ... and gives Duncan/Popovich their fifth title.
No. 6: Heat vs. Clippers
Overview: A team built by players who decided to team up versus a team built by David Stern, sort of. Recommended for haters, nihilists and people who love to whine about flopping.
Most compelling matchup: Chris Paul is the second-best player in this hypothetical series, and it's rare there's a player on the court better than Dwyane Wade when the Heat play. But is Paul enough to lift L.A.? And will Blake Griffin have a field day against Miami's front line?
Most compelling storyline: A nation trying desperately to find a way not to root for the Heat ends up rooting for Donald Sterling, one of the worst people in sports. Congrats, fans: your blinding hatred for LeBron is silly!
Likelihood of occurrence: It's not happening. The Clippers have too much to overcome.
Series prediction: Heat in six, but not without at least one fourth quarter meltdown.
No. 5: Heat vs. Spurs
Overview: LeBron's third chance at a title comes against another Texas titan, this time the same one that swept his Cavs in 2007.
Most compelling matchup: Who guards LeBron? Mike Prada and I had that discussion a while back. Close second: do the Heat have anyone up front who can deal with Duncan?
Most compelling storyline: The old Spurs, with the original Big Three — and what used to be Duncan, Ginobili, Parker has become Parker, Ginobili, Duncan — making what could be a last stand against the new Big Three? Yes, you and I will watch this series.
Likelihood of occurrence: It's fairly likely that the East's favorite and top remaining seed, even if diminished, makes it to the Finals against the West's top remaining seed.
Series prediction: Spurs in seven, despite the Heat fighting back from being 3-1 down.
No. 4: Celtics vs. Lakers
Overview: Two teams that have no history whatsoever together and look to have extremely bright near futures thanks to their staggering stockpiles of young talent meet. All of the words in that previous sentence were lies except "two teams" and "meet."
Most compelling matchup: Kevin Garnett against the Lakers' front line. It didn't work out so well for the Celtics in 2010 when Kendrick Perkins went out, and the Lakers' frontcourt has gotten better since then, while the C's don't even have Rasheed Wallace to roll out anymore.
Most compelling storyline: Definitely not that snoozer that entails Kobe having the chance to win his sixth title and tie Michael Jordan by vanquishing the Celtics in the NBA Finals for a second time and matching Magic Johnson's Lakers for Finals wins over Boston. Go with Mike Brown coaching against Doc Ri ... nah, I can't even type that.
Likelihood of occurrence: The Celtics may count as co-favorites in the East with the muddling Heat and suddenly hot Pacers, but the Lakers need a few miracles in the West.
Series prediction: Seven games. Boston wins Game 7 in L.A. this time.
No. 3: Celtics vs. Thunder
Overview: In the mirror image of the No. 2 matchup in these rankings, the young lions of the West take on the lions in winter from the East, and two of the NBA's finest point guards face off.
Most compelling matchup: Though it's tempting to compare Paul Pierce and Durant (the evolutionary Pierce, with all the shot-making skills and a few extra dollops of size and athleticism), the Rondo vs. Westbrook clash at the point wins out, with Rondo's shot-averse, play-making game contrasting nicely with Westbrook's ... Russness.
Most compelling storyline: Perkins facing his old team with a chance to win the title is better than the young vs. old storyline and the chance that Serge Ibaka takes a huge step toward being a low-rent Garnett, because >:-|.
Likelihood of occurrence: The Celtics almost look like co-favorites in the East, and the Spurs and Thunder may be 1a and 1b in the West, so the chances of this series transpiring are fairly good.
Series prediction: Thunder in six, including one game in which Rondo and Westbrook both record triple-doubles.
No. 2: Heat vs. Lakers
Overview: LeBron and Kobe match up to settle a million message board, blog and Twitter conversations. And some other players on both teams play against each other, too.
Most compelling matchup: LeBron on Kobe on defense. Bryant masks the fact that he is older and slower than he has been well against the average NBA defender with his arsenal of savvy moves, but James is orders of magnitude better than the average NBA defender. The Heat would need him to be, too, against the Lakers, as their underwhelming frontcourt would have serious problems handling Bynum and Gasol in a seven-game series.
Most compelling storyline: It's not LeBron going for his first title while Kobe tries to tie Michael Jordan; it's the fact that this would probably be the only playoff series we ever get that pits James and Bryant against each other, with the Lakers aging as the Thunder ascend.
Likelihood of occurrence: Not great. L.A. has a ton of work to do just to get past the Thunder, and the Spurs' dominance of them late in the season doesn't bode well.
Series prediction: LeBron takes over in the fourth quarter of Game 7 to win his first title. Skip Bayless retires.
No. 1: Heat vs. Thunder
Overview: The series that matches the best team in the East against the best team in the West, and maybe the playoffs, also has more wattage than any other, and is the one that NBA fans have been clamoring for, occasionally loudly, for months.
Most compelling matchup: Probably LeBron against KD, despite Durant almost certainly being asked to guard LeBron less often than LeBron is tasked with checking the Durantula. (Best subplot: the rise of Harden, and the chance that he burns Wade repeatedly.)
Most compelling storyline: I dunno, maybe that whole "NBA's likely top two players for the next five years facing off for their first ring" plot? I haven't heard too much about these guys lately.
Likelihood of occurrence: For my money, still the most likely Finals, despite Miami scuffling without Chris Bosh in Game 2 against the Pacers. This Thunder team has won six games in six tries against two damn good teams; I think their young legs get them past the Spurs.
Series prediction: Just like every other Miami Finals, it's really dependent on Bosh; just like every other prediction, I'll factor in him being less than 100 percent and say Thunder in six.
Do you agree with these rankings? Disagree? Think that the author has it out for the Sixers, and can't see that a team with Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner as its go-to scorers is actually congentially boring? Hang out in the comments and share your thoughts; your author and SB Nation editors will hang around in them, and want to know what we got right and where we went wrong.