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Friday, May 29, 2020

From LeBron James to Chris Paul: The 3 best storylines of the NBA season

Chris Paul

The NBA is facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty, as is most of society. The league is thinking about resuming at some point in the future, or skipping ahead to playoff games. Rather than project timetables for when NBA action could return, or sulk in the disappointment of a conceivably lost season, it is paramount to celebrate the terrific season that was unfolding.

Here are three of the most intriguing stories from around the league that have us all anxiously awaiting the return of the NBA.

The dominance of the “Washed King”

It seems unimaginable that after nine NBA Finals appearances, 34,807 points, three championships, four MVP awards, and a “regrown” hairline that anyone would doubt LeBron James. And yet, last season, after James failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons, the rhetoric of James being a “washed king” began to circulate. When James’ adversaries for the “unofficial best player in the world” title sensed a vulnerability, they attempted a basketball coup d’ é·tat. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the favorite to take home back-to-back MVP awards, and Kawhi Leonard, have both made substantial claims.

James, for his part, is unwilling to concede the throne. In two different matchups that saw James go head-to-head with his most prominent competitors for basketball supremacy, the King walked away victorious, with the crown still in his possession.

While it is excessive to place an extensive amount of importance on one regular-season game, this is not a new development; James has been on a mission since the start of the season. James is leading the NBA in assists for the first time in his storied career and has the Lakers atop of the Western Conference standings.

While it is easy to marvel at the individual numbers and accolades that James has put up over the years, his durability is sometimes forgotten. As the miles on his body continue to pile up, James shows no signs of slowing down. Antetokounmpo or Leonard may have their day soon, but for now, LeBron James remains the “King” of basketball royalty.

Chris Paul

Clutch Paul

Before the season began, virtually no one would have thought that 64 games into the season the Oklahoma City Thunder would be sitting one game out of the fourth seed in the Western Conference. For as astonishing as the Thunder’s placement in the standing is, Chris Paul still expects better. Immediately after Paul was shipped out of Houston, trade rumors for Paul’s next destination began to swirl. Then the unexpected happened: no trade occurred.

Then the impossible happened.

Realizing his time in Oklahoma City wasn’t going to be just a short pit stop, Paul immediately bought into the Thunder’s culture and began mentoring their youthful roster. The early returns were not encouraging. However, since their 6-11 start to the season, the Thunder have dominated close games en route to a 34-13 record. Through his unshakable confidence and precision in the clutch, Paul has become the league’s ultimate late-game weapon.

Plays like this have become routine for Paul. In this instance, Paul creates separation from his defender by leaning towards a potential bone-crushing pick from Steven Adams, then exploding into an in-and-out dribble. As Paul glides to the right elbow, Thon Maker is forced to backpedal to stay in front. Paul now has Maker at his mercy and is ready to seize the moment. Like he’s done countless times this year, Paul rises up into his patent elbow jump shot, unfazed by Maker’s 7’3″ wingspan; he calmly drills the game-sealing bucket over him.

Paul has taken over in close games this year, leading the NBA with 144 points in clutch scenarios this year (as defined by games within the last five minutes with a score differential less than five), while shooting an absurdly efficient 53.5% from the field and 93.5% from the free-throw line. While his late-game brilliance has garnered most of the headlines out of Oklahoma City this year, Paul’s buy-in before the season began is what set the foundation.

Basketball teams tend to take on the persona of their leader, which is why it comes as no surprise that the Thunder are a hard-nosed, competitive team that can strike fear in any opposition. With Paul operating at Point God levels, the Thunder will be a daunting post-season matchup for whatever team they draw.

The relative balance of power

The Lakers, Bucks, and Clippers have all had moments of dominance during the regular season and represent the top tier of teams in the NBA this year. Still, this season remains so invigorating because, unlike previous seasons, the result is not a foregone conclusion. All three of the top teams boast a legitimate claim as to why they should be title favorites. Things get interesting when the teams in the tier directly beneath them also have reasons for optimism.

The West remains as deep as ever, where the Nuggets, Jazz, Thunder, Rockets, and possibly even the Mavericks, could all potentially spoil an all-LA Conference Finals. In the Eastern Conference, the reigning champion Raptors looked poised for another run, while the Celtics, Heat, and 76ers all have the star-power to slow down Milwaukee.

As enthralling as the later rounds of the playoffs promise to be, the race for the eighth seed in the West is also full of intrigue. A Pelicans/Lakers playoff series would mean a Zion Williamson/LeBron James collision course, in a battle of the NBA’s hypothetical future against the present. The Grizzlies, who are in the eighth position, have their own highly-touted rookie looking to make his playoff debut, in Ja Morant. The Trailblazers have been ravaged by injuries all season long, but Damian Lillard’s playoff brilliance speaks for itself. The Kings and Spurs also each sit less than a game back of Portland. That makes twelve total teams vying for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

As exciting as the push will be for the final playoff spot this year, next season could begin with all fifteen teams having legitimate post-season expectations. After the 76ers in sixth, the lower half of the Eastern Conference does not look quite as promising, but with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving returning for the Nets, there will be no shortage of star power.

The hope is that the NBA will return soon. The expectation is that it will not. With a lengthy break in sight, the logistics of finishing the season will look drastically different than they would have initially. This season seemed destined to be remembered for a long time, but all stories need a proper ending.

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