Lakers-Nets and other dream 2022 NBA Finals matchups
The 2021-22 NBA season still doesn’t officially tip off for another month, but that time away from the hardwood only encourages fans to fantasize about potential battles between contenders. Prior to the season, before injuries inevitably occur and trades shift the landscape of the league, the possiblities are endless. Here’s a fun mental exercise for die-hards that are going through withdrawals without hoops: pick a team at random from each conference and run an NBA Finals simulation in your head. Go through the positional matchups, the coaching adjustments and identify the rivalries that would define the series. The following are three of the most enticing hypotheticals that we’ve currated to get the ball rolling.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Brooklyn Nets
Where to even begin? Let’s start with the heavyweights—it’s LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. The two greatest players of the last decade-plus, duking it out for the fourth time on the biggest stage. Durant is 2-1 all-time against James in the Finals, failing as a young member of the Oklahoma City Thunder before walloping James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in back-t0-back years as the co-MVP of arguably the most unstoppable team in NBA history in the Golden State Warriors. James would no-doubt love an opportunity to settle the score.
Speaking of the Thunder, it would be a reunion of that young OKC core that looked to be the team of the decade before James Harden was tragically dealt to the Houston Rockets in the summer of 2012 following their first Finals run. Russell Westbrook vs. his old buddy/nemesis Durant (they’re good now, right?), with Harden as the latter’s running mate. Perhaps old wounds resurface?
Now let’s circle back to those Cavaliers teams: James would be staring down old buddy Kyrie Irving, who requested a trade from the Cavs after being the Robin to James’ Batman for three straight Finals appearances, with a title sandwhiched in the middle year.
It would be a Charlie-Day-evidence-board of former-teammate storylines, but the actual games would be fascinating as well (go figure). Anthony Davis is a problem the Nets would have trouble solving on both ends, particularly when he’s playing center. However, the Lakers will have their own defensive struggles trying to contain the seemingly-endless amount of threats the Nets have on the perimeter. Despite the energy it would burn, James would probably have to guard Durant for stretches, but who’s checking Harden? Who’s checking Irving? Head Coach Frank Vogel would lose sleep trying to devise a scheme that can contain Brooklyn’s big 3, which we still have yet to see at full strength.
Denver Nuggets vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Old school fans rejoice. For viewers who grew up in the ’90s watching Shaquille O’Neal battle Hakeem Olajuwon in the post, this is about as close as we’d get to a modern-day version of that matchup. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are the two most skilled centers we have in the league today, both offering finesse and power in the post along with the ability to stretch opponents out with their jump shots. But that’s where the comparisons stop; Jokic is arguably the greatest passing center of all time, offering a playmaking ability that Embiid lacks. However, Embiid is a perenial Defensive Player of the Year candidate when healthy, whereas Jokic can be a bit of a traffic cone on that end of the floor. How the two counter each other would be fascinating.
The point guard battle in this matchup is a huge question mark on both sides, given that Jamal Murray is going to spend an undetermined amount of time recovering from a torn ACL and that Ben Simmons and the Sixers seem to hate each other at the moment. The Sixers could look entirely different by next June if and when Simmons is traded, and if Denver can’t get their no. 2 option back and healthy before the postseason begins, the chances of them making the Finals are slim.
Golden State Warriors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Everyone loves a reigning champ trying to defend his crown. Giannis Antetokounmpo was spectacular in the 2021 Finals earlier this year against the Phoenix Suns, exceeding heights many thought he couldn’t reach. In this matchup, he’d have to deal with former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green hounding him, and he’d likely have to switch onto the deadliest backcourt in NBA history in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. It’d be quite the test for the Greek Freak, and it would be thrilling to watch him attempt to overcome it.
It would also be great just to see Steph Curry back to playing games that matter. After five straight Finals runs, the last two seasons have resulted in just one postseason game for the two-time MVP, and that’s a technicality since the play-in tournament exists in a strange, nebulous space between regular season and postseason. Whether or not the Warriors return to relevancy largely depends on how Klay Thompson looks after missing the past two seasons with ACL and achilles injuries. If he’s the same Klay he was two years ago, the Warriors can once again set their sights on a title. Picture Jrue Holiday, widely viewed by his peers as the best guard defender in basketball, having to check one of Curry or Thompson for 40+ minutes a night.
This matchup would be pure theater, headlined by two of the more nature-defying superstars of the century in Curry and Antetokounmpo.