There will be a new NBA Champion this season, no matter which team hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end. With NBA Finals usual suspects LeBron James and Stephen Curry out of the picture, the race to the top of the NBA is wide open. Between the teams remaining in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the most recent championship came in 1983 (Philadelphia 76ers). Only two players in the playoffs have won a Finals MVP award, and very few stars beyond those two have won a single title in their respective careers.
In other words, a new era may be upon us, and it starts with the 2021 NBA Finals.
The NBA Will Crown a New Champion in 2021
The most recent title between remaining playoff teams came in 1983. That year, Finals MVP Moses Malone and his Sixers swept the Los Angeles Lakers. To get to the next most recent title, we have to go even further. In 1971, the Milwaukee Bucks won their lone NBA Championship, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Lew Alcindor at the time — in a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Bullets.
The oldest most recent title between all eight active teams came in 1958 when the St. Louis Hawks toppled the Boston Celtics in Bill Russell’s only Finals loss. The series went seven games, but there was no Finals MVP. The award wouldn’t come around for a few more years, of course. For more context, this was the last NBA Championship team that did not have a single black player on the roster.
Outside of the Sixers, Hawks, and Bucks, no other active team has a single championship. The Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers have never reached that peak.
Coming into the season, if you had bet on a team winning their first title, you may have been in the minority. However, we now have (technically) a 63 percent chance of that happening. If you’re the gambling type, you can still look into betting odds, so long as you live in these states. Personally, I wouldn’t put any money on a single team in a playoff like this one, but if that’s your thing, get in while you can.
A New King May Rise
Of all players left in the playoffs, two have both a ring and a Finals MVP award. Kevin Durant of the Nets and Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers both have two championships and two Finals MVP awards each, though neither have done so with their current team. Durant won both with the Golden State Warriors, while Leonard won one with the San Antonio Spurs and another with the Toronto Raptors. Leonard obviously isn’t new to bringing a team their first title, and looks to deliver the same favor to the Clippers that he did for the Raptors in 2019. Durant is looking to snag his first without Steph Curry, though he traded one former MVP sidekick for another in James Harden.
The only other players in the playoffs with any major hardware — for now, at least — are Giannis Antetokounmpo and the aforementioned Harden. Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP and reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Harden won MVP in 2018, and has finished in the top-two of MVP voting multiple times. However, neither of these players have won an NBA Championship. A ring, even without a Finals MVP award, would solidify either among the all-time greats. Of course, getting that Finals MVP wouldn’t hurt, though.
The final major contributor for any team to win a title is Kyrie Irving, who helped LeBron James clinch the 2016 NBA Finals. Now he’ll look to do the same for Durant and Harden. A second ring, this time without James, may help silence some of Irving’s more stanch critics.
New Faces in the Spotlight
Now that we’ve gotten the champions and MVP’s out of the way, it’s time to look at all the potential for new faces to cement themselves among the top ranks of the current NBA. No matter which team wins the 2021 NBA Championship, a star will win their first ring.
Let’s go in alphabetical order and start with the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young — New York’s favorite youngster — is one of the fastest rising young stars in the league, and a title this early in his career would put him on an amazing trajectory moving forward. It seems unlikely his Hawks will get that far, but anything is possible.
For the Brooklyn Nets, though Durant and Irving have rings, it would be the first for Harden and Blake Griffin. Even if you can’t stand the Nets, you might still find it hard not to find a silver lining in either of those two finally getting to experience a championship.
In Los Angeles — no, the other Los Angeles team — Paul George is still in search of his first championship. In Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo is still on the hunt for his first ring as well. A win for him would boost his career resume more than perhaps any other player in the playoffs. In Philadelphia, star Joel Embiid and sharpshooter Ben Simmons could claim their first title as well.
For the Phoenix Suns, Devin Booker could solidify himself as the next great NBA shooting guard. A Finals win this year might steal the torch from Harden to take the top spot. And who doesn’t want to see Chris Paul finally snag a title?
What a New NBA Champion Means for the League
Some will argue it’s boring not having a big-market team in the Finals. Some will say they won’t watch without LeBron James in the hunt. Those people don’t actually like basketball.
It’s great for the sport, even if it isn’t great for the casual viewers. The fact that a title drought of at least 38 years will fall this year is a good thing. The fact that five teams have a shot at their first title is amazing. Having so many young stars fight for their first ring is good for the future of the NBA. Young players seeing that small- and medium-market teams can compete with anyone in the playoffs is important.
A world where the Lakers and Knicks play in the Finals every year might be fun for those two cities and casual viewers, but the real NBA happens in cities without the fame and clout. A title run for Denver or Atlanta would far outweigh an 18th for Boston or Los Angeles. Those cities would never forget that moment. And that matters.
If fans want to see a world where young stars don’t form super teams, invest in the viewership of small markets so guys like Mitchell and Jokic stay put. Antetokounmpo has already inked a long-term deal with the Bucks. Maybe Ja Morant and Zion Williamson are next. Maybe the tides of the NBA can finally turn and these smaller teams and “lesser” stars can have their day.
And maybe this season will start that shift.
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