The National Basketball Association will begin the playoffs on April 15 after the play-in tournament concludes the day before. Without question, the postseason is the biggest and brightest stage of the league, where players and teams build legacies that will be debated for years to come.
The problem? Only one team can take home the trophy and be crowned a champion, meaning the fan bases of the following teams will be justifiably disappointed after high expectations and years of waiting come together to create misery.
Philadelphia is one of the strongest teams in a stacked Eastern Conference.
Other than the simple fact its record makes it a top team, the 76ers' front office spent years preaching to the franchise that "the process" was important and that the suffering from losing would eventually lead to the prosperity and happiness of winning.
After having several first-overall picks in the draft and big-time trades to acquire stars such as Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and James Harden, Philly has not put up any banners in the rafters despite all the transactions driven toward winning.
Harden and Joel Embiid are not going to get any healthier or younger, and the time to strike is now. If Philadelphia can't capture a title soon, the process may eventually need a reset — putting the team even further from the success it seeks.
Just a couple of months ago, the Brooklyn Nets would've made this list. As both are past champions and stars, having both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant on the roster immediately puts a team in the contender tier.
Though Brooklyn signed the duo in 2019 and even brought Harden in along the way, the New York-based squad could never figure it out and traded Irving to Dallas and Durant to Phoenix.
Durant comes in at a perfect time for the Suns. Phoenix has been fading since its loss to the Dallas Mavericks in last year's postseason. The Suns were blown out of the building by 33 points in Game 7 of the second-round series against the Mavs and were left without any explanation on how to move forward. The defeat was made worse by the fact that in the finals in 2021, the Suns held a 2-0 lead against the Milwaukee Bucks but went on to lose the next four.
With the power of Chris Paul and Devin Booker starting to lessen, Durant's presence is vital. He is a star, a former MVP, and is due for almost 30 every night. If the former Texas Longhorn plays up to his highest potential, he is capable of putting the team over the top in a wide-open Western Conference.
Los Angeles Clippers
It isn't exactly fair to say that the Clippers have pressure to win the title after the big injury to star forward Paul George. Los Angeles has faced serious injury issues during the entire tenure of George and his running mate, two-time finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
With that said, every move from Los Angeles in the past few years has been driven by ultra-aggressive owner Steve Ballmer and his quest to make the Clippers the most relevant and championed franchise in town. Anything less than a championship must feel like a failure for how hard the front office has worked to set the team up for success.
The Clippers' potential is clearly there, too. The squad made it to the Western Conference semifinals in the first season with George and Leonard. Without much of an excuse to point to, Los Angeles completely crumbled in the 2020 playoff bubble in Orlando, losing to an underdog Nuggets team in seven games. The Clippers had the third-shortest odds to win the title, but a historically bad performance from the big two in Game 7 doomed the team.
After the letdown, Los Angeles made a prominent run to the Western Conference finals in 2021 even though Leonard was down with an injury and subsequently missed all of last season. The run proved that if the Clippers could've had a healthy Leonard, they certainly could've gotten over the hump and won it all.
Fortunately for the Clippers, a recently injured George may be able to come back during the 2023 postseason. If this is the case, Los Angeles must take advantage of the special moment it has both Leonard and George on the court and turn it into a title.
Few players in the game have ever demanded the expectation of being a title contender every year. With his level of play, however, it appears Giannis Antetokounmpo demands an amount of expectation similar to that of LeBron James — a phenom who has been to 10 NBA Finals and always needed to win the title in his prime for the year to be a success in the eyes of the public and media.
The Greek Freak is having another amazing year, putting up 31.1 points and almost 12 rebounds per game. Milwaukee finds itself at the top of the Eastern Conference as well, insinuating that the team should be advancing through the playoffs.
Building pressure on himself with his own greatness, Antetokounmpo will not have an easy task in capturing his second title. Injuries to teams such as Brooklyn helped his 2021 championship run, and now the Greek native will have to run things back without another true superstar on the roster. The likes of the 32-year-old Jrue Holiday, center Brook Lopez and shooter Khris Middleton are all nice complementary pieces, but none can combine with Antetokounmpo to create a duo similar to the power of Durant and Steph Curry.
Ultimately, the real test for the Bucks and Antetokounmpo will be the Boston Celtics. Boston holds almost the same odds as Milwaukee to win the title, and it beat the Bucks in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals. If Milwaukee rises to victory against the Celtics, however, it will have a strong chance to win it all.
Serbian native Nikola Jokic has been everything that the Nuggets have wished for, and the two-time MVP has a chance to win another this year. If Jokic can take home the Michael Jordan trophy again, he would join the short list of players to win three MVPs in a row. That list is made of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird.
One thing that these three players have in common is that they have all won championships, something that Jokic has yet to do. The 6-foot-11 center will only be criticized more if he is handed hardware for his efforts in the regular season and can't earn anything in the postseason.
Youth may be one of the only things working in the Nuggets' favor. The Jokic era shouldn't be in danger of ending too soon, as the star is still only 28 years old; and with a skill set less reliant on athleticism, Jokic has more of a chance than not to extend his prime.
Nevertheless, as long as Jokic brings the hardware in the regular season, he will put pressure on himself to lead Denver to its first title in franchise history.
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