The NBA awaits a new champion, and the path is wide open

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrate the team's double-overtime win against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

In this NBA, this much is already clear: There will be a new champion.

A lot of first-time champions, too.

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The second round of the NBA playoffs start on Saturday night, and nowhere to be found are the franchises that have combined to win almost two-thirds of the titles awarded in league history. There are new faces, like a Phoenix team that’s in the second round for the first time since 2010, Brooklyn for the first time since 2014, Atlanta for the first time since 2016.

Plus, when the NBA gets down to its final eight teams, there will be no more than eight players — and possibly as few as five, depending on how the last remaining first-round series between Dallas and the Los Angeles Clippers ends on Sunday — who have previously won a championship ring.

So, for virtually everyone left in the playoffs, this is a whole new world. New teams. New faces. New stories. And in the end, of course, there’ll be a new winner and a whole lot of guys who get their fingerprints on the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time.

“I don’t think it matters one way or the other,” said Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers, who’ll be one of only two coaches left in the second round to have guided a team to a title, with either Dallas’ Rick Carlisle or the Clippers’ Tyronn Lue being the other. “I think people love great NBA basketball and that’s what they want to see.”

And this might be great.

But it will certainly be different.

This is only the third time in NBA history that the finalists from one season — in this case, the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat — were not among the last eight teams standing in the playoffs the following season. So far, five of the final eight teams in last season’s restart bubble are done for this season; that number will go to six if the Clippers lose Sunday.

Of last year's final four in the NBA, only Denver is back in the final eight this season.

“Our goal is much bigger," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Among the teams nowhere to be found right now: the franchises that have combined to win 36 of the last 37 NBA championships, with Dallas — the 2011 champ — the lone exception there. Or we can say 47 of the last 49 titles. Or 68 of the 74 titles ever claimed. The defending champion Lakers went out in Round 1, limping to a six-game loss by Phoenix. The Heat’s reign as Eastern Conference champions ended with a four-game sweep against Milwaukee.

“It’s been draining,” Lakers forward LeBron James said. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining. ... Every team has to deal with it, obviously, but with us and Miami, going the long haul in the bubble and then coming right back on short notice to this season, it’s been very draining.”

James missed the playoffs in 2019 because of injury. Other than that, he’d been to the NBA Finals in every season since 2011. That run is over.

Round 2 starts in Brooklyn, where the Nets play host to Milwaukee in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Saturday. The other East semifinal series starts Sunday, with fifth-seeded Atlanta visiting No. 1 Philadelphia. Out West, top-seeded Utah will meet either the Clippers or Dallas starting Tuesday, while second-seeded Phoenix will take on third-seeded Denver starting Monday.

Maybe the absence of the usual suspects from the last two decades or so — no Lakers, no Celtics, no Warriors, no Bulls, no Spurs, no Heat — is surprising. But the way Round 1 went also can’t be a total shocker, since the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds on both halves of the bracket made the conference semifinals, and no worse than a No. 5 seed will fill out the fields.

While having the new faces in Round 2 might be good for the league, those still playing aren’t exactly wasting time on a big-picture perspective.

“I’m not even going to go there,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “I’m not going to go and talk about what’s good for the league. My focus is on the Hawks and facing Philadelphia.”

There are eight players left in the playoffs who were part of a team’s winning trip to the NBA Finals: Philadelphia’s Danny Green and Denver’s JaVale McGee are three-time champions, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and Clippers teammates Kawhi Leonard and Rajon Rondo each have two rings, while Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, the Clippers' Serge Ibaka and the 76ers’ Dwight Howard have won title apiece. (Brooklyn's Joe Harris was with Cleveland for some of the 2015-16 season, but was moved in-season and wasn't there for the Cavs' title win over Golden State.)

Nobody left in these playoffs has won a ring, obviously, with their current club.

It all means the path to the finals is wide open for the first time in years. And for someone, a breakthrough awaits.

“We have a chance to do something special," Jazz center Rudy Gobert said.

Green has talked to teammates about what winning a ring is like, but his lessons more often are about the years where his teams fell short — and how to avoid those moments.

“I think a lot of the world is surprised that the defending champions and Miami went out as early as they did,” Green said. “It happens. Injuries happen. It’s a long season. ... As a fan, I love watching basketball, watching competitive basketball and rooting for underdogs. I love to see certain teams make it farther than they do. But as a player, I’m not focused on or worried about any other team.”


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