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If the NBA were to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season and skip right to the playoffs, there would be plenty of spectacular star matchups in the first round and beyond.
The Eastern Conference would look like this:
- No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic
- No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets
- No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers
- No. 4 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers
The Western Conference would line up as follows:
- No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies
- No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
- No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Houston Rockets
- No. 4 Utah Jazz vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder
The following are some of the best and most important star matchups that would define the 2020 postseason, no matter when—or if—it ultimately takes place.
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While Victor Oladipo and Jimmy Butler are the headliners here, both are surrounded by outstanding supporting casts.
The Indiana Pacers were 30-17 before Oladipo made his season debut on Jan. 29, relying on the strength of All-Star Domantas Sabonis and the all-around play of Malcolm Brogdon.
Meanwhile, Butler is the heart and soul of the Miami Heat, guiding them to the league’s seventh-best offense (112.2 rating) with the help of All-Star center Bam Adebayo.
This matchup wouldn’t be as star-driven as others given the quality of depth on the rosters, but Oladipo and Butler would undoubtedly have the ball in their hands at the end of games.
Oladipo already proved his playoff chops while pushing LeBron James‘ Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the 2018 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, which marked the first time James had lost a first-round playoff game in six years and only time in his career he went to seven games in the first round.
Butler has averaged 20.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals in his last four trips to the playoffs with the Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers. The Heat would be his fourth different postseason team in the past four years.
While the two haven’t played each other this year, Butler held Oladipo to only two shot attempts and zero points in 4:47 during two regular-season meetings in 2018-19.
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A Houston Rockets-Denver Nuggets matchup would feature plenty of star power, but the backcourt duel of James Harden and Jamal Murray would serve as the main attraction.
While it would be fascinating to see which small forward the Rockets try to guard center Nikola Jokic with, the ball should consistently find its way to both Harden and Murray throughout the series.
Harden has gotten the best of Murray in their two regular-season meetings to date, going 4-of-6 overall and 3-of-4 from deep for 12 points and six assists in just 3:35 with Murray as the primary defender.
When Murray has the ball, he would likely see both Russell Westbrook and Harden switching onto him, given that Harden has spent more time defending forwards (48.2 percent) than guards (44.0 percent) this season.
While Harden’s offensive numbers are still staggering, his efficiency plummeted over the past two months. Since Jan. 8, Harden shot only 39.4 percent overall and 30.2 percent from three.
Murray is coming off an impressive playoff debut last spring (21.3 points, 4.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game across 14 games), and he would give Harden a good push in the first round.
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A Boston Celtics-Philadelphia 76ers clash may be the best playoff series the first round has to offer.
While Ben Simmons is currently sidelined with a nerve impingement in his lower back, an extended break now should mean he’ll be ready to go for the playoffs, whenever they may be. The Sixers were a popular preseason pick to come out of the Eastern Conference, and they could certainly give opponents trouble with their size when postseason possessions slow down.
The Sixers are stockpiled with talent from Joel Embiid and Al Horford to Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson. However, Simmons is the best defender that Philly can throw at Jayson Tatum.
Although he just turned 23 on March 3, Tatum will be entering his third postseason in three years. His first playoff taste came as a rookie, helping the Celtics push LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
He’s improved significantly since that time, with averages of 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks in 34.6 minutes per game this season.
Tatum has gone up against Simmons and the Sixers four times this year, and the 6’10” Simmons used his size and elite defensive ability to stifle Tatum from anywhere inside the arc.
In 24:23 of matchup time, Simmons held Tatum to 5-of-16 shooting overall (31.3 percent) and 4-of-7 from three for 18 points and four assists.
With Tatum surpassing Kemba Walker as the go-to guy in Boston, Simmons would get plenty of opportunities to slow him down.
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Donovan Mitchell, 23, will be making his third trip to the playoffs in three years, having led the Utah Jazz in scoring in all three of those seasons.
Meanwhile, this will be the 12th postseason appearance for the 34-year-old Paul, and perhaps the most unlikely one of all.
Mitchell and Paul should see plenty of each other, especially since the Jazz star has spent 49 percent of his court time playing point guard this season. Mike Conley Jr. may rotate from starter to sixth man depending on Utah’s matchup, leaving Paul to defend the Jazz’s best scoring threat.
Mitchell is having his best season yet with 24.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals and a slash line of 45.3/36.4/85.9. The Jazz have remained in the upper echelon of Western Conference teams, even with Conley Jr. missing 23 games because of injuries.
Despite his age, Paul remains an incredibly tough cover as well. An All-Star for the first time since 2015-16, Paul leads all NBA players with 144 clutch points, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are a plus-106 in his 160 total clutch minutes.
While Paul’s regular-season shooting mark of 48.9 percent is his best in 10 years, his efficiency jumps to 53.5 percent in clutch time this season. In the playoffs, every moment can feel clutch, which should benefit Paul.
Utah and Oklahoma City might go the full seven games, with Paul and Mitchell each pulling out some late-game heroics.
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A two-time NBA Finals MVP and likely future regular-season MVP would meet if the Dallas Mavericks faced the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.
Leonard’s game is built for the postseason. He’s able to play elite defense, switch onto nearly all positions and get buckets whenever needed. He averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.7 steals while shooting 49.0 percent during the Toronto Raptors’ championship run last year.
Doncic is both the Dallas Mavericks’ present and future. Despite turning only 21 in February, he ranks sixth in the NBA in scoring (28.7 points per game) and fourth in assists (8.7 per game).
The second-year guard has led the Mavericks to the NBA’s best offense this season (115.8 rating) while dominating with his playmaking and limitless shooting range.
Te Clippers haven’t used Leonard on Doncic much yet, but that strategy would likely change once the postseason starts. In two games this season, Leonard guarded Doncic for only 2:32, holding him to two points on 1-of-4 shooting overall and 0-of-2 from three.
The Mavs have posted an outrageous 117.0 offensive rating with Doncic on the floor this season, compared to 112.1 when he sits. Paul George should also see his fair share of Doncic, but Leonard would likely go on lockdown duties when L.A. needed it the most.
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If the Toronto Raptors get by the Brooklyn Nets in the first round (they will) and the Boston Celtics advance past the Philadelphia 76ers (they should), the Eastern Conference Semifinals would feature some excellent point guard play.
Kyle Lowry has the experience advantage, having won a title with the Raptors last season. In seven trips to the playoffs, he’s played in 86 games.
Walker is nearly five years younger, however, and has far less tread on his tires. While both are listed at 6’0″ tall, Lowry has a 24-pound advantage over Walker.
Lowry has gotten the best of Walker recently, holding him 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting (32.0 percent) over their last six head-to-head meetings. During that time, Lowry is 5-of-9 from the field (55.6 percent) for 12 points and nine assists with Walker as his primary defender.
Both would use their quickness, experience and scoring chops to wreak havoc on the other. Combined with an All-Star frontcourt battle between Jayson Tatum and Pascal Siakam, that would make this a tantalizing second-round matchup.
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Big men would clash in the second round as the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers advance.
While guard play highlighted the first round for the Nuggets, they would need a huge series from Nikola Jokic to make it past L.A.
Jokic has been excellent since the beginning of December, averaging 22.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.2 steals while slashing 55.6/35.7/82.2 over his last 46 games. He would challenge Davis in every possible way, bringing the ball up the court, operating from the elbows and throwing his 7’0″, 253-pound frame around in the paint.
However, Jokic would have to defend Davis as well.
Davis’ 26.7 points per game are ninth-best in the NBA, putting him on pace to become the first teammate ever to outscore LeBron James. His range extends past the three-point line, and fouling him often results in a pair of makes (he’s shooting a career-high 84.5 percent from the charity stripe).
Neither player has had much luck against the other this season.
Davis has shot only 6-of-17 overall (35.3 percent) in just under eight minutes with Jokic as his defender. While he’s gotten to the free-throw line eight times, Davis doesn’t have a single assist against Jokic.
Jokic has been equally as bad with Davis on him, shooting 3-of-10 (30.0 percent) while getting to the line six times in 7:26.
With James, Jamal Murray and others also playing significant roles, this series could come down to Jokic and Davis.
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Things would really start heating up in the Eastern Conference Finals, as the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks could face off for the second straight season.
While the Raptors wouldn’t have Kawhi Leonard this time around, Pascal Siakam has more than proved himself a worthy alpha in his absence.
An All-Star starter just two years removed from a bench role, Siakam’s length and athleticism have guided him to career-high averages of 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 0.9 blocks this season.
On the other side, Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to have revenge on his mind, as his No. 1-seeded Bucks were knocked out by the No. 2 Raptors last year. He and Siakam should see plenty of each other, and the reigning MVP ranks third leaguewide in both points (29.6) and rebounds (13.7) while adding 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks in just 30.9 minutes per game.
While Antetokounmpo has the advantage in both size and strength, Siakam is the far better outside shooter. His ability to stretch the floor should keep the Defensive Player of the Year candidate out of the paint.
These strengths are reflected in their matchup tracking data, with Antetokounmpo holding Siakam to 7-of-16 shooting overall (43.8 percent) over two games, yet Siakam going 4-of-7 (57.1 percent) from three.
Both power forwards have incredible skill sets. The winner of this individual matchup would likely push his team into the Finals.
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Perhaps the two greatest postseason players of the past decade, Leonard and James would bring five total championships, 12 Finals appearances and five Finals MVPs to the table in this hypothetical Western Conference Finals.
Both are surrounded by another All-Star, a fantastic bench and a Morris twin, coincidentally.
Even at 35, James remains near his athletic peak and can rise up with a thunderous dunk in traffic as needed. He has the strength advantage over Leonard, and he’s still the NBA’s best at dissecting a defense with his vision, passing and knowledge of opponents.
Leonard, 28, has always been one of the best at defending James given his massive wingspan and strength. He’s become a better outside shooter than James and is averaging a career-high 26.9 points and 5.0 assists.
Leonard has won the individual matchup so far this season, limiting James to 10 points and four assists on 4-of-10 shooting (40.0 percent) overall and 0-of-3 from deep over three games. When James defended Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting (75.0 percent) from the field.
The battle of L.A. could go down as one of the greatest conference finals matchups of all time.
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In this hypothetical Finals matchup, the reigning MVP and front-runner to repeat would meet the only player in the league with the chance to take it away from him.
The Milwaukee Bucks (53-12) and Los Angeles Lakers (49-14) have been the two best teams in the NBA all season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see both in this year’s Finals.
James and Antetokounmpo are 10 years apart, but you wouldn’t be able to tell when the game starts. While Antetokounmpo should be hungry to cement his growing legacy with a championship, James has the pressure of improving his 3-6 Finals record and desire to win a title with all three franchises he’s played for.
James is strong enough to keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint and make him settle for mid-range and outside jumpers far more than most defenders do, and he’ll have some help with either Anthony Davis or Dwight Howard waiting near the rim. James has done a phenomenal job on the other All-Star captain this season, limiting him to 10 points on 2-of-10 shooting overall (20.0 percent), including 1-of-6 (16.7 percent) from outside the arc.
The reigning MVP has had a tougher time defensively. In just 3:36, James went for 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting overall (57.1 percent) and 1-of-2 from deep.
While a long, drawn-out series may favor Antetokounmpo, it would be hard going against James’ Finals experience and confidence knowing he no longer has to face a loaded Golden State Warriors squad for the first time in five Finals trips.
James vs. Antetokounmpo would draw tremendous ratings across the globe, setting the stage for what could be the best Finals since 2016.