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With King James Deposed, The Revolution In The West Has Only Just Begun

Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets makes the game winning shot during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers during Round One Game Five of the 2024 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2024 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado.
Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The obituaries for the Los Angeles Lakers you read within a half-hour of game's end Monday night were mostly pre-written, primed for immediate "SEND" because they all said the same thing. Old, limited roster, coach in trouble, the star might retire or ask to relocate, blah blah blahbiddy blah blah. It's an old newspaper trick perfected long ago by forward-thinking beat writers who want to start their off-seasons a day early, and it survives with minimal adaptation today.

But the Lakers aren't the interesting development here, not anymore. They'd been living on borrowed and backward time for months now, hoping and even planning that somehow LeBron James would one last time be the tide that raises all the other boats in their harbor. But they'd picked the wrong team to try that on, and even though last night's 108-106 loss in Denver was a sensational watch in all facets, it was still a loss, expected enough that the obits were ready to go with a little detail tweak here or there to account for the game.

This is now Denver's time. It is also now the Midwest Division's time, what with Oklahoma City sweeping New Orleans and Minnesota doing the same to Phoenix. The division had never before produced the top-three seeds in the Western Conference and they had never plowed over the six-, seven- and eight-seeds with such box score–based ease (only one game over the minimum, and only three of those in doubt until the end). The best teams in the West are not only in different towns than they typically are but they are also younger than the standard survivors, built with more brain than spending brawn, and are therefore best set to last as well as entertain.

In fact these playoffs can be termed The Revenge Of The Children's Table. Assuming form holds, the Boston Celtics are the only true blue bloods left in these playoffs, and they just lost Kristaps Porzingis for an as-yet undetermined amount of time. The New York Knicks may still be a big name but that name is undeserved. They have been operating under the alias "Who Cares About The" almost without remit since 1973, and New Yorkers are deeply uncomfortable with the concept of being pleasantly surprised by one of their teams; they all "knew this day would come" for decades, since the Knicks' leading scorer was Walt Frazier, or, in the case of the Rangers, since their leading scorer was Sergei Zubov.

The Indiana Pacers are peripatetically firing out points on and over the desiccated Milwaukee Bucks, and are weird enough to make the Knicks play outside their comfort zone in the second round. Only the Orlando-Cleveland series has refused to offer us a favorite, with the home team winning by 14, 10, 38 and 23 points, and nobody believes either of them could get around the Celtics anyway. But to be fair to the Eastern Conference, it still has had only one team people can reliably believe in. Everyone else is a noisy neighbor, which is fun but only as long as they can keep playing.

It is the West, though, where the future actually seems to lie, and where the new hierarchy is forming. Nuggets-Timberwolves is, we would suggest, the most appealing second-round match in recent and maybe even distant years because it gives us the current best player in the game in Nikola Jokic and one of his best positioned next men up in Anthony Edwards. Maybe they're both just placeholders for Victor Wembanyama in the end, but that's the undefined part of the future. The future we can see has just presented itself, and it is the West—or more specifically, the part of the West that rarely gets represented. Denver had never won a title before last year. Minnesota never has. Oklahoma City last won one 46 years when it was a completely different franchise domiciled in Seattle. Dallas snuck one in 13 years ago, and the Clippers . . . well, we need go no further with that backed-up drain.

This morning's amusement is in imagining how LeBron James will try to bend reality to his will one final time, maybe by extorting the Lakers into drafting his son as one final taking of the knee before the last living monarch everyone recognizes as such. But that fades quickly; the Lakers have been watching the Spurs, Mavericks, Warriors and now the Nuggets eat their lunch since 2010, and, even allowing for their bubble title, their regular-season winning percentage in the last 14 years is lower than Atlanta's and their playoff winning percentage is lower than Washington's. The game has finally left the Pacific Ocean to its own devices, and what comes next is going to be better than any of us can presently imagine. And we don't have to imagine it much longer.

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