No LeBron, Steph or KD? Here are 5 reasons why these NBA playoffs are still compelling

The NBA playoffs won't feature LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry in the second round for the first time since 2005. Let that sink in.

But while many fans might lament that fact, it's an opportunity for other stars to shine. Yes, there's still plenty more basketball to enjoy this postseason.

Here's why:

We’ve been waiting for a new kind of star, some way to ween us off Steph/LeBron/KD, and while collective energy was poured into Ja Morant for a period, he wasn’t ready for everything that came with being a superstar. Anthony Edwards feels like someone who’s been here before and something we’ve never seen, all at the same time. There’s a magnetism that exists when he plays, when he speaks. A country drawl that seems very authentic, familiar. His game brings about all the comparisons, but having someone embrace all that comes with this — the pressure, the attention and his ability to say the things we’ve been thinking — brings us closer to him.

Mercilessly, he put out KD then hugged him afterward. Now he’s facing the reigning king, or rather, the Joker, in the must-see matchup of the second round. He has all eyes on him, and an opportunity in front of him. An American face, an All-Star, a real superstar. He has the game and the charisma to be one of the next ones, and the beauty of it? The Timberpups don’t have to win this series. They just have to acquit themselves well in the face of the champions, and we’ll know all of their names. But first, we’re starting with him. — Vincent Goodwill

Apr 30, 2024; New York, New York, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey (0) reacts during overtime in game 5 of the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Tyrese Maxey is thriving under the brightest of lights. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports(

Through 245 minutes of basketball, two stinking points have separated New York and Philadelphia … and the team on the plus side in the point differential is down 3-2 in the series. In an era of 3-point-bombing-variance-induced blowouts, the largest lead in the series has been 15 points; there hasn’t been a single second of garbage time. Four of the five games have come down to crunch time, with the score within five points in the final five minutes. This has been a heavyweight fight conducted squarely inside a phone booth. No jabs, all haymakers; all gas, no brakes.

We’ve seen elite half-court defense from Philly, elite transition offense from New York and peerless individual performances — 50 points for Joel Embiid in Game 3; 47 points and 10 assists for Jalen Brunson in Game 4; 46 points for Tyrese Maxey in Game 5. We’ve seen breathtaking last-second turnarounds, with Donte DiVincenzo’s double-bang triple in Game 2 and Maxey saving Philly’s season in Game 5.

Relentless physicality. Line-stepping chippiness. Incredible shot-making. Devastating defense. Maniacal head coaches squeezing every last drop out of their ever-narrowing rotations. Superstars playing at the top of their talents, writing and revising legacies with each possession. A robust regional rivalry, renewed with venom and vitriol. Add it all up, and you’ve got one of the most exciting series we’ve seen in years — one that, thanks to Maxey’s miracle at MSG, ain’t over yet. Game 6 tips Thursday night in South Philly. Tune in. You won’t regret it. — Dan Devine

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27: Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets and LeBron James (23) of the Los Angeles Lakers square off during the first half at Arena in Los Angeles on Saturday, April 27, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
LeBron is out of the picture. It's time to focus on Nikola Jokić. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The Nuggets have the most complementary five-man lineup in the entire NBA, playing 958 minutes together during the regular season — the most of any such lineup in the NBA by 199! — with a staggering net rating of 13.6. The numbers match the aesthetic synergy behind Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray’s late-game pick-and-rolls. Aaron Gordon has continued his mastery out of the dunker spot. Nobody in the league can compete with Michael Porter Jr.’s efficiency on “no … no … yes!” 3s. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, even hobbled with an ankle injury, always seems to hit timely buckets and come up with a necessary steal. And yet ...

Denver’s five-game handling of LeBron James’ Lakers felt like an absolute dogfight for the Nuggets by comparison to the lopsided series result. The Lakers led for over 150 minutes over their five games against the reigning champs, compared to the Nuggets’ lead time of around 50 minutes. As much as the Western Conference still runs through Denver — Anthony Edwards and the Timberwolves will certainly have to earn their spot in the conference finals — the Nuggets don’t look nearly as invincible through their opening slate of playoff games as Denver billed last spring, even if the Nuggets still feel like an inevitability, no matter how big of a deficit they face any given outing. And who doesn’t want to watch an overwhelming favorite suddenly have to face some adversity? — Jake Fischer

The Thunder made easy work of the Pelicans, sweeping New Orleans in four games to earn their first postseason series victory since 2016. Much of the talk in the West is about the Wolves and Nuggets, but don't sleep on OKC. The playoffs have ushered in a new era, and the Thunder, the second-youngest team in the league, are at the forefront of this shift, embodying the "out with the old and in with the new" narrative.

Following a Game 4 victory, OKC head coach Mark Daigneault said, "There's a difference between age and maturity, and we have a mature team, we have a committed team." Age ain't nothin' but a number has been the vibe all season long for this team, and with the perfect blend of star power, potential and chemistry, they're one of the most entertaining squads in the postseason. And yeah, it helps to have a leader and MVP finalist in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but their calling card has been their commitment to each other and defense.

Through Wednesday, the Thunder have a ridiculous 93.5 defensive rating after holding the Pelicans to 40% from the field and 27% from 3 in their first-round series. While that's unlikely to hold the rest of the way, the Boston Celtics were the only other team in the top five in offensive and defensive rating this season. OKC's youth movement is in full effect, and with plenty of days to rest, the Mavericks or Clippers will have their hands full in the second round. — Dan Titus

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 24: Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics and Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics during the second quarter of game two of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 24, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Will these Celtics finally win it all? (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant may be passing the NBA’s torch, but to whom exactly? Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Denver's Nikola Jokić are already carrying the flame, each winning a pair of MVPs and a championship in the previous five years. Minnesota's Anthony Edwards and Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander headline the league's deep and talented 25-and-under crowd, as both aim to unseat Jokić's Nuggets atop the Western Conference.

In between are Boston's Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, perennially on the fringes of the MVP and All-NBA conversations, and still championship-less five Eastern Conference finals appearances into this run.

The Celtics failed to recruit Durant in 2016 free agency. Their consolation prize was Al Horford and the impending No. 3 overall selections of Tatum and Brown. All this time later, they're still here. As teenagers, Tatum and Brown challenged James' Cavaliers in 2017 and 2018. Their ascent as under-25 stars was evident from 2021, when they lost to Durant's Nets in the first round, to 2022, when they beat those Nets on their way to the NBA Finals, where they were still too young to take the crown from Curry's Warriors.

Tatum and Brown are now armed with the best roster they have had and still trying to get Horford the ring that has eluded his illustrious career. Theirs is an old-school NBA rise. They are among the defining teams of this era, and the only one that has not broken through. If you could go back and give a team like the 2002 Sacramento Kings or 2007 Phoenix Suns a title, wouldn't you? Now is your chance to see it. — Ben Rohrbach