An NBA general manager was breaking down the unusual and thus unpredictable nature of this NBA season and what to expect in the playoffs when he paused, then changed direction.
"Everyone likes to tell the happy story of Isiah Thomas and the Pistons breaking through, of Michael Jordan doing it with the Bulls, of K.D. [Kevin Durant] when he finally broke through and won, when Steph [Curry] broke through," he said. "There's a less happy story of the Utah Jazz never doing it because of Jordan. Of that Sacramento Kings team. Of the recent Rockets team who couldn't get through.
"The history of the league has been as much about those that never did it as those that got there."
The failed teams and failed players, the GM pointed out, fade from our memory even though their title failure was often tantalizingly close to the ultimate victory, the kind that changes legacies and history forever.
"And this year," he said, "with the injuries we've seen, anything could happen. There's an opening for teams that normally wouldn't have a realistic chance."
Those chances have historically been few and far between. From Mike to Kobe to Duncan to LeBron to Steph, a small cadre of greats have walled off rings from much of the games' would-be winners. And of the 21 NBA championships won this century, four teams -- the Lakers, Spurs, Heat and Warriors -- have won 16 of them. The Celtics, Cavaliers, Raptors, Pistons and Mavericks have one each.
This year could be different. The Nets are an unpredictable mess of injuries and personalities, and the dangerous Kevin Durant-James Harden-Kyrie Irving trio has yet to be tested in any real way because they've hardly played together. The Lakers haven't seen Anthony Davis and LeBron James play together in more than two months, and LeBron's high ankle sprain injury, in particular, sources say, remains slightly disconcerting.
Those teams aren't alone. This weekend, a who's-who of the NBA were either already out or left games with injuries: LeBron, A.D., Durant, Harden, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, LaMelo Ball, Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown, Zach LaVine, John Wall, Gordon Hayward, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam ...
Chaos, we've heard, can be a ladder. And this upside-down year could be a last, best chance for several teams and players to climb it and rewrite their history.
Here are 10 such players, teams and coaches with that chance.
1. Chris Paul
CP3 may be the most talented, traditional point guard since Thomas led his Pistons to back-to-back NBA championships three decades ago, but he has only a single conference finals appearance to show for it.
Win a ring, and the story of Chris Paul is that of one of the great point guards in NBA history: A fierce and fiery competitor who made teammates better, played remarkable (and remarkably underrated) defense and hit clutch shots when his team needed a boost. A Hall of Famer worthy of your respect. A winner for the ages.
Lose, though, and those same attributes are seen through a different lens: The win-at-all-costs star whose light burned out and divided his teammates. The great talent who could not do it when it counted. The closer who often couldn't even close out the opening-round playoff series.
This Phoenix Suns team is a legit title contender because of CP3. Irascible, focused, gritty and at times divisive in a locker room, he's found the instrument for his possible opus with the Suns. As with Jimmy Butler and Miami, Phoenix (and its young core) seems tailor-made for its testy and talented veteran. The Suns, so far, have fed off all of Paul's greatness and style without any of the consequences that helped fell his Rockets and Clippers teams.
With a top 10 offense and defense, a young scorer in Devin Booker, shot-makers and a team that's looked legit all year long, Paul surely knows this team, and this year it could be his best real chance at a championship.
2. Doc Rivers
He is an NBA champion. He sits at the helm of, arguably, the East's best team in the Philadelphia 76ers. He's a coveted coach who is recruited from one top job to another. But he desperately needs a second ring to prove that his Celtics title (one that, in retrospect, feels too few) was more than a celebrated underachievement.
I wrote last summer about the dire reality beyond Doc Rivers' postseason history, and here are a few facts from that piece:
There have only been 13 comebacks from a 3-1 deficit, and therefore collapses, in NBA history. Rivers has coached on the wrong end of three of them. He's coached six teams that have blown a 3-2 lead, including in the 2010 NBA Finals when his Celtics blew a 3-2 series lead to the Lakers.
Rivers, today, has been as much about postseason failure as success. Win it all this year, and that balancing act between victory and letdowns gets obliterated.
3. James Harden
Yes, bad news came Tuesday: Harden had aggravated his hamstring this week and will miss more time, perhaps until the playoffs. But if he returns, and the Nets win it all, it won't matter that he'd have teamed up with K.D. and Kyrie. Durant, who couldn't hold his own 3-1 series lead against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals, is now regarded as a sure-thing winner even though he had to draft off of (and, yes, help propel) that same Warriors team to two straight titles.
Winners get to write history, and Harden could use that magic pen to tell a story that's not about one of the most talented scorers in the game's history forgetting how to shoot in big playoff game after big playoff game -- when, of course, he was willing to shoot at all.
4. Damian Lillard
Outside of Chris Paul, Lillard feels like the most talented NBA veteran to not yet have won a championship. Unlike Paul, he's been the most important player on a team he did lead to a conference finals, back in 2019. That sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors two years ago was so much more bitter than sweet -- the continuation of the kind of history reminiscent of how Jordan destroyed Karl Malone's place in history, again and again.
The Warriors have faced a Lillard-led Portland Trail Blazers team three times in the playoffs. They've gone 12-1 over that stretch.
But the Warriors are no longer the Warriors. Klay Thompson is out. K.D. is in Brooklyn. Draymond Green, a great player, is not the force he once was. The Warriors' shift from force to long shot speaks to a wider lane for teams like Portland to scamper down.
Lillard is one of the game's truly great players. A title, no matter how unlikely it feels today, would feel fitting.
5. The Celtics' celebrated leadership
This is not directed at the young core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Their time could still come. But the halo around Danny Ainge, and the surety of greatness directed toward Brad Stevens' coaching acumen, seems strained at best.
It's been eight years since that infamous Ainge-led Celtics-Nets trade, and the reality is this: After all the sound and fury behind that rip-off job, the Nets seem much more likely to be the team between the two of them to win a post-trade championship first.
All those draft picks, chances, rumored trades, free agency signings and the bold coaching hire are going to start to look like a whole lot of hot air if Boston doesn't capitalize. Time is running short on that front, but this season -- especially as the Celtics surge -- could reset how we read Boston's GM and head coach.
6. The Clippers
They're the Clippers. That is all.
7. Giannis and his Bucks
He's a two-time MVP with an alarming (though short) postseason track record. He's also at the helm of a balanced basketball team that will have Jrue Holiday this postseason and the scars and heartache of the last two seasons' playoff failures. Those used to be teaching moments that looked like a failure but were really the lessons taught to eventual champions.
Win, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks look a lot like that Isiah Thomas Pistons team that needed some of that failure to be great. Lose, though, and that GM's words ring out loudly here: "The history of the league has been as much about those that never did as those that got there."
8. The Jazz
There's a real history of NBA champions largely stemming from a pool of teams that finish the regular season in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating. Two of those teams this year, the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, fit that statistical pattern. But it's the Utah Jazz -- fourth in both offensive and defensive rating -- who dominate on both fronts.
They are the NBA's best team, by their record and by fact. Being cautiously optimistic that Donovan Mitchell will not miss too much time with an ankle injury, they could boast his offensive excellence, Rudy Gobert's defensive mastery and a well-balanced and superbly-coached team that knows who and what they are.
And yet, all season, there's been this feeling in the background that the Lakers or Clippers or, if the Jazz really impressed, the Nets would eventually check Utah with some reality.
A championship would exorcise all of the passive-aggressive doubt directed its way -- and perhaps remove some of the sting that comes with the ghosts of Michael Jordan Past and What Could Have Been.
9. The Nuggets
Great team. Great coach. Soon-to-be MVP Nikola Jokic. Tons of depth. A run to last year's Western Conference finals.
Yes, the absence of Jamal Murray is a crushing loss. But this season may still offer an opening. If the Lakers' injury woes continue -- and given the Denver Nuggets' first-hand experience with not having to utterly live in fear of the Clippers -- why not another, deeper, magical run?
10. Stephen Curry
The man has three rings, two MVPs and a place on the game's all-time top 10 list, at least for me. But a championship this year, in which the ultimate team star has to be a solo assassin carrying this lackluster squad to the promised land? That's the stuff that should make even the most jaded NBA fan sit up and at least reconsider the LeBron vs. Steph debate.
Consider this: A shocking championship run for the Warriors would give Steph four rings -- as many as LeBron. And it would come from a championship run more improbable, and even more impressive than LeBron has pulled off.
The Warriors are currently 29-29, good for ninth place in the West. Golden State's road to the NBA Finals likely travels through one or two play-in games, and then an opening-round series vs. that Jazz team. And then, even if they somehow persevered, things would get really hard.
Yet it doesn't ... quite .... feel impossible. Not if you've watched Curry play the last handful of games.
He single-handedly beat Philly, the East's best team, Monday night when he went off for 49 points. He's the first player age 33 or older to score at least 30 points in 10 straight games since Kobe Bryant, a record he surpassed Monday night. In April, he's averaging almost 40/7/5 on 55.6 percent shooting from the field and 49 percent -- 49 percent! -- on 3s.
His last five games? He's averaging 45/5/5, while making more than nine 3-pointers per game, and hitting -- not a typo -- 55.4 percent of his 3-point attempts.
If Curry could somehow conjure that kind of run in June and July instead of April, his legacy, secure though it already is, would stretch even higher.