The NBA's newest stars have an opportunity in these playoffs: Who's ready to take the torch?

One down, two to go?

There’s only but so much room, so much oxygen in the NBA’s multiverse to devote attention to the incumbents while giving the newcomers an opportunity to truly shine.

So … it seems the newcomers will have to do the dirty work themselves, because the torch won’t be passed in a peaceful transition of power. It’ll have to be snatched away with the standard-bearers still on the marquee of the NBA’s Apollo.

The Sacramento Kings didn’t exactly do the league a favor. Stephen Curry might be the Association’s No. 1 attraction — the irresistible and compelling world revolving around the 3-point shot starts with him — but he’s sitting May and June out since the Warriors were ousted in the play-in tournament.

Will LeBron James and Kevin Durant be next?

James and his Lakers are underdogs to Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, which begin this weekend, and underdogs could be putting it mildly. It would be an upset of massive proportion for L.A. to knock off the defending champions at the peak of their powers, provided there’s no catastrophic injury for Denver that tilts the scales.

For Durant, he’s facing a future face of the league, an American one at that, in Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Edwards is charismatic, straightforward with a country drawl, and has a game the country should see more of in abundance. And while he’s had some explosive moments, all of those things become validated in the playoffs, not random Wednesday nights.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards, right, works toward the basket as Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Krohn)

Durant isn’t as wholly beloved as James and Curry, but his greatness takes no backseat to anyone in today’s game if we’re talking historically.

The three most nationally televised teams this season were, in order, the Warriors (41), Lakers (40) and Suns (37). Oklahoma City had 13 games and Minnesota 10. Perhaps that’s market. Perhaps it’s unreliability, but this postseason could go a long way toward tilting the numbers.

Television networks are tripping over themselves with hope for James and the Lakers, twisting themselves into eight-figure pretzels because they don’t believe anyone else can draw the upper eight-figure viewing numbers. It was amazing to see the Lakers be awarded some imaginary gold-plated trophy for a competitive sweep last May — the only team the Nuggets dismissed without a loss — because of our collective fascination and obsession with James and the Lakers. Jokić, while etching himself higher and higher into history, doesn’t endear himself to the public because he keeps them at a distance.

His greatness should be enough, but the American viewer has so many options that singular excellence — particularly ground-bound excellence — won’t be as appreciated and attractive as others in the lexicon.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has found a way to break through, in large part because he leaned into the “Coming to America” experience, and whether he realized it or not, being Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) appealed to the adults, and that smile and innocence captured the kids, who now follow his every move.

And of course, it’s a matter of time before Victor Wembanyama passes them all by, provided the San Antonio Spurs build an adequate roster befitting of his talent.

But there’s a moment in front of us, in a way that only true competition will reveal. Oftentimes, it’s not just the greatness of the opponent that catches you, but the collective wear and tear of so many years that does it.

“These guys, our core group, six Finals runs where you have 24 of these games, you know in one playoff run,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday in Sacramento following their decisive loss to the Kings. “And that's what I was thinking about down the stretch of that game as it was clear we're losing ... our guys have been fighting for so long.”

Even still, the opponent has to sense the opportunity. Otherwise, the old guys will rely on muscle memory and guile to live another day. The Warriors have had multiple iterations of runs over the past decade, but Curry has been the epicenter, even when Durant was there and arguably the better player.

James finds a way to resurface every few years in another market with more resources. Pairing with Anthony Davis gave him new life and a way to change how he ages while still being centered as The Guy. If the Warriors have gone though so many changes in their decade-long run, James has been on the stage longer and, with Davis by his side, has outlasted yet another rival. But Jokić remains, ready to send James and the Lakers to the same boat the Warriors have gone fishin’ in.

Maybe that will lessen the dependency on these all-time greats and have the NBA world — networks and fans — transition to the deepest pool of talent the league has seen.

That’s what we’re often told, that there’s more stars in the league than ever.

“I remember when Magic [Johnson] retired and Larry [Bird] retired, Michael [Jordan] retired and Kobe [Bryant] retired, you know people were [going], 'Oh my god,' you know,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at his Board of Governors news conference last week. "It’s just that new and different stars end up emerging and, you know, have their own personalities, their own styles, the next generation of fans care as much about them as they did the players before them.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - JANUARY 20: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts to Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the third quarter at Target Center on January 20, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Thunder defeated the Timberwolves 102-97. 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 David Berding/Getty Images)
NBA fans could be seeing a lot of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this spring. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander probably isn’t as much a household name, playing in Oklahoma City, but the Thunder are the top seed in the West for a reason. If they had the fortune — or misfortune — of playing the Lakers in Round 1, it would’ve been a chance to see him lead the way in ushering James and Davis to the old folks’ home.

It’s a delicate dance these new jacks have. You want the biggest stage, the biggest challenge, but with that comes the chance Durant can put together greatness for a few games and cobble together effectiveness in others. Just enough to put you out and move on, because you don’t have enough experience in these matters to recognize the moment.

Just as there’s a fine line between experienced and old, it’s similar for the youth. Exuberance is one thing, excitement comes with the territory, but it can be immaturity. It can burn out quickly, in a playoff sense.

And the league is probably hesitant to invest in entities other than the tried and true. To think, Giannis and Jokić represented the only two Finals where there was no LeBron, no Steph, and no Durant since 2010.

Remember that one? Lakers-Celtics? Kobe Bryant?

If you start the TV era with Magic and Bird’s arrival in 1980, the Finals have featured at least one of these megastars (except for two): Magic, Bird, Kareem, Isiah, Jordan, Hakeem, Shaq, Kobe, Tim Duncan, and today’s big three of LeBron, Steph and KD.

That’s 12 players over 44 years, then the Giannis and Jokić years. Each of those stars has been in at least three Finals and won a Finals MVP. Each has placed an indelible mark, a unique one to where the story of basketball cannot be told accurately and completely without mentioning them.

It’s just at some point, someone will seize the day and the moment, and make sure Adam Silver centers him as the next torchbearer.