The Eastern Conference-leading Brooklyn Nets will play their 52nd game on Wednesday night, leaving 20 more games to play in the regular season before the NBA hosts a play-in tournament for seeds 7-10 in both conferences from May 18-21. We have officially reached the stretch run of the 2020-21 campaign with plenty left unsettled.
These are the five most pressing questions left to be answered over the final 40 days of the regular season.
How far will the Lakers fall?
Since Anthony Davis re-aggravated his Achilles injury on Valentine's Day, his Los Angeles Lakers are 10-12, falling from second place in the Western Conference standings to a half-game out of sixth. And in the two weeks since LeBron James suffered a high ankle sprain on March 20, they are 3-6, still facing a top-five most difficult schedule.
Even the most optimistic timelines have both superstars "a ways away" from returning. There is a real chance the hard-charging Dallas Mavericks — owners of the West's third-best record since the start of February — could catch the Lakers in the meantime. Two additional weeks without either Davis or James would leave L.A. with just 14 games to climb out of the play-in tournament. Any longer, and the Lakers risk losing a two-game set against the Mavs on April 22 and 24 that could all but decide the top six seeds with single-digit games remaining in the regular season.
This is a big deal, and not just because the Lakers would be facing a play-in gauntlet that could feature a single-elimination showdown against Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors or Zion Williamson's New Orleans Pelicans. Surviving means a first-round showdown against a top-two seed. It is conceivable the Lakers roll through all of it the same way they did en route to the championship last year, when Davis and James were well-rested and healthy.
It seems equally likely, if not more so, that the Utah Jazz or another team that would presumably be entering the playoffs red hot will pose a real threat to the Lakers, especially if Davis or James or both are still not 100%. The Phoenix Suns, currently in second place, own the NBA's best record since the start of February. Either the L.A. Clippers or Denver Nuggets would need to finish the season on a tear to eclipse the Suns for the second seed.
To that end, even a fifth- or sixth-place finish in the West leaves no guarantee the Lakers would survive the first round. Limited crowd capacities might mitigate their road disadvantage, but each successive season represents James' best shot at his fifth title (and the possibility of catching Michael Jordan's six rings) and this one is in peril.
Does Aaron Gordon make the Denver Nuggets a legit title threat?
BetMGM odds on the 2021 championship did not shift significantly after an active trade deadline and buyout market, but there is still enough time left in the regular season for any acquisition to prove his value on a contender.
Aaron Gordon is the most likely candidate to fit this bill. The Nuggets are 4-0 since acquiring him from the Orlando Magic, outscoring opponents by 28.3 points per 100 possessions with Gordon on the floor in limited non-garbage minutes. His insertion into a role previously played by Jerami Grant last season and filled mainly by 35-year-old Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green this year is a potential game-changer for the defending Western Conference finalists.
Gordon has the ability to play high-level defense as a swingman in a switching system. His athleticism gives Nikola Jokic — an MVP candidate and the greatest passing center in NBA history — another weapon at his disposal. We just have yet to see either on display in many meaningful basketball games. The importance of playoff positioning at the top of the West will give us plenty of opportunities to preview whether he can maximize his value and theirs.
The respective additions of Rajon Rondo and Norman Powell to the Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers may have smaller-scale impacts on playoff ceilings that are ultimately tied more heavily to the performance of existing cores.
The Nuggets have always been a tier below championship level, as last year's five-game conference finals proved once again, but the vulnerability of the Lakers opens the window to contention a little wider. Utah and Phoenix, the two current top seeds, are even less proven in the playoffs. The Clippers still feel like a team with the most potential, but they have yet to prove it on any big stage and carry with them the burden of historical and recent playoff failure.
Like the Blazers, the Mavericks presumably improved their depth at the deadline, adding Nicolo Melli and J.J. Redick from the Pelicans, but no could-be West contender made a potentially more drastic upgrade than Denver.
Out East, moves around the margins could mean the difference in how the entire bracket shakes out. ...
Will the East produce a clear favorite?
It is a three-horse race for the No. 1 seed between the Brooklyn Nets (35-16), Philadelphia 76ers (34-16) and Milwaukee Bucks (32-17), all of whom upgraded their rotations. The Nets signed bought-out former stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Sixers added veteran guard George Hill as an alternative to paying a steeper price for All-Star floor general Kyle Lowry. And the Bucks dealt for veteran forward P.J. Tucker before the deadline.
Hill has yet to play for Philadelphia because of a thumb injury, and Tucker strained his calf 44 minutes into his tenure in Milwaukee. Griffin and Aldridge have already helped Brooklyn weather hamstring-induced absences of superstars Kevin Durant and James Harden, but it remains to be seen whether any move makes clearer a favorite in the East.
Of greater import is the health of players who make them favorites. Durant is nearing his return from a two-month absence, but the 32-year-old's first game back will be just his 20th since June 2019. Harden left four minutes into Monday's game with a strain in the same hamstring that kept him out of two previous games. Joel Embiid returned to Philadelphia's lineup from a three-week knee injury absence to play the first game of a back-to-back on Saturday.
Remaining regular-season games will be dedicated to ensuring all three paradigm shifters enter the playoffs as close to peak form as possible, even if it means Brooklyn or Philadelphia ceding its grip on a higher seed. In the process, a healthy Milwaukee contingent may navigate its way to a third straight No. 1 seed. Jrue Holiday's play gives reason to believe the Bucks made a necessary playoff upgrade around Giannis Antetokounmpo, but whether we trust them again as favorites in the East will ultimately depend on what kind of momentum the Nets and 76ers maintain.
Brooklyn on paper is the best of the bunch, but Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving have appeared in just seven games together. The Nets will remain a question mark until they can forge some semblance of continuity before the playoffs.
The Sixers seemingly corrected their chemistry issues by overhauling the roster around Embiid and Ben Simmons, although they also bring baggage from previous playoff shortfalls. It may be a three-horse race for the top seed in the conference, but all three teams have more than just seeding to settle over the final six weeks of the regular season.
How does the East's 4-5 matchup shake out?
A single game separates the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat (both 26-24) from the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics (both 25-25), with the Charlotte Hornets (25-24) smushed between in sixth place. Every night reshuffles the order, and none of those teams has put together a sustained stretch of quality basketball to emerge from the pack.
Miami and Boston, last year's conference finalists, are the most likely teams to avoid the play-in tournament. Both have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 this season. The Heat and Celtics remain the most talented of the bunch, and respective deadline additions of Victor Oladipo and Evan Fournier should stabilize their most pressing issues. All else should be resolved when pride assumes the place of apathy in the face of a worrisome play-in spot.
Besides, the Hornets and Knicks have both lost key cogs in their underdog pursuits of a guaranteed playoff spot. Charlotte's Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball, respectively the team's best player and the league's one-time Rookie of the Year favorite, may be lost for the regular season (or close to it) with ankle and wrist injuries. Likewise, New York starting center Mitchell Robinson suffered a broken right foot on March 28. There is no guarantee either avoids falling below eighth place over the next six weeks and into a single-elimination situation in the play-in tournament.
The fourth-place Hawks are the biggest threat to keep the Heat and Celtics from playing a conference finals rematch in the first round. Atlanta is 12-4 since firing coach Lloyd Pierce and promoting assistant Nate McMillan. In the East, since the start of March, only the Sixers have a better net rating than the Hawks' +6.1, and Atlanta is close to adding De'Andre Hunter's 16 points per game back into the fold. Ending a three-year playoff drought is no longer their goal.
Securing fourth or fifth place means far more in the East than merely avoiding the play-in tournament. It also means avoiding a 3-6 matchup with either the Sixers, Nets or Bucks. There is virtually no path to the conference finals from a starting point that leaves open the possibility of facing Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Philadelphia in successive rounds.
The hope for any of the five teams separated by a single loss is to play a winnable first-round series against another in that same handful, with the possibility that the East's top overall seed hobbles through a second-round matchup as Nos. 2 and 3 duke it out on the opposite side of the bracket. That was Miami's route to the Finals last season.
Who actually cares about the play-in tournament?
Only five teams have effectively tapped out from the 2021 playoffs: the Minnesota Timberwolves (13-38), Houston Rockets (13-37), Detroit Pistons (15-35), Orlando Magic (17-33) and Oklahoma City Thunder (20-30). Technically, the Magic and Thunder are still within four games of 10th place and the final play-in spot in both conferences, but their respective decisions to conduct a fire sale and bench Al Horford for the remainder of the season were white flags.
The San Antonio Spurs (24-24) and Golden State Warriors (23-27) have managed to hold onto ninth and 10th place in the West despite free falls respectively preceded by a coronavirus outbreak and Stephen Curry's tailbone injury. Still lurking are the Pelicans (22-27) and Sacramento Kings (22-29). Playoff pedigree splits those four teams clearly in half, and you wonder if a play-in spot is more motivation for teams that have not ever tasted postseason success.
"I realize, as we are currently constituted, we are not a championship contender," Warriors coach Steve Kerr conceded last week in response to Draymond Green's recent comments regarding motivation to earn a spot in the play-in tournament. "So, I understand what Draymond is saying, and after so many years of being a championship contender, it is tough to look at the standings and say, 'Wow, we’re just trying to make it into the play-in stuff.'"
There is real value in the Pelicans and Kings — two young cores with zero playoff experience — making a run at a play-in spot, even if an early exit is the reward. The Spurs and Warriors must also see the value in a lottery spot. San Antonio has not drafted in the top 10 since selecting Tim Duncan No. 1 overall in 1997. Golden State eyes a return to prominence with Klay Thompson back in the fold next season, and the increased odds at a top-four pick that come from falling further in the standings mean far more to their future than any grit gained through battling for 10th.
The dividing lines in the East are less clear. The Hornets, Knicks and Chicago Bulls will surely be pushing for playoff spots that would validate their development efforts through years-long droughts. Chicago traded for All-Star center Nikola Vucevic for this very reason and sits in 10th place, two games behind the ninth-place Indiana Pacers (22-26).
Indiana's entire modus operandi has been the pursuit of a middling playoff spot, but maybe the front office finally views their first lottery pick in six years as a necessary reset for a team that has been stuck in the mud all season.
Behind the Bulls are the Toronto Raptors (20-30), Cleveland Cavaliers (18-32) and Washington Wizards (17-32).
Raptors coach Nick Nurse is staunchly opposed to tanking, at least publicly, but there is no doubt Toronto — two years removed from the franchise's first title — would benefit more from a rare top-10 pick than play-in experience.
The Wizards should be embarrassed to trail the Cavaliers at this point in the season. How Cleveland can still claim to be in the hunt is a testament to how bad the bottom half of the East is. The Cavs have no shot. The Wizards might, if they can tap back into their February success once All-Star guard Bradley Beal returns from a hip injury that has left him day to day. Failing to make the playoffs for a third straight season will not bode well for Beal's future with the franchise, but nabbing another high-end pick would give the Wizards another asset to improve a roster around him.
These are the directions teams will be forced to choose between in the coming weeks, when those not named the Wolves, Rockets, Pistons, Magic and Thunder will more heavily weigh the difference in the odds between landing a top-four pick from a failed play-in bid (ranging from 2.4% to 9.4%) or a bottom-10 record (13.9% to 42.1%).
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