Behold, the final month of the NBA regular season, which will look different than usual and not just because it’s taking place in May. Thanks to the newly created Play-In Tournament, the level of drama has increased a level, creating a chance for a furious finish not normally seen previously.
But that’s not the only intrigue that will be unraveled and resolved over the next few weeks. As a handful of teams conduct arm-wrestling for the last handful of playoff spots, other developments are also taking place and will help shape the course of the 2020-21 season.
And so: Here are 10 stretch-run storylines that should spice up the final month and create conversation.
Playoff droughts. Before we take this particular discussion to a positive place, we must briefly delve into a bit of sorrow and bow heads in the direction of the Sacramento Kings, virtually assured of their 15th straight season without reaching the postseason. The last time the Kings reached that promised land was 2006, when current rookie Tyrese Haliburton was wearing B’Gosh clothes in his native Oshkosh, Wisc.
Anyway, onward: The Suns have officially snapped their 10-year drought by virtue of soaring up the standings this season, which leaves the Knicks (seven years), Hornets (four), Hawks and Grizzlies (three each) looking to snap the NBA’s next longest dry spells, with the Knicks obviously owning the most egregious stretch and therefore the most desperate.
Honestly, New York has endured a pair of “lost decades” where the club appeared in the postseason only four times and advanced beyond the first round just once. It would be painful throughout the Big City if the Knicks, especially after a recent stretch of winning nine of 10 games and climbing to fourth place in the East, somehow fall into the Play-In Tournament and then lose their footing there. Should they and the other hopefuls on this list survive, it would give the postseason a new look and interesting new players to watch, such as Devin Booker, LaMelo Ball, Julius Randle, Ja Morant and Trae Young.
As for Booker, we got a taste last fall of what he’d probably deliver in a playoff-like atmosphere, when he helped the Suns go undefeated and run the table in the regular-season continuation in bubble, unfortunately falling short of the play-in.
As for Randle, and assuming the Knicks are in, can he take ownership of a town he shares with the Brooklyn Big Three?
New conference leaders. Sticking with the Suns, can they pull off the feat of going from zero to 60 — no playoffs to best record in the conference — in one year? They’re currently involved in a neck-snapping race in the West with the Jazz, who are also somewhat new to this conference-leader game. The last time the Suns, who have the NBA’s best record since Feb. 1, finished with the best record was 2004-05 when Steve Nash was running with Amar’e Stoudemire instead of Kevin Durant and Co. Utah last copped best record in 1997-98 when Stockton was throwing to Malone.
And speaking of fresh faces, the same situation is crystalizing in the East, where the Sixers and Nets appear primed to wrestle best-record honors from the Bucks, who held it the last two seasons. The last time the Nets were No. 1, they were based in New Jersey, not far from where a kid named Kyrie Irving was shooting hoops in the driveway. Likewise, Allen Iverson took the Sixers to their last top spot, back when Joel Embiid was still playing soccer in the homeland.
Of course, as the Bucks can painfully attest, securing the bag at the top doesn’t come with any guarantees; if it did, the Bucks would have at least one NBA Finals to their credit instead of none. This point must be stressed in the very strange and coronavirus-affected 2020-21 season, where there are expected to be capacity-controlled crowds and therefore no true home-court advantage (or road disadvantage). The last time both No. 1 seeds reached the Finals was 2015, Warriors vs. Cavs.
3-point barrage. In a recent Q&A on this website, Hall of Fame basketball scribe Bob Ryan called the 3-point line the worst basketball development in his lifetime. Others will disagree. No matter which side of the 3 you sit, there’s no debate about the shot’s influence on the game, and this season is further and ample evidence of that.
As of the weekend, there were 49 players shooting at least 40%, and 10 shooting at least 44%. And of the heavy volume shooters — those who attempt at least six per game — Joe Harris of the Nets and Joe Ingles of the Jazz stood at 48 and 47%. Seven players are on pace to shoot 45% or better, which would be the NBA single-season record, and one of them is a rookie, Desmond Bane of the Grizzlies.
This inflationary trend is amplified by the case of Marcus Morris. In his rookie season back in 2011-12, he took a total of 17 from deep, making two. Fast forward to now, he’s taking five a game for the Clippers, which represent half of his total field-goal attempts (quite a switch for a player once known for being a rugged inside force), and making 47%.
And speaking of the Clippers, they lead all NBA teams at 41%, while the second-place Jazz attempt 43 a game, which represents half of their total field-goal attempts per game. Meaning, for every two-point shot they try, they shoot a 3.
And notice we haven’t even discussed Steph Curry … yet.
Scoring champ race. The NBA has seen a few down-to-the-wire races for the scoring championship, with two that spring to mind: The George Gervin-David Thompson shootout on the final day in 1978, when Ice needed 59 to clinch it and he scored 63; and the David Robinson-Shaquille O’Neal bout in 1994, when Robinson scored 71 points on the final day to win.
Do you suppose we’re headed for something similar between Curry and Bradley Beal, who are almost in a tie at the moment? Beal is in a bit of a “slump,” having averaged “just” 27 points over the last two months. Meanwhile, as you know, Curry went insane in April. Both the Warriors and Wizards are engaged in intense playoff chases so those teams will lean heavily on those scorers. Curry has a bit of an edge in that the Wizards and Beal can at least rely partially on Russell Westbrook, whereas Curry lacks a strong scoring co-star. Finally, it’ll depend on who really wants it, and the cooperation of the coaches and those franchises.
Just FYI: On the final day of the season, Curry gets the Grizzlies and Beal gets the Hornets, for whatever it’s worth. And here’s something else to keep in mind: Curry has the late game that day, which means he’ll know exactly how much he’ll need, if it’s close.
Curry and the Warriors’ playoffs chances. Let’s assume, for the purposes of this argument, that Curry wins that scoring race. Well, then what about the other race — for the playoffs?
The so-called question regarding Curry is that, if he’s one of the 15 or 20 greatest players of all time — and definitely the greatest shooter — shouldn’t he carry his team to the playoffs by any means necessary, regardless of the amount of help? This task is always difficult for normal-sized NBA players.
Only a few have broken through, most famously Allen Iverson in 2001 when he took a nondescript Sixers team to The Finals. Also, Westbrook helped OKC to the playoffs the year after the Thunder lost Kevin Durant. Therefore, that sounds fair for someone of Curry’s caliber.
Anyway, back to the scoring race connection: The last time a player won the scoring race and didn’t make the playoffs was 2003-04, when Tracy McGrady couldn’t overcome the loss of Grant Hill and won only 21 games in Orlando (which cost Doc Rivers his job but also helped Rivers join the Celtics).
Los Angeles and the West seeding. If the LA teams finish in the 4-5 spot, it would either be good or bad timing, depending on your view. Good, because it would give us the greatest on-paper first-round matchup in NBA history. Bad, in that these teams, perhaps the favorites to emerge from the West, would normally meet later down the line, such as the conference finals. That said, there’s a fair chance LA vs. LA could materialize.
The conventional basketball wisdom had the Nuggets stumbling after losing Jamal Murray for the season, except nobody told Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic, and so far the loss has been minimal and the Nuggets are in a fight with the Clippers for No. 3.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have just welcomed back LeBron James and before that, Anthony Davis, yet in order to recover ground in the standings, those two will need to burn plenty of minutes, which the Lakers are probably not inclined to do. Right now the 4-5 position is too close to call, with mere games separating the Lakers, Blazers and Mavericks, but this bears watching through the final week.
Kia Rookie of the Year race. OK, so here’s the deal: How much should missed games count, specifically, the time LaMelo Ball spent recovering from a wrist injury that of course wasn’t his fault? Because right up until he fell and grabbed such wrist, Ball was the overwhelming favorite for the award.
But, stuff happened, and also credit Anthony Edwards for raising his own game, and now there’s a race … we think. With Ball now back in the lineup and having the advantage of helping a team in a playoff chase, the intensity of this ROY race will increase a tick.
It should be fun to watch the Wolves, who have nothing to play for, shovel the ball in the direction of Edwards if only to salvage something from yet another disappointing season.
And also fun to see the Hornets, who obviously feel the award should belong to Ball, do whatever they can to help him reclaim his spot in the driver’s seat, assuming he lost it after the injury.
Kia MVP race. So, who’s the front-runner? The popular social media answer is Nikola Jokic and you wonder if it’s possible to have more suspense in this chase given the dwindling number of games remaining. Jokic is and was helped by injuries — none to himself, and injuries to Joel Embiid and LeBron James, which caused them to miss precious games. And health could wind up being one of the determining factors. That’s certainly no slap at Jokic, who’s having a terrific season and whose value to his team rose even higher with Jamal Murray’s season-ending injury. If Jokic keeps the Nuggets from falling in the West, then this race could be a wrap.
First team All-NBA frontcourt. This is one of the more under-the-radar races of the season. Only three can be chosen from LeBron, Embiid, Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo — who’s the odd man out?
Again, because voters might cite the number of games missed by LeBron and therefore avoid making a tough choice, this could be decided by injury to a degree. The last time he failed to make first team was his pulled groin season of 2019, and before that, not since 2007. Of course, the same injury excuse could be used against Embiid. Either way, it promises to be a fascinating result.
And as a close second, what about the race for the All-NBA teams among guards? There are six spots, and here are the candidates: Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook and triples. Speaking of Russ, here we go again: He’s doing something that only one player has ever done before — the legendary Oscar Robertson, but Russ’ consistency is even greater — yet the applause from the basketball world seems muted. That’s weird, because when Curry makes a ton of 3s — something he has done before — folks go crazy. When Russ goes on a triple-double rampage, as he’s currently doing once again … crickets. Even crazier: The first time he averaged a triple-double for a season, he won MVP. The next time, he didn’t even make first team All-NBA. This year? Not even an All-Star.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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