[brid autoplay=”true” video=”753522″ player=”23231″ title=”Julius%20Randle%20Deserves%20the%20NBA's%20Most%20Improved%20Player%20Award%20over%20Zion%20Williamson” duration=”90″ description=”Carolyn Manno asks Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix if New York Knicks star Julius Randle deserves the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Mannix makes the case for Randle and explains why Pelicans star Zion Williamson should be exempt from winning.” uploaddate=”2021-04-09″ thumbnailurl=”//cdn.brid.tv/live/partners/17660/thumb/753522_t_1617917936.png” contentUrl=”//cdn.brid.tv/live/partners/17660/sd/753522.mp4″]
The 2020-21 NBA regular season is slated to come to a culmination here in less than two weeks. It’s been a drama-filled past several months with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers looking nothing like a title contender. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics are on the hot seat down the stretch back east.
Two surprising teams in that of the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks are making their names known big time. As for the big names, two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is in the midst of an historical run.
As the season draws to a conclusion and with the playoffs getting going soon, here’s a look at the top-six storylines around the Association right now.
Los Angeles Lakers’ struggles and some internal drama
Now that both LeBron James and Anthony Davis have returned from injury, the hope is that these Lakers have righted the ship. Unfortunately, we have not seen much signs of hope in Southern California recently. Since a 21-6 start to the season, Los Angeles has posted a disastrous 16-22 record. It is now the fifth seed out west, just one game ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers in avoiding a spot in the play-in tournament. Meanwhile, there’s been some recent disfunction behind the scenes as it relates to COVID-19 vaccines.
It’s being reported that guard Dennis Schroder and King James are the only members of the Lakers’ roster to have not received the vaccine. For his part, Schroder is currently away from the team due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. Following their recent win over the Denver Nuggets, Davis opened up about getting the vaccine.
“I’m just trying to play my part to get 20,000 back at Staples so we can get more cheers than we have now,” Davis said before indicating that “it was highly encouraged” by the NBA to get vaccinated.
Either way, the on-court issues are more of a threat to derail the Lakers’ championship aspirations than any drama behind the scenes. Los Angeles has seven games remaining in the regular season. The next four outings come against current playoff teams and James’ ankle injury has popped back up again. Continued struggles, and the Lakers could be facing a spot in the play-in tournament as the seventh seed. That seemed unimaginable just a few short months ago.
Potential play-in tournament pairings in the Eastern Conference
5. Atlanta Hawks (36-30)
6. Miami Heat (35-30)
7. Boston Celtics (34-31)
8. Charlotte Hornets (31-33)
9. Indiana Pacers (30-34)
10. Washington Wizards (30-35)
For now, we can omit the Toronto Raptors (27-38) and Chicago Bulls (26-38) from the conversation. A lot would have to happen in order for either one to earn a spot in the play-in tournament back east. Right now, the Boston Celtics would take on the Washington Wizards with the Charlotte Hornets going up against the Indiana Pacers.
Despite being five games under, the Wizards would act as a major threat to Boston. They are 13-3 in their past 16 games after starting the season 17-32. Bradley Beal remains an MVP-caliber player. Meanwhile, former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook is playing at an awe-inspiring level right now. The dude is averaging 21.9 points, 13.6 rebounds and 13.1 assists during that 16-game span.
We’re also highly intrigued to see if the Atlanta Hawks are forced into the play-in tournament back east. They are currently 1.5 games ahead of the Boston Celtics in attempt to avoid said distinction after the team turned it around big time under interim head coach Nate McMillan. Atlanta has won 22 of 32 since firing Lloyd Pierce. A matchup with the aforementioned Wizards would be an absolute blast and something the NBA would love to see in the play-in tournament.
Crazy Western Conference play-in tournament matchups
5. Los Angeles Lakers (37-28)
6. Dallas Mavericks (36-28)
7. Portland Trail Blazers (36-29)
8. Golden State Warriors (33-32)
9. Memphis Grizzlies (32-32)
10. San Antonio Spurs (31-33)
11. New Orleans Pelicans (29-36)
Assuming for a second that stud young forward Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans don’t sneak in as the 10th seed, the Western Conference’s play-in tournament could still be fun.
Imagine NBA leading scorer Stephen Curry and his Golden State Warriors going up against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. It’s something the Association would push on a never-ending loop. Despite the Warriors’ status as a bottom-tier playoff team, Curry is in the midst of an historically hot season. The dude is averaging 36.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists on 46% shooting from three-point range since the start of April. Right now, we’re not sure that the struggling Lakers would even be favored over Golden State in a play-in scenario.
As for the rest of the field, the Dallas Mavericks remain the most-interesting team to look at. If his squad had posted a better regular-season record, Luka Doncic would firmly be in the NBA MVP conversation. The kid has Dallas in the midst of a stretch that has seen it win six of eight and could potentially help the Mavericks avoid a spot in the play-in tournament.
For now, the Portland Blazers would go up against an upstart San Antonio Spurs team with the Golden State Warriors taking on a surprisingly good and well-rounded Memphis Grizzlies squad in the Western Conference play-in tournament.
Phoenix Suns’ rise to dominance
It really has been something to behold in the Arizona desert this season. Acquired in an offseason trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, future Hall of Fame guard Chris Paul has been the gel to hold this team together. Phoenix is currently battling with the Utah Jazz for the best record in the NBA and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Boasting a 46-18 record, Phoenix is currently in the midst of its best season since all the way back in 2006-07 when Mike D’Antoni was coaching the likes of NBA MVP Steve Nash. It is a legit title contender. And as much as we want to focus on Paul, the ascension to stardom we’ve seen from Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton is as big of a story in the desert.
Booker is in the midst of his most efficient season, averaging 25.6 points on 49% shooting from the field. The No. 1 overall pick in 2018, Ayton might not be living up to the hype of Luka Doncic and Trae Young from that draft class. But he’s been darn good this season. The center is averaging 14.6 points and 10.7 rebounds on 62% shooting from the field. With a rotation that goes nine deep, these Suns could be destined for a deep run in the playoffs and are a true contender for the NBA Finals.
The New York Knicks are back
What Tom Thibodeau has done in his first season with the Knicks is nothing short of extraordinary. Seen as one of the worst teams in the Association when the campaign opened in late December, New York currently boasts a 37-28 record and is the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Julius Randle has been a legit NBA MVP candidate throughout the season. Second-year wing R.J. Barrett has taken his game to an entirely new level.
All of this has New York pretty much set to avoid the play-in tournament back east. Right now, the team would be going up against another upstart squad in the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. A win in that series would potentially set the stage for a second-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. Imagine the storylines there. Yeah, it’s great for the NBA to see these Knicks relevant on the broader league-wide stage once again.
Boston Celtics in the hot seat
At some point, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge will find his fall guy in head coach Brad Stevens. After earning a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals a season ago, these Celtics have been an unmitigated disaster. Using the massive Gordon Hayward trade exception to acquire Evan Fournier at the NBA trade deadline has done nothing to change things in Boston.
Right now, one of the Association’s most-talented teams sits at 34-31 and as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Boston would have to take on a red hot Wizards team in the play-in tournament, a matchup we honestly can’t see the Celtics winning right now. All of this is despite the fact that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have taken their games to the next level, averaging a combined 51.2 points, 13.4 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.
Should Boston fail to make a deep run in the NBA Playoffs, it would not be a surprise if Stevens got his walking papers after eight otherwise successful seasons. All the while, Ainge will continue to push back against giving up actual assets to add a third star with Brown and Tatum. Such is the nature of the beast when decision-makers don’t feel the heat at all.