Top April storylines around the NBA

Vincent Frank
Courtesy of Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today Sports
USA Today Images

Now that there are officially less than two weeks remaining in the NBA season, the drama is really about to start.

Can the Golden State Warriors cap off what has already been a historical regular season by surpassing the Chicago Bulls Association record of 72 wins?

Who will earn the final few playoff spots in the Western Conference? Are there really going to be multiple teams separated by just a couple games in seeding back east?

All of these questions will be answered with the backdrop of one of the greatest players in NBA history calling it a career.

These are among the top stories to watch around the NBA for the month of April.

1. Can the Golden State Warriors make history?

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Boasting a 68-7 record heading into April and undefeated at home, Golden State’s opportunity to make history is coming to a head here. It needs to win five of seven to end the season in order to best the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls single-season record of 72 wins.

As if the news couldn’t get any better for Warriors fans, five of their final seven games are at home.

There’s also this whole home-court advantage thing in play. Golden State boasts a five-game lead over San Antonio for the top seed, and can clinch that spot over the weekend.

The Warriors’ next four games are at home against Boston, Portland, Minnesota and San Antonio. With a 36-0 record at home, it’s safe to say that the Bulls record is in jeopardy.

Now consider the Warriors have won 53 consecutive regular season home games and have 72 wins in their past 73 games at Oracle Arena, and it’s becoming readily apparent home-court advantage may equate to the team defending its title.

2. Playoff positioning back east

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It’s not as much about who is going to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Instead, it’s all about where the playoff teams are going to be seeded when all is said and done.

As of Friday, 1.5 games separate the third and sixth seeds with the Atlanta Hawks heading the pack and the Boston Celtics falling back a tad. Depending on how this plays out, we should actually see Boston end up acquiring home-court advantage in the first round against the aforementioned Hawks.

In between, the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets are tied for the fourth seed. If three and six remain the same, whoever finishes with a better record there will have home court in that potential first-round series.

Having won 13 of their past 16 games, Atlanta is the hottest of this group. That said, the team does have outings against Cleveland (twice), Toronto and Boston remaining on the schedule.

The easiest remaining schedule of this bunch goes to a Hornets team that’s posted a 20-6 record since the start of February. Of their remaining eight games, a total of four of them come against Philadelphia, New York, Brooklyn and Orlando.

The seeding here is going to be incredibly important. Of this foursome, only the Hawks boast a winning record on the road with Charlotte coming in 16-20 away from the beehive.

3. Bottom rung playoff contenders out west

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Let’s just assume for a second that the free-falling Memphis Grizzlies have guaranteed themselves a playoff spot. If that’s the case, four teams are battling for the final three postseason spots in the Western Conference. A total of three games separate these four squads.

In fact, the Portland Trail Blazers, currently the sixth seed, could earn a top-five spot or fall completely out of the playoffs when all is said and done.

The interesting dynamic here, especially in comparison to recent seasons, is that there’s a decent chance two teams will earn a playoff spot with a losing record out west. Remember, Oklahoma City missed out on the postseason with a 45-37 record last year.

What’s bad news for the bottom rung playoff contenders has to be considered good news for both Golden State and San Antonio. While there are specific first-round matchups that could give each team trouble, it’s highly unlikely either one will be challenged when all is said and done.

The one huge game to watch here is an outing between the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks coming up Wednesday. Only a half game separates Dallas (seventh seed) and Houston (ninth seed).

In between those two stands a Utah Jazz squad that’s playing the best basketball of any lower seed out west. Based on their recent performance (8-3 over the past 11 games), it’s safe to say Quin Snyder and Co. will be playing postseason basketball.

If it does indeed come down to Houston and Dallas for the eighth seed, that will be one titanic matchup in Texas. Meanwhile, Portland sits just three games up on Houston for the eighth seed with games coming up against Miami, Golden State and Oklahoma City over the next week.

Then you have the free-falling Grizzlies — a team that seemed to be guaranteed a playoff spot just a week or so ago. Losers of eight of 10, Memphis is just 4.5 games up on Houston for the final playoff spot.

With a season-ending schedule that includes Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, Golden State (twice) and the Clippers, is it possible this injury-plagued team could self destruct in a manner we haven’t seen in recent Association history.

The drama out west is plentiful. And with so many important games remaining in the regular season, we are sure to learn a lot over the next several days.

4. The ho-hum NBA MVP race

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Stephen Curry is the Association’s MVP. He will be awarded this accomplishment for a second consecutive season. He may actually be that rare unanimous Most Valuable Player. This has to be the end game, right?

If so, the only questions remaining is who might challenge him for a first-place MVP vote and who will finish in the top five.

Based on his recent performances, it’s relatively clear that Russell Westbrook will receive some votes. He averaged 21.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game in March, leading the Thunder to an 11-5 record in the process.

If it’s Curry and Westbrook atop the hierarchy here, who comes in third? Maybe Kawhi Leonard for his overall play in San Antonio. We all know LeBron James will receive some love after helping lift the Cleveland Cavaliers up during what has been a drama-filled season.

But what about Curry’s teammate in Golden State, Draymond Green? The first-time All-Star just became the first player in NBA history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists, 100 steals and 100 blocks in a season. Just let that one sink in for a second.

It’s a true representation of just how good Green has been from an all-around standpoint in what has been a historical season for his team. This is only magnified by the fact that he’s on pace to put up the best plus-minus in NBA history, besting Michael Jordan’s 1995-96 campaign.

Oh, and Green’s basic stats tell us a story of a dominating all-around performance. He’s averaging 13.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. All the while, the smallish power forward is shooting 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range.

Green won’t win the MVP. He’s highly unlikely to finish in the top three. But there’s no reason why he shouldn’t end up as one of the top-five Most Valuable Players. That’s what this award is about. And in reality, that’s what Green has been this season.

5. Philadelphia 76ers chasing the wrong kind of history

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The 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks can pop that champagne and celebrate a bit. Their mark for the worst record (8-67) in NBA history is safe. Though, with two more losses, these 76ers will earn the distinction of putting up the most losses in a single season.

It’s a mighty fine accomplishment considering Philadelphia also boasts the second-worst record in Association history, putting that up in their trophy case back in 1972-73.

With games coming up against Charlotte and Indiana over the next couple days, Philadelphia is sure to break the mark for the most losses in the history of the game.

What fans should be looking at is what the team has done more recently. Including its current 10-game losing streak, Philadelphia has dropped 23 of its past 24 games. To put this into perspective, the Warriors have lost a grand total of 22 games since the start of LAST season.

Philadelphia should just go ahead and give itself a round of applause here. This is a level of horrible few before have ever reached. It’s now time to close this sucker out with a bang.

6. Coaches on the hot seat

Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

There are a plethora of coaches currently looking at the end of their tenures with their respective teams.

We already know about George Karl in Sacramento. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the Kings will be firing him here shortly. Though, a recent report suggests that they want him to resign in order to avoid paying him the remainder of that deal. Good luck with that, Vlade!

Outside of California’s capital city, one name to watch is Scott Skiles in Orlando. Entering the season with playoff aspirations, the Magic are going to finish with a losing record for the fourth consecutive season. And while most believe Orlando should give Skiles more than one season, the lack of progression we saw from a season ago has to be worrisome.

Randy Wittman in Washington, Byron Scott with the Los Angeles Lakers and even Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks are all names to watch here as well.

7. Kobe Bryant’s last hurrah

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Not too often do we see a player last long enough to be considered both a young punk and a savvy veteran in the same career. And while Kobe’s self-deprecating humor will tell us he’s only one of those things, we know the true story here.

Not too often do we see a player enter the NBA with so much fanfare only to see his name take a tremendous hit before repairing his own image.

I was (dating myself here) 13 years old when Kobe entered the NBA. As a Golden State Warriors fan, I had just seen my team drop to the depths of bottom-feeding status — a place they would hold for the better part of the next two decades.

During that time, the shining light down south that were the Los Angeles Lakers won five NBA titles. As envious as this Warriors fan might have been, and no matter the disdain he had for the Lakers, there was always some respect shown to Kobe.

That right there is the true genius of Bryant’s career. He transcended fandom in the truest sense of the word, opening up basketball to a new generation of real basketball fans in the process.

Now that Kobe has seven more games remaining in his Hall of Fame worthy career, it’s times like these that we have to look back at the greatness that was. His last game will be at home on April 13th against the Utah Jazz. His lasting legacy won’t be coming to an end anytime soon.

8. The one fine line

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Just 2.5 games up on the Toronto Raptors for the top seed back east, Cleveland decided to rest LeBron James against the Houston Rockets earlier this week. The result was a six-point home loss to a substandard opponent.

The loss isn’t too surprising considering Cleveland boasts a 4-13 record when James sits over the past two seasons. The decision to rest him, however, is a bit perplexing without the top seed wrapped up. It will be interesting to see how head coach Tyronn Lue plays this moving forward.

Not so perplexing is the fact that Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have conceded the top seed out west to the Warriors. Already knowing overtaking Golden State was a long shot, Pop has made the decision to rest his star players on multiple occasions since the two last met.

He will likely do the same in the two remaining games against Golden State as a way to avoid giving away how he plans on defending the highest-scoring team in the NBA.

As it relates to the Warriors, Steve Kerr has said that they are going for the Chicago Bulls regular season record for wins.

With five more wins needs to surpass that mark, Kerr and Co, hope that it comes in time for him to be able to rest the team’s star players at least once before the playoffs.

The interesting dynamic here is that most teams in the position the Warriors found themselves in this week would have rested their players in the second half of a back to back in the high altitude environment of Salt Lake City. Instead, Kerr rode his starters to an overtime win.

This could end up biting the Warriors in the backside. Who cares if the team wins 73 games if it isn’t hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June?

All these coaches are smarter than you and I. They know what works best for their specific teams. It’s still going to be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out in April and moving forward.