LeBron James and the Lakers continue to fall in the standings. But should we really be concerned?
Should we be worried about the Lakers as we enter the final weeks of the regular season? The first instinct is to dismiss any concern at all, noting that with both stars healthy, only the Nets have a chance to defeat the reigning champs this summer. But perhaps the answer isn’t so simple.
Los Angeles’s health is no guarantee even as Anthony Davis works himself back into shape. LeBron James is still battling ankle trouble, and Dennis Schröder will miss at least the next week due to COVID-19 protocols. Even if healthy, the Lakers will likely have to beat three of the Clippers, Nuggets, Suns and Jazz to reach the Finals, with Los Angeles not expected to hold home court in any single series. It’s foolish to bet against LeBron as we’ve seen time and again. But this is a stacked conference and an imperfect Lakers roster, with plenty of obstacles in the way on the road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Don’t pencil LeBron & Co. into the Finals just yet.
As the Lakers look to get back on track, let’s bounce around the league with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are unlikely to compete for a playoff spot in 2021–22, but this isn’t a team completely devoid of young talent. Jae’Sean Tate has emerged as a lockdown defender and a fringe Rookie of the Year candidate, and Kevin Porter Jr. is the franchise’s lead guard of the future. Porter Jr. turned in a 50-point, 11-assist performance against the Bucks on April 29, flashing his impressive playmaking and isolation talent. Add in a potential top-three pick (hello, Cade Cunningham?) and we could see Stephen Silas’s squad begin to turn the corner next season.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are tanking to the finish line with a flourish, logging 17 losses in their last 18 contests. The unimpressive finish has led to some criticism of Oklahoma City’s path after an impressive start to the year, but frankly, those castigating the Thunder are missing the point. This is a league built on star talent, and a market like Oklahoma City is never a real player in free agency. With the draft as the only route to contention, I have no problem with the Thunder eying the best lottery odds possible down the stretch.
28. Orlando Magic
Even if Cole Anthony isn’t the most efficient rookie in recent memory, it’s still nice to see him provide some life to an otherwise listless season in Orlando. Anthony drained a game-winning shot over the Grizzlies on Saturday, giving a fantastic postgame press conference to boot. Add a healthy Markelle Fultz and the right lottery pick, and perhaps Anthony can fulfill his NBA destiny as an instant offense piece off the bench in the coming years.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers
It’s been a brutal close to the 2020–21 season for Cleveland as the Cavaliers enter Tuesday night on a six-game losing streak. And there’s been plenty of embarrassment to go with the string of losses. Porter Jr.’s 50-piece for Houston continued to rub salt in the wound after Cleveland gave up on him in January, and Kevin Love’s on-court outburst (and subsequent lack of discipline) illustrated the franchise’s lack of leadership and direction. There is some young talent on this roster, but Cleveland’s still looks light-years from contention amid its latest rebuild.
26. Detroit Pistons
Move over Steph Curry, there’s a new three-point king in town. Well not exactly, but we should take a minute to celebrate Saddiq Bey’s impressive rookie season from beyond the arc. Bey now holds the NBA record for the most games with five-plus threes (10) as a rookie, surpassing Curry and Hall of Famer Allen Iverson in the process. Bey and Isaiah Stewart have been superb as rookies. Killian Hayes has shown flashes of brilliance as a playmaker. If Detroit can land an elite rookie in the lottery, perhaps this is a sneaky play-in contender in 2021–22.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves
Is there a Naz Reid fan club? Can I start a local chapter? Reid’s second NBA season is understandably flying under the radar as Anthony Edwards continues to grow, but we shouldn’t dismiss the impressive performance from the LSU product. Reid is an effective backup big behind Karl-Anthony Towns, providing a dose of spacing and playmaking as well as more defensive versatility than one would assume. Reid stands just 6′ 9″, and he isn’t exactly the fleet of foot. Yet he’s proven to be a delight off the bench for Chris Finch’s squad, filling in the gaps of Minnesota’s rotation with relative ease. He should prove to be an effective complementary piece in Minnesota for years to come.
24. Sacramento Kings
Let’s hope Tyrese Haliburton’s knee injury is a minor one as the Iowa State product concludes his rookie season. Sacramento’s guard has been an effective piece for the Kings since his first week in the league, showing a maturity well beyond his years as a secondary playmaker alongside De’Aaron Fox. Haliburton has handled point guard duties with aplomb in Fox’s absence. He’s been an effective three-point shooter. After Sacramento failed to land Luka Dončić in 2018, Haliburton should be an effective running mate for Fox throughout the 2020s.
23. Chicago Bulls
Perhaps the Bulls dodged a bullet when they failed to come to an extension agreement with Lauri Markkanen before the season. Markkanen hasn’t bounced back in 2020–21 after a serious regression last year, and while he still sports a silky jumper, there’s little impact aside from some solid shooting percentages. Markkanen isn’t a force at the rim on either end. He’s not exactly a playmaker, and there are significant stretches when he disappears from the action. Perhaps Markkanen makes Chicago look foolish in a new location in 2021–22, but from a pure contract perspective, any deal reached before this season would have looked like a serious overpay in retrospect.
22. Toronto Raptors
Toronto’s acquisition of Gary Trent should continue to pay dividends in 2021–22. Trent is an instant offense piece with a smooth shooting stroke, and he provides solid size in the backcourt alongside the diminutive Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Trent elected not to sign a $56 million extension with the Blazers before the 2020–21 season, a move that was suspect to some as he established himself as a third guard in Portland. But after an impressive start to his Toronto career, an extension nearing $80 million could still make some sense for the Raptors before next season.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
Speaking of extensions, don’t be surprised if Lonzo Ball breaks the bank with a nine-figure deal this summer in a weak free-agent class. Ball has broken out in his fourth season in 2020–21, shooting nearly 38% from three as he averages a career-high 14.4 points per game. Ball has always been a brilliant passer, and he’s evolved into both a quality playmaker and finisher at the rim. Will New York throw $100 million his way? Could Houston target Ball if they miss out on a top guard in the draft? There should be plenty of suitors for the former UCLA guard if he’s not retained by the Pelicans.
20. Indiana Pacers
Second-year forward Oshae Brissett is the latest Canadian import to make an impact at the NBA level as he sees an increase in minutes for the Pacers. Brissett is a solid spacer and a versatile defensive piece on the wing, able to upsize and help guard larger forwards and the occasional center in Myles Turner’s absence. Brissett has logged four double doubles in his last eight games. He’s shooting 47.9% from three since April 19. Perhaps Brissett will make an impact in the play-in tournament for Nate Bjorkgren’s squad.
19. San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, with his legacy as a historic figure already secured nearly a decade ago. Which makes his late career turn as a social justice advocate so refreshing. Popovich could have focused his eye solely on the court, ignoring the fight against racial injustice and police brutality as he winds down his career. But that’s not Pop’s nature. He weighed in politically once again on Sunday night, noting his support for San Antonio’s Proposition B, a measure that would have increased police accountability in instances of misconduct. Popovich’s politics aren’t universally popular, but it takes real bravery to use one’s platform to advocate for justice and reform. We’ll miss Popovich’s leadership when he’s gone from the game. Let’s hope that’s not for a long while.
18. Washington Wizards
It’s time to give Russell Westbrook the respect he deserves. Washington’s guard is mounting a surprise All-NBA campaign as we wind down the regular season, with his 21-rebound, 24-assist performance on Monday night putting an exclamation mark on another impressive season. Westbrook is averaging 23.1 points, 12.7 rebounds and 12.5 assists per game since the All-Star break. His 53.4% shooting mark in the clutch is better than Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokić, and he’s hit more clutch threes than Chris Paul and Jayson Tatum. This is a player aging more gracefully than many imagined.
Those who wish to disregard Westbrook’s triple-doubles and gaudy stat-lines are missing the point. Is Westbrook a perfect player? Not at all. But there are few players in league history who play with such maniacal effort every night. Westbrook makes a massive imprint on each game even with a shaky jumper. He’s an elite playmaker, and perhaps the most athletic point guard in league history. Westbrook isn’t slowing down anytime soon. His late-season dominance has been one of the year’s best stories.
17. Charlotte Hornets
Welcome back, LaMelo Ball. Charlotte’s dynamic rookie returned from an extended absence due to a wrist injury on Saturday night, finishing the evening with 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in just 28 minutes. The stuffed stat line is impressive in itself, but it pales in comparison to this absolute dime he tossed in the first quarter. Let’s hope to have a healthy LaMelo for at least the next decade as he racks up the highlight assists.
16. Memphis Grizzlies
Kyle Anderson is the type of piece that can be invaluable to a young team looking to crash the postseason. Anderson isn’t an exemplary player in any one area, but his versatility helps tie up any loose ends on Memphis’s roster. Slo-Mo is a quality secondary playmaker alongside Ja Morant, and he’s often tabbed with guarding an opponent’s best wing. Anderson’s three-point shooting (once a major weakness) has even jumped to a solid 35% this season, and his attempts have skyrocketed compared to previous seasons. If the Grizzlies survive the play-in tournament, Anderson could be a major reason why.
15. Boston Celtics
Evan Fournier has struggled mightily since arriving in Boston, but his inability to get back on track deserves far more sympathy than scorn as he deals with long-term side effects from COVID-19. Get well soon, Evan. Hopefully we can see the best version of Fournier emerge in the postseason.
14. Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry turned in one of the greatest months in NBA history as he tallied 37.3 points per game in April on 52-46-91 shooting splits, and he isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Curry absolutely torched the Pelicans with 41 points and eight assists on Monday night, salvaging a cringey (sorry, it has to be said) Marvel-themed broadcast. We’re arguably in the best stretch of Curry’s career and there very well could be some magic in store in the postseason.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Bogdan Bogdanović and Danilo Gallinari both got off to slow starts to the 2020–21 season, but the offseason acquisitions appear to be peaking at the right time. Both of Atlanta’s wings hit seven threes in Monday’s win over the Blazers, flashing their immense scoring prowess in a shootout against Damian Lillard & Co. Quibble with the money shelled out by the Hawks this offseason if you wish. But even if it wasn’t the most prudent move, the additions of Bogdanović and Gallinari could pay major dividends in the postseason.
12. Miami Heat
Bam Adebayo said on Sunday that he believes he should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, though that isn’t exactly the most novel idea. Read Sports Illustrated’s Michael Pina article for more on Adebayo’s dominant defensive season.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
Perhaps the Blazers are finding a bit of a groove as we head to the home stretch of the regular season. Portland won four straight before losing to Atlanta on Monday night, registering wins over Boston, the Nets and Grizzlies over the last week. Portland ranks No. 2 in offensive rating over the last two weeks. Its defense has been more respectable than disastrous. As the Lakers continue to slide, Portland may very well avoid the play-in tournament after a tenuous regular season.
10. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas likely regrets swapping Seth Curry for Josh Richardson before the 2020–21 season. Richardson isn’t a bad player by any estimation, but he’s struggled to find a true role in his first year with the Mavericks. Luka Dončić (rightfully) doesn’t cede enough possessions for Richardson to thrive as a secondary playmaker. Richardson hasn’t been an effective three-point shooter, and only Kristaps Porziņģis sports a worse defensive rating among Dallas rotation players. Consider this one a swing and a miss from a typically shrewd Mavericks front office.
9. New York Knicks
I hesitate to lean into the career redemption narrative for Derrick Rose, though his performance in New York this season deserves to be recognized. Rose has seen a significant minutes boost in recent nights, tallying 25 points in Monday’s win over the Grizzlies after averaging 18.7 points per game in his last seven contests. Rose has the full trust of Tom Thibodeau. He’s still an effective floor general, and his Chicago burst to the tin is noticeable in brief spurts. The second half of Rose’s career continues to be more fruitful than many envisioned at the end of his Bulls tenure.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Perhaps Monday’s win against the Nuggets will mark a turning point in Anthony Davis’s season. Los Angeles’s superstar big man finished with 25 points in the win over Denver, looking more spry and fluid in transition and as a roller The Lakers need both of their superstars fully healthy to have any chance at the title. Monday’s matchup was a step in the right direction.
7. Denver Nuggets
It’s not really worth discussing the MVP race at this point unless you want to get into the jockeying down the ballot. Nikola Jokić has had this award basically sealed for what feels like a month now, and he put an exclamation mark on his candidacy with a dominant 30-point, 14-rebound performance against the Clippers on Saturday. It’s hard to find a case for really any other player as we approach the final two weeks of the season.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee’s win over the Nets on Sunday was perhaps the best regular-season game of 2020–21, and the contest should give Bucks fans some serious optimism regarding a potential series against Brooklyn. The Nets have absolutely nobody who can slow Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jrue Holiday should be an effective backcourt stopper against either Kyrie Irving or James Harden. I’m not ready to go ahead and pick Milwaukee in a seven-game series against Brooklyn’s Big Three, but the Nets advancing to the Finals is in no way a fait accompli.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
This is a decidedly pro–Paul George column, but it gets increasingly hard to take said position as he turns in another clunker in a big game. George went an abysmal 5–21 from the field in Saturday’s loss to the Nuggets, giving viewers some serious flashbacks to his Game 7 clunker against Denver in the NBA bubble. This is a talented and versatile Clippers roster with a pair of All-NBA wings. But is anyone really picking them to come out of the West? Los Angeles’s reputation may cause it to be a touch underrated as the playoffs approach.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
What a difference a year makes in Philadelphia. The 76ers spent much of the Brett Brown era struggling mightily in crunch time, failing to initiate any semblance of effective offense when it mattered most. The script has flipped in 2020–21. Philly sports the NBA’s fourth-best net rating in clutch situations, and Doc Rivers has found a way to design effective sets for both Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris. The 76ers may not have the traditional firepower that Brooklyn has, nor the three-point prowess of Milwaukee, but this remains a defensive juggernaut with an improved late-game arsenal. Watching Philly operate down the stretch in the postseason will remain a fascinating subplot.
3. Utah Jazz
It’s been a joy to watch Mike Conley play his best basketball in 2020–21. Conley was hampered throughout much of his first season in Utah last year, and his significant decrease in production made many wonder whether his contract would become a major albatross. That narrative has completely faded this year. Conley is in the midst of his best shooting campaign since 2016–17, and he’s found a way to become an effective secondary playmaker alongside Donovan Mitchell. If Utah breaks through and reaches the Finals, Conley will be a major reason why.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Whine about superteams all you want. It remains absurd not to appreciate what we’ve seen from Kevin Durant in 2020–21. Brooklyn’s superstar forward came back from a torn Achilles as good as ever, averaging 28.1 points per game on 55-48-87 shooting splits. Durant returned to the floor after a lengthy absence on April 7 and dropped 17 points on five shots, and he’s now shooting an outrageous 61.3% from the field in his last nine games. Durant has 84 points in his last two contests. He nearly outdueled Giannis in Milwaukee on Saturday. His teammate James Harden may have gaudier single-season averages, but Durant remains the premier scorer of his generation. If he can stay healthy through July, it’s hard to see any team slowing him down.
1. Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul’s MVP case is a little bit silly, but that doesn’t mean his terrific season is beyond recognition. Paul is posting his best shooting season in a decade, and he remains the league’s preeminent floor general. Phoenix is absolutely rolling with a 22–7 record since the All-Star break. Each complementary piece is thriving, and Devin Booker is free to light up the scoreboard at will. Perhaps this is the year the Point God finally breaks free to the Finals.
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