The Warriors’ two-time MVP has kept Golden State afloat in the NBA playoff race after a historic shooting month.
Take a bow, Stephen Curry. The three-time Finals champion has kept the Warriors in the Western Conference playoff race with one of the greatest stretches in recent memory, splashing deep threes and getting to the rim to his heart’s content. Curry’s 85 threes in April entering Tuesday night is an NBA record for the most in a single month. He’s averaging 38.3 points per game in his last 12 contests, and he should finish the season just a hair shy of the 50-40-90 club. Curry has turned what was a disastrous Warriors season into must-watch TV. He’ll be an absolute terror to face in the play-in tournament. At age 33, Curry may be playing the best basketball of his career.
As Curry vaults himself into the MVP race, let’s bounce around the league with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Houston Rockets
Jae’Sean Tate has been a valuable find for the Rockets amid a largely dismal season. Houston’s wing has been a dynamic piece on both ends of the floor as a rookie, generating 11 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Tate can upsize and guard some of the league’s most talented wings, often looking like a smaller P.J. Tucker in the process. Tate is more evolved off the bounce than Tucker was early in his career, and Tate’s jumper should tilt toward respectability in the coming seasons. Consider Tate’s development a silver lining amid a lost year.
29. Orlando Magic
It hasn’t exactly been the most efficient rookie season for Magic guard Cole Anthony. The North Carolina product ranks No. 32 in net rating among the 35 rookies averaging at least 10 minutes per game, and he enters Tuesday night shooting an ugly 38.6% from the field and 30.3% from three. Anthony has some feel for the game as a lead guard, and he could carve out a role in a young Magic rotation in 2021–22. But it’s hard to see a long NBA career ahead without improvement from the field in the coming years.
28. Oklahoma City Thunder
What an impressive tankathon we’re currently seeing from the Thunder. Oklahoma City lost its 14th straight in a shellacking against the 76ers on Monday, and Mark Daigneault’s squad sports an NBA-worst minus-19.9 net rating in April. This isn’t to denigrate Daigneault or the Thunder front office. This was a sneaky competitive unit for much of the season, and when healthy, the combination of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort can serve as the foundation of an impressive young core. More power to Oklahoma City if it wants to Fade for Cade in one of the more egregious tank jobs in recent years.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland has lost six of its last seven following Monday’s defeat against Toronto, and by the looks of it, this is a team that’s one small step away from “1-2-3 Cancun.” Kevin Love’s season can’t end fast enough.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves
Anthony Edwards continues to make notable strides down the stretch in his rookie season, recently finishing with 23 points and nine rebounds in an upset win over the Jazz on Saturday night. Edwards is averaging 22.3 points on a respectable 44.8% from the field and 34.7% from three in his last 15 games. He’s wreaking legitimate havoc in passing lanes. LaMelo Ball would almost certainly go No. 1 in a redraft scenario, but it’s hard to say Minnesota is feeling buyer’s remorse. Edwards has the potential to be a future All-Star and his performance is beginning to mirror his immense talent.
25. Detroit Pistons
Josh Jackson is in the midst of a minor career revival as the Pistons finish out the 2020–21 season. The former No. 4 pick is averaging 17 points per game in April on 39.3% from three, tallying five 20-plus point performances over the last month. Jackson is still an impressive transition force, and he’s more than a stationary shooter in the half court. Credit Detroit’s player development staff for wringing more production than expected out of this hodge-podge group.
24. Sacramento Kings
De’Aaron Fox is slated to miss up to two weeks due to the league’s health and safety protocols, which ultimately isn’t the worst thing for the Kings. Sacramento enters Tuesday night healthily outside the race for the play-in, and Fox could still use a costar on the wing or in the frontcourt (Evan Mobley would be a nice fit) despite Tyrese Haliburton’s strong rookie season. Don’t be surprised if we don’t see Fox until the start of the 2021–22 season.
23. Chicago Bulls
What are you doing, Denzel Valentine? Chicago’s guard may have taken the lead for the season’s worst possession on Saturday night, launching an ill-advised triple as if he were Steph Curry in the final minute. I won’t spoil the moment for you. Chicago announcers Adam Amin and Stacey King can take it from here.
22. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are getting healthy at the right time, and Khem Birch’s emergence in their rotation has provided a much-needed boost to a beleaguered frontcourt. But Toronto’s upcoming schedule could dash its play-in hopes despite the recent strong stretch. Nick Nurse’s squad kicks off a five-game road trip on Tuesday night, with a matchup against the Nets preceding a Western Conference road trip with games against the Nuggets, Jazz, Lakers and Suns. Survive the trip and Toronto could steal a top-10 seed. But even finishing 2–3 in this five-game gantlet could prove difficult.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans dropped a must-win game in their push for a Western Conference play-in spot on Saturday in a 110–108 defeat against the Spurs. And a slate of familiar problems emerged once again in the loss. New Orleans tallied 19 turnovers against San Antonio, and it missed 15 free throws, including a 7–13 mark from Zion Williamson. This is a talented young squad with Williamson at the helm, and some sloppy late-game execution isn’t necessarily a barometer of things to come over the next few seasons. But the dream of watching Zion in the play-in tournament is dying by the week.
20. Indiana Pacers
Credit to Nate Bjorkgren and the Pacers as they hold onto a playoff spot despite Myles Turner’s season-ending injury. Indiana enters Tuesday night as winners of three straight, with point guard Malcolm Brogdon playing some of his best basketball of the season during the winning streak. There’s no superstar or anything close on Indiana’s roster, though this isn’t a group devoid of talent. The Pacers’ collection of guards will make them a tough out in the play-in tournament regardless of opponent.
19. Washington Wizards
Triple doubles are (of course) overrated to a degree, but are we really going to ignore Russell Westbrook averaging one for the fourth time in the last five seasons? Westbrook continues to fill up the stat sheet in his first year with the Wizards, and he’s closing the 2020–21 season with a flurry as Washington tallies eight wins in its last nine games. Westbrook is a functional partner with Bradley Beal. He’s been a relatively dominant clutch player. Westbrook is far from a perfect player, but the discourse surrounding him has veered too far in recent seasons. This is still an all-time great playing at an All-Star level in his 13th season.
18. Charlotte Hornets
Is there anything Miles Bridges can’t do? The third-year forward unleashed arguably the dunk of the year against the Hawks earlier in April, and he pulled off some buzzer-beater magic to close the third quarter against the Celtics on Sunday. Bridges tallied 20 points and six rebounds in the win over Boston. He sports 50-41-85 shooting splits in 2020–21. Charlotte’s crop of young talent extends beyond its backcourt, with Bridges standing as perhaps its most promising young piece outside of LaMelo Ball.
17. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers now sit in the play-in tournament with less than a month remaining, and this isn’t exactly a squad teeming with momentum as May approaches. Portland has lost five straight and eight of its last 10, including a pair of losses to the Grizzlies over the weekend. Damian Lillard’s clutch play has (naturally) fallen from its absurd heights. This remains a disastrous defensive unit. Even surviving the play-in tournament is no guarantee as Portland spends another spring outside the crop of title contenders.
16. Miami Heat
Duncan Robinson hasn’t been as otherworldly hot from behind the arc this season compared with 2019–20, but he can still swing a game on the right night. Robinson buried the Bulls with seven threes in a win on Saturday night, tallying 23 points and a game-high plus-16 in the victory. Robinson doesn’t necessarily need the ball to influence a defense when he’s hot. He creates a sense of terror zipping around screens, deflecting attention away from Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. In a limited free-agent market, don’t be shocked if Robinson approaches a nine-figure contract.
15. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant’s efficiency has taken a significant leap since the All-Star break, and he’s been on a particularly hot tear as of late. Morant is shooting 50.9% from the field and 47.7% from three in his last 11 games, and he had three games in the last week with 10-plus free throw attempts. This is as deep a rotation as you’ll find in the West, but ultimately, Memphis’s postseason fate will be decided by Morant. His performance in April has provided significant confidence in that respect.
14. Atlanta Hawks
Bogdan Bogdanović will be increasingly relied upon to handle lead guard responsibilities in Trae Young’s absence, and he stepped up in a major way during Sunday’s win over the Bucks. Bogdanović tallied 32 points in the win over Milwaukee, canning six threes in his best scoring output of the season. It’s been a bit of a disappointing first season in Atlanta for Bogdanović, though he remains a talented backcourt piece. He’ll need to continue his strong play over the next few weeks as Atlanta jockeys for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.
13. Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green is in the midst of his best stretch of the season, a fact at least partially attributed to James Wiseman’s absence from Golden State’s lineup. Green is now thriving in a return to his patented point-center role, running the show for the Warriors when opponents blitz Steph Curry in the pick-and-roll. Green has four double-digit assist games in his last seven appearances. He’s a plus-85 in 438 April minutes, Amid a shaky Golden State roster, Green and Curry’s brilliance could be enough to secure a play-in spot.
12. San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan’s evolution this season continues to be one of the league’s more under-discussed story lines. DeRozan has emerged as a playmaker extraordinaire in his 12th season, averaging a career-high 7.2 assists per game as he shoots 49.2% from the field. DeRozan slammed the door on New Orleans on Sunday with a 32-point effort, continuing his impressive season as the Spurs trend toward the play-in tournament. The next crop of young Spurs is beginning to round into form, but are we so sure DeRozan will depart after 2020–21? Perhaps he’ll return on a one-year deal if he faces a limited market in free agency.
11. Boston Celtics
The Celtics briefly looked like a contender for the Eastern Conference crown in recent weeks, though this roster still feels a couple of pieces away from competing with Milwaukee, Brooklyn or Philadelphia. The Evan Fournier experience has been a bit of a disaster thus far—with another zero-point effort coming on Sunday—and there’s quite the heavy reliance on Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard. Boston’s recent draft whiffs continue to hamper this roster as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown enter their respective primes.
10. New York Knicks
Reggie Bullock has been a bit of an unsung hero for the Knicks as they continue an impressive 2020–21 campaign. Bullock is averaging 10.7 points per game on just more than 40% from three this season, and he provides a dose of secondary playmaking on the wing. Bullock is one of many Knicks having a career year under Tom Thibodeau, filling his role with energy and tenacity each night. This team continues to be better than the sum of its parts as the playoffs approach.
9. Dallas Mavericks
So there’s the Dwight Powell we’ve been looking for. It’s been a pedestrian year for Dallas’s big man opposite Kristaps Porziņģis, but Powell came to life with a 25-point performance against the Lakers on Saturday night. Powell was one of the league’s most efficient rollers last season, forming a quick rapport with Luka Dončić in one of the game’s best two-person dances. Dallas will be an increasingly tough playoff out if Powell can bring his 2019–20 form throughout the postseason.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Ben McLemore drilled six threes in Los Angeles’s loss to the Mavericks on Saturday night, providing a potential primer of what we could see in the postseason from the former lottery pick. McLemore sports one of the NBA’s smoothest releases, and he’s previously thrived as a corner three specialist alongside James Harden in Houston. When LeBron James returns, we could see McLemore increasingly involved in the postseason.
7. Denver Nuggets
It’s been easy sledding for the Nuggets as of late despite Jamal Murray’s absence, with Denver winning six of its last seven entering Tuesday night. Michael Porter Jr. has been a central catalyst behind the hot stretch. The second-year forward entered Monday night averaging 24.7 points per game in his last seven contests, including a 39-point effort as the Nuggets cruised past the Rockets on Saturday night. Porter continues to grow as more than a standstill shooter, and he’s less of a defensive sieve than his reputation suggests. It’s too bad Murray’s injury derailed what was a legitimate title contender. Let’s hope to see Denver’s young trio mount a Finals run at some point in the 2020s.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
Jrue Holiday’s counting stats aren’t akin to those of a traditional star, yet he remains a relatively dominant piece for the Bucks. Holiday sports 50-40-81 shooting percentages in 2020–21. His 117.6 offensive rating leads all Milwaukee players. Holiday can defend any point guard in the league, and he’s a pest as he burrows his way into the jersey of larger wings and forwards. The Holiday deal has certainly been worthwhile for Milwaukee in the regular season. Perhaps he could serve as the missing piece for a Bucks championship run this summer.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia lost four straight before cruising past the hapless Thunder on Monday night, yet I’d still tab Joel Embiid & Co. as the favorites for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Seven of the 76ers’ final eight games are against teams under .500, with the last two contests of the season coming against the tankeriffic Magic. There’s a significant benefit to playing the Knicks, Hawks or Celtics rather than the Bucks in the second round. Don’t expect Philadelphia to rest up immediately before the playoffs if the No. 1 seed is on the line.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz are in the midst of a minor slump with three losses in their last five games, including a pair of defeats against the Timberwolves? Should this be reason for concern? Not exactly. Monday’s loss was the product of a defensive lapse by Rudy Gobert on Minnesota’s final possession, and regardless, this simply isn’t the same potent offense with Donovan Mitchell out of the lineup. As long as Utah is healthy come playoff time, this could very well be your Western Conference champion.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Reggie Jackson (rightfully) received plenty of flak for his shoot-first tendencies as Detroit’s point guard in previous seasons, though he’s thrived as a secondary option in Los Angeles this season. Jackson is shooting 44.1% from three this season, and he’s sporting the lowest turnover percentage of his career. Good on Jackson for turning the tide on his career narrative as the Clippers continue to lurk as a championship contender.
2. Brooklyn Nets
It’s been a bumpy few years for Kyrie Irving, but amid his myriad of minicontroversies sat in innate truth: Irving is one of the most talented point guards in league history and with the right talent around him, he can be a historically-elite weapon. We’ve seen that version of Irving for much of 2020–21. Brooklyn’s point guard led the Nets with 34 points and 12 assists on Sunday afternoon, outdueling Chris Paul and Devin Booker in Kevin Durant’s return to the floor. Continuity be damned; it’s hard to see any East team beating the Nets in a series if their Big Three are fully healthy.
1. Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul truly is an ageless wonder. Phoenix’s point guard closed out the Knicks in style by scoring the final seven points in a 118–110 win on Monday, continuing to stake his claim as one of the best clutch guards in league history. Last season marked a return to form from Paul after a disappointing end to his Houston tenure. He’s been even better in 2020–21, leading a Phoenix team that absolutely deserves to be in the Finals conversation. Let’s make sure to cherish Paul’s brilliance while we still can.
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