There’s a little more than a week left in the NBA regular season. The postseason is almost set, the tanking is in full swing, the MVP race is dividing families, the Warriors look unbeatable, and LeBron and Tristan are fighting in front of the kids.
If you are just returning from a reusable rocket ride to space, or just want to get a lay of the land, here’s an end-of-season primer in the form of eight big questions, for the final eight days of the season, focusing on the playoff and awards races, with a few notes on a summer of upheaval to come.
1. Who will make the playoffs?
Before Monday’s Blazers-Wolves game in Minny, I had this written:
Yes, that is self-aggregation of an unpublished blurb, which is blogging Yahtzee. Also, I wrote that before Karl-Anthony Towns smashed a Jusuf Nurkic–size-hole in the Blazers frontcourt, scoring 34 and grabbing 12 boards. The loss ended Portland’s six-game winning streak, but I think Denver is too far back to make up the two-game distance. Portland finishes the road trip at Utah, then has a homestand against Minnesota, the Jazz, the Spurs, and the Pelicans. The Nuggets play the Pelicans, Rockets, Pelicans, Thunder, Mavericks, and Thunder. See you next season, Serbian Sabonis.
The Eastern Conference is a little tougher to call. The Hawks have the sixth seed, but are cratering, the Heat are in eighth but stumbling, the Hornets are in 10th and streaking. Atlanta has a brutal Celtics-Cavs-Cavs-Hornets-Pacers end of the schedule, and could be a victim of Boston and Cleveland fighting for the 1-seed. Chicago has a cupcake buffet of Knicks, Sixers, Nets, Magic. I think the Bulls are in, and Wednesday’s Hornets-Heat game decides the 8-seed. Atlanta goes fishing before it even arrives at the lake.
2. Which teams will be the most disappointed to miss the playoffs?
Minnesota and New Orleans in the Western Conference. It’s very uncharitable, but you could make the argument that the game has changed so drastically to a quick-twitch, small-ball style that even the very best big men of their generation struggle to make the playoffs. But Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis aren’t drowning in a tactical sea change — they’re marooned on teams that can’t support their talents or match their ambitions. There is more reason to hope in Minnesota. For the Wolves, maybe the Tom Thibodeau–inspired expectations were a little too high, given the youth of the roster. There have been some bright spots, like Andrew Wiggins making the leap and Ricky Rubio’s late-season redemption, but Minnesota still needs outside shooting help and a stint in summer school studying Intermediate Thibs Defense before they can play deep into the spring.
New Orleans is in a tougher spot. You can see what the Pelicans were doing: pair two of the best 15 players in the league, and two of the very best big men, do not pass go, head straight to the playoffs. But they are thin, they haven’t figured out how to play Boogie and Brow at the same time, and they don’t have a lot of cap room or draft picks to improve their roster.
In the Eastern Conference, Detroit and its Andre Drummond–surrounded-by-shooters lineup was a sexy preseason pick, but the Pistons are the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the league, and it turns out Reggie Jackson is not a franchise point guard.
3. Which playoff team should be pinching itself?
If I told you that Memphis would still be in the playoffs, despite missing Mike Conley Jr. for a healthy stretch of the season, moving Zach Randolph to the bench, and getting only 34 games out of its $94 million signing, Chandler Parsons, you’d probably take that, right? Memphis’s whole thing is “We wake up in the morning and watch the first 40 minutes of Saving Private Ryan and then play defense against a city bus” and I love it, but let’s be real: Memphis should feel legitimately warmed by what it was able to do this season. They should also feel warmed by the $94 million they lit on fire.
4. What is up with Blake Griffin?
Remember when this guy finished third in MVP voting? That was just three years ago. Since then, it’s been the catastrophic meltdown against the Rockets in the 2015 playoffs, and an almost entirely lost 2015–16 campaign — lowlighted by the quadriceps tear, the broken hand, the fight in the 6, the quad again in the playoffs. This season has almost been worse, because it’s been so anonymous. Blake Griffin is supposed to reboot Space Jam, jump over economy cars, and be the beating heart of the Clippers to CP3’s plotting head. Or if not the beating heart, the smirking attitude.
His season averages are pretty much on par with the past three years, but the explosiveness that defined his game is absent. And honestly so is his … Blake-ness. His game just keeps getting prettier and prettier, and I am not in on it. In his past two games, which happened to be against two of the NBA’s worst teams, Blake scored 67 points and grabbed 15 boards. But just look at the highlights against the Lakers:
Even the NBA’s YouTube account is trolling him. “Efficient.” Blake is arriving at a career crossroads. He is going to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he is saying stuff like this:
Emphasis mine, just to be annoying. Watch Griffin in the postseason. How does he look? Does his game have any echoes of the heavy metal that made him a star? Does he look happy to be on the court with Chris Paul? How is he getting along with Doc Rivers? Who seems to have the power in the Clippers organization? How deep a run can this team make? And can they do anything to revitalize their admittedly excellent if possibly stale core?
5. What is up with the Lakers’ family feud?
Speaking of Los Angeles. This might seem like an irrelevant question, but for the Lakers it’s worth asking, given the amount of turmoil the franchise has been through over the past couple of months. On the court, it’s been whatever — they have young talent and their talented youngsters are finding out how hard it is to compete 82 times a season. Off the court, you practically need to be a paralegal to understand the Buss family feud that stole all the headlines earlier in February.
There was Jeanie Buss’s ousting of her brother Jim from control of basketball operations, and her firing of longtime GM Mitch Kupchak, and the elevation of Magic Johnson to president of basketball operations. Since then, there have been a series of coup attempts and visits to probate court. All you need to know is that Jeanie Buss will run the Lakers for as long as she wants. And now that she and Magic are in charge, the Lakers could be one of the most interesting teams of the offseason.
They have a nice young core of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, and Ivica Zubac, and there’s probably less than a 50–50 chance that all four are wearing purple and gold at the start of next season. This was the kind of power struggle that oral histories are made of! You’re telling me you’re going to come back to the table next year and hope that Brandon Ingram develops a Muscle Milk addiction and D’Angelo Russell realizes he’s a shooting guard? Come on. The ridiculous Kyle Lowry contract offer is coming. The “It’s DeMar DeRozan/Paul George’s lifelong dream to play alongside Laker greats like Timofey Mozgov” stories are coming. The “Magic is making phone calls” tweets are coming. They might even make a run at Blake. I read The Kid Stays in the Picture, so I know that L.A. is a town built on equal parts of dreams and delusion. Even if the Lakers make more subtle, prudent moves, that will tell its own story: about the long-term vision of the franchise and new GM Rob Pelinka’s facility to make moves, now that he’s switched from being an agent to running a front office. And how will said moves dovetail with Luke Walton’s share-the-ball ethos? And most of all? The draft pick (assuming they keep it). I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE LAVAR BALL WITH LAKERS SEASON TICKETS. As soon as the playoffs are over, all eyes will be on Los Angeles.
6. Who is about to have a breakout playoffs?
There are no secrets with NBA League Pass. That being said, NBA late-comers are about to get very familiar with Utah’s Rudy Gobert. The Frenchman will be the best center in the playoffs. He keeps getting better every season — averaging career highs in points, blocks, boards, and effective field goal percentage this year. And this season, he’s gotten better every month. In March, 17.3 points, nearly three blocks, and 13 and a half boards per game. He is in a three-man convo for Defensive Player of the Year with Kawhi and Dray, his offense has started to blossom, and he really doesn’t get along with Chris Paul.
Do you know how much trash you have to talk for Chris Paul to say this about you?
And guess who the Clippers play in the first round of the playoffs. That’s right: Big Brie. Get on board before he gets ripe.
7. Will Russell Westbrook finish the season averaging a triple-double?
As of Tuesday morning, Russ is averaging 31.9 points, 10.4 assists, and 10.6 boards per game. The 10 triple-doubles in his past 12 games certainly suggests he is going for it. He ends the season against a good defense (Memphis), an OK defense (Milwaukee), a bad defense (Minnesota), and some teams that don’t play defense at all (Phoenix and Denver). I think he’s going to do it. I am dreading any Rondoian stat padding (I’m sure this happens all the time with Russ, I’m just too blind), and the takes that will come from it. And I’m really looking forward to him deciding not to rebound at all in the last game just to subvert the whole stupid debate.
8. Does it matter?
Yes. Because of Oscar Robertson, and that’s the end of the argument, but let’s keep going for the hell of it. It also matters because basketball is a team sport, but it doesn’t have to be. Not everything has to be well-spaced, positionally fluid harmony. It can also be a Bad Brains song. Westbrook is an inefficient one-man band, storming the beach every night. What we decide to count, and which of those numbers we value over others, changes over the years. The debate about whether Westbrook’s season is impressive, awe-inspiring, or actually detrimental to the Thunder’s growth is an interesting one that I do not care about at all when I am watching him play.