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Under Pressure: Who Has the Most to Prove Over the Last Month of the NBA’s Regular Season?

Probably Ty Lue

AP Images/Ringer illustration

We’re less than a month away from the playoffs, but the NBA’s regular season still has surprises in store. From seedings to team lineups, there’s more than usual still in flux during the final stretch. Here are some of the teams, players, and coaches that will be under the most pressure in the run-up to the postseason.

The Nuggets

Denver is throwing away its shot right in front of our eyes. The Nuggets are now 37–31 and a full game out of the 8-seed after losing to the Lakers on Tuesday night. They hold no tiebreaker advantages over the teams above them in the playoff race and now have the worst odds of any of the Western Conference’s top-10 teams to advance — 32 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, 26.8 percent, according to ESPN’s BPI. The Nuggets’ odds to make the playoffs before the season began were better than those of seven current playoff teams. [Takes a deep breath.] How did this happen?

Since Paul Millsap’s return from a wrist injury 10 games ago, the Nuggets have been a .500 team, and as my colleague Haley O’Shaughnessy explained last week, head coach Mike Malone’s system has prevented Nikola Jokic from being, well, Nikola Jokic. Millsap has struggled to find a groove in Denver, while Jokic has been inconsistent all year. It also doesn’t help that Jamal Murray’s production since the All-Star break has dropped off.

Here’s the good news: Denver’s next four games are against the Pistons (remember when Blake was supposed to save them?), the Grizzlies (in the Tankathon), Heat (tough, but not unbeatable), and Bulls (in the Tankathon). Its final 10 games are against playoff teams, so Denver cannot afford to not go 4–0 during that stretch. If they drop more than one, well, my Ringer colleagues have put together some reading material for the Nuggets’ front office.

Ty Lue

Ty Lue just wants to try things, man.

“I just felt like it.”

That’s what Lue said Tuesday night when asked why he altered the Cavs’ starting lineup again, slotting Kyle Korver in place of J.R. Smith. The Cavs took care of the Suns, 129–107, and Lue made a point to say that Korver would be starting at shooting guard for the foreseeable future, and that Rodney Hood would eventually take that spot when he recovers from a back injury.

“I’m not upset about it. I just wish there would have been more dialogue, I guess,” Smith said. That doesn’t sound promising for team chemistry, but Smith’s play isn’t helping, either. (His 8.4 points per game is his lowest mark since his sophomore season.)

Lue has been toying with the Cavs’ lineup since the trade deadline, but nothing has really worked. Cleveland is 5–5 over its past 10 games, clinging to the 4-seed in a crowded East, and probably hoping the postseason will finally start so that LeBron can carry everyone to the promised land again. The franchise’s future may depend on it.

Kawhi Leonard

How naive of us to think that we would actually get a Kawhi Leonard return on Thursday. Kawhi won’t play in San Antonio’s matchup with New Orleans, as he will reportedly “continue to evaluate” his quad injury.

“The first step is he’s got to be cleared by his medical staff,” Gregg Popovich said Tuesday, which, according to reports, refers to Kawhi’s personal team of doctors. It’s fair to wonder whether there’s reason for Kawhi to push himself to return at all this season. The Spurs, currently outside the Western Conference playoff picture, will be handed a seemingly unwinnable first-round matchup if they manage to slide into the postseason. San Antonio wants to make the playoffs and should make the playoffs, but right now, its success seems to hinge on the decisions of Kawhi and his team.

The Tankers

The Dallas Mavericks have gone 4–6 over their past 10 games. Frankly, that’s just way too much success for a squad trying to nab a top pick. Dallas is one of seven teams contending in the tank race for a shot at Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic, but their recent stretch has put them 3.5 games above the league’s worst record.

The Kings, Nets, Hawks, Magic, Suns, and Grizzlies are all tightly packed at the bottom of the league, and the latter two are tied for the worst record in an incompetence battle that seems like it will stretch to the very last game of the season. Of note: Memphis has lost 18 straight, has sat out Marc Gasol, and has not heard a single word about it from the league office, which is the tanking equivalent of painting the Mona Lisa.

The Sixers As Closers

The Sixers are tied with the Grizzlies for the league’s worst fourth-quarter offensive rating. Each of the past four Philly losses have been by fewer than 10 points. In fact, 18 of the team’s 30 losses this season have been decided by eight points or fewer. Let’s just say this doesn’t set a great precedent for the playoffs, when close games are the norm. And while it’s likely they’ll make the postseason due to an easy closing schedule, the Sixers are just one game ahead of the 8-seed at the moment. Also, please, for the love of god, keep Joel Embiid healthy. There are only 14 games left.

Russell Westbrook and Co.

The Thunder have jumped to the 4-seed, but look at this finishing schedule:

Via ESPN

Welp. At least they end the season against the Grizzlies.