As of Sunday, there is one month left in the NBA’s regular season. Some important outcomes are already settled, or nearly so. LeBron James and the Lakers will not make the playoffs. They’re technically not mathematically eliminated, but it would take a miracle for them to make it, which is to say it would take LeBron James, and James is currently on a minutes restriction. Playoff mode: deactivated. But plenty remains undecided around the league, including the postseason status of nearly every other superstar in the league. Here are the four biggest things that are still at stake, four weeks out:
Joel Embiid’s Postseason Welfare
If Embiid were allowed to choose between facing LeBron James (the 2018-19 Lakers edition) or Al Horford in the first round of the playoffs, I’m almost certain he’d pick James. Against Horford over the past three regular seasons, Embiid has averaged 22.1 points on 43.5 percent shooting—significant downticks from his career averages.
Embiid’s not thinking about what’s best for the Sixers or for Ben Simmons when he makes that decision. He’s probably not even waiting to hear out the rest of the hypothetical to see whether James can play with a team other than the Lakers. All Embiid cares about is getting owned by a guy 2 inches his junior five games in a row on the biggest stage.
Really, staying away from Horford would be best for the team, too. In February, after the Celtics beat the Sixers for the third time this season, The Ringer’s Dan Devine wrote about Horford being the heart of it all, despite Embiid insisting he wasn’t the problem: “The 32-year-old remains Philadelphia’s unassuming nemesis—the quietest, most genial bogeyman in the sport.”
Boston is 3-0 against Philadelphia this season, with one more matchup next Wednesday. What’s more crucial for the Sixers than beating the Celtics is to now win around them. On Sunday, for example, in Embiid’s first game back from left knee tendonitis, Philly beat Indiana 106-89 to gain the postseason tiebreaker between the two and move the Sixers to the third spot in the East at 42-25. To avoid the Celtics, currently in the fifth seed but only a game behind Philly and Indiana, the Sixers will have to stay there. Luckily, the rest of the Sixers’ season should be easy to breeze through: After two games against the Bucks and the Celtics, their toughest remaining opponents are the Nets and the Kings.
The Reigning MVP’s Reign
James Harden’s shot is, as James Harden often can be, extremely hungover. He’s remarkably off as of late—25.5 percent from 3 over Houston’s last eight games—following the historic scoring stretch he had sans Chris Paul. Yet Houston won all eight, and Harden is still leading his team and the league in scoring. In that eight-game stretch, despite being less accurate from deep than the ghost of Tony Allen and rookie Lonzo Ball, Harden averaged 34.3 points. I don’t need Basketball-Reference or an ESPN Stats & Info tweet to tell me that no one has ever averaged that many points while missing that many 3s. After an 11-14 start, the Rockets are third in the Western Conference standings—about where they were expected to be.
Vegas believes in Harden’s chances to win a second-straight MVP—some sportsbooks even have him as the favorite—but it very much feels like Giannis Antetokounmpo’s trophy for the taking. Milwaukee has had success throughout the season, thanks mostly to Antetokounmpo, accumulating a record that Houston won’t be able to meet without a massive flu outbreak in Fiserv Forum.
Even if Harden were to finish the season above his current average of 36.3 points, it wouldn’t mean an automatic MVP—only once in the five times a player has averaged 37 points in history has he also gone on to win the award. But if the Rockets can close the season on the roll they’re on now, (perhaps doing something striking and highly unlikely like steal the 1-seed), Harden could be the first consecutive MVP since Steph Curry two years ago. And just after getting eliminated in the Western Conference Finals by him, too!
The Top Seeds in Both Conferences
Neither 1-seed is locked up. In the West, Denver is just 1.5 games back from Golden State, and in the East, Toronto is lurking behind Milwaukee, two games back with the second-easiest remaining schedule—OKC, Detroit, and Brooklyn are the scariest teams in Toronto’s future. The going isn’t rough for Milwaukee, either. Both need to win the easy ones, playing the end-of-the-regular-season game of balancing boredom and fatigue.
The West is, per usual, a different, more competitive story. The Nuggets don’t have nearly as many opponents they can sleepwalk past, and the Warriors seem so on edge after losing to Suns on Sunday that they need to add themselves onto their list of toughest remaining opponents. Speaking of Golden State …
The Warriors Dynasty, As We Know It
OK, it’s maybe a little dramatic to say the future of an era of basketball rests on the next 16 games, but dramatic is how Golden State has operated lately. On Sunday, Steve Kerr might’ve said that he was “so fucking tired of Draymond [Green]’s shit,” from a clip that looked like he was talking to himself yet somehow also the hundreds of thousands of viewers watching, and Kevin Durant might’ve said that it was a “stupid-ass motherfucking game we playing,” and that the Warriors “need to be playing championship-level basketball.” Losing to the Suns isn’t championship-level basketball, though the Warriors’ biggest competition in the East, the Bucks, were swept by Phoenix this season.
Basketball, to not be a stupid ass, relies on five players’ ability to jell. The Warriors, winners of two straight championships, know better than any team in the league how to play championship-level basketball as a group and have the most talent, as well. Yet they’ve lost six of their last 10. More than standings, the top seed, or even the playoffs, these last couple weeks represent a window for the Warriors to get along again, something they haven’t seemed to be able to do consistently all season. The postseason doesn’t fix a team’s cracks, it exacerbates them, and this roster may not have another year to try it all again.