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The Five Most Interesting Teams of the NBA’s Stretch Run

What will the Nets look like at full strength? How will Andre Drummond alter the Lakers’ season? And what should we make of the Warriors?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror and most of the big business in the buyout market likely behind us, we now enter the stretch run of the 2020-21 NBA season. These final 25 (or so) games determine which teams will suddenly find themselves with plenty of time on their hands to firm up their draft boards, which ones will have to fight their way through the league’s inaugural play-in tournament to earn a postseason berth, and which ones will wind up in prime position to finish this COVID-abbreviated campaign by hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams—to me!—in the NBA as we head into the stretch run, starting with a fascinating favorite that we’ve yet to see fully function:

Brooklyn Nets

On one hand, we know what Brooklyn is: an offensive wrecking crew with the firepower to overwhelm just about any defense. On the other … man, does any contender have as many unanswered questions and compelling subplots to track?

The Nets have the NBA’s second-best record and second-best offense since landing James Harden. They’ve managed this despite Kevin Durant missing 24 games in that span, Kyrie Irving missing nine, and Steve Nash’s coaching staff having to cobble together a back half of the rotation reliant on up-and-down performers like Landry Shamet, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Tyler Johnson. Harden has still managed to thrive despite the roster instability, leading the league in minutes and assists while also averaging 26 points and nine rebounds per game to keep Brooklyn surging.

One big question: Now that Harden has found his high-usage, high-efficiency, MVP-case-building flow, will he once again assume a secondary scoring role when Durant comes back? Another, even bigger one: When is Durant coming back, anyway?

The superstar forward’s triumphant return following a ruptured Achilles tendon was the league’s best story through the first six weeks of the season. But a nagging hamstring strain has limited him to 91 minutes since the start of February, preventing Brooklyn from being able to get a good, long look at its full complement of game-breakers. We’ve seen Durant and Harden share the floor for just 268 minutes; Irving has joined them for only 186.

The good news stemming from those small samples is that Brooklyn has been somewhere between “pretty good, fueled by an excellent offense” and “merciless font of hellfire from which there is no respite” with virtually every combination of its stars on the court:

Brooklyn, We Go Hard

Lineup Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Lineup Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
KD + Harden, No Kyrie 82 130.3 113.0 17.3
Kyrie, No KD or Harden 197 129.4 114.0 15.3
KD + Kyrie, No Harden 271 120.0 108.7 11.3
All On 186 124.6 115.8 8.8
KD, No Harden or Kyrie 141 124.0 115.9 8.1
Harden, No KD or Kyrie 479 118.8 115.4 3.4
Harden + Kyrie, No KD 450 120.8 117.7 3.1
All Off 428 105.6 114.9 -9.3
Lineup data via PBPstats.com.

The bad news is that it’s not yet clear when those samples will start to get bigger. Durant is doubtful to return this week, as he reportedly continues to progress through pickup games and four-on-four work. He’s approaching two months on the shelf with an injury initially expected to carry a timeline of “at least two games.” You’d imagine Brooklyn’s brain trust would love to see him back in the fold as soon as possible, not only to give the superstar trio more of an opportunity to jell, but also to figure out how best to fit Brooklyn’s many complementary pieces around them.

Blake Griffin has primarily played power forward since joining Brooklyn, spending 49 of his first 73 minutes as a Net alongside sophomore center Nic Claxton. That time-share at the 4 has worked out in part because Jeff Green—one of the Nets’ steadiest contributors this season—has largely worked with the starters in Durant’s absence. When KD comes back, the minutes crunch at the 4 could lead Nash to lean harder into small-ball looks with Green and Griffin at the 5 … except that DeAndre Jordan is already cemented there as the starter, and the team’s latest newcomer, LaMarcus Aldridge, will reportedly “see a significant amount of his minutes at center.”

It would be a mistake if all the veteran bigs boxed out Claxton. Since entering the rotation in late February, the 2019 second-round pick out of Georgia has earned his keep, averaging 16 points and three blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 59.3 percent from the floor. He’s also been by far the most mobile and most effective option in the middle of the Nets’ new switch-heavy defensive scheme; Brooklyn is allowing a microscopic 100.5 points per 100 in his minutes, a mark that would lead the league over the full season.

Maybe injury and illness will keep the Nets from ever feeling the full rotational squeeze; as Nash recently told reporters, “Something comes up every week this season. Your options always seem to be outstanding and then very quickly they’re limited.” Besides, figuring out how to divvy up 96 minutes at the 4 and 5 among six or seven good options qualifies as a High-Class Problem. It’s still one that’ll need solving, though, and how Nash and Co. address it promises to be one of the more intriguing story lines as we barrel toward the postseason.

Los Angeles Lakers

As long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis are both healthy, the Lakers have as good a chance of winning their second consecutive NBA championship as any contender in the field. With AD working his way back from Achilles and calf injuries and LeBron now sidelined by a high ankle sprain, though, the Lakers have looked less like a team ready to repeat than one fighting for survival.

It’s not exactly shocking for a team to struggle without its two best players, but the degree to which the Lakers’ offense has sunk has been bracing. L.A. ranks second to last in the league in offensive efficiency since James went down. They’re staying in games almost entirely on the strength of a Frank Vogel defense that has held firm without its two most versatile and talented stoppers, and through brief bursts of scoring from Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schröder, and Kyle Kuzma.

If not for meetings with a Cavaliers team missing top scorer Collin Sexton, and a Magic side that just traded away all of its good offensive players—and still came thisclose to sending it to overtime—the Lakers would probably be on a six-game skid. They did steal those wins, though, and that’s an awfully big deal, considering the rough patch they have to navigate. After a visit from the Bucks on Wednesday, Vogel and Co. head out on a seven-game road trip before returning to face the Celtics. After that, they go straight into a pair of two-game series against the league-leading Jazz and Mavericks.

All told, the Lakers have the fourth-toughest remaining schedule in the league, and will have to face it without Davis for at least a couple of more weeks and without James for what could be more than a month. How far will they slide while waiting for the big guns to return? Might it be “all the way down to the play-in mix?” I wouldn’t say it’s expected; Basketball-Reference.com’s playoff probability model still pegs the Lakers as more likely to finish fourth or fifth than below sixth. But with the Nuggets and Blazers both making big pickups at the trade deadline, the eighth-place Spurs picking up underrated stretch big Gorgui Dieng off the buyout market, and no. 7 Dallas led by an MVP-caliber game-changer in Luka Doncic, it’s at least possible.

That makes the prospect of mounting a successful title defense seem all the more daunting … and it makes the introduction of Andre Drummond, who signed with the Lakers on Sunday after reaching a buyout agreement following six weeks on ice in Cleveland, very interesting.

What the Lakers need most right now is shooting and dynamic creation—neither of which are words that necessarily spring to mind when you think of Drummond. He could provide some stopgap playmaking help, though: Out of 60 centers who have played at least 1,000 minutes in the past four seasons, Drummond ranks ninth in total assists and 15th in assist rate. Drummond’s surprisingly deft at facilitating in the half court, working from the top of the key and elbows as a hub for dribble handoffs, high-low feeds, and slick bounce passes through traffic:

Drummond could also help by attacking the offensive boards. On a team that’s struggling to score as much as the Lakers are right now, getting as many extra possessions as possible has real value, and that’s an area in which Drummond still excels. He pulled down nearly 15 percent of his team’s misses in Cleveland before being shut down, the league’s second-highest offensive rebounding rate, and averaged 4.3 second-chance points per game—fourth most in the NBA, and nearly half as many as the Lakers as a team have managed with James and Davis out.

Lakers fans envisioning Drummond as an alley-oop-flushing bull in a china shop should probably temper their expectations; he’s shooting a career-worst 52 percent at the rim this season, and has produced like an average or worse roll man for four years running. The big question: How much of that is due to a decline in his own explosiveness, motor, and finishing ability, and how much of it can be chalked up to spending all of that time in cramped jumbo lineups in Detroit and Cleveland alongside point guards who often tended to look for their own offense first?

In the short term, I’ll be curious to see how Drummond fits into the context of a duct-taped-together Lakers offense, and how well Vogel can integrate Drummond—not the most fluid and fleet-footed defender, but one with disruptive hands and great size—into his scheme. And once LeBron and AD come back, we’ll get to find out whether, after years of putting up outsized numbers on underwhelming teams, Drummond can find comfort, purpose, and success in a smaller role on a team with real aspirations. If he’s got some juice left as a dive man, interior scoring threat, and paint-patrolling defender, playing with LeBron’s Lakers should coax it out of him. If he doesn’t, the 27-year-old free-agent-to-be might find himself facing some uncomfortable truths about his place in the modern NBA.

Philadelphia 76ers

I could’ve seen things breaking a few different ways when Joel Embiid went down with a left knee injury that thankfully wasn’t nearly as serious as it looked. One potential outcome I didn’t see, though, was the Sixers continuing to kick ass without their MVP-caliber two-way centerpiece!

Philadelphia has gone 6-2 with the league’s fourth-best point differential since Embiid’s bone bruise. Tobias Harris has stepped up, continuing his excellent season by averaging 24 points on 53-46-94 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists per game in Embiid’s absence. Danny Green (34-for-68 from 3-point range in this span), Seth Curry (41.9 percent), and Furkan Korkmaz (40.5 percent) have joined Harris in lighting it up from long range. Tony Bradley performed well enough in an emergency starting role to earn Embiid’s unending praise and become a trade asset valuable enough (when packaged with a few second-round picks and some other matching salaries) to net playoff-tested veteran George Hill from Oklahoma City. Dwight Howard (just under eight points and 11 rebounds in 21 minutes per game in this stretch) has helped, too, when he’s been able to avoid getting ejected.

Doc Rivers still doesn’t have a non-Joel offense that’ll strike fear in the hearts of other contenders, but with Harris and Ben Simmons leading the way, Philly has made do. Before Embiid’s injury, the Sixers averaged just 107.7 points per 100 when he was off the floor, equivalent to the Pistons’ no. 25 full-season offense. Through these past eight games, though, they’ve averaged 110.3 points per 100—still a bottom-half mark, but more than enough to stand up when you’re also fielding the league’s stingiest defense.

Even without Embiid in the middle to lock down the lane, the Sixers have thrashed opponents, holding them to the league’s lowest effective field goal percentage since his injury. They’ve done it in part by shutting down the arc; no other team has allowed fewer 3-point attempts per game than Philly since Embiid’s injury. One very effective way to keep high-value shot attempts down? Make sure opponents can’t take them.

During this eight-game stretch, the Sixers’ phalanx of long, active, versatile, and aggressive defenders ranks third in steals per game, third in blocks, and third in deflections. Simmons remains a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, able to handle any assignment on any possession. Green has long been one of the savviest backcourt defenders in the game and always a threat to swipe an unsuspecting driver’s dribble. And Matisse Thybulle … well, I would imagine that the only thing scarier to a ball handler than Thybulle crouching in front of you is him being behind you, because then you can’t even see how he’s going to take the ball away from you.

To that mix, they’ll add Hill, who hasn’t played since January 24 after undergoing surgery on his right thumb, but who seems like a perfect fit for what Philly needs. He provides a secondary ball handler and initiator who can play on or off the ball next to Simmons. He’s one of the league’s most dangerous spot-up threats, shooting 41.8 percent on nearly 1,100 catch-and-shoot triples through the past eight seasons, according to NBA.com’s shot-tracking data.

The 34-year-old isn’t quite as spry as he was during his days with the Spurs and Pacers, but he can still get to the rim and finish, shooting 71 percent at the cup this season. At 6-foot-4 and 188 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, he’s got the size, length, and strength to defend either backcourt position and even some small forwards if the need arises. He’s a smart, steady veteran who rarely turns the ball over and adds a low-maintenance, high-floor two-way option to the rotation. He’s not Kyle Lowry, but he checks some of the same boxes at a fraction of the cost—while still keeping Green and Thybulle around for the playoffs and keeping rookie Tyrese Maxey and the rest of Philadelphia’s future draft picks in the years ahead.

When Embiid reached for his knee after that dunk against the Wizards, I think a lot of us braced for the worst—for a Sixers season that had seemed to hold such promise suddenly falling apart. How awesome, then, that they’ve instead not only weathered the storm and maintained the top seed in the East, but maybe even gotten better. Embiid’s absences and the Sixers’ success without him probably harmed his MVP odds. It might also have boosted Philly’s title chances. I’m guessing he wouldn’t mind that trade-off.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns have been the best story in the league this season, with the All-Star backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul leading a mix of ascendant young talent and tough veterans who fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Even if you know all the numbers, they still feel staggering:

  • Phoenix owns the best record in the NBA since February 1, blitzing opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 in that span.
  • The Suns are one of only three teams in the top 10 in points scored and allowed per possession, along with the Jazz, the only team Phoenix is trailing in the West, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.
  • They have the league’s second-best mark against top-10 offenses, and its best against top-10 defenses.
  • And, if you’re going by FiveThirtyEight’s and Basketball-Reference.com’s projection systems, they have somewhere between a 4 percent and 10 percent chance of winning the whole friggin’ thing.

They’ve just been ... excellent. Consistently good, on both sides of the ball, for pretty much the entire season, save an up-and-down January. They win with their balanced and potent starting lineups—particularly the versions where Cameron Johnson and Frank Kaminsky started at the 4 for Jae Crowder, but the Crowder version has been killer since about Valentine’s Day. They win with their second units, replete with legit contributors like Johnson, Dario Saric, Cameron Payne, Abdel Nader, E’Twaun Moore, and the newly acquired Torrey Craig.

They win with execution, tenacity, poise, and physicality. They win by sharing the ball (fifth in assist percentage) and taking care of it (only four teams commit turnovers less frequently). They win by hauling ass back on the break (only four teams keep opponents out of transition more effectively) and by knowing where to be and when to help one another in their set defense (only the Lakers and Sixers are stingier after a made basket).

They win with Mikal Bridges smothering opposing wing scorers, and with no. 1 pick–turned–third option Deandre Ayton learning to do more with less … and, sometimes, to do more with more:

They win with Booker shooting 54 percent against coverage that the NBA’s tracking marks as “tight” or “very tight,” but that might as well not even be there to somebody with his mechanics, footwork, and confidence. They win with CP3 doing what everybody knows he’s going to do—he’s never going to the rim, he’s always snaking the pick-and-roll to get back to the elbow, and he’s always shooting the pull-up, with just a hint of fade—and cashing out anyway, shooting 59 percent from the left elbow and 61 percent from the right.

They’ve gotten better as the season’s gone on, as evidenced in the partnership between Paul and Booker, who needed some time to find their footing but have since developed into a pair who can anchor an elite offense and an elite defense in big minutes:

Rising Suns (CP3 and Booker Together)

Month Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Month Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Dec+Jan (14 games) 330 109.8 115.0 -5.2
February (14 games) 332 120.9 108.0 12.9
March (12 games) 283 113.4 104.8 8.6
Lineup data via NBA Advanced Stats.

By virtually every metric and the eye test, the Suns look like a complete and very real contender. The only marks against them at this point are that they haven’t been quite as good in crunch time as you might expect from a team with a chessmaster like Paul and a cold-blooded shot-maker like Booker (Phoenix is 12-11 in games where the score was within five points in the final five minutes, with a negative “clutch” net rating) and that we haven’t seen them contend yet.

Phoenix is just a half-game up on the Clippers for second in the West, and will face one of the five toughest remaining schedules in the league. We get to see how Booker, Ayton, Bridges, and the rest of Monty Williams’s young charges withstand the heat of the race for home-court advantage. And we get to see whether Paul can get himself and yet another franchise back within striking distance of the conference finals, for another shot at that elusive brass ring. I don’t necessarily have some fancy nuanced analytical take here; I just really want to see how this story ends.

Golden State Warriors

Here are three statements of fact:

  1. The Warriors entered Monday having lost nine of their past 12 games, with the league’s third-worst net rating in that span, falling below .500 for the first time since New Year’s Day and down to 10th place in the West.
  2. Their only trade deadline moves—sending reserve point guard Brad Wanamaker to Charlotte and out-for-the-season center Marquese Chriss to San Antonio—were made expressly to cut their luxury tax bill, rather than to tangibly improve the team while it was in the midst of its worst stretch of basketball this season.
  3. They still have Stephen Curry, who returned against the Bulls on Monday after missing five games with a tailbone contusion, and can still do this ...

… which makes the state of the Warriors all the more captivating and fraught.

A Warriors team with a healthy Curry—he’s averaging 29-5-6 on 48/41/93 shooting splits this season—should be doing everything in its power to push back into title contention, even if the odds that this season would end in glory fell by the wayside when Klay Thompson tore his Achilles tendon. Instead, the front office moved to duck the tax rather than hunt for help. The coaching staff reinserted center James Wiseman—drafted one spot ahead of LaMelo Ball, a move that looks like it might sting for a while—into the starting lineup, despite the no. 2 pick having the worst on/off splits of any rotation player on the team. The rotation just kind of groaned through the motions for the past couple of weeks, playing largely uninspired ball marked by sloppy turnovers, lackadaisical defensive effort, and a general lack of focus.

The vibes seemed bad, and the team seemed worse. And then Curry came back on Monday and diced up the Bulls to the tune of 32-5-6 in 30 minutes, and suddenly everything seems better. Draymond Green looks reinvigorated, whipping the ball around and splashing three 3-pointers in a game for the first time since April 2019. Wiseman’s screening for Steph—what a concept, Coach Kerr!—and rolling hard, and protecting the rim with energy on the other end. Andrew Wiggins is locking up Zach LaVine, Kelly Oubre Jr. is crashing the boards, and Kevon Looney is rewarding split cuts with on-target bounce passes for layups like Andrew Bogut in his heyday. What a difference a Steph makes.

That difference—the gulf between who the Warriors can be when Curry’s available and who they are in the absence of his warming glow—is massive, and it’s one that could become incredibly important down the stretch, especially as Curry continues to deal with the evident pain and discomfort still resulting from that tailbone contusion:

Monday’s win over the Bulls stopped the bleeding, but the Warriors remain in a knock-down, drag-out fight for the West’s final play-in spot. They’re trying to hold off both the Kings, playing their best ball of the season, and the Pelicans, who have the NBA’s no. 1 offense since the start of February. Steph’s heroics on their own might not be enough. He’ll need his teammates to start firing on all cylinders, and Kerr to at long last submit to the idea that, with this particular collection of talent in this particular set of circumstances, the Warriors’ best chance of survival is to throw no. 30 the keys, let him drive, and let him get everyone else where they need to go.

If that happens, the Warriors—who have one of the softest remaining slates in the league—could get on a run, move a bit higher in the play-in standings, and maybe, with an unleashed two-time MVP at the helm, become the Team Nobody Wants to Face coming out of the tournament. But if they can’t find a way to put Curry, and by extension the rest of the roster, in position to succeed, Golden State’s brass may wonder whether, in an attempt to lay the groundwork for the next competitive iteration of the Warriors, they missed an opportunity to maximize another elite Steph season and produce another winner right now.