Four Key Storylines For The NBA's Stretch Run
There's a lot of fun uncertainty remaining in the league
We’re entering the final stretch of regular season NBA basketball. Despite college basketball madness stealing most of the oxygen in the room, there are still some compelling stories to follow for the NBA.
1) Who will the Nets play in the first round?
The Nets have had such a strange path. Jokes had been made for months that the Nets might prefer to have a low seed so that Kyrie Irving, who isn’t currently eligible to play home games due to his non-vaxxed status, would be able to play in potential Game 7’s.
Those jokes are now reality.
The Nets had a massive losing streak after Durant’s injury, and they have fallen all the way to eighth in the East. They seem unlikely to climb higher than 7th. The most likely path for them right now looks to be a play-in game at Toronto, where Kyrie is ALSO not eligible to play. If they lose that, they’ll then host a play-in game against either Charlotte or Atlanta, which Kyrie is not currently eligible to play in.
There’s a genuine chance that the Nets, whose newly-acquired star Ben Simmons has a back injury and reportedly isn’t close to returning, might not even make it out of the play-in tournament.
But if they do, nobody will want to see Durant and Kyrie in a seven-game series, particularly since New York is inching towards changing the rules in the coming weeks to allow Kyrie to play in home games after all.
In case you needed any reminder of their threat, the Nets (still sans Ben Simmons) absolutely stomped the 76ers in what should’ve been a clash of post-trade titans. It was the kind of beatdown that reminds the rest of the league that, hey, you really don’t want to see Durant and Irving in the first round of the playoffs.
Right now, Miami has the 1-seed. The Bucks are in second, and the 76ers have fallen to third. Some people believe the three-seed is the safest place to be, as the Nets could easily be a 7-seed (and therefore play the 2-seed) or an 8-seed (and play the 1-seed).
But at this point, it’s all speculative. Do the 76ers really want to give up home-court advantage in the second-round to hypothetically avoid the Nets for a first-round series that may not even come to pass? Maybe!
There are too many variables to predict what will happen, but I’ll be keeping a close eye during the stretch run on how many games Joel Embiid and Giannis miss for “rest” or other minor ailments. No matter how it shakes out, one of the top-two seeds in the East might very well enter into a first-round playoff series as underdogs.
2) Who wins the scoring title?
There is an extremely tight race to be the league’s leading scorer. As of this writing, Joel Embiid leads the way with 29.9 points per game, followed by Giannis with 29.8 and LeBron James at 29.5. Luka Doncic is rising, but he’s still a distant fourth at 28.2 points per game, so it appears it will be a three-man race.
LeBron and Embiid clearly both want the scoring title. Giannis never gives off the appearance of chasing stats, but he has been accumulating a steady string of 30+ point games for a month now.
LeBron would be the oldest player ever to wear the scoring crown. He led the league in scoring all the way back in 2007-2008. Embiid believes that the scoring crown will bolster his odds for a first MVP. Giannis somehow is averaging more points than in either of his MVP campaigns.
At this point, it’s a toss-up as to who will win, and all three players have been trading massive point totals back and forth for the last few weeks. They’ve been virtually identical as of late: in their last ten games, LeBron is getting 31.4 points per game, Giannis is averaging 31.5, and Embiid’s scoring 31.6.
For my money, I think Embiid will snag it. He has an easier remaining schedule than either LeBron or Giannis, who will have to face a murderer’s row of good defenses down the stretch. The fun part is that we will have some direct competition: Embiid and Giannis will go head to head in less than two weeks (and spend parts of the game guarding each other), and LeBron and Embiid have a date soon, as well. So look for some fireworks.
3) Which players will return from injury?
Many contenders are missing massively important guys right now.
In the East, Miami’s Jimmy Butler just sprained his ankle for the hundredth time this season. Chicago just saw the return of Alex Caruso and should get Lonzo Ball back before the season’s end, two players critical to Chicago’s surprisingly sturdy defense to start the season. The Bucks will get back Pat Connaughton. The Cavaliers may see the return of All-Star center Jarrett Allen. The Nets are hoping NYC’s vaccine mandate will lift so Kyrie is fully available, and they still haven’t seen Ben Simmons, thanks to an injured back.
The West is even more banged up. Chris Paul is supposed to miss most or all of the remainder of the regular season for the Phoenix Suns. Steph Curry injured his foot and will miss several weeks (see more on that below). The Nuggets expect Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., their second- and third-best offensive players, back within weeks. The Clippers still haven’t shed much light on the Paul George and Kawhi Leonard situations, but both players’ returns remain a distinct possibility. The Pelicans, who have looked reinvigorated since the CJ McCollum trade, may be getting back Zion Williamson within a month. The Lakers should see Anthony Davis return to the court in the next couple of weeks.
Whew! And that’s just major players. Half the teams in the NBA playoffs could have wildly different looks by the time the playoffs roll around, making seeding battles and potential matchups even harder to predict.
4) Can Warriors cling to a top-3 seed?
After taking the league by storm to start the season, Steph Curry’s cold shooting, Draymond Green’s injury, and Klay Thompson’s struggles reintegrating have combined to drag the Warriors to a 6-10 record since Feb 9th. Steph’s foot injury sustained this week will likely torpedo the W’s chances to go on a late-season run.
The Suns have an insurmountable lead for the one-seed, and they haven’t missed much of a beat since Paul’s injury. The Memphis Grizzlies, led by Ja Morant, have seized the second seed and don’t look likely to give it up, having gone 7-3 in their last ten games. They currently have a 1.5 game lead over the Warriors.
The question then becomes, can the Warriors hang onto the 3-seed? They have a 3.5 game lead over the Jazz and Mavericks, who are tied for the fourth seed. That is a strong cushion, but maybe not enough.
The Jazz have been solid, but the Mavericks are scorching hot right now, having gone 8-2 in their last 10. They look completely reinvigorated after trading big man Kristaps Porzingis. The return for him, combo guard Spencer Dinwiddie, has been better than anyone could have possibly hoped. His emergence as an on-ball threat has unlocked Luka to an even larger degree, and the giant point forward is playing his best basketball of the season to the tune of 33 points, ten assists, and seven rebounds per game on 48/38/78 shooting splits in his last ten games.
The Mavs have the seventh-easiest remaining schedule in the league, while Utah has the sixth-hardest (GS is middle of the pack). Utah does play against both Dallas and Golden State, though, so two upsets could easily give them a leg up.
Hold onto your shorts, as it’s going to be a wild finish as teams scramble to grab home-court advantage for at least one round.