NBA roundtable: Most interesting playoff race, most to prove, title favorite and more

Less than a month remains in the NBA regular season, and there’s no shortage of storylines. 

How will the playoff races shake out? Which players and coaches have something to prove? And who will win the league’s individual awards now that players must appear in at least 65 games to be eligible for MVP, All-NBA honors, Defensive Player of the Year, the All-Defensive teams and Most Improved Player? 

To preview the stretch from now until the regular season concludes on April 14, The Athletic has brought together three of its writers who cover the league: William Guillory, Jason Quick and Josh Robbins

What specific playoff race do you consider the most interesting playoff race, and why? 

William Guillory: Perhaps I’m a biased observer here, but I’m fascinated with the battle between seeds five through 10 in the West and the battle to avoid the Play-In.

It looks as if the Pelicans are starting to separate themselves from the pack and gaining a firm grasp on the No. 5 seed. If anything, they’re starting to put some pressure on the Clippers as they edge closer to the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. 

Below New Orleans, the battle between Sacramento, Phoenix and Dallas to grab the last spot above the Play-In line will probably come down to the final week of the regular season. The great thing about this three-way race is that the stories of these three teams have been so similar this season. They’ve all shown tremendous promise during certain stretches and they’ve all suffered through some inexcusable losses along the way. When these three teams play well, they look good enough to win a series against anyone in the West outside of Denver. But at the same time, it wouldn’t be shocking to see any of the three teams lose twice in the Play-In Tournament and have their seasons come to an early end.

The Lakers and Warriors at the bottom of this race will also draw tremendous interest for obvious reasons. But as much as the Kings or Suns or Mavericks will speak confidently when the time comes, no one wants to face a lose-or-go-home scenario against LeBron James or Stephen Curry.

And with all the uncertainty surrounding the top four teams in the West, there’s a good chance any of the aforementioned teams could shock the world and find themselves in the second round if they fall into the right matchup at the right time.  

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Zion Williamson and the Pelicans are challenging the Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the West. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)

Jason Quick: The race for the top seed in the West.

Denver, Oklahoma City and Minnesota are all within a game of each other for the top seed, and the closing schedule adds intrigue to how the race will be decided. Denver and Minnesota still have three games against each other — two of them in Denver —  including an April 10 meeting in the third-to-last game of the season for both. Denver is half a game out of the top seed, but it is 0-1 against Minnesota and finished 1-3 against the Thunder. Of the three teams, the Nuggets probably have the easiest remaining schedule, which includes two games against the Spurs, two against Memphis and one at Portland. 

Minnesota is one game back of Oklahoma City, and a half-game behind Denver, and will have to navigate much of its final stretch without Karl-Anthony Towns. The Wolves went 2-2 against Oklahoma City, won the first meeting with Denver and have cupcake home games with Detroit, Toronto and Washington left. However, Minnesota has eight games remaining against teams above .500. 

Oklahoma City probably holds the biggest advantage among the trio with its 3-1 series win over Denver, but the Thunder have a brutal schedule, including consecutive road games at New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Indiana from March 31-April 5. The Thunder also have two games left against Milwaukee. 

Josh Robbins: Which East teams will finish fourth, fifth and six and, as a result, avoid the Play-In Tournament? This race is down to the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and the Miami Heat. 

The Knicks, who are currently fourth, will be safe, despite Julius Randle’s ongoing recovery from a dislocated right shoulder. If I’m correct, it’ll come down to a competition between the unseasoned Magic and unseasoned Pacers attempting to hold off the more veteran Sixers and more veteran Heat. 

The Sixers’ hopes could come down to how quickly Joel Embiid can return from his left knee injury. Last year, the Heat proved a team can navigate through the Play-In and still reach the NBA Finals, but despite that success, you’d have to think Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and their teammates will be motivated to avoid the Play-In altogether.  

Making this race even more interesting is that it features four up-and-coming young stars: Orlando’s Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton and Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey. 

Which player or coach has the most to prove over the last month of the season?  

Guillory: Milwaukee point guard Damian Lillard has the most to prove.

After being the most talked-about man in the NBA last offseason and motivating the Bucks to chip away at a championship-winning core, it’s time for Dame to step up and show he was worth all the hype.

He’s certainly had games here and there when he’s been able to tap into his All-NBA form. But for the most part, Lillard has taken a significant step back with his offensive production, and it’s made Milwaukee’s ultra-aggressive decision to acquire him last summer look far worse than any of us expected in Year 1. 

Despite some of his struggles, all of the bad memories would be wiped away if Lillard shows up and dominates on the playoff stage like he has on numerous occasions. But if he doesn’t, it will be a long offseason for Lillard and Milwaukee as an organization.

Quick: Milwaukee coach Doc Rivers. 

He was brought in to salvage a season for a team built to win a championship, and so far, his impact has had mixed results. How Rivers and the Bucks close the regular season — and more importantly the playoffs — will go a long way in defining his value. 

After a rocky start — Milwaukee lost five of its first six under Rivers — the defense started to click in February. The Bucks were 19th in defensive rating when Rivers took over, but over 12 games in February recorded the third-best defensive rating, behind Minnesota and Miami. But in eight games in March so far, the Bucks are 26th in defensive rating and trying to hold off Cleveland for the second seed in the East. Rivers has a complicated reputation — he won the 2007-08 NBA title in Boston, but has early exits with talented rosters in Los Angeles and Philadelphia — so how he closes this season in Milwaukee will likely determine how his legacy is remembered. 

Robbins: Those are great choices. So great that I’m going to invoke some artistic license here and reframe the question: Which player or coach has the most to gain over the last month of the season? 

And I’ll answer that by naming Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards. He’s already had a great season, but he can take things to an even more impressive level if he can lead the Wolves past the Thunder and Nuggets and secure the No. 1 seed in the West. Edwards would have to do it without Towns.

Again, Edwards has been superb. But he can add a major flourish to his breakout season over this last month. (Of course, the same can be said for OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but I have a feeling SGA will come up later in this discussion.)

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Doc Rivers has compiled a distinguished coaching career, but he still has a lot to prove in the weeks ahead, and especially in the playoffs. (Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)

Which team do you consider as the favorite to win the NBA title, and why? 

Guillory: As much as I respect the defending champs, if anyone other than the Boston Celtics wins the championship this year, it would be a massive embarrassment for Boston.

They’ve got the experience, star power, lineup versatility and even an improved head coach, Joe Mazzulla, who has taken a step forward in his second season roaming the sideline.

This has to be the moment Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown finally break through. The path through the East hasn’t been more favorable in some time. And whoever makes it out of the West will be covered in bumps and bruises because there are so many quality teams they’ll have to outlast.

If it doesn’t happen this year, there’s a decent chance this will be the last time we see the Tatum-Brown duo together.

Quick: Denver.

The easy pick here is Boston the Celtics have the dominant record, and the most complete roster but I can’t get past how impressive Denver has looked after the All-Star break. The Nuggets have the look of a champion rounding into form, which was hammered home earlier this month in a 115-109 win over Boston in Denver, which featured another Nikola Jokić masterpiece a  32-point triple-double. Also of note: Denver was the first team to win in Boston this season ending the Celtics’ 20-0 home start as Jokić scored 34 and missed a triple-double by one assist. 

Denver is 11-2 since the break (the losses were to Phoenix and Dallas), with six of those wins coming against teams with winning records, which has reminded the league that the road to the title goes through Jokić and the reigning champions. 

Robbins: I’m compelled to agree: I see Denver as the favorite, despite the tough competition in the West and a potential NBA Finals matchup against Boston looming. I’m placing high emphasis on Jokić’s dominance, but I’m also placing a premium on the Nuggets’ collective championship experience. 

Aside from MVP, which individual end-of-season award race is most intriguing to you from now until the end of the season? 

Guillory: This may be cheating, but I think it’ll be interesting to see how different the All-NBA teams will look with the new rule that states the teams no longer have to be assembled based on position. 

If voters desire to put five centers on their All-NBA ballots, they have the full right to do so.

But along with that mystery, this time of year is when some of the league’s biggest names play their best basketball. Guys will start putting up huge numbers just to solidify their spots on a historic All-NBA squad. Then there’s the financial component in this as well. There are a few guys who will be ineligible because of the 65-game rule. But among the players who will be eligible, I’m expecting many to fight for their spot atop the mountain in the next few weeks.

Putting an All-NBA team together was hard enough when positions eliminated certain guys from certain spots. But it’s going to be a complete free-for-all this year, and I can’t wait to see what the chaos breeds.

Quick: Defensive Player of the Year. 

The leading candidate is Minnesota center Rudy Gobert, who is anchoring the league’s top defense, but I’m not sure there has been a more dominant defender than San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama. The 7-foot-4 rookie leads the NBA in blocks (3.5 per game) and if they charted shots changed he would lead that, too. I will be curious to see how the voters weigh Gobert’s reputation and status — he has won the award three times and plays for a contending team — against Wembanyama’s edge in statistics and wow factor, as his blocks are often highlight worthy. 

Robbins: In most years, Most Improved Player is the award I find most interesting. What should voters take into consideration most: the difference in growth from one season to the next or the ascension of already good players to bona fide star status? 

It appears that Maxey is the clear front-runner. He’s someone who was already darn good but has elevated himself to star level if he wasn’t there already. But with Alperen Sengun’s candidacy likely undone by his recent injury, can Scottie Barnes and Coby White end the season with enough of a flourish to challenge Maxey? Barnes and White aren’t on Maxey’s level as a star, but maybe they can make the argument that their games have improved by leaps and bounds while Maxey was already this good and merely taking advantage of a larger role created by James Harden’s departure and Embiid’s injury. 

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Tyrese Maxey is the front-runner to win the NBA Most Improved Player award. (Kyle Ross / USA Today)

How do you think the MVP race will play out over the next several weeks? 

Guillory: Nikola Jokić has been in control ever since Embiid was clearly out of contention, and I expect Jokić to cruise into the finish line with his third MVP of his career.

He’s the best player in the world on a team many consider as the heavy favorite to win it all. 

It should be a fairly easy decision for all voters.

Quick: I think it’s over: Jokić has cemented his third MVP in the past four seasons. The only player still in the conversation is Oklahoma City guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and it would take a remarkable finish by the Thunder and SGA to wrestle this away from Jokić. The power of Jokić goes beyond his impressive season averages (25.9 points, 12.2 rebounds, 9.1 assists) — his savvy, smarts and composure have a stranglehold on nearly every game he plays. 

Robbins: As great as Jokić is, I don’t think it’s over. It certainly isn’t over in my mind. 

With apologies to Jayson Tatum, who is the best player on the team with the league’s best record, I think the MVP race could come down to the team that finishes first in the West. If Denver captures the West’s top seed, I have no doubt Jokić will win, and should win, MVP. If Oklahoma City finishes first, Gilgeous-Alexander could have a shot. 

It’s another reason why voters should wait to submit their ballots until the regular season concludes.

(Top photo of Dereck Lively II and Nikola Jokić: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

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