A 2021 NBA Playoff Preview
By: James O’Reilly
The NBA season is nearing its close.
Still, without fans, the NBA has driven through the current campaign. Although shortened to 72 games, the usual intensity has been ever-present amongst the 30 sides in the league.
With a high number of injuries and an entirely new play-in tournament, there have been many talking points in the build-up to the playoffs, regardless of the form of any team.
Below are some of the more spoken about stories as we head towards the post season.
The Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s hard to gauge how the season has been for the Lakers. Well, sort of. By their standards, it’s been awful. Instead of locking up the 1st seed, they’re currently battling for the sixth seed, in a bid to escape the play-in tournament.
That being said, however, it’s hardly like it has been entirely down to form. Anthony Davis, whilst he has struggled for consistency, has had his battles with injuries. As for LeBron James, he was sidelined for over a month in what was his longest stretch away from the game in his career.
LeBron has missed over 20 games of the season, whilst Anthony Davis has missed over 30. The duo’s misfortune overlapped, which meant the Lakers were playing without either of their stars for a solid portion of the year.
Whilst role players have done what they can, the loss of your two best players would impact any team. The Lakers are still above .500, but at the time of writing, they sit on a 38-30 record. With only four games left of their regular season, chances are the Lakers will have to win all of them if they stand any chance of exceeding the seventh seed, where they currently sit.
You would assume that the Lakers, should they end up in the play-in, would breeze by whoever they are matched up against. That being said, Davis seems set to maintain his inconsistency, whilst LeBron James has already stated that he will never be back to who he was before the ankle injury that currently plagues him.
The Los Angeles Lakers are playing a daringly flirtatious game with failure this season. Whilst injuries have played their part, each team has to cope with such frustrations also. Are the Lakers destined for a first-round upset, or will they fall at the first hurdle and fail to make the post-season?
The play-in tournament.
Has there ever been an alteration to the league more spoken about? Perhaps not in recent years.
The play-in tournament has certainly divided opinions amongst those involved with the NBA. Fans and players have no fear in voicing their concerns. The likes of Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Draymond Green have all noted that they are far from keen on the new idea.
The tournament proposes three games. The first game will see the seventh seed take on the eighth seed. The winner becomes the seventh seed, whilst the loser will play once more in game three.
The second game of the play-in will pit the ninth seed against the tenth seed. The loser enters the draft lottery, whilst the winner progresses to the third game.
The final game of the play-in tournament will see the loser of the first game take on the winner of the second game. The overall victor takes the final playoff spot, ending the tournament as the eighth seed. The loser enters the draft lottery.
Player concern surrounding the tournament is understandable. The 2020/21 season has already been rife with absence. TJ Warren, Jamal Murray and Markelle Fultz are just a few examples of the plethora of NBA talent that have seen their seasons ended through injury. The play-in proposes even more games, in an already condensed campaign, for players that lacked a true pre-season.
It could be assumed, however, that for many fans, the play-in offers an otherwise unobtainable dream. Franchises like Charlotte, Washington, Memphis. These are teams that, most likely, wouldn’t make the regular playoffs without the play-in, at least this season. The tournament offers a way for them to do this.
The play-in offers a potential gold mine in terms of ratings. These are one-game shootouts. The casual won’t be turned away by a lengthy play-off series, but instead will be transfixed on three ‘win or go home’ style games. As for the fans, they’ll obviously watch their side regardless.
The tournament is certainly controversial. There is no denying this. In spite of this though, it does offer an outlet towards a new audience, which would expand a set of ratings that the business side of the NBA is forever looking to increase.
Who is the favourite?
It’s a valid question and is perhaps unanswerable. The West is arguably far more competitive and, as such, far less predictable. Above, the sorrows of the Lakers have already been discussed. Utah and Phoenix are the current one and two seed, but will they have enough to win it all? The Nuggets have the unofficial MVP on their roster, but can Jokic single-handedly drag his side to the Finals?
Out East, the gut reaction leans towards one of Philadelphia or Brooklyn. The 76ers have added competent shooting to an already strong side. They have one of the top three players in the league in Joel Embiid, and a DPOY candidate in Ben Simmons. As for the Nets, well, it hardly needs an expansive explanation. KD. Kyrie. Harden. An automatic contender.
On the other side of New York, the Knicks have caught absolutely everyone by surprise. Guided by Julius Randle channelling his inner Tim Duncan and becoming not only one of the best power forwards, but one of the best players, in the NBA, the Knicks currently sit as the fourth seed.
It’s highly unlikely that they’ll win it all, but it would be some fairy-tale if they did. Other than that, it’s hard to say who else could win it out East. Boston seem far too inconsistent to contend. Milwaukee have added Jrue Holiday, but will he prove to be the answer to the playoff woes of the Bucks?
Of course, there are countless other teams in contention, either for the play-in, or sides that will compete in the playoffs. A prediction is certainly hard, but it’s harder to see a final that doesn’t involve one of Brooklyn or Philadelphia. As for the West, it feels wrong to call the Clippers a ‘dark horse’, but given their poor playoff history, it seems fitting. Could this year finally be the year?