Top 10 Storylines for the 2021-22 NBA Season's Final Week

Sean HighkinFeatured Columnist IIIApril 4, 2022

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) and forward LeBron James (6) walk down the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in Los Angeles, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
AP Photo/Ashley Landis

As the final week of the 2021-22 NBA regular season begins, all kinds of questions remain. Many of the major award races are still unsettled, and much about the seeding and first-round matchups isn't nearly as locked in as it usually is by this time of year.

With that in mind, here are 10 things to keep an eye on down the home stretch.

Will the Lakers Actually Miss the Play-In?

With this weekend's losses to the New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets, the Lakers fell to 31-47, two full games out of the 10th and final spot in the play-in group. Out of their four games remaining, only one is against a team whose season is effectively over (the Oklahoma City Thunder). They play the Denver Nuggets, who are fighting to stay in the top six, as well as the Golden State Warriors and the top-seeded Phoenix Suns.

They'll likely need to win a majority of those games to make the play-in, and it will be a tough road. Anthony Davis returned to the lineup Friday, which should help, but the Lakers no longer control their destiny and need the San Antonio Spurs, who are two games ahead of them, to do some losing.

The most likely scenario is that the Lakers will end up missing the playoffs entirely in two out of the first four years of the LeBron James era, a scenario that was unthinkable when he signed there in 2018 coming off eight straight Finals appearances in Cleveland and Miami.

Can LeBron Close Out the Scoring Title?

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) reacts after being called for goaltending late in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans, Sunday, March 27, 2022. The Pelicans won 116-108. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Regardless of the Lakers' fortunes, James still has something to play for from an individual standpoint: his second career regular-season scoring title and first since 2007-08. He needs to play in two more games to qualify for the crown and is holding a narrow lead at 30.3 points per game, just edging Giannis Antetokounmpo (30.1 points) and Joel Embiid (30.2 points).

If James were to win it at age 37, he would become the oldest scoring champion in NBA history (Michael Jordan holds that distinction after winning it at age 35 in 1997-98). He will have won it as an up-and-coming phenom at age 23 and as an elder statesman in his late 30s, which is about as strong a distinction in his longevity-based case for the GOAT title as he can get, short of winning another MVP. 

Ever conscious of his legacy and place in history, James is well aware of what a scoring title this late in his career would mean, and you can bet he's focused on getting it, if only to salvage something lasting from what will go down as another lost Lakers season.

The Race to the Bottom

The bottom three teams in the league, the ones who share the 14 percent odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick in next month's lottery, are basically set as a group: the Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. Behind them are the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers, all of whom have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with less than a week to go in the season. 

The Sacramento Kings are technically still alive for a play-in spot, but they face an uphill battle to muscle their way in; it's more likely they fall into this group before the season ends.

This group of teams are all focused on landing the best draft pick possible, so expect a lot of lineup shenanigans, phantom injuries and, um, interesting rotation decisions in their remaining games as they attempt to wrap up their best lottery odds. 

The introduction of the play-in has cut down on the number of teams actively attempting to lose for a better draft pick, but that element of the league still exists and will remain in play in the final week.

Who Finishes Strong in the MVP Race?

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks Sunday, April 3, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
AP Photo/Aaron Gash

The MVP race is still not settled. 

ESPN's recent (and typically reliable) straw poll suggests that Nikola Jokic has a decent-sized edge, but it isn't so big that Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid couldn't close the gap during this final stretch. 

Antetokounmpo already made great strides in that department last week, including a dominant performance against the Nets, and Embiid put up 29 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in Saturday's blowout win over the Charlotte Hornets.

The final seeding may come into play too. If Denver falls to the play-in, it may be hard for some to justify voting for Jokic. Meanwhile in the Eastern Conference, Milwaukee is tied with Philadelphia. 

There is so much that has yet to be settled, and some voters could wait until the end of the season to make up their minds when typically the race is decided by now. There hasn't been a set of three front-runners this strong since the Russell Westbrook-James Harden-Kawhi Leonard pool in 2017, and whoever wins this year will find some controversy from those who felt one of the other two deserved it.

Injured Stars Getting Ramped Up

Within the past week, Paul George has returned to the Clippers' lineup from an elbow injury, while the Lakers have gotten Anthony Davis back after an 18-game absence because of a foot setback. 

They aren't the only big names whose health can swing the playoffs. Denver still hasn't ruled out returns for Jamal Murray (torn ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (back), while Brooklyn isn't entirely closing the door on Ben Simmons making his season debut as he continues to deal with back issues. Even Kawhi Leonard hasn't been officially ruled out for the season as he recovers from last June's ACL tear, as unlikely as it is that he'll actually play a week before the playoffs.

Getting Davis back greatly helps the Lakers' chances of staying in the play-in race. Regardless of what happens with Leonard, the return of George makes the Clippers a lot more interesting as a potential first-round spoiler for either Phoenix or Memphis if they make it out of the play-in. 

In the unlikely event that Simmons can play, he'll make an already impossible-to-figure-out Nets team even more intriguing as a low seed that the top teams in the East don't want to face after the play-in round.

Does Evan Mobley Have the Rookie of the Year Trophy Wrapped Up?

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MARCH 28: Evan Mobley #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers pauses on the court during the first quarter against the Orlando Magic at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on March 28, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jason Miller/NBAE via Getty Images

For most of the year, it's been assumed that Rookie of the Year was Evan Mobley's award to lose. His day-one impact as a frontcourt defender brought comparisons to Tim Duncan, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were the biggest surprise of the first part of the season.

Mobley will still probably win the award, but two other contenders have emerged as strong challengers as the season closes. No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham has begun to look like a future star after a slow start to the season, and Scottie Barnes' Toronto Raptors have overtaken Cleveland in the standings.

Mobley, meanwhile, is out with an ankle injury and might not play in any more regular-season games, so if any voters are holding out until the end to make their decisions, Barnes and Cunningham will have a greater opportunity to make up ground in the final week than Mobley will to hold his position. 

He's still the favorite, but it could end up being a closer race than anybody thought it would be two months ago.

Can the Nets Get It Together?

Kyrie Irving won his standoff with the city of New York's COVID-19 vaccination mandate and is now able to play in home games. But the Brooklyn Nets haven't been dominant to close out the season, blowing a nine-point lead to lose in overtime to Milwaukee last week despite Kevin Durant's continued world-class play. The Nets haven't ruled out Ben Simmons' franchise debut this year, but head coach Steve Nash told reporters Saturday that he has yet to progress to one-on-one work. The idea that he could go from barely being able to do on-court work to playing in high-leverage games in the next week is tough to envision.

The Nets' exact position in the play-in is also in doubt. They're essentially in a dead heat with Charlotte and Atlanta for the Nos. 8-10 spots, which will determine whether Brooklyn plays at home or on the road in the first play-in game, as well as whether it will have to win one or two games to make it to the playoffs. 

Any team with Durant on the court will be favored in one of these games and will be a tough out for whichever top seed they presumably get in the first round, but the Nets still have some questions to answer before we get there.

Jockeying at the Top of the East

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid stands in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sunday, April 3, 2022, in Cleveland. The 76ers won 112-108. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
AP Photo/David Dermer

The top four teams in the East—Miami, Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia—are separated by just 2.5 games heading into the final week. This will make for an interesting race to watch on a number of levels. For one, whether the Bucks or 76ers finish with a higher seed could factor into some voters' choice between Antetokounmpo and Embiid on their MVP ballots.

But more importantly, we could see one of those teams attempt to stay out of the top two to avoid the possibility of having to face Brooklyn in the first round, should the Nets advance past the play-in. Tanking to game the matchups is always a dicey proposition, but you'd be naive to think it isn't going to factor in somewhere in this final week with the prospect of Durant on the other side being a reward for top-seed status.

Who Falls to the 7th Play-In Spot in the West?

Just two games separate the fifth-place Denver Nuggets, sixth-place Utah Jazz and seventh-place Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota is two back in the loss column from Denver, which would much rather have the week of the play-in games off to potentially give Michael Porter Jr. (back) and Jamal Murray (knee) more time to get healthy. 

The Jazz have been surrounded by speculation for months that if their run ends early, it could mean the end of the Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell group, so they'd do well to avoid the play-in. Whoever does end up in seventh will have to face the Clippers, with a healthy Paul George, in the first play-in game.

Minnesota, which didn't come into the season with real playoff expectations, is in a great position regardless and should feel good about its future. Nobody thinks the Timberwolves will win a first-round series against Phoenix or Memphis, but they'll still be a tough out. And they have a real chance, if Denver or Utah stumbles in the final week, to climb high enough that they won't have to face one of those top two teams in the first round.

Will the Warriors Stop Their Free-Fall?

After a dominant run, the Golden State Warriors have succumbed to injuries down the stretch. Stephen Curry's sprained foot will be reevaluated after the end of the regular season; if he's healthy, Golden State's chances at making a real run are alive. If he's not at peak form, those chances are essentially dead in the water.

The Warriors aren't in any danger of falling into the play-in, but it's possible they'll fall out of the top four and lose home-court advantage in the first round. They're clinging to a small lead over Dallas for the No. 3 seed in the West, but they're only three games out of fifth and three-and-a-half out of sixth. They've lost four in a row with Curry out. 

Because of their pedigree and the title equity the Curry-Draymond Green-Klay Thompson core has built, they're still a team to take seriously once the playoffs start. But they aren't entering the final week of the regular season looking like the juggernaut they appeared to be after their hot start.