Top Storylines Down the Stretch of the 2020-21 NBA Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 14, 2021

Top Storylines Down the Stretch of the 2020-21 NBA Season

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    With roughly a month left until the playoffs begin, we've officially entered the crunch-time portion of the 2020-21 NBA season. The tension is rising, nerves are fraying and urgency is setting in after the typical late-winter malaise.

    You can tell the pressure is on because prominent figures are voicing concerns about seeding and airing grievances on the new play-in scenario.

    The Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green first weighed in earlier this month, and the two most significant voices in the Dallas Mavericks organization, Luka Doncic and governor Mark Cuban, dropped their slightly miffed two cents this week.

    That's proof the stakes are elevating with the season's conclusion in sight. 

    As teams dial in and the playoff picture takes clearer shape, these are the narratives and storylines to follow during what's sure to be a thrilling stretch run.   

Jamal Murray's Injury and Its Impact on the West Hierarchy

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    In devastating news for both the Denver Nuggets and the league at large, a torn ACL put an early end to Jamal Murray's season.

    The Nuggets are only the West's fourth seed, but they'd won eight of their previous 10 games and profiled as a legitimate contender with Murray in the fold. Nikola Jokic's brilliance means Denver has a chance against anyone, and it's possible Michael Porter Jr. is ready to scale up his scoring while Aaron Gordon darts around doing all the little things on both ends. But it's difficult to envision a deep Nuggets run without Murray, whose postseason explosions had become an annual tradition.

    So where does that leave us in the West?

    Are we really back where we were in December, when the two L.A. teams were the only ones that seemed like realistic Finals options—even with LeBron James and Anthony Davis having missed so much time and the Los Angeles Clippers still playing under the cloud of last year's collapse?

    Do we need to include the dominant Utah Jazz in that group, implicitly valuing their stellar regular season over the larger body of evidence—two straight first-round exits and questions about the offense surviving against switching playoff defenses—that they're not quite built for the postseason?

    What about the scorching Phoenix Suns, owners of the league's best record since March 1? They missed the playoffs last year but added Chris Paul and Jae Crowder to a developing young core and seem to have all the ingredients you'd want in a contender. Then again, only six teams since the NBA/ABA merger have reached the Finals after missing the postseason the previous year.

    That's not exactly a strong precedent for the Suns.

    We have one less serious contender in the West with Murray sidelined, but that reduction only marginally simplifies the race in the West. This final month could provide a chance for one of the other threats to separate itself from the pack. 

    Who's it going to be?

The Epic and Inevitable Stephen Curry Run

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    It's convenient to choose this angle so soon after Stephen Curry's 53-point eruption moved him ahead of Wilt Chamberlain and into the top spot on the Golden State Warriors' all-time scoring list. But there's no denying the stars are aligned for a prolonged Curry scoring tear.

    First, Curry no longer seems to be hampered by the painful tailbone bruise that cost him five games in March and produced constant wincing whenever the two-time MVP hit the deck on a drive, which was alarmingly often.

    Beyond Steph's return to good health, the Warriors no longer have to balance James Wiseman's development against the critical need to make the remainder of Curry's prime count. The full details of Wiseman's meniscus injury aren't yet known, but the short end of a recovery timeline, which assumes removal of the damaged cartilage, is in the six-week range. The rookie center's return this season feels highly unlikely.

    Wiseman hurt the Warriors on the floor, and his (totally understandable) lack of feel meant he wasn't capable of making life easier for Curry. Kevon Looney, Wiseman's replacement, knows where Steph likes the ball and has enough reps with the superstar to capitalize on all the cuts and relocation sprints Wiseman never saw.

    No longer saddled with the task of nurturing Wiseman, who's undeniably vital to the franchise's future, Golden State can now approach games with a singular purpose and a clear plan: Get Steph rolling.

    The offensive training wheels are off.

    The Warriors profile as a mediocre team. They're 26-28 with a slightly negative point differential (minus-1.5). But with Curry, Green and Looney on the court, they bury opponents to the tune of a plus-17.0 net rating.

    Even a supreme run by Curry probably won't be enough to get Golden State into the play-in-avoiding sixth spot in the West, but climbing to seventh or eighth from its current No. 10 spot would still have real value. More than anything, it'd be thrilling to watch Steph put up a pile of 40-point games over the next few weeks.

    Don't bet against it.

Who'll Claim the East's Top Seed?

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 47 points in a blowout win over the Portland Trail Blazers on April 2, two weeks after he initially injured his left knee. That would seem to suggest his absence from the Milwaukee Bucks' last five games and his lack of a return timetable are mostly precautionary.

    But Milwaukee has more at stake than might seem immediately obvious.

    First, the Bucks have no chance at a title if their best player isn't healthy. That's true for every contender, though. More specifically, Milwaukee entered play Tuesday three-and-a-half games back of the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. That gap isn't going to narrow without Giannis, and all three members of the East's upper class (which includes the Brooklyn Nets in addition to the Bucks and Sixers) should desperately want that No. 1 spot.

    Whichever of those three ends the season seeded first will hit the playoffs with much more than just home-court advantage until the Finals. The real value comes in only having to face one of the other two elite teams in the conference. Finish second or third, and that'll mean potential dates with each of the other two powerhouses.

    If the season ended today and we presume no first-round upsets, Milwaukee would see the Nets in the second round. Survive that test, and Philly would be right there waiting in the conference finals.

    That's brutal. And we haven't even mentioned another critically important concern for each of the East's top three. They all need more all-hands-on-deck reps ahead of the playoffs.

    Brooklyn has only had James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant on the court together in seven games. The Sixers have had both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in the lineup in just 16 of the 33 games they've played since Feb. 1. Meanwhile, the Bucks, who need every chance they can get to perfect their playoff-focused adjustments to address their last two flameouts, could benefit from fielding their projected playoff rotation as often as possible over the final month.

    Question marks abound for these title contenders, and they'll all have to balance the premium on stretch-run continuity and development against longer-term concerns and the massive advantage of securing that top seed.   

Apparent Seeding Manipulation

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    A long bubble stay that resulted in a Finals win, followed by a truncated offseason that gave way to a condensed schedule, has the Los Angeles Lakers looking more vulnerable than they have in a while. And that's before considering the injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, which will keep them out for another couple of weeks.

    But do you really think the West's projected top seeds want any part of an early-round matchup against the defending champs?

    It may be a little soon to think about this, but be prepared for some apparent efforts to avoid LeBron and Co. in the first round.

    Even if James and Davis return on schedule, they'll need some ramp-up time and figure to get more than a few days off for rest. Currently seeded fifth, the Lakers could easily slip as low as seventh over the final month of the season.

    The Suns are in the No. 2 spot right now, but if they had the opportunity to slide down to third and secure a date with the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, you'd better believe they'd prefer that over seeing the Lakers at No. 7. Likewise, the No. 3 Clippers would surely want that No. 2 seed if the Lakers look lined up to finish sixth.

    This one is way out there, but what if the Lakers hang on to their current No. 5 position, which would pit them against a depleted Nuggets squad in the fourth spot? If you're the top-seeded Utah Jazz, would you consider taking your foot off the pedal and relinquishing first position so you could duck a second-round meeting with James and AD?

    It sounds ridiculous to sacrifice so much for a certain matchup, but this seems to happen all the time. It wouldn't be the first instance of Utah, specifically, appearing to make a late-season business decision.   

Point Zion

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Lonzo Ball's sore hip flexor may wind up being one of the most significant injuries of the 2020-21 season, a minor issue that could ultimately shape the league in a major way.

    It pushed the New Orleans Pelicans to fully actualize Zion Williamson as a primary ball-handler, which has unlocked a new level of dominance for one of the most unusual players in memory.

    Sure, let's give the 6'7" turbocharged, refrigerator-sized, rim-wrecking cannonball the role that used to be occupied by deferential 6'1" distributors. Why not?

    Few developments better exemplify Williamson's uniqueness like his dominance as an on-ball perimeter weapon. You wonder whether a bulky, perimeter-shooting-averse forward manning the point will represent a sea change in positional norms. Or, at least you would wonder that if there were any other prospects out there with anything resembling Williamson's body type and athletic gifts...which there aren't.

    Even if Zion's increasing on-ball responsibilities don't foreshadow a generation of point guards with defensive lineman dimensions, they clearly represent a key early chapter in his mostly unwritten career story. It feels like we'll look back at those February games when the Pelicans started giving Zion the ball in space more often as a league-altering discovery and that we'll remember Williamson's most recent stretch as a full-on point guard as the moment some magical door to greatness flew open.

    This final month will go a long way toward clarifying the optimal role for a generational talent. That seems worth watching.

               

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played April 13. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.