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We Are Headed Towards A Most Uncertain NBA Playoffs

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 11: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to play behind Anthony Davis #3 during the third quarter against the New York Knicks at Staples Center on May 11, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The worst part of any NBA season is typically the part that is happening right now, where most of the good teams know who they are and what their hypothetical path to the Finals might look like, and are just trying not to pick up injuries. Meanwhile, bad teams are losing as shamelessly as possible. Aside from a few squads trying desperately to earn the right to become cannon fodder in the first round, the results might as well be procedurally generated. We know which six or so teams can win the title, and the legit contenders have probably been locked into their conference’s top seed for weeks.

That has not been the case whatsoever this year. Nobody knows anything! The season has been an odd beast, truncated and warped by COVID-19 and an offseason that was either way too short or way too long, respectively, for teams that did or did not go to the bubble. Everyone is jacked up, and we’re now here on the doorstep of the playoffs, with no real sense of who the favorite is, or whether the on-paper best team in each conference will turn into a juggernaut or just fart and die. NBA playoffs tend to be unsurprising processions of elite teams, and though upsets do happen, chalk usually wins. This year, however, we don’t know shit.

We must start with the defending champs, who need to win their last two games and have Portland lose their final game of the season to avoid having to battle through the dreaded play-in game to even make the actual playoffs. The Lakers have weathered their six LeBron-less weeks just well enough to have a sniff at the sixth seed, but their most likely scenario has them hosting the first play-in against Golden State for the right to play Utah or Phoenix. A healthy L.A. squad is probably still the best team in the league, and I’m sure the Jazz and Suns are pissed that their reward for breakout seasons and the top two seeds in the Western Conference could be a first-round series against a well-rested LeBron James. The thing is, we have no way of knowing what Lakers team shows up. LeBron has played just two uneven games, both losses to bad teams, since his return, though at least Anthony Davis has turned a corner since his return from his own injury. He needed three games to get comfortable, and he’s averaged 36 points per game over L.A.’s last three.

The truly exciting thing here is that we’ve never seen LeBron James with his back against the wall like this. He hasn’t missed a Finals, when healthy, for a full decade. Even if his body is finally right, he’s never had to dig out of this sort of hole to get there. The Jazz and Suns are impressive winning machines, even if both are unproven in the playoffs. Utah in particular has notably flamed out when thrown up against teams led by superstar talents (James Harden, Nikola Jokic), and even this year’s hypertuned squad doesn’t have a good answer for LeBron and hasn’t had their shooters tested by keyed-in playoff defense that rotates as well as the Lakers. As for Phoenix, they have the opposite problem. Where Utah is a better version of a known quantity, Phoenix is totally untested. It’s useless to speculate too much here about What This Means or draw too much from Chris Paul’s history of near-misses, but they don’t fit the profile of your average two-seed. Below them, the Nuggets have the MVP and Tall Klay Thompson, though they’re also missing their primary source of offensive dynamism. I suppose this would make the Clippers something of a fashionable pick as the logical favorite to win the West, since they’re the best shooting team in the NBA. But even then, they haven’t been playing with a full-strength lineup. The door is wide open, more than it’s been in a very long time, and I wouldn’t be shocked if any team besides the Warriors, Spurs, or Grizzlies makes the Finals.

The East is easier to understand, yet still weird. The Lakers have a rough analog in the Brooklyn Nets, who are theoretically the most talented team in the NBA. Problem is, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant have played just seven games together all season. Brooklyn is still in the hunt for the one-seed, since they’ve enjoyed a low-carb Eastern Conference diet, though an easier path to the Conference Finals doesn’t make the on-paper bad matchup with Philly any less daunting. For their part, the Sixers are more healthy and coherent than they’ve been in years, but they are still the Sixers and are therefore prone to odd meltdowns. The Milwaukee Bucks also exist, I guess, though I still don’t trust them to win any game where they don’t shoot 50 percent from three. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a worthy first-team All-NBA’er, but he’s also in the Jazz zone. A possible first-round series against a finally healthy Heat could be extremely juicy.

Now that you know exactly how banged up everyone is, I hope you’ve also arrived at the obvious conclusion: Stability matters. Knicks over Blazers in seven.