The regular season of the NBA is in its final week, and a number of questions remain unanswered. Contention for the major awards are not yet decided and the seeding, play-in and first-round matchups are not nearly as sealed as it usually is by this time of the year.
That said, here are a few things to be on the look out for in the coming days.
Jostling for the East’s Top Spot
The top four teams in the East — Miami, Boston, Milwaukee 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.
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 one would be naïve to think it is not 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 Picks 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 would 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 did not come into the season with real playoff expectations, but somehow are in the mix. Nobody thinks the Timberwolves will win a first-round series against Phoenix or Memphis, but they’ll still be a tough nut to crack. 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.
Possible Western Conference Playoffs scenarios for today ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/sXr6hrVFg3— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) April 5, 2022
MVP Pendulum Swings On
Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all jostling for the MVP hardware this season, but Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum have also put themselves in the conversation.
Latest Polls suggest Jokic is in the lead, but Antetokounmpo 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 has not 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.
The regular season ends in a week.— StatMuse (@statmuse) April 3, 2022
Here’s the complete breakdown of the MVP race. pic.twitter.com/vHcemju1bk
Is the Rookie of the Year Award Mobley’s to Lose?
It has been assumed for most of the season that the 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 likely win the award, but other contenders have emerged as the season draws to an end. 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, who currently leads the standings, has all-season breathed down the neck of Mobley.
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.
Who do you think will win the 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year Award? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/DUBwqKAuzz— NBA Retweet (@RTNBA) February 24, 2022
Will the Lakers Actually Miss the Play-In?
With back-to-back losses to the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans, 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 Western Conference top seed, Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night without Lebron James – who has missed quite a number of games lately due to injury, as well as the Golden State Warriors.
The 2020 Champions 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.
Stephen A GOES OFF on the Lakers organization 😳— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 5, 2022
“The Lakers are a national basketball atrocity, let's just call it what it is.” pic.twitter.com/IGpgKOW40O