As the final week of the season approaches, the playoff bracket begins to materialize.
The New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks secured their first playoff spot in years while the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns battle for home court advantage.
Is this the last stand for the Portland Trailblazers in their current composition?
Lastly, we’ll try our hand at compiling All-NBA teams - spoiler alert: there will be snubs!
Intriguing 1st Round Matchups
Many classic playoff series take place in the opening round, where teams are hungry and fresh.
This year, there are some exciting propositions for playoff matchups we haven’t gotten before due to the play-in tournament implemented by the league.
We could see the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers against a two-seeded Phoenix Suns squad. A healthy Lakers team would have the best odds as any seven-seed ever before.
If the Lakers manage to grab the six-seed, we could get the battle of LA in round-one. Either outcome would be equally compelling.
The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, both ending playoff droughts, may meet in the four vs. five series. One team would continue their Cinderella season while the other would be watching from home.
Imagine the wizardry on display in a Denver Nuggets-Dallas Mavericks series. This pairing would provide must-see moments between two of the brightest international stars the game has seen in Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
At this point, the play-in tournament must be deemed a success. It created a necessary intrigue to the plodding regular season.
There’s not much separation this year between the contenders in either conference, and that will provide a delightful first-round.
Now or Never in Portland
Guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have turned Portland into playoff stalwarts in the West.
But is that their ceiling, unfortunately?
Portland’s front office must assess that question this coming offseason.
Although they’re currently jockeying between the five and seven seeds, there isn’t a highly favorable path either way. Avoiding the play-in is the best-case scenario.
The mid-season acquisition of blossoming guard Norman Powell brought about new options for the Blazers future.
They’re not as beholden to a Lillard and McCollum partnership as Powell could be McCollum’s more-affordable successor.
Only then would Portland be able to truly change their DNA. The two guard nucleus is proven to be viable, but not transcendent, and a McCollum package could garner potent returns.
Under contract through 2024, McCollum would be very sought-after on the trade market.
Wasting away Lillard’s prime years would be a shame. It would be a disservice if they never experimented with other options.
Dhoopster’s All-NBA Ballot
G - Stephen Curry
G - Luka Doncic
F - Giannis Antetokounmpo
F - Nikola Jokic
C - Joel Embiid
Now, these selections are based on the league implementing new dual position eligibility.
While Jokic is usually playing the five, he has combo eligibility this year which allows us to put the season’s five best players on the first-team.
Other than that, this was a relative no-brainer. Each player has put up monster stats, distancing themselves from others at their position.
It’s the second-team where it starts to get tricky.
G - Damian Lillard
G - Chris Paul
F - Kawhi Leonard
F - LeBron James
C - Rudy Gobert
Save for Gobert, nobody here had a case for first-team, and he’s even third behind the other centers.
Leonard’s sly dominance has been on display all season. He looks great physically, playing in back-to-backs again, and making strides as a distributor.
James was having a prototypical season before coming down with the ankle injury.
In this condensed season, it’s tougher to penalize players for missed games. Health and safety protocols along with fewer days off resulted in widespread unavailability.
Leonard used to be the punching bag of load management, but the concept has made its way into almost every NBA locker room.
Gobert and Paul cemented their cases by being integral to their team’s success while only missing one game each.
Dame’s heroics also kept Portland afloat through a brutal stretch of injuries.
Last but not least.
G - Kyrie Irving
G - Russell Westbrook
F - Julius Randle
F - Jimmy Butler
C - Bam Adebayo
I’ll preface by saying this was extremely difficult.
Many players were deserving and may indeed make the official teams.
Just missing the cut for me were guys like guards Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Trae Young, forwards Jayson Tatum, Paul George, Zion Williamson and center Clint Capela.
In the end, I went with guys who were the most impactful when available.
Adebayo and Butler were responsible for turning the Heat’s season around when some began to doubt the reigning conference champions.
Randle made a monster leap as a player. He improved his shooting, playmaking, and leadership as the team’s best player. Being largely responsible for New York’s resurgence, he deserves a spot.
Irving was other-worldly on offense this year. He’s also the only representative of Brooklyn’s big three, as he appeared in the most games by far.
Lastly, I couldn’t discredit Westbrook’s greatness. Players get called out for “empty stats” when they don’t impact winning.
Well, Westbrook’s numbers since the all-star break are absurd: 23.7 points, 13.1 assists and 12.8 rebounds. The Wizards are also .500 over that span.
For a season that started so poorly, Westbrook’s determination willed his team from the grave to now have a shot at the postseason.
Though Beal was the leading scorer, and is second-best in the league in that regard, Westbrook’s spirit and output was more valuable to the team.
Call me a prisoner of the moment, but Westbrook’s accolades are historic and he again proved the doubters wrong this season.