This season has been profoundly weird. The Toronto Raptors played in Tampa, Florida. A-Rod had a mid-life crisis and bought the Minnesota Timberwolves. The New York Knicks are back. Now, with just under two weeks left in a season that at times felt defined by ennui (it’s almost admirable how the Brooklyn Nets have steamrolled their competition while refusing even to pretend to try hard), this year’s inaugural play-in tournament has provided a jolt of high-stakes adrenaline, as nearly two-thirds of the league jockeys for playoff position. Below are the five most noteworthy teams to watch as the season winds down.
Never mind that the Los Angeles Clippers recently blew double-digit leads in three consecutive games to hilariously squander a 3-1 lead in the playoffs. Or that their sixth man almost popped the NBA’s playoff bubble because he ate chicken wings with Jack Harlow in a strip club during a pandemic. Or that just last month Paul George sat out a game because he drank too much coffee.
Don’t let their sour meme-ability fool you: the Los Angeles Clippers may only have the second best record in their division, but they’re the best team in basketball. George and Kawhi Leonard are two of the NBA’s slickest scorers and most disruptive defenders; there are hardly two wings in the whole world who can match George and Leonard’s blend of bucket-getting and bucket-prevention, let alone two wings on the same team. Both stars have leveled up as playmakers, potentially resolving the aimlessness that previously torpedoed the Clippers’ offense. Beyond their star duo, the Clippers have the personnel to play any style, reducing strategic dilemmas into simple if-then statements. Although the Clippers have been overshadowed by starrier teams and better storylines, George’s infamous, doomed prophecy from September has finally come true: the Clippers are still in the driver’s seat.
For the bulk of the season, the Wizards practiced hardwood hedonism, allowing Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal to live their truths (triple-doubles and thirty pieces, respectively), winning be damned. Since April 7th, though, the ‘Zards have been zooming, posting an 11-2 record and the league’s eighth best point-differential. Notably, the Wizards have transformed their season these last few weeks without transforming their team—besides the addition of backup center Daniel Gafford. Washington’s roster is largely the same in both form and function, sustaining a consistent offensive and defensive shot profile; per PBP Stats, the quality of shot that the Wizards both take and allow has not meaningfully changed throughout the season.
The main difference between their 17-32 start and their 12-3 surge? The Wizards are now making shots they previously missed while their opponents are missing shots that they previously made. Sixty games deep into the season, the Wizards are still unknowable—is this hot streak a talented team finally finding its level or a lucky hiccup? Either way, the bizarre spectacle of Westbrook and Beal furiously trying to lift their team to mediocrity has single handedly validated this season’s play-in tournament experiment. Playoff berth or not, the Wizards offer proof that there can still be meaning in the NBA’s anonymous middle. And if they do sneak their way into the eighth seed: Nets in four.
For the last two seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks rampaged through the regular season behind a devastatingly simple attack, only to come undone because of their inability and unwillingness to make adjustments in the playoffs. In response, this year’s Bucks are letting their (Greek) Freak flag fly. On offense, they’ve added variety beyond their standard five-out arrangement, often shifting a player from the three-point line to the “dunker spot” along the baseline near the rim, thus making it riskier for defenses to bring aggressive help when Giannis Antetokounmpo drives. The new additions of Jrue Holiday and PJ Tucker allows them to easily switch ball-screens, giving them a failsafe against talented playoff guards who can reliably drain the mid-range jump shots that the Bucks’ patented drop coverage is designed to cede.
Their 40-24 record may lag behind their historically great previous two campaigns, but their bet is that a skosh more unpredictability—a more democratized offense, a more adaptable defense—will unlock their ultimate potential. More than any other team, the Bucks demonstrate the awkward process of evolution as they try to rejigger the team’s identity on the fly: they can only become champions by moving on from what made them contenders.
In the wake of star point guard Jamal Murray’s torn ACL, Michael Porter, Jr. has blossomed into an elite offensive player, overcoming his own gnarled spine and poisoned Boomer brain in the process. Although his shambly ball-handling limits his shot creation, his knack for slinking into open space without the ball makes him the perfect lieutenant to MVP favorite Nikola Jokic; Porter has averaged 26 points per game on ludicrous 71% true shooting since April 14th. Unlike most off-ball scorers who are primarily three-point specialists (think: Klay Thompson), Porter maintains a diverse scoring portfolio from all areas of the floor. Having eschewed normal conventions of offensive stardom like “dribbling” and “passing,” Porter has devoted himself instead to being the NBA’s purest, deadliest scorer. Since Murray’s injury, Porter has averaged just under half a point each time he’s touched the ball, a rate that no 25 point per game scorer has ever achieved over a full season. In turn, Porter marks a new archetype of player—a low-usage, three-level, volume scorer—that Jokic’s brilliance has made possible.
The Porter-Jokic dynamic is perfectly symbiotic: without Jokic’s brilliant passing, all of Porter’s cutting and activity would basically amount to an elaborate cardio routine; without Porter’s clever movement, Jokic’s genius would be dimmed by a lack of opportunity. Together, they are living evidence of how basketball subtly changes in real-time, turning isolation scoring into a communal pursuit. In a sport that is often defined by the struggles and triumphs of individual superstars, the Nuggets offer a gentler alternative. They get by with a little help from their friends.
Like a monarch butterfly emerging from its gooey cocoon, the Knicks have shed their eternal Knicks-iness and are styling and profiling. Led by The People’s MVP Julius Randle and ex-hunk Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks have bludgeoned their way to a 36-28 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. And none of it feels like a fluke!
They’ve established an identity as a team of punishing try-hards, parlaying a near-psychotic level of effort into the league’s fourth stingiest defense; the Knicks succeed by inducing failure. To be sure, this is not a traditionally “fun” team—the Knicks throttle the game’s tempo so that they can impose their goony strength on more exciting opponents; Randle and RJ Barrett, the team’s two best scorers, score most of their points by leaning against a defender until something yields. In a vacuum, the Knicks are artless overachievers who seek to make each game as ugly as possible. But after 20 years of galaxy-brained incompetence, the plodding, pretty good Knicks are thrilling. Sometimes “pretty good” can feel like grace.