A Wild 2021 Finish Brews in the Western Conference

Through games of May 2, the Western Conference features a three-way tie at 36-28 for the 5 seed with just eight games to go in the regular season.

And as alluded to in last week’s “6 is the New 8”, this is a fantastic year to have such a three-car pileup on the NBA standings highway.

Most of the time, when you get a tie across a bunch of mid-seeds, it’s just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as all that hangs in the balance is who gets to host whom in what ultimately meaningless Game 1 of a first-round series.

As we learned in 2016, the adventure in the East wasn’t which one of Miami, Boston, Atlanta, or Charlotte would emerge from that pileup. It didn’t matter because everyone and their sister knew that Cleveland, which went on to win the title with LeBron James making his GOAT case, would emerge out of there, and if they didn’t, the 2 seed Toronto Raptors would.

After all, 48-34 does not a champion make except in particularly unusual circumstances (as is always the exception in these sorts of conversations, the 47-35 1995 Houston Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler serve in that capacity.)

But what do the ’95 Rockets and the 2021 Lakers, one of the three teams along with the Mavericks and Trail Blazers in this year’s version of a highway crash, have in common?

That’s right. Defending champion on an injury-riddled down year with a superstar out for blood. As is so often the case in 21st century NBA basketball, LeBron’s right in the middle of the conversation again.

So of course the Lakers had to rush LeBron back. Even though they’ve lost their last two since the King returned, the simple fact remains that they’re staring down the barrel of their worst-case scenario, namely those dreaded play-in games. If they end up the 7 seed and the feces hits the electric rotary impeller, they can’t just play the Jazz or Suns no matter what happens and get what would otherwise be the second-round matchup in a normal season out of the way a round early.

Likewise, Portland is still the same statistical enigma they’ve been all year. They’re down to just three games above expectation, because after a dreadful snapback in which they went 2-8 and lost a bunch of squeakers, they’ve won their last four games by a combined 71 points, including a 19-point blowout of the Brooklyn Nets and a 10-point win over the Boston Celtics.

The Blazers have reset their season-long Net Rating to plus-0.7, a huge swing of over a full point in just four games. If they keep choosing to make the mean regress to them by winning big rather than regressing to the mean by losing close—if that makes sense—then they too look like a legit threat to leverage that early good statistical luck into a genuine playoff run, no play-in games required. Granted, they still have the second-worst defense in the league, but the question here is not “will they win the title” (get out of here with that) but “will they avoid having to beat Memphis or Golden State or San Antonio just to get the right to get waxed by Phoenix or Utah instead?”

And then there’s Dallas, a team whose offense has cooled since setting the record for Offensive Rating (though not Offensive Percentage) last season. Luka Doncic remains a world-beating superstar, though curiously not as dominant as he’s been at other points in his career. His WS/48 stands at just .174 even though he’s posted 4.8 VORP in 58 games, racking up DNP-Rest nights on back-to-backs and otherwise showing he’s not really an 82-game (or 72-game) type of player. Questions are there about his durability, but he’s only 21 and Rick Carlisle may look wise in how he’s using his players once the playoffs come around. But he still has to get into the playoffs, and that’s the real literal wild card here.

Interestingly, LeBron has joined a chorus of players criticizing the league for its play-in tournament, pointing out that the very situation that has him and Doncic playing far more minutes than they otherwise would in a normal season where eight teams get in only makes it more likely that something like a Derrick Rose situation might come out of this.

Rose, of course, tore his ACL in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs, after a brutal schedule during the lockout-shortened 66-game season potentially contributed to wear and tear that wouldn’t be there if teams had a chance to rest their players and spread out the workload of a season over fewer back-to-backs and four-in-fives.

This, after all, is not only the reason why the NBA started their season in mid-October for the last couple of years before the pandemic—getting 82 games in is easier when the season’s two weeks longer—but why there’s even been talk of reducing the regular season to something like this year’s 72-game campaign once the pandemic is over and ten games can simply be excised from a six-month schedule to make it even easier on the health of the players.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN interviewed LeBron, and the juiciest quote was “Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired.”

LeBron elaborated, saying that “I need to make sure my ankle is where it was before the injury. I’ve got to be smart with it.”

If the Lakers could simply cruise into the 7 seed, or grab the 6 because Dallas does the same thing with Doncic, then both superstars could be at their absolute best for the postseason.

Instead, while it may be tremendously entertaining in a vacuum to make those mid-seeds worth fighting for, the net result is yet another blow against player safety, a cash grab and a bunch of artificial excitement to determine who gets their butts kicked by Utah or Phoenix in Round 1—or ensuring that one of those two teams, should they draw the Lakers, doesn’t get LeBron at his best.

Regardless, the Western Conference is headed for a wild finish. If nothing else, it gives folks something to follow as the regular season winds down.

Although if someone on the Lakers, Blazers, or Mavericks blows an ACL in Game 1 of the playoffs, the league is going to be in a very difficult place both from a PR standpoint and with its union.

One can only hope nothing goes wrong.