We are now coming to the end of what has been a hectic but enthralling 2020-21 NBA season. However, there are still plenty of incomplete storylines left to unfold with less than a fortnight left of regular season action. The majority of playoff berths are still available, while several teams are still looking to avoid the conference's play-in tournaments - such as the LA Lakers.
In this article, we will delve into what will be the most interesting stories to follow prior to the playoffs and how they could affect the postseason landscape.
How 5 storylines may unfold in the closing stages of the 2020-21 NBA season
Teams have had to battle with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and try to avoid too many postponed games or sidelined players. Injuries have seen favorites falter, while the usual Western Conference leaders have been replaced by the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns.
Over in the East, there could yet be an almighty battle in the NBA playoffs between the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. Beyond those three, it has been anybody's guess as to who will make the postseason and who will face a play-in tournament decider.
Let's take a look at what storylines are still left to be completed.
#1. Will the LA Lakers feature in the play-in tournament?
The LA Lakers pulled off a much-needed, unprecedented win against the Denver Nuggets on Monday night without LeBron James or Dennis Schroder. That puts the reigning NBA champions back in the driver's seat in the West's constantly changing playoff picture. They are now half a game ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and a game ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Given their remaining fixture schedule, the Lakers will have to grind out similar results to the one they managed against Denver. Over the next week, they have crucial matchups against the LA Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks.
They will have to play all of those games without dynamic two-way guard Dennis Schroder, who is out due to the league's health and safety protocols. Whether LeBron James will be able to return for the season run-in is also a question bugging Lakers fans. Although head coach Frank Vogel stated that the 36-year-old did not suffer a setback to his ankle injury, he had been playing through soreness in their two losses prior to Monday's game.
Should they fall into the NBA play-in tournament, we could see an enthralling matchup between LeBron James and Steph Curry. Either way, it would be surprising if the Lakers did not come out of the tournament in the playoffs.
#2. Can the New York Knicks hold onto the fourth seed in the East?
The New York Knicks' season has been one of the standout stories of the year. Coach Tom Thibodeau has led the franchise, that has not made the NBA playoffs since 2013, into the Eastern Conference's fourth seed with a mixture of young and experienced talent and a gritty defense.
They currently concede the lowest points per game, the sixth-least assists and have the best opposition 3-point percentage. Picking up Derrick Rose was one of the best acquisitions of the season, while forward Julius Randle has played at an All-Star level throughout the campaign.
Now all that remains to be seen is if they can keep ahold of the 4th seed in the NBA's Eastern conference. Akin to the Lakers, the Knicks also have a tough fixture schedule, facing five teams with a record above 500 in their last seven games. The Atlanta Hawks are a game and a half behind, while the Miami Heat are two games back, both of whom will be keen to avoid a first-round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks.
#3. Who will top the Western Conference?
The Utah Jazz looked set to top the NBA's Western Conference for the first time since 1998 after holding the no.1 seed for 87 days. However, the Phoenix Suns have been on their tail for weeks now and finally jumped Quin Snyder's team at the end of last week. Since then, the two have gone back and forth, with the Jazz currently half a game ahead.
Phoenix have a marginally more difficult fixture schedule, though they face six of their remaining eight opponents on the road. Away from home court this season, the Suns have a record of 21-9. The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, face four of their remaining opponents at home, where they have lost only four times all year. However, they remain without star guard Donovan Mitchell, who is out for at least the remainder of this week.
Both sides have been terrific all season and are each deserving of the top spot in the West and will most likely end up with the two best records in the NBA. The Phoenix Suns ran the Jazz out of their gym on Friday, fueled by Devin Booker's 31 points, which completed their 3-0 series sweep this season.
Though Utah has an easier schedule, the battle is set to go down to the wire and with Chris Paul's experience, we could see the Phoenix Suns just edge out the Jazz.
#4. Can Steph Curry carry the Golden State Warriors into the playoffs?
Steph Curry has had a season to remember for the Golden State Warriors. He currently leads the NBA in scoring after a shooting masterclass in April, in which he drained 96 threes.
As Draymond Green said on Monday, the point guard terrifies his opponents. So much so that, without the 33-year-old, the Warriors have won only once in eight matchups this year. Should he take home the scoring title and lead a Warriors side without Splash bro. Klay Thompson into the postseason could be the best campaign of his career.
At the moment, they look set to compete in the NBA play-in tournament, and comfortably sit four games ahead of the 11th-seeded Pelicans. Most important to coach Steve Kerr will to become the 8th seed, so as to have two opportunities to reach the playoffs.
Curry has shown that his scoring can beat any team this season, averaging 51 points across two games against the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers last month. If there is any player in the NBA that can single-handedly score enough points to win a game, it is Curry. However, were he to have an off night, the Golden State Warriors' supporting cast would have to step up which they have failed to do at times this year.
#5. Who will win Defensive Player of the Year?
The battle for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year has been one of the more exciting awards races this season. Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons have been neck and neck throughout, with the Frenchman still leading among the bookmakers.
Gobert has been the anchor for the Utah Jazz' stellar season and ranks fifth for defensive rating among players that have played over 45 games this season. In that same group, he sits top for defensive rebounds with 10.1 a night and second for blocks with 2.8.
Ben Simmons is a different style of defender but would be equally deserving of the award. The 76ers star can guard any team one through five and ranks sixth for steals with 1.7 per game. While Simmons' defensive rating is slightly lower than Gobert's, it still ranks him among the top-25 players in the NBA.
Since both players' teams have a top-3 defense, the voting for the award will be exceedingly close. Rudy Gobert has won the award twice before and would be more than deserving of a third title, though Ben Simmons may just edge the contest given his flexibility in positioning across the floor.