With only two months left in the 2021-22 NBA season, the competition for the top seed has never been fiercer. Only the teams that finish top 6 in the standings of each conference will be guaranteed a playoff spot. With the season soon coming to an end, I’ve compiled a list of teams to watch in the final-month push as I go over recent trades, injuries, and my personal prospects.
1. Brooklyn Nets (Eastern 8th, 36-33)
It’s hard to imagine a power squad like the Nets with Ben Simmons, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving treading the middle of the Eastern Conference ranking list.
The Nets actually began their season strong – up until Dec. 27, 2021, the Nets were second in the league with a record of 23-9. Ex-Nets guard James Harden, Durant, and Irving were taking turns scoring the highest points of the game, averaging at least 25 points per game. The team’s stellar performance was backed by world-class depth in its roster because earlier last year, the Nets have signed six-time NBA All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge as a free agent and veteran Paul Millsap, greatly expanding Brooklyn’s options at center, on top of former all-stars like Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond remaining as highly playable options.
At one point in the season, three of the top-six (Durant, Harden, and Aldridge) and five of the top-25 active scorers (adding Griffin and Irving) were playing for the Nets. Harden and Durant were also former MVPs within the last ten years. To have one former MVP on a roster is already quite overpowering – think of Giannis Antetokounmpo who single-handedly brought the Bucks to the finals. For this reason, the Nets, led by head coach Steve Nash, also a former-MVP himself, was predicted to dominate the league with arguably the most stacked team in NBA history. That was, until injuries began plaguing their entire roster. Namely, Durant sprained his MCL during a game against New Orleans in mid-January and was out for 6 weeks. The Nets instantly lost momentum and went 5-16 without Durant, who was averaging 29 points in 36 games before the injury. Aldridge also missed two weeks in December due to Covid-19 and sat out 12 games earlier this year from a foot injury and ankle sprain. Aldridge is currently recovering from a hip injury and is anticipated to miss both games this week as well. Drummond has been covering the big man role but his performance too has been nothing but stellar, averaging only 6.9 points.
Yet, the Nets are still a heavily favored team for the top four. Durant dropped 53 points his first game back against the Knicks and Kyrie dropped 50 points last week against the Hornets. Durant and Irving were also able to lock down Joel Embiid and the 76ers bringing an easy 129-100 win. Seth Curry, one of the newest additions to the team, scored 24 points against the 76ers with a whopping 71.4% fgp. Considering it was only his fifth game with a new team, Seth will undoubtedly become a valuable player during the postseason after he gets used to the new team. The possible return of Ben Simmons is also something that the Nets have in their favor. Many consider the Nets to be the perfect team for Simmons to make up for his main weakness which are the mid-range jumpers. Though the Nets might have lost Harden, they’ve locked in some high-scoring players through the trade. The return of KD and the potential synergy between former 76ers teammates Simmons and Curry is why the Nets are a team to look out for.
2. Phoenix Suns (Western 1st, 55-14)
When the Suns were 2nd place in the Western Conference last year, no one expected them to make it all the way to the finals. Chris Paul in the past has blown multiple 2-0 series leads in the postseason and his history of “choking” had everyone assuming Paul and the Suns would choke yet again.
The Suns were also facing the Clippers in the conference final, led by Kawhi Leonard who won the Toronto Raptors its first NBA championship in franchise history the previous year. Last year, unfortunately, Chris Paul and his “choke-god” reputation lived up to his name as Paul and the Suns blew another 2-0 lead on the Bucks in the finals and lost the next four games, completely dominated by Bucks 2020 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Suns are the best team in the west right now with a 54-14 record. The Grizzlies and Warriors who are second and third are nowhere close, with 7.5 and 8 games behind respectively. Utah Jazz, who was first last season, is dragging behind at fourth place with 11.5 games behind. Given their record of 31-9 against teams in the Western Conference, the Suns have proved that they are the best team in the conference, time over time.
Unfortunately, the Suns also couldn’t prevent losing star players from injuries and the pandemic. Paul is out indefinitely due to a right thumb fracture, potentially missing the remaining regular season. Whether he could make an appearance post-season is also up in the air at the moment. All-Star guard Devin Booker also missed a couple weeks due to Covid-19.
Amid Paul’s questionable status, the Suns could make this work. All-Star guard Devin Booker returned this week, coming off the NBA’s Covid-19 protocols, scoring 23 points his first game back. His form seems to be gradually returning to the pre-injury season, scoring 30 points on Mar. 13 against the Lakers. As a team with one of the greatest depths in the league, the Suns aren’t dependent on Booker and Paul to score points. Players like center Deandre Ayton and guard Landry Shamet have picked up some slack, adding 47 combining points against the Bucks last week. Ayton, who averages 16.9 points per game this season finished with a season-high 30 points. Frankly without Paul, the Suns aren't looking so hot. However, they could come out strong without the starting backcourt of Chris Paul if players like Ayton and Shamet keep scoring like they did and forwards like Mikal Bridges continue to lock down shooters in the perimeter like he did against James Harden against the Nets earlier this season.
3. Memphis Grizzlies (Western 2nd, 48-22)
It would be impossible to talk about the NBA this season without mentioning the Grizzlies explosive point guard Ja Morant. Ja Morant currently leads the NBA in points in the paint at 16.7 paint points per game, followed by Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic from the Nuggets. Ja Morant, at a modest 6 foot 3, is the shortest player among the top 10 of that list and has scored over 20 points in the paint in 21 games. For reference, Antetokounmpo and Jokic are both 6 foot 11. Morant’s aggressive playing style and powerful dunks make him one of the most entertaining players to watch in the league this year and his recent back-to–back performances of 46 points against the Bulls and 52 points against the Spurs demonstrate his capability to carry the Grizzlies franchise past the playoffs.
From 2020 Rookie of the Year to superstar Ja Morant we see today, there’s been noticeable improvements, sculpting Morant into an all-round player like Derrick Rose during his MVP season, scoring tough shots under the rim and keeping perfect control of his body mid-air. Morant’s marksmanship has also improved significantly, scoring 34.1% behind the 3-point line compared to 30.3% last year.
But Memphis is better than just Ja Morant. The team has been incredibly effective in their defense as well, sitting at seventh in defensive ratings. For instance, Jaren Jackson Jr., who is running for Defensive Player of the Year this year, has the highest number of blocks this season and second highest block rate. Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, and Ziaire Williams are all competent players that could support Morant by stripping the defense of Ja to the arc. Of course the Grizzlies will have to beat the Suns to make it to the finals and as I’ve mentioned before, Memphis is a handful of games behind. But once the postseason starts those games honestly won’t even matter. If the current rankings hold, they will receive the 2nd seed and face the 7th seed team which is the Timberwolves. The Grizzlies have never had such a successful regular season in franchise history and 21-22 season could be their year