The NBA playoffs are rapidly approaching. Only a handful of games are left between now and the play-in tournament before the final 16-team postseason field is set. As the regular season nears a close, here are the five most important players, teams, developments, etc., to keep an eye on before the championship chase.
1. Khris Middleton’s shooting
The Bucks’ recent drubbing at the hands of the Celtics notwithstanding, they have been the best team in the NBA for most of this calendar year. After a New Year’s Day loss, Milwaukee has gone 32–9 since Jan. 2, the only team with at least 30 wins and fewer than 10 losses in that time. And they’ve done it with Middleton, the Bucks’ second-best offensive player, still working his way back into form.
Middleton has played in only 31 games this season, starting the campaign still recovering from the injury that kept him out of the team’s second-round loss to Boston last year. He’s averaging his fewest points since 2017 and his worst three-point shooting percentage since his rookie season. A level of rust was to be expected. And Middleton has otherwise looked quite solid. If his outside shot fully comes back, though? Watch out. If the Bucks have a weakness, it’s that their half-court offense can get bogged down against good defenses. They desperately missed Middleton as a release valve last postseason. Milwaukee’s offense has already looked vastly better, just with his presence on the floor. If he shoots anywhere near his career average moving forward—38.8%—the Bucks could become much, much more dangerous than they already are.
2. The Pelicans’ roller coaster
New Orleans has had an incredibly strange season. The Pelicans looked awesome to start the year, with Zion Williamson balling and the team building off last year’s strong finish. Then Williamson and Brandon Ingram both missed significant time due to injury, and the team never really quite got back on track. On Jan. 13, New Orleans was 26–17. Then the Pels lost 10 games in a row. A couple of weeks ago, they dropped to a season-worst four games under .500 after a loss to the Rockets. But since then, New Orleans has won six of seven and entered the last day of March in seventh place in the crowded West, only two games out of fifth.
Remember, the Pelicans were an incredibly tough out for the No. 1 Suns in the first round last postseason. New Orleans is a well-coached, tough, physical team with two solid half-court scorers in Ingram and C.J. McCollum. Their recent stretch makes you dream of Zion’s return. Williamson hasn’t played since Jan. 2, and counting on his comeback seems like wishful thinking at best. Still, this team has shown it can succeed without him. What if New Orleans climbs to sixth and gets the relatively inexperienced Kings in the first round? The Pelicans haven’t met preseason expectations so far. Yet improbably, they are still in the mix down the stretch of the season. If this group has really regained its mojo from the previous spring, it could throw a wrench into the West bracket.
3. The status of Andrew Wiggins
The Warriors’ starting five of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney has the best net rating of any five-man unit that’s played at least 200 minutes together this season. It’s basically been the best lineup in the NBA. Except, the team can’t use it because Wiggins has not played or been with the team since Feb. 13 due to a personal matter. Obviously, Wiggins should take as much time as he needs to deal with what is clearly a serious issue. As it relates to the court, it may not be a stretch to say the Warriors should be favorites in their conference if Wiggins returns. The readdition of Gary Payton II gives the team some much needed depth, and Steph, Klay and Dray remain incredible. That trio has not lost a playoff series in which all three of them played every game since 2015!
They need Wiggins, though. His perimeter defense was essential to last year’s title run, as was his ability to create shots in the half court. For all of their struggles this year, the Dubs are still in a position to make noise in the postseason at full strength. Wiggins’s return would be a game-changer.
4. The Lakers’ defense
Before the All-Star break, the Lakers had the 18th-best defense in the NBA. Since then? The fifth-best. Los Angeles’s midseason makeover has worked as intended. Simply put, the team is scoring more efficiently and defending better since adding D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt and Mo Bamba around the trade deadline. And much of that improvement has come without the services of LeBron James, who missed a month with a foot injury before he saw “the LeBron James of feet” and got back on the floor.
The key to the Lakers’ 2020 title run was their defense. That team wasn’t particularly special offensively, especially in the half court. It’s encouraging to see Los Angeles return to the foundation that was the key to the team’s success before too much roster tinkering essentially ruined it. If the Lakers continue to defend at this level, they‘ll have more than a puncher’s chance in any and every playoff series they participate in. A top-five defense is a championship-caliber defense. And LeBron can seemingly grind out enough offense on his own in a slowed-down setting, not to mention Anthony Davis, who has been fantastic when healthy this year. Defense was this club’s biggest question mark following the deadline. So far, it’s proved to be contender worthy.
5. Kevin Durant’s ankle
Durant‘s ankle may be the most important body part of this NBA season. If he’s fully healthy, the Suns are likely in a class of their own. The offensive genius among KD, Devin Booker and Chris Paul in a playoff series will be nearly impossible for any defense to solve. KD didn’t look quite himself in his first game back after turning his ankle in early March, shooting 5-of-18 in what was also his first home game in Phoenix. Even if he plays every night the rest of the way, he’ll have played only 10 games with the Suns. Is that enough time to build the requisite chemistry for a title run? Or can talent win out? And can his ankle handle the ramp up in minutes and the intensity of postseason basketball, especially if the team makes a deep run? How Durant and the Suns perform will be fascinating, and maybe a bit of a referendum on the regular season. It’s impossible to deny this squad’s top-end talent. What remains completely unknown is whether a team that’s spent such little time together on the floor can still become a champion.