NBA Tier List: Play-in tournament battle heats up, MVP debate seems settled

Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic shoots as Los Angeles Clippers centre Ivica Zubac defends. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Somehow, it’s already May and the NBA is in its final month of the regular season.

More specifically, in just about three weeks' time, the play-in tournaments will get going, kicking off the league’s gruelling two-month post-season.

Despite the regular season’s end in sight, there’s still a lot of chaos to be had with teams jockeying for position with one another.

And say what you will about the play-in tournament happening in the midst of a season played during a pandemic, the fact that we’re still talking about post-season races and that there are important and competitive games being played every night this late into the regular season is proof that this new event is working.

The fact that we have teams desperately trying to both avoid dropping into play-in tournament position and others doing all they can to make the play-in tournament gives added value to an NBA regular season that, quite frankly, has generally been rather unimportant and unexciting to fans unless you were cheering for a surprise team on the rise or had the luxury of supporting a legitimate top-tier contender.

Now, due to the volatility of a one-and-done format in the play-in tournament, the idea of getting in and possibly making some noise looks more viable and the usual slog at the end of the regular season now appears to be more of a fun and interesting sprint to watch.

Here’s a look at how we view the league with the finish line in view:

Jokic is the MVP and there isn’t really much debate to be had

As per usual around this time of the season, the MVP debate has picked up. But for as much as people want to say the it’s a tight race with many deserving candidates such as Joel Embiid or Stephen Curry, the clear choice is obviously Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets.

A strong candidate for the award even before his Canadian stud teammate Jamal Murray was unfortunately forced to shut down for the season with a knee injury, what Jokic has done since Murray went down has all but won the award for him.

In the 15 games the Nuggets have played since Murray’s injury, Jokic is averaging 25.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.3 assists on 57.5-per cent shooting from the field. During this span, the Nuggets have gone 12-3, including a big road win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday that saw Jokic put up a monstrous line of 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists.

When his team has needed it most, Jokic has risen to the occasion, keeping the Nuggets’ championship dreams alive and well.

There is no debate. Jokic is the MVP.

Clippers hitting a trouble spot?

Kawhi Leonard has said that he’s been playing through a foot injury recently. The superstar forward said it was “nothing significant” but seeing as his Clippers have lost three straight games his injury could be cause for more concern than he or the team is letting on.

This slide that the Clippers are in has allowed the red-hot Nuggets to leapfrog them for No. 3 in the Western Conference. More importantly, going through this poor spell with their regular season about to end and possibly dealing with Leonard injury isn’t a great look.

For their sakes, here’s hoping these three losses are just a small blip at the end of the season and not the early stages of a bad trend for them.

Why the play-in tournament is actually pretty neat

Right now in the Western Conference there’s a three-way tie between the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers for fifth in the conference.

As the standings officially shake out right now, Dallas is the No. 5 seed as it’s a division leader with the Lakers coming in sixth and the Blazers at No. 7 because the Lakers own a better conference record than Portland.

This battle between these three teams should prove to be among the most interesting as the season concludes as each team wants to avoid the play-in tournament.

LeBron James and the Lakers, in particular, aren’t keen on having to play in the play-in tournament, with James criticizing the event after a loss to the Toronto Raptors Sunday night.

“Whoever came up with that [expletive] needs to be fired,” James told reporters of the play-in tournament.

As salty as James is about the whole thing, the Lakers have only themselves to blame for the mess they're in. Yes, they were without James and Anthony Davis for a time, but the fact remains that they’ve lost six of their last seven games and are 1-5 since Davis’ return to the lineup, and now 0-2 since James rejoined the team on Friday.

That’s not good, and with the Blazers now having won four straight games and playing some of their best ball of the season just a week after looking dead in the water, the very possible reality of having to go through a one-and-done game is sinking in for James and the Lakers. And while it’s understandable why they wouldn’t like it, it’s more proof as to why the play-in tournament is a fun and exciting idea -- contrary to what James thinks.

No luck of the Irish for Boston

The Boston Celtics have been one of the most disappointing teams this season and now, after losing four of their last six games, find themselves in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and reeling.

Boston’s disastrous season was painfully and poetically summed up during their game Sunday night with the Blazers, a 129-119 loss, when star duo Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown collided with each other with about 40 seconds left to play in the game.

The good news for Boston is that Tatum appeared fine after the game, but the same can’t be said of Brown who limped off the court without putting any weight on his right leg.

It’s been one crisis after another for the Celtics all season long and an injury to Brown with the post-season just around the corner feels like the icing on what’s been a very crappy cake for them.

Looking elsewhere at this tier, in much better news, sensational Charlotte Hornets rookie LaMelo Ball managed to return to the lineup Sunday after being out since March 20 with a fractured wrist.

The shoe-in for rookie of the year looked like he didn’t miss a beat as he finished Sunday’s contest against the Miami Heat with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists.

Vintage Lowry keeps Raptors slim play-in hopes alive

Kyle Lowry turned back the clock Sunday as he delivered a vintage performance, scoring 37 points and dropping 11 dimes while going 8-of-13 from three-point range to help the Toronto Raptors keep their play-in dreams alive, if even just a little.

Lowry’s performance served as a good reminder of what the Lakers likely missed out on when they reportedly were unwilling to part ways with Talen Horton-Tucker to make a deal with the Raptors for Lowry at the trade deadline.

Not sure that decision worked out too well for the Lakers there.

The Raptors only have seven games left and are 2.5 games back of the 10th-place Washington Wizards. That’s not a lot of time to make up that kind of ground -- particularly with how well the Wizards have played of late -- but if Lowry’s able to dial up a few more performances like the one we saw Sunday then there’s still a chance the Raptors just might be able to pull this off.

Out of post-season contention

Congratulations to these teams on a tank job well done.

In particular, the Houston Rockets’ complete ineptitude has them in the driver’s seat right now to guarantee themselves to be one of the three teams with the best odds for the No. 1 overall pick.

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