The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in an unfamiliar position, as the final days of the regular season see the wounded Western Conference power eyeing the improved health of LeBron James while fighting for playoff positioning.
Meanwhile, teams like the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards find themselves playing their best basketball at the close of the season, with superstars Stephen Curry, Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook elevating their teams' level of play as they chase the scoring title, triple-double history and, most importantly, wins.
In what seeds could the Lakers and Miami Heat -- last year's NBA finalists -- find themselves? Will Jayson Tatum be able to shoulder the load for the Celtics after losing fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown for the rest of the season? Can young stars lead the Memphis Grizzlies and the Charlotte Hornets back to the playoffs for the first time in years?
Our experts make their early predictions for the play-in tournament, choose which races still matter the most down the stretch and discuss whether seeding even matters for the Lakers in their repeat run.
1. Right now, who would be your picks to make it out of the East play-in?
Andrew Lopez: Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards. The Celtics are 5-5 this year when Jaylen Brown doesn't play, and they should have enough firepower to get by the Hornets without the All-Star, who is out for the season with a wrist injury. Of course, it helps that they have another All-Star in Jayson Tatum to carry the load. As for the Wizards, the play-in works! Isn't this what it was designed for? Give a team that comes on strong at the end of the season after overcoming injuries (or COVID-19) a chance? Sorry, Hornets fans.
Kevin Pelton: Celtics and Wizards. The Wizards could make things more interesting by catching the Hornets and Pacers for eighth, giving them a chance to claim the seventh seed, but I think the more likely outcome is Washington entering the play-in ninth and beating Charlotte on the road for eighth. The Celtics should still be favored to beat the Hornets at home without Brown.
Ramona Shelburne: Celtics and Wizards. I really can't believe I'm picking the Celtics after they lost Brown this week. But Tatum is good enough to win one out of two games at home, right? I like the Wizards to get that final spot, if they get Bradley Beal, who is nursing a hamstring injury, back for the play-in.
André Snellings: Celtics and Wizards. The news that Brown is done for the season was a huge blow to the Celtics, but with their playoff experience, I'd still give them an advantage in a win-and-you're-in game against an inexperienced Hornets squad that could still be without Gordon Hayward. The Wizards are the hottest team in the play-in mix and have the most dangerous backcourt in Russell Westbrook and Beal. They have a good chance to sweep both games and earn that eighth slot.
Ohm Youngmisuk: Charlotte Hornets and Wizards. While Tatum is supremely talented, Boston was dealt a major blow with Brown's injury. On the flip side, Charlotte will be getting Miles Bridges back and Hayward could also be nearing a return. That could be just enough to get Charlotte out of the play-in. And Westbrook won't let the Wizards be denied. If Beal returns in time for the play-in, the Wizards will find a way to get past Indiana.
2. Right now, who would be your picks to make it out of the West play-in?
Pelton: Trail Blazers and Warriors. The Lakers beating the Knicks in overtime without LeBron has put them in good shape to win out, which would allow them to knock the Blazers into the play-in unless Portland wins at least twice against a difficult remaining schedule (at Utah, at Phoenix, vs. Denver). At this point, I'd lean Lakers for the sixth seed, leaving the Blazers and Warriors as the play-in favorites.
Snellings: Lakers and Warriors. They seem destined for those last two slots. Anthony Davis has seemingly played himself into form, and LeBron has almost a week to start developing a groove before the play-in. That makes the Lakers the favorite to blast out of the play-in as a legit threat to defend their title. And the Warriors have championship-tested leaders in the ascendant Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, which should be enough to lead them through the play-in and into the big tournament.
Youngmisuk: Lakers and Warriors. No matter how they get there, the two teams with the most championship experience in the West will find a way to get to the dance. Davis is starting to find his dominant groove. James will be back. Golden State is riding the Curry wave right now -- there's no hotter player in the league. The Lakers' championship duo, Steph's 3-point barrage and Green's championship experience should be the difference.
Lopez: Lakers and Warriors. Even if LeBron isn't 100 percent when he does get back on the floor, Davis looks like his old self, and that should be enough to carry the Lakers into the playoffs. Golden State has Curry playing at a phenomenal level right now and he's in position to win his second scoring title. While these are my picks for the seventh and eighth seeds, I'm not doubling down on an order just yet; that's going to depend on James' health.
Shelburne: Lakers and Warriors. I think L.A. beats Golden State in the first game. Then, I want to pick the Grizzlies to steal the eighth seed -- like Portland did to Memphis last season in the Orlando bubble -- but I can't pick against Curry in a one-game playoff at home.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers should be favored in a first-round playoff series -- no matter where they finish.
Pelton: Fiction, for now. I want to see LeBron look like himself at least once between now and the play-in before I'd feel comfortable picking the Lakers no matter the matchup.
Shelburne: Fact. They are the defending champions, who still have one of the best defenses in the league, despite missing James and Davis for large stretches of the season. Honestly, I'd favor the Lakers in any series, except maybe the LA Clippers.
Lopez: Fact, but only if James shows he's as close to 100 percent as he can be heading into the playoffs. The Lakers are 17-8 this season when James and Davis both play. While that winning percentage (.680) would fall short of where the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns are in the standings, you have to lean on playoff experience at that point. Also, if Utah were completely healthy heading into the playoffs -- Donovan Mitchell (ankle sprain) and Mike Conley (hamstring soreness) continue to recover from injuries -- the Jazz would get the nod here in a potential first-round matchup.
Snellings: Fact. If LeBron and Davis are healthy and in form, the Lakers should be favored in any series against any team in the NBA. They're the defending champs for a reason, and they've got more peripheral talent this season than last. Of course, those are huge ifs, and we'll have to see at what level their stars are playing when the time comes. If healthy, they're still the team to beat.
Youngmisuk: Fact, but the health of James and Davis is the only thing that could prevent a deep run. While the play-in is not the ideal starting point, it could be what shifts the Lakers into a rhythm again. Whoever faces the Lakers in a first-round series could get a team already deep in playoff mode -- and that's scary.
4. What's one thing you'd change about the play-in format for next season?
Lopez: I love the play-in idea. It gives us more quality games with more teams competing at the end of the season. The only change I'd make is to give the seventh seed a little bit of protection. If last season had used this year's rules, the 43-32 Dallas Mavericks would have had to host the 35-39 Portland Trail Blazers in the 7-8 game. The "If you don't want to be in the play-in, play better" argument is there, but giving the seventh seed a little bit more to play for -- avoiding the tournament altogether -- would add intrigue. Let's say, if the seventh seed is at least four games up, it doesn't have to play.
Snellings: I like the play-in and how it has generated more excitement and opportunity for success for the teams at the bottom of the standings. We're looking at scenarios in both conferences in which one preseason championship contender and another team featuring a former MVP both seem destined for the play-in. Outstanding theater. If I had to change one thing, I'd make the matchup between the loser of the 7-8 game and the winner of the 9-10 game in a best-of-three series. This would (a) take some of the potential flukiness out of the last playoff slot, and (b) allow the seventh seed to get a bit more rest before the playoffs begin. That rest could prove vital this season for teams like the Lakers and Celtics, for example, if the current seeding holds true.
Youngmisuk: Even if we could get treated to LeBron vs. Steph in a 7-8 matchup, I'd take the seventh seed out of the equation and have the eighth seed in each conference play the winner of the 9-10 matchup. The seventh seed should be rewarded for earning that spot no matter how it came about. But I don't think they should scrap the play-in format entirely. It still adds an exciting NCAA tournament feel to the final week of the season.
Shelburne: I'd lower the play-in to two teams per conference, not four. This would essentially turn it into a play-in for the eighth seed, not seventh and eighth. This has been fun and all, but I think it disadvantages the seventh-place team too much, and frankly, if 10 out of 15 teams in each conference are making the playoffs, it devalues the regular season too much.
Pelton: I think there's something to be said for the notion that the current format doesn't give a big enough advantage to a No. 7 seed that finishes closer to sixth than eighth. Here's what I would propose: The higher seed gets to start the game with a lead equal to how many more wins it had in the regular season than the lower seed. Let's get weird!
5. Which non-play-in seeding battle are you watching most closely?
Youngmisuk: The 3-4 battle in the West is intriguing, because whoever finishes fourth out of the Clippers and Denver Nuggets could potentially avoid the Lakers until the conference finals. If the Lakers take seventh out of the play-in format, they'll face the second seed -- either Phoenix or Utah. With the Clippers and Nuggets battling for third and fourth, the third seed could have to face the Lakers in the second round.
Pelton: The race for second and third in the East will probably have the most influence on the later rounds of the postseason. The Milwaukee Bucks' loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday means the Brooklyn Nets need only to win out against three below-.500 teams to ensure home-court advantage, should the Nets and Bucks meet in the conference semifinals.
Lopez: Which team ends up at No. 2 in the East. Brooklyn and Milwaukee are battling it out to see which team could -- if they both advance -- have home-court advantage in the conference semifinals. Also, the No. 2 spot would give you a likely first-round matchup against either Boston (without Jaylen Brown) or Charlotte, instead of facing whoever finishes last in the race for the fourth seed among the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat.
Shelburne: The race between New York, Atlanta and Miami for 4, 5 and 6 in the East is gridlocked. It's also really interesting for potential matchups. Let's not forget the Heat won the East last year. If they end up on the same side of the bracket as the Bucks and Nets, that's a tough draw for all three teams.
Snellings: The race for 4, 5 and 6 in the East. There's such a gap after those top three seeds that earning a spot in the 4-5 series yields a much higher likelihood of getting to the second round than falling to the 6-seed and facing either the Nets or the Bucks in the first round. In addition, last year's East champion Heat have shown they have the grit to defeat elite teams in the postseason. If they end up with the sixth seed, it could lead to an extremely interesting first-round matchup with plenty of upset buzz.