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NBA experts debate – Finals predictions and best play-in matchups

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With the NBA season nearly two-thirds complete, teams are now reconfiguring their depth charts and expectations after a wild flurry of trade deadline moves and buyout signings.

While big names such as Kyle Lowry and Lonzo Ball didn’t change rosters, former All-Stars Victor Oladipo and LaMarcus Aldridge now find themselves elevated onto contenders. Meanwhile, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers brought in some frontline reinforcement by signing Andre Drummond, who promptly left in his debut with a toe injury.

Do the Lakers have enough to escape the play-in game and get back to the NBA Finals? What deadline deals will be the most impactful? Our NBA Insiders answer the big questions and look ahead to possible scenarios involving the postseason.


1. What are you watching most closely between now and the end of the regular season?

Kevin Arnovitz: The implementation of the play-in tournament will lend some intrigue to various cusps of the playoff picture. There are real repercussions to not finishing in the top six, and being within shouting distance of No. 10 seed will extend the season of several teams who’d normally have packed it in. Still, the biggest question facing teams with any aspirations for a title is arriving at the postseason starting lineup with a clean bill of health.

Jerry Bembry: Miami’s postseason push. Five teams in NBA history have failed to make the playoffs the season after reaching the Finals: 1998-99 Chicago Bulls (lost Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen), 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers (lost Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton) the 2014-15 Miami Heat (lost LeBron James), the 2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers (lost James) and the 2019-20 Golden State Warriors (Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry injured, lost Kevin Durant). The Heat, relatively intact, are eighth in the East where 4.5 games separate the fourth and 10th spot. Can Miami survive a looming play-in tournament and gain a postseason spot?

Tim MacMahon: The health and performance of the superstars who are currently recovering from injuries. Can Joel Embiid, who was in the midst of his most dominant season, return to MVP-caliber form when he comes back from the bone bruise in his left knee? Once Kevin Durant finally returns from his hamstring strain, how much of a boost will he give Brooklyn? Will Anthony Davis (Achilles/calf) and LeBron James (high ankle sprain) look like themselves? The answers to these questions could be major factors in determining the Finals matchup.

Bobby Marks: It has to be the MVP race. Although I don’t have a vote, there are three criteria a player has to check when it comes to who should win MVP: overall play on the court, team success and durability. If you go by those three factors alone, the top five right now are James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell. Although unfair, the injuries to LeBron James and Joel Embiid should eliminate the two when it comes to MVP consideration.

Royce Young: How teams approach the schedule crunch. There are already a number of contenders dealing with injuries to key stars, but as the regular season winds down and the games pile up, how will teams approach seeding vs. rest? And will players like LeBron and Embiid push for something like an MVP after they return, or ease back with an eye on the postseason? After the shortest offseason in sports history, wear and tear will be a big topic around the league.


2. Which trade deadline or buyout move will make the biggest positive impact this season?

Young: The Nuggets adding Aaron Gordon is a significant roster upgrade. Denver has been missing the versatility Jerami Grant added to lineups, and Gordon recreates a lot of that. He can guard 1-through-4, allowing Michael Malone to put together different combinations based on matchups. The Nuggets have not carried over momentum from the bubble, riding a wave of inconsistency much of the season. But they are straightening out now, and Gordon could bump them back up a level.

Arnovitz: For the regular season, acquiring Andre Drummond gives the Lakers an innings-eater who can keep them afloat in the top six until the returns of LeBron and AD. In recent years, the playoffs have been inhospitable to big guys, but with Utah and Denver in the mix, Drummond could be a key figure in a tough series.

Bembry: LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin to Brooklyn. Even with KD’s injury, the Nets were playing championship-level basketball. KD’s return and the addition of Aldridge and Griffin potentially puts the Nets over the top. Potentially. You have to wonder how much Griffin has left and how Aldridge — a back-to-the-basket player — fits in on an offense that’s at its best when there’s constant movement. This is a case of Aldridge and Griffin not having to be great to help the team. They simply have to stay out of the way.

MacMahon: A franchise that features an MVP-caliber star in his prime needs to be aggressive. The Nuggets pounced on the chance to add Gordon to Jokic’s supporting cast. You shouldn’t judge Gordon solely off box scores, as he’ll be the Nuggets’ fourth offensive option. Denver needed him on defense, providing a long, athletic presence who will be given the challenge of guarding the LeBrons and Kawhis a West contender comes across in the playoffs.

Marks: The Gordon trade to Denver. The Nuggets took a giant leap from a Tier 2 (first-round exit) to Tier 1 (championship level) team when they subtracted Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton for Gordon. Although it cost them a 2025 first-round pick, the Nuggets front office looked in the mirror and realized that the MVP season of Jokic would have been wasted if they did not upgrade their roster at the deadline.

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Andre Drummond scores his first points as a Laker with a floating shot in the lane.


3. What percentage chance would you give the Lakers to avoid a play-in game?

Marks: 90%. Look, the Lakers don’t resemble a championship team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis sitting on the sidelines. However, the reality is that Dallas and San Antonio — the two teams that sit at no. 7 and 8 — have not been consistent enough this season to give you a belief that either team can go on a prolonged winning streak.

Young: 99%. They are stabilizing well enough and getting by, and the schedule is tough, but not overwhelming. It’s only likely another couple of weeks until reinforcements arrive and just staying as close to a .500 clip until then should do the trick.

Arnovitz: 55%. The Lakers play 11 of the next 14 games on road (including one at the Clippers in an empty gym), with two of the three home games coming against league-leading Utah. They have a four-game lead in the loss column against Dallas, which has a much easier schedule. LeBron’s return is the variable here — can he get back in time to fend off the competition?

Bembry: 99.9%. The Lakers were able to build enough of a cushion (currently fourth in the West, five games separated from a possible play-in scenario) to allow themselves a few weeks without LeBron and Davis. The addition of Drummond should help keep the Lakers afloat. Should the Lakers get close to that play-in spot, expect James to return. The injury to James might help the Lakers in the long haul: expect him to be well-rested for another run at the title.

MacMahon: Let’s go with 75%. It would still require quite a steep fall, but it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility considering the Lakers’ struggles during the absences of AD and LeBron. But the Mavs, sitting at No. 7 in the West standings, haven’t made escaping the play-in pack their top priority. Dallas has been resting Luka Doncic and/or Kristaps Porzingis on one end of back-to-backs — and there are eight back-to-backs left on the Mavs’ schedule.


4. Which play-in matchup do you most want to see?

MacMahon: Sign me up for all the Steph vs. Luka games I can get. I was in attendance at the American Airlines Center on Feb. 6, which might have been the most entertaining game so far this season, featuring Stephen Curry and Doncic combining for 99 points in a 134-132 shootout the Mavs won. The Warriors and Mavs might not be real contenders right now, but Golden State could be a first-round matchup problem if healthy.

Marks: Luka against Steph in the Western Conference. I honestly believe that Sacramento will catch Golden State for the final spot but a win-or-go-home game featuring two All-NBA guards would be the highlight of the play-in tournament.

Young: Heat vs. Celtics would be a pretty dramatic play-in matchup. Two Eastern Conference heavy hitters, both trying to correct a disappointing season and become a dangerous playoff team. But one has to go home with the shame of ending a disappointing season with no upside. It’s probably the matchup with the most at stake.

Arnovitz: Warriors vs. Lakers. This iteration of the Lakers has never played an elimination game. A LeBron-Steph showdown in a do-or-die scenario would be high drama.

Bembry: Boston vs. Miami. Before the season, any sane person would have had the Celtics and Heat among the top 10 teams in the league. The combo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in Boston represented the NBA’s future, and the Heat were coming off an incredible run to the Finals. No one could have imagined both teams hovering around the seven/eight spots in the East.


5. Has your NBA Finals prediction changed?

Bembry: I had Lakers over Sixers, but now I’ll take Nets over Lakers. Even when the Nets picked up Harden, I had doubts about whether the move would work. It was hard to imagine a scenario in which Harden, Kyrie Irving and Durrant could successfully share the ball. The trio, in the few times they’ve played together, has thrived. The addition of Aldridge and Griffin is just icing on the cake. For the Lakers, I see the Anthony Davis injury as more problematic than LeBron’s. If both come back healthy and rested, the Lakers should find themselves in the Finals once again.

MacMahon: I’m not ready to abandon my prediction of the Lakers repeating, though that clearly will require their superstars to get healthy and perform at their typical Hall of Fame levels. But I’m not betting on the Bucks anymore. Brooklyn became the East favorite as soon as Harden’s flight from Houston landed.

Marks: There is no reason for me to change my mind on Lakers over Nets now. For one, the Nets are a better basketball team today than when the season started in December. In the past three months, Brooklyn has added an MVP candidate in Harden and improved their depth with the additions of Aldridge and Griffin. Although they have dealt with their fair share of injuries, the Lakers have a championship pedigree and I am not betting against LeBron and Davis come playoff time.

Young: I’m good with sticking with the Lakers in the West. But the Nets have done too much and evolved into a swamp monster that has every prediction back-pedaling. Sure, there are some health questions around Durant, and there’s curiosity around chemistry and fit, but talent stacked on talent typically wins, and the Nets have it all. I’ll take them over the Bucks now.

Arnovitz: I retired from predictions some time ago because in 30 years of grocery shopping, I’ve yet to pick the quick line. I think it was Nassim Nicholas Taleb who said the more we try to squeeze randomness out of modern life, the more unpredictable it becomes. He probably has the Bucks in 7 over the Lakers.

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NBA playoff watch – Atlanta Hawks wrap up berth; Boston Celtics land in play-in

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With the addition of play-in games to the 2021 NBA playoffs, the scramble for seeding is wilder — and more important — than ever, with almost every game down the stretch having significant postseason implications.

Play-in matchups following Wednesday’s games

Play-in games to be held May 18-21

How the play-in tournament will work

Current NBA standings

EAST

Game 1: No. 8 Charlotte at No. 7 Boston — winner is No. 7 seed in playoffs

Game 2: No. 10 Washington at No. 9 Indiana — winner moves on in play-in; loser is eliminated

Game 3: Washington/Indiana winner at Boston/Charlotte loser — winner is No. 8 seed in playoffs

WEST

Game 1: No. 8 Golden State at No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers — winner is No. 7 seed in playoffs

Game 2: No. 10 San Antonio at No. 9 Memphis — winner moves on in play-in; loser is eliminated

Game 3: Memphis/San Antonio winner at Lakers/Golden State loser — winner is No. 8 seed in playoffs


Teams that clinched Wednesday

Already in

EAST

Playoff spots: Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks

Play-in spots (seeds 7-10): Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers

WEST

Playoff spots: Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets

Play-in spots: Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies


Here’s a breakdown of the key games from Wednesday and what the results mean for the seedings:

The Atlanta Hawks took another step toward securing homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs with a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Washington Wizards.

Atlanta’s victory over Washington, which would have clinched a spot in the play-in tournament with a win of its own, officially secured a playoff berth for the Hawks for the first time since 2017. More importantly, it puts Atlanta in the driver’s seat to get the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

All Atlanta has to do is win a pair of home games against two of the league’s worst teams — the Orlando Magic Thursday and Houston Rockets Sunday — to clinch that fourth seed, as those victories would clinch the Southeast Division title.

Washington, on the other hand, will have to wait to try to clinch the final play-in tournament spot for either Toronto to beat Chicago on Thursday or for its home game against Cleveland on Friday. The Wizards are a game behind the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets in the battle to finish eighth in the East — and get two chances to win one game to make the playoff field. Washington owns the tiebreaker over Indiana, but does not against Charlotte.

If all three teams finish tied, Charlotte — which owns the tiebreaker over both Indiana and Washington — would finish eighth, while the Wizards would be ninth and the Pacers 10th. Charlotte and Washington play each other on the final day of the season, a game that could wind up deciding who gets the eighth seed in the East. — Tim Bontemps


The Boston Celtics are officially headed to the play-in tournament.

While there was very little chance of Boston escaping that fate after back-to-back home losses to the Miami Heat, a loss to the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers — with Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams all sitting out with injuries — officially sent Boston to the play-in. The Celtics need one more win, or one more loss for the Hornets and Pacers, to officially clinch the seventh seed in the East.

Boston owns the tiebreakers against Charlotte, Indiana and the Wizards, the three teams below them in the standings.

Boston’s loss also clinched a playoff berth for the New York Knicks, who are in the postseason for the first time since making the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2013.

The more consequential result of this game, ironically, was Cleveland getting a rare victory. The Cavaliers, who had gone 4-21 in their last 25 games entering Wednesday, and had lost 11 games in a row dating to April 21, went from a three-way tie at 21 wins with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic for the third-fewest wins in the NBA into a tie with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the fifth-worst win total in the league.

Cleveland has had the fifth pick in the draft each of the past two years, and saw its lottery odds take a notable decline with Wednesday’s win. — Bontemps


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James Harden throws an overhead bounce pass between four Spurs defenders to a streaking Jeff Green for an easy two-handed dunk in transition.

Whether it is dazzling the crowd with cross-court bounce passes or shimmying after a 4-point play, one thing is certain: The Nets have proven to be winners with James Harden on the court. Rather than react to a double-digit late-season win over a likely play-in team like the Spurs (San Antonio missed a chance to wrap up the No. 10 seed in the West), look at the difference in big-picture numbers when Harden is on the court this season: With Harden, Brooklyn is now 28-7. Without him, they’re 11-11.

In his first game in more than a month, Harden finished with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 11 assists in 26 minutes. So, while the Nets are still not at full strength (Kyrie Irving missed Wednesday’s game with a facial contusion), they can take some solace in the numbers pointing to Brooklyn being just fine — so long as they have a healthy Harden. — Malika Andrews


On the verge of disaster, the Lakers barely kept their hopes alive to avoid the play-in round with a tight win over the woeful Rockets. It took a go-ahead layup by Kyle Kuzma with 6.9 seconds remaining, but the Lakers still are mathematically alive for a top-six slot, even if their chances to catch Portland or Dallas are slim. The Lakers need to win both of their remaining games — at Indiana, at New Orleans — and hope both the Blazers and Mavs finish 0-2.

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Kyle Kuzma uses a Eurostep to make a tough go-ahead layup as the Lakers pull out a 124-122 win over the Rockets.

Maybe more importantly, though, is the Lakers’ focus on health. Anthony Davis was a scratch against the Rockets — hence the closer-than-expected game — and LeBron James is targeting a return this week. Working out of the play-in would be ideal for the Lakers, but it’s an outcome that’s becoming less and less likely, so turning their attention to just being ready for the short turnaround could shift to the priority.

And if you’re looking for an upside to the play-in, being the 6-seed likely matches you up against the Clippers in the opening round. Not that the Suns or (potentially) the Jazz would be some kind of cakewalk, but the Lakers as an opening-round opponent isn’t the kind of reward a 1- or 2-seed expects after working all season to climb the standings. — Royce Young


After spending the last month battling their way out of a play-in spot, the Blazers, with a strong win on the road in Utah, are on the verge of securing a top-six spot in the postseason.

With their recent run, the Blazers actually have control of their bid for the West’s 5-seed. They have self-corrected following a five-game slump and have won nine of 10 to take control of the fifth spot with two games to go (at Phoenix, Denver). And playing in a 4-5 matchup against the Nuggets probably sounds quite a bit more appealing than a 3-6 series against the Clippers.

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Damian Lillard confidently drills a deep 3-pointer.

The Jazz, meanwhile, still have work to do to lock up the top seed in the West. Finishing 2-0 would guarantee the No. 1 spot, and Utah’s remaining games are against the Thunder and Kings. The Jazz are only one game up on the Suns for the 1-seed and don’t have the tiebreaker with Phoenix. The Suns have three games remaining — facing Portland once and the Spurs twice.

And it’s pretty obvious why having the top seed in the West is maybe as important as it’s ever been. Yeah, you get homecourt, and yeah, you get bragging rights. But you also don’t have to potentially play the Lakers as a 7-seed, and as an added bonus, you will likely be on the other side of the bracket from the Clippers too. — Young


The win puts Dallas back on track as Portland and the Lakers continue to rack up wins in a three-way battle to see who will stay out of the play-in tournament and who will earn the fifth and sixth seeds. If all three teams finish tied in the standings, Dallas would end up as the No. 5 seed by virtue of winning the Southwest Division. If the Mavericks finish in a tie with just the Blazers, Portland gets the leg up thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker, although the Mavs hold the tiebreaker over the Lakers.

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Luka Doncic connects with Kristaps Porzingis early in the third quarter for an alley-oop.

Dallas also was able to work Kristaps Porzingis back into the rotation after he missed seven games in a row. Porzingis had 19 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes in his return.

On the other side of the floor, the Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention with the loss. — Andrew Lopez



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Los Angeles Lakers unveil 2020 NBA championship banner with fans on hand to celebrate

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers finally unveiled the franchise’s 17th NBA championship banner at Staples Center on Wednesday night, and LeBron James used the occasion to set his sights on No. 18.

“We said we would not unveil this banner until we had some of you guys in the seats, so this is your guys’ moment,” James said, speaking into a microphone at center court before L.A.’s 124-122 win over the Houston Rockets. “We had our ring night; we wanted you guys there, but we wanted to make sure we saved the banner for y’all.

“So, we love you guys, and the road to back-to-back starts in about a week. So, let’s get going.”

The Lakers had a traditional ring ceremony on opening night of the 2020-21 season in December but held off on revealing the championship banner until L.A. County’s COVID-19 restrictions lessened so fans would be allowed in the building.

Approximately 4,000 fans attended Wednesday’s game, according to a Lakers spokesperson, which is far fewer than Staples Center’s 19,000 capacity for Lakers games but also more than double the 1,915 fans present on April 15 against the Boston Celtics — the first game fans were allowed back.

James shared center court with Lakers governor Jeanie Buss, with the Larry O’Brien Trophy from the team’s 2020 title won in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, resting on a table between them.

“We’ve waited until now because our banners have always been about our fans,” Buss said. “It’s so good to hear you guys together and be together as family again. We’ve been awarded our trophy; the players have their rings. Our final piece of business to commemorate our 2020 NBA championship is to honor our fans with the banner.”

The Lakers hope to continue to increase attendance capacity in the postseason while working with state and local coronavirus guidelines, according to a team spokesperson.

James, missing his sixth straight game because of a high right ankle sprain, addressed the crowd while wearing a baseball-style hat, dark green shorts and a black sweatshirt. When he was finished speaking, Lakers longtime public address announcer Lawrence Tanter counted down, “3-2-1,” and the black cloak featuring the message “Stay Tuned, Lakers Family” that had been covering the championship banner since opening night was removed.

Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blared through the arena’s sound system to accompany the moment.

Anthony Davis, also in street clothes and out for the game because of tightness in his groin, then took the mic to finish off the pregame ceremony.

“What a feeling,” Davis said. “I never thought that I would be hanging one of these banners, man. And it’s all because of you guys. All because of you, your continued support for me, my teammates, the coaching staff.

“Before the hiatus, when you guys were allowed in the building. Even when we went to the bubble, every night we’d come in, and see on the screen you guys cheering for us. And that means a lot to us. And without you guys, we wouldn’t be able to raise this banner or have this trophy behind us.

“So I appreciate you guys, and like Bron said, let’s get it going and try to repeat.”

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Zion Williamson’s huge season wasn’t enough

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With the New Orleans Pelicans eliminated from NBA playoff contention, Zion Williamson‘s standout season will end without him making his first appearance in the postseason. Williamson’s fractured left finger left him on the bench as the Pelicans failed in their final push to make the play-in tournament.

Williamson isn’t the first star to miss the playoffs and he certainly won’t be the last. But he is set to become the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992-93 to finish in the top 10 in scoring and field goal percentage and miss the playoffs. Charles Barkley actually did this twice — in 1987-88 and 1991-92.

ESPN Stats & Information researched some of the top seasons in NBA history for players who had excellent individual seasons but missed the playoffs. Here are some of the best:

Oscar Robertson (1960-61)

Robertson’s career started how you would imagine. He had a triple-double in his first NBA game and 26 for the season, which is still 14 more than any other rookie in league history. He fell 20 assists shy of averaging a triple-double for the season (30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists per game), was the All-Star Game MVP and was a first-team All-NBA selection. His Cincinnati Royals finished 33-46, though, missing the playoffs by one game in an eight-team league. — Doug Clawson

Wilt Chamberlain (1962-63)

The greatest season in NBA history without a playoff appearance belongs to Chamberlain, hands down. He averaged 44.8 points per game, the second-highest scoring average all time, behind the 50 he averaged the year prior. He had 30 50-point games, one shy of Michael Jordan’s career total, and added 24.3 rebounds per game for good measure. It wasn’t enough to make up for the loss of two Hall of Famers, though. Paul Arizin retired when the Warriors moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco before the season, and Tom Gola was traded at midseason. The Warriors finished 31-49, the only time Wilt missed the playoffs in his career. — Clawson

Tiny Archibald (1972-73)

In 1972-73, Nate “Tiny” Archibald averaged 34 points and 11.4 assists per game and became the first and only player in NBA history to win the scoring and assist titles in the same season. No player in the history of the league has amassed more points from scoring and assists than Archibald that season (4,539), and it came without the benefit of the 3-point line. However, his Kansas City Kings, with Bob Cousy as the head coach, finished just 36-46 and ranked last in the league in field goal percentage defense. — Vincent Johnson

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76)

The 1975-76 season was a magnum opus in the illustrious career of Abdul-Jabbar. “Cap” finished the season with averages of 27.7 points, 16.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 4.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game en route to winning the league’s MVP award in his first season with the Lakers. But despite leading the league in rebounding and blocks, the Lakers finished 40-42 in Abdul-Jabbar’s first act in purple and gold, as he missed the playoffs for just the second (and final) time in his 20-year career. This remains the only time in NBA history that the league MVP failed to make the postseason. — Jason Joseph

Shaquille O’Neal (1992-93)

O’Neal was an instant superstar. The 1992 No. 1 overall pick won NBA Player of the Week in his first week in the NBA, was named an All-Star Game starter in his first season, won Rookie of the Year — and broke two backboards along the way. His monstrous numbers (23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game) helped Orlando improve its win total by 20 games, but the Magic missed the playoffs after losing a tiebreaker with the Pacers. Shaq would go on to make the postseason in each of his next 15 seasons. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, his ’92-93 campaign was the last time a player missed the playoffs despite ranking in the top 10 in the league in points per game and field goal percentage … until Zion this year. Twenty-five players have ranked in the top 10 in both categories between Shaq and Zion, all making the playoffs. — Clawson

Tracy McGrady (2003-04)

Hopes were somewhat high for the 2003-04 Magic coming off three straight playoff appearances and looking to avenge a blown 3-1 lead against the Pistons in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, but that hope faded quickly. Grant Hill would miss the entire season with continued ankle issues and the team’s 1-10 start got coach Doc Rivers canned. Tracy McGrady carried a team that finished with the worst record in the NBA, leading the league in scoring for the second straight season, posting 28.0 PPG to go with 6.0 RPG and 5.5 APG. He finished nearly four points per game ahead of the second-best scorers (MVP Kevin Garnett and Peja Stojakovic, who had 24.2 PPG each) in what would be his final season in Orlando. — Joseph

LeBron James (2004-05)

James’ ascension to the upper echelon of the league accelerated in his second NBA season (27.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.2 APG). He improved across the board from his Rookie of the Year campaign, sharply increasing his points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Cleveland entered the All-Star break 30-21, the third-best record in the East, but limped to a 12-19 mark the rest of the way, firing coach Paul Silas along the way. The Cavaliers lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Nets for the eighth seed and missed the playoffs for a franchise-record seventh straight year. — Johnson

Russell Westbrook (2014-15)

The legend of Westbrook was solidified in the 2014-15 season, when he led the league in scoring (28.1 PPG) and triple-doubles (11) despite missing the playoffs. Westbrook came back from a broken hand that sidelined him for 14 games in November. The Thunder were snakebit that season, as reigning MVP Kevin Durant would miss 55 games with foot issues. While Westbrook picked up the slack (30.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 9.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game in 40 games played without Durant), the Thunder finished 45-37 and lost a tiebreaker with the Pelicans for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The West was stacked that season as seven teams won 50 or more games. — Joseph

Bradley Beal (2019-20)

Last season, Beal became the first player in NBA history to average 30 points per game without making an All-Star team (minimum of 25 games). He earned that dubious distinction because of the lack of team success, as his Wizards finished just 25-47. Two days before he was left off the All-Star team, he scored 40 points in back-to-back games — but the Wizards lost both and gave up 150 points in each. Just four days after the All-Star break, he responded with 50 points in back-to-back games — and the Wizards lost both of those games too. — Johnson

Zion Williamson (2020-21)

Williamson was limited to just 24 games in his rookie season because of injuries and the pandemic-shortened season, but he made sure to make up for lost time in his sophomore campaign. Williamson averaged 27 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 61.1% from the floor. His 27.0 points per game are the most in NBA history for a player who shot better than 60%. Williamson has scored 2,187 points in his first 85 career games. In the past 40 seasons, only Michael Jordan scored more. Williamson averaged 20.3 points in the paint this season, the most since O’Neal in 1999-00. — Andrew Lopez

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