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Could The NBA Play-In Determine The Next Champion?

As an entertaining NBA season nears its end, the post-season begins another journey for 20 teams. The league implemented a new tradition called "the play-in" tournament, which adds a new element to the playoffs. The tournament involves the 7-10 seeds in each conference, giving them an extra look. Last season the Los Angeles Lakers finished the regular season in the play-in tournament, but they won enough to get to the Western Conference Finals. With the teams that could finish in the 7-10 spots at the end of this season, it's a possibility that trend could continue. It's also feasible that the play-in could in fact determine the 2024 NBA Champions.

In the Eastern Conference, the teams that could qualify for the play-in are less attractive, but that could change in the post-season. The Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks are in those spots, and each of them have a case to make the finals this year. The Heat won the East last season as the 8th seed in the conference, thanks to their veteran star, Jimmy Butler. He averaged 26.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.8 steals in their memorable playoff run, and could lead the Heat on another one this year. They also have a rookie X-factor in Jaime Jaquez Jr. (HY-may HAH-kez), who could help take them to the next level. In the 8th spot, the 76ers unfortunately plummeted down the standings after losing reigning MVP Joel Embiid to a left meniscus tear suffered on January 31st. Before the injury, they were a top three seed in the conference, and they are down near the bottom since. Now thrust in the starring role is all-star guard Tyrese Maxey, who is living up to his role. He is keeping the Sixers afloat averaging 25.7 points, 6.2 assists, and 1.0 rebounds this season. They also traded for shooting guard Buddy Hield, who has been a three-point sniper for Philly. He is averaging 13.0 points off the bench and shooting 40% from downtown, and could be an X-factor for them in the post-season. The Sixers could still be a contender as long as their role players continue to step up, and Embiid comes back on the court. If those things happen, head coach Nick Nurse could lead them to the promised land. The East doesn't necessarily have an appealing set of play-in team championship contenders, especially with tough competition at the top of the standings. However, in the Western Conference a completely different story is told.

No race is wilder than the one in the West, and the star power in the play-in spots is unlike any other. The Dallas Mavericks hold the sixth spot, and the Sacramento Kings are a game behind them in seventh, but they're tied with the Phoenix Suns who sit in eighth. Rounding out the ninth and 10th spots are the Lakers, and the Golden State Warriors. The star power includes De'Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis (doh-MON-tas suh-BOH-nis), Luka Dončić (LOO-kuh DON-chitch), Kyrie Irving, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Anthony Davis, and Stephen Curry. There are so many superstar players that will be in the play-in tournament, and whether they end up in the top six or not, they will be a tough out for anyone. The Kings were the highlight of last year's season, making the playoffs for the first time in 16 seasons. They lost to the Warriors in the first round, and their future looked bright, but this year is different. It's been a rocky year for them, which is why Sacramento finds themselves in the bottom of the standings. After making the Western Conference Finals in 2022, the Mavericks shockingly missed the playoffs last season. However, with a revamped roster with their two stars Doncic and Irving for most of the year, they hope to shine in the playoffs. The Mavs have two playoff veteran superstars, as do the Lakers and Warriors. The Suns have a rocky team similar to the Kings, but the talent of Durant and Booker is undeniable. With the nature of a loaded Western Conference, only three of these teams will be in the final eight, which makes the end of the season that much more intense. Teams like the 2023 Lakers and 2022 Mavs seem like "one season wonders" after making the West Finals, but they've proven the right path will light their way to the top. All they have to do is march down that path.

The top of the Conferences are just as top heavy as the bottom. In the East, the Boston Celtics are running away with the top spot, looking like the best team in the league. However, there are still reservations on if they can duplicate their success in the playoffs. Last season they fell to the Heat in the East Finals in 7 games, after falling to the Warriors in the NBA Finals in 2022. They can definitely be a contender, but the playoffs are a different beast they haven't been able to corral thus far. The Milwaukee Bucks also could contend with the duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo (YAHN-iss ah-dedo-KOON-bo) and Damian Lillard entering the post-season for the first time. However, they've had their share of flaws like the ability to closeout games that could cost them in the post-season.

The Western Conference is more interesting with a variety of experience at the top. The Oklahoma City Thunder has a starting five unit averaging 22.6 years old, which could very well be their downfall. They are also a poor rebounding team giving up 44.9 rebounds per game. This could also be a downfall in a seven game series with one of the West play-in teams like the Mavs or the Lakers. The Thunder do have a talented roster led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Shay Gil-gee-us Alexander) and Chet Holmgren (Chet Home-grin), so they are showing why they're a great team. However, they have yet to prove they can perform in the playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves are a talented defensive team with experience. Led by stars Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert (Go-Bear), they are hoping to silence the doubters in the postseason. The Wolves lead the league in defensive rating of allowing 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which proves they're a legitimate playoff team. However, defense in this NBA is seemingly non-existent with so many high-scoring games. One of their stars, Karl-Anthony Towns has missed a good portion of the month recovering from Lateral Meniscus surgery on his left knee. If his availability for the playoffs is in question, that wouldn't bode well for Minnesota. A real fear for teams is the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets, who have picked up right where they left off. MVP favorite Nikola Jokić (ni-KOLA yo-kitch) has led them leading with 26.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 9.0 assists per game this season. Jamal Murray has emerged as the second star for the Nuggets and he really steps it up in the playoffs. He averages 20.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game this season, being a key second piece to the team to beat in the West. Denver is a team nobody wants to face in a seven game series, and that will most likely not be avoided through the West playoffs. However, if the last two seasons have taught fans anything, it's that they should expect the unexpected.

Before each of the last two seasons, nobody thought the 2022 Mavs and 2023 Lakers would make the Western Conference finals. But their paths to the Finals avoided the champions of those years, the Warriors and Nuggets. If a play-in or even playoff team get rewarded with the "path of least resistance" for themselves, it could instill the confidence they need to get past the Nuggets and East winner to win an NBA Championship.


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