The Western Conference is a powerhouse. Sure, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a ridiculously good squad, or LeBron James, but the road to the Finals is much more difficult for teams in the West. A little further down the standings, it’s still hotly contended, even for that final spot in the playoffs – the eighth seed.
The playoff picture in the West is starting to solidify, with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs already guaranteed a spot. Spots No. 3 through No. 7 are also likely locks, but after that No. 7, the Oklahoma City Thunder, there is a 5.5 game gap before you get to the current No. 8 seed, the Denver Nuggets.
The gap between the Thunder and Nuggets is large, but there is no such cushion for the lower of the two teams in the standings. The difference in games between Oklahoma City and Denver is greater than that between Denver and the following teams: Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, and New Orleans Pelicans.
Given how tight the race is for that last spot and that we now have only about one month and less than 20 games left, it’s time to take a look at the playoff likelihood for each team.
New Orleans Pelicans
Everyone is complaining, or lobbying, regarding DeMarcus Cousins. The people who don’t like him are coming out in force to blame him for the Pelicans 2-5 record since they traded for him at the All-Star break. Things are tough for the Pels, but this isn’t all on Boogie. He was a huge addition, and it is going to take a lot of adjustments from the rest of this team. Also, the Pelicans didn’t get Boogie for the home stretch of games here. New Orleans needed to make a splash that showed Anthony Davis that there is a reason to not walk away from this franchise when his contract ends or to demand a trade. Sure, they would love to get into the playoffs and maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but I think this team is more for the long haul and not focused on this season.
They’re 4.5 games behind Denver and haven’t been playing well. However, if they get the Boogie-Brow combo right and surround that with the right pieces, they’ve got a shot. They have three games left against the Nuggets, two against Portland, and one against Dallas and Sacramento each. If they can dominate those matchups, they’re right back in this thing.
Sacramento is four games back of Denver, half a game ahead of the Pelicans. They want no part in the playoffs. They got Buddy Hield, so I think owner Vivek Ranadive is completely happy with the results of this season. They have added incentive to fail because they lose their own first-round draft pick this summer if they land outside of the top 10 picks.
Oh, and they’re on a five-game losing streak.
This was my pick back in early February as the team I thought would emerge and steal that last spot. Then they lost Zach LaVine, but had Brandon Rush so it wasn’t the worst thing. Head coach Tom Thibodeau hates his point guards and that might limit their potential a little. They’ve also got a very tough remaining schedule. Just 3.5 games behind Denver, they still have to play the Houston Rockets, Thunder, Spurs, Warriors twice, Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards. They also have a couple of games against the Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Kings. It doesn’t look good for them. They’re going to need some of these teams, like the Spurs and Warriors, to take the night off when they meet, resting their best players, if the Wolves are going to steal enough games to stay in this race.
Dirk Nowitzki crossed the 30,000 point mark. I watched it happen. It was great. That’s the entire highlight of the Mavericks season. They’re only two games behind the Nuggets and that’s crazy to think about. This team was buried at the bottom of the standings after nearly 30 games. Now, they’re pushing for the final playoff spot. They’re on a three-game winning streak and that has them sitting pretty with 19 games left on their schedule. It seems improbable and maybe not even in their best interest, but who doesn’t want to see Dirk in the playoffs again?
Portland Trail Blazers
I love the Damian Lillard experience. I don’t love anything about what the Portland front office has been up to with the Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli deals. However, they did get Jusuf Nurkic and I like that a lot. Like Dallas, the Blazers are on a three-game winning streak and seem to be enjoying life with their new big man. They might have caught a break, too, by having their game against the Timberwolves postponed on Monday, allowing them to avoid a back-to-back against the Thunder, a game they won on Tuesday night despite 58 points from Russell Westbrook. They still have 1.5 games to make up, but with a little help from these other teams and a strong finish, they’ve got a great chance to catch the Nuggets. Plus, Turner will be coming back from his injury for the final push of the season. He’s not great, but all hands on deck is better than a skeleton crew.
They’re in the driver’s seat, but it’s going to take a lot of work down the stretch to keep that eighth spot. They have those three games against the Pelicans and an incredibly difficult road beyond that. They’ll have a head-to-head with Portland, but also face the Celtics, Wizards, Cavaliers, Thunder twice and the Rockets three times. It’s going to be a tough road, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the aforementioned teams overtakes them.
Regardless of who comes out on top, the reward for winning this battle is facing Golden State or San Antonio in the first round. Likely, they get Golden State. If they face the Warriors, each of these teams figures to lose very quickly.
It would be a lot of fun to watch Javale McGee battling Boogie in a playoff setting. It would be great to see Dirk do his thing. The Wolves making the playoffs for the first time post-Garnett has a lot of feel-good to it.
I’m going to stick with my pick, the Wolves, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to pick any of the Nuggets, Mavericks, or Blazers. It would be a great first-round series to get another Portland-Golden State matchup. The Warriors win that, but this kind of series brings the best out of Lillard and the Trail Blazers. Guess we’ll just have to watch it play out, and that’s going to be a lot of fun.