The Wild Wild West: What to Make of the Western Conference Playoff Race
With roughly two weeks left in the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff race is as tight as it’s ever been.
While the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have separated themselves as the two best teams in the West and probably the league, the rest of the conference’s playoff contenders are separated by six games. While some teams are fighting to make the playoffs and get their young players some postseason experience, others are jostling for positioning to make sure they don’t have a first round date with Houston or Golden State. Here’s a look at what’s at stake for the teams fighting for playoff spots and seeding in the NBA’s stronger conference. (All stats as of 3/22/18.)
The Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers lead the pack, sitting in third place at 44-27 after a recent 13-game winning streak. Damian Lillard has been on fire since the All-Star break, averaging 28.6 points and just under 10 3-point and 10 free throw attempts per game.
The @dame_lillard three-point streak continues pic.twitter.com/ituaPi1iLI
— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) March 13, 2018
Over the past couple years the Trail Blazers have finished 5th and 8th in the Western Conference and appeared to be stagnating when they entered 2018 barely over .500. What they’ve shown since is potential to reach the ranks of the Western Conference’s elite. If they can hold on to the West’s 3rd seed or even fall to 4th, the Blazers will be in position to host a playoff series for the first time since Lamarcus Aldridge left. That’d give them a great shot to advance to the second round, get their younger players even more playoff experience, and even push the Warriors or Rockets to six or seven games when they get there.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder came into the season with high expectations after adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to a team led by reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. Things haven’t worked out quite as smoothly as some expected and the team has been up and down all year. While the team has been inconsistent all year, the Thunder have still shown flashes of their potential and recently went on a 6-game win streak.
👊 WC PLAYER OF THE WEEK
This guy👇 pic.twitter.com/EGB9bUahur
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 19, 2018
If they can manage to hold on to the 4th seed and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, they’ll have a good shot to reach the second round and a potential matchup with Golden State. As shown in their recent matchups, specifically two blowouts of the Warriors earlier this year, Steven Adams, Westbrook, Paul George, and the rest of OKC’s long, athletic players present a unique challenge and matchup for Golden State. If Melo can step up and play at a higher level in the postseason the Thunder have a chance to push the Warriors or Rockets and maybe even shock the world and reach the NBA Finals.
New Orleans Pelicans
When DeMarcus Cousins went down, many thought the Pelicans would fade from the Western Conference playoff race and Anthony Davis would once again be watching the postseason from home. Instead, the Pelicans went all in, trading their first round pick for Nikola Mirotic around the deadline and Davis has carried the team and made a late push for MVP candidacy.
Anthony Davis just showing off now pic.twitter.com/DnoqyYW6Q3
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 19, 2018
Given that they no longer have a first round pick in the upcoming draft and the fact that Anthony Davis has only had one career playoff run, making the playoffs would be ideal for the Pelicans. Falling out of the playoffs would be nothing short of a disaster for the team.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are one of the most interesting teams in the Western Conference. The Kawhi Leonard situation might be the strangest story of the NBA season. If Leonard is able to return to the team before or even during the playoffs, it could change the whole landscape of the Western Conference playoffs. The problem, however, might be getting there. The Spurs have one of the NBA’s tougher remaining schedules with games against Utah, OKC, Portland, Houston, New Orleans, and the Clippers remaining. Their current 5-game win streak has bought them some leeway as they have a 1 game lead over the Timberwolves for the 6-seed and 1.5 game lead over the Jazz. If they make the playoffs, the Spurs have a chance to make some noise even without Kawhi because they have Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s best coach. If Kawhi were to return, they could even play spoiler to the Rockets or Warriors.
The Timberwolves are trying to snap the NBA’s longest playoff drought (13 years). It’s essentially playoffs or bust for them, with Karl Anthony Towns in his third NBA season and Andrew Wiggins in his fourth, it would be ideal for the Timberwolves to get their young core some playoff experience. That’s why the team traded for Jimmy Butler during last year’s draft. After spending much of the season in the 4th and 5th spots, the Timberwolves have slid a bit in the standings after losing Butler to a meniscus injury. Butler expects to be back for the first round of the playoffs but Minnesota must hold on to their spot in order to make his return a reality. They have three games remaining against their closest competition for a playoff spot: one against the Jazz, who are half a game behind them, and two against the Nuggets who are 1.5 games back of the Timberwolves. If they can hold on, a healthy Minnesota squad has enough talent to challenge anybody in the West over the course of a seven-game series.
Behind the league’s second best defense and Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz have been one of the league’s hottest teams since the calendar turned to 2018. They’ve had winning streaks of 11 and 9 games since January 24th and as a result currently hold the 8th seed in the Western Conference with a 1.5 game lead over the Nuggets. Still they have games remaining against the Spurs, Celtics, Warriors, Timberwolves, Blazers, and Clippers so a playoff spot isn’t at all guaranteed. If they do manage to make it in, their young players would get some playoff experience and they’ll be a tough out for any playoff opponent.
On the Outside Looking In:
The Nuggets currently sit just 1.5 games out of the 8th seed in the West and feature one of the league’s most exciting offenses, led by Nikola Jokic. Denver has plenty of young talent including Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Malik Beasley. The team could greatly benefit by getting some playoff experience for such a young roster but their defense, ranked 21st in opponents’ points per game, could hold them back. Even if they were to make it in, they’d be hard pressed to beat the Rockets at their own, up-tempo game.
Keeping this Clippers team in the playoff hunt might just be Doc Rivers’ best coaching job. After Losing Chris Paul in the offseason, trading away Blake Griffin at the deadline, and having Danilo Gallinari in and out of the lineup all year not many expected much from the Clippers but behind career years from Lou Williams and Austin Rivers the Clippers have been able to stay afloat and sit just 2 games out of the 8th seed in the West. A playoff run might not mean much for the Clippers long term, their roster is made up mostly of veterans who can opt out after the season, but it can help maintain a winning culture for the franchise and a foundation to help them attract free agents going forward.