The Race for the Western Conference 8th Seed
Finally, the NBA is back. The league released the full schedule for the remaining 22 teams going to Orlando. Each team will play a total of eight games to finalize playoff seeding. The schedule release has brought newfound excitement for the remainder of the season, along with interesting story lines. The most intriguing perhaps being which team will secure the eighth seed in the West. A total of six teams have a chance at the final playoff spot. I however, will only be looking at the chances of four of the six teams. The San Antonio Spurs will be without possibly their best player LaMarcus Aldridge, which severely damages their chances. The Phoenix Suns are six games back of the current eight seed Memphis Grizzlies; and the gap seems like too much to make up in just eight games, even with the possibility of a playoff tournament. Below, I instead will look at the chances for the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trailblazers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Sacramento Kings.
The Grizzlies are currently the eighth seed in the Western Conference with a record of 32–33. They hold a 3.5 game lead over the ninth, tenth, and eleventh seeded Blazers, Pelicans, and Kings. Memphis has been a pleasant surprise this season, in large part to rookie of the year favorite Ja Morant. The first year point guard is averaging 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game. Morant has the Grizzlies in the drivers seat for the West’s final playoff spot. It would take a meltdown in the final eight games for Memphis to miss out on a shot at the playoffs. That however, is possible due to their remaining schedule. Out of the 22 teams, the Grizzlies have the sixth hardest remaining strength of schedule. They have to face five current playoff teams, including a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. The good news for Memphis is they get to play New Orleans and Portland once each. Wins against both would go a long way in an effort to maintain hold of the eight seed. Even if all goes wrong, it will be difficult for Memphis to miss out on a play-in tournament. The tournament would only occur if the ninth seed is four or fewer games behind the eight seed. The Grizzlies would prefer to hold the eighth seed, so they’d only have to win one game as opposed to two for the ninth seed. Either way though, Memphis will likely have a good chance at the final playoff spot.
The Trailblazers are currently the ninth seed with a mark of 29–37. They however, are just .001 percentage points above the Pelicans and Kings. Portland appeared to be a trendy pick for the eight seed considering the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Those additions will be met with a subtraction though, after Trevor Ariza opted out of the NBA restart. Portland was already weak on the wings, and the loss of Ariza will only hurt. The Blazers weren’t finished receiving bad news either. Portland has the fifth hardest remaining strength of schedule, with all eight of their games coming against playoff teams. They will have a chance to get one game back against Memphis, but it may not be enough. Portland has the star power in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to make a push for at least a possible play-in tournament. They however, face an uphill battle.
The Pelicans currently sit 3.5 games back of Memphis for the final playoff spot. Unlike the Grizzlies and Blazers though, New Orleans was given a massive scheduling break. The Pelicans have the easiest remaining schedule among the 22 teams heading to Orlando. Only three of their remaining eight games are against current playoff teams (Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies). The Clippers will be difficult, but the Jazz (who will be without Bojan Bogdanovic), and Grizzlies are both very winnable games. Rookie Zion Williamson was already making a name for himself before the season was put on hold. Through just 19 games, Williamson was averaging 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. He along with the other young Pelicans could also cause some trouble with their pace of play. New Orleans had the second highest pace of play before the NBA’s hiatus. If they pick up where they left of, the Pelicans could catch teams off guard who aren’t fully up to basketball speed. For those reasons, New Orleans has a great chance at securing the eighth seed.
The Kings don’t get discussed like the previous teams mentioned, despite them also being 3.5 games back of Memphis. That could be in large part to a lack of star power. Sacramento doesn’t have a star like Damian Lillard or Zion Williamson. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are talented players, but don’t move the needle like Lillard or Williamson. Sacramento also struggles to score the ball, as they ranked 23rd in points per game before the pause in the season. All hope is not lost though due to their schedule. They currently have the third easiest remaining schedule, but still must face five playoff teams, including the Lakers. Sacramento’s best chance perhaps comes with the opportunity of facing the Pelicans twice. If they were to win both games, they would have a chance at a play-in tournament. That however, is unlikely considering New Orleans won the previous matchup without Zion Williamson.
Eighth seed: New Orleans
Ninth seed: Memphis
Tenth seed: Portland
Eleventh seed: Sacramento
New Orleans defeats Memphis in a play-in tournament.