By Joe Miller
In the Western Conference, we find ourselves in a tough spot. The top seven seeds (Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, Rockets, Thunder and Mavericks) are essentially locks. Barring an unforeseen injury, these teams in some order will make the playoffs.
That leaves one spot.
The remaining eight teams fall into one of these three tiers: The Trash, The Too Far Gone and The Contenders.
Let’s start with the bottom of the barrel. The Trash consists of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Sacramento Kings and the Golden State Warriors. Mathematically, these three teams are essentially eliminated. For varying reasons, none of these rosters have performed particularly well this season and it’s likely that will remain true after the All-Star Break.
The next tier is the Too Far Gone.
The Suns and The Pelicans have done a lot right. Both have solid young cores and should be in the playoff conversation shortly considering the talents of Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. As of now, the Suns are 5.5 games back from the eighth seed and the Pelicans are six games back. If this gap was smaller they might have a shot at the playoffs, but it is unlikely that either of these teams can win six more games than the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies and the Spurs to close out the season.
The Spurs are currently 10th, and they are a threat for the eighth seed behind all-star talent in Demar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. However, the Spurs’ next six games on the road are brutal. They face the Blazers, the Kings, the Nuggets, the Thunder, the Jazz and the Thunder one more time. The Sacramento Kings are the only team they will face in the next six games with a record worse than their own. Gregg Popovich is a tremendous coach and they have promising young talent as well as established all-stars. Nevertheless, it will be almost impossible for the Spurs to catch up to Portland and Memphis while they are already behind and face a talented slate of teams.
The Grizzlies are currently in this coveted playoff spot with a three-game lead over the Trail Blazers and a 3.5-game lead over the Spurs. This young team has been phenomenal; Jaren Jackson Jr. has become one of the best 3-point shooters in the game, Ja Morant is running away with Rookie of the Year,and Brandon Clarke is looking to be a steal from last year’s draft. The fact that a team that relies on so many young guys is already in a playoff spot is a feit that they should all be very proud of.
The Portland Trail Blazers started this season as an unmitigated disaster. They lost key veterans in Maurice Harkless, Turner, Faruoq-Aminu, Meyers Leonard, Enes Kanter, and Seth Curry that allowed them to make it to the Conference Finals. Despite losing five major rotation players and a rough start, Portland has risen in the standings thanks to a supernova in the form of Damian Lilliard. Last month, he won an NBA Player of the Week Award averaging a ridiculous 45 ppg, 11 apg and 7 rpg while shooting above 50% from the field and from three.
Both of these teams are around the same talent level. Memphis has a better team, but Portland has a perennial MVP candidate on their roster. The reason this Memphis Grizzlies team won’t make the playoffs is not based on their talent. They are a more talented roster than the Trail Blazers. The reason the Grizzlies will likely lose their playoff spot is because of the schedule. This table below shows the disparity in their schedules.
|Portland Trailblazers||Memphis Grizzlies|
|Back to Backs||5||5|
|Matchups against teams below .500||16||15|
|Matchups against teams above .500||15||16|
|Matchups against teams with fewer than 20 wins||9||5|
|Matchups against teams with greater than 35 wins||4||8|
The Grizzlies have lots of very challenging games during the second half of the season. They play the 76ers twice, the Lakers twice, the Celtics, the Clippers, the Raptors twice, the Thunder twice and the Rockets twice. Meanwhile Portland will have a lot of games against bad teams like the Cavaliers, the Hornets, the Warriors, the Timberwolves twice, the Pistons twice, the Kings, and the Hawks.
Also, the Grizzlies and the Blazers will meet three more times, which will likely be the deciding factor of who makes the playoffs. With the Grizzlies having a tougher schedule, these games are everything. Losing these three games would make it nearly impossible for either team to make the playoffs, but the Grizzlies are already disadvantaged.
Also, there is a history of Portland becoming a much better team after the All-Star Break. In the last four seasons the Blazers have finished higher in the standings by the end of the season compared to where they are at by the All-Star Break.
There’s currently a three game gap between Portland and Memphis, so the Grizzlies still control their own destiny. However, their path to the playoffs includes beating several elite teams, beating the Trail Blazers three times during the season to create a bigger gap, and dominating inferior teams.
Memphis has a decent shot of making the playoffs, but it requires believing this team can overcome numerous obstacles that the Blazers do not have to deal with. As a lifelong Grizzlies fan this breaks my heart, but I predict the Trail Blazers will steal the eighth seed by the end of the season.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org