The Western Conference playoff race is essentially in two tiers right now. At the top, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are running away with the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds. After that, just four losses separate the next eight teams with fewer than 30 games remaining in the season.
Five teams — Oklahoma City, Denver, Portland, New Orleans, and the Clippers — all have 26 losses. The team that is farthest back, the Utah Jazz, is the hottest team in the NBA heading into the All-Star break having won 11 games in a row.
With eight teams vying for the final six playoff spots, two talented squads are going to miss out on the postseason. Which two? Let’s break down each of the eight, their remaining schedule strength according to PlayoffStatus.com, and the strengths and weakness of their playoff argument.
San Antonio Spurs: 35-24 (Current: No. 3, 3.5 games up on 9th)
The Spurs have the second-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, with their opponents having won 55 percent of their games to date. Kawhi Leonard, their best player, has already missed 50 games this season, and it’s not clear when (or if) he’s going to return from his mysterious quadriceps injury. LaMarcus Aldridge missed the last two games with a sore knee, although he was only listed as day-to-day. All of that would spell a very dark immediate future for most teams.
They are also coached by Gregg Popovich, though, which matters. The last time the Spurs missed the playoffs was 1997. It’s been a long time since San Antonio missed the postseason, and Pop isn’t going to let it happen this year. The Spurs have also shown the ability to plug players in to compensate for injuries, so despite their 1-5 mark in February, they should be fine.
Verdict: The Spurs are in as long as Pop is coaching.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 36-25 (Current: No. 4, 3.5 games up on 9th)
The Minnesota Timberwolves are ranked sixth in the NBA in Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS). Their remaining opponents have won 51 percent of their games, which is the 13th-hardest schedule in the league. Jimmy Butler is making a case for at least getting some MVP votes with an NBA-leading 11.39 RPM wins, according to ESPN. Tom Thibodeau has plenty of experience getting teams to make the playoff push.
However, working against the Wolves is that key components of the team haven’t been down this stretch before, and starting point guard Jeff Teague has been what we’ll politely call unimpressive lately. Still, the team is basically healthy and have enough cushion that they should be able to end the longest playoff drought in the NBA.