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.
Verdict: The Wolves have too much talent and too much Jimmy to miss out.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 33-26 (Current: No. 5, 1.5 games up on 9th)
The Thunder seem safe in a lot of ways. Thier SRS is fourth in the NBA, and they have a 91.8 percent chance of making the playoffs based on Basketball-Reference’s projections. The duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George are figuring out how to play together, and the Thunder have a plus-7.5 net rating when both of their stars are on the court.
There is some cause for concern, though. Andre Roberson is done for the season and they haven’t looked the same without him. Their net rating on the season is 4.8 points worse with Roberson sidelined. Only Westbrook (4.9) makes a greater difference.
While they did blow out the Warriors, which was a good win, they’ve lost five of their last eight overall, and the only other two wins came against the lowly Memphis Grizzlies. It’s significant that they are tied in the loss column with ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers.
Verdict: The Thunder most likely get in, but only if they figure out how to play defense without Roberson.
Denver Nuggets: 32-26 (Current: No. 6, 1.0 game up on 9th)
The Nuggets have quietly been putting together a successful stretch over the last few weeks, winning nine of their last 12 games. Devin Harris has brought something of a spark to the bench. Gary Harris is turning into a star. Nikola Jokic is starting to look like the superstar so many thought he would become, averaging 21.6 points, 11.7 boards, and 9.6 dimes over the last seven games. He’s shooting 56.4 percent from the field and 56.5 percent from deep over that stretch.
They have a little bit of a rough spot coming out of the break with games against the Spurs, Rockets and Clippers, but possess the 11th-toughest remaining schedule in the West. Oh, and they also have Paul Millsap coming back in mid-March, with the toughest stretch of their remaining games coming after that — all 10 of their final opponents are currently in the playoff hunt. If they can stay afloat long until Millsap gets back, the team should be optimistic.
Verdict: The Nuggets will actually play their best ball down the stretch and get at least the 6-seed.
Portland Trail Blazers: 32-26 (Current: No. 6, 1.0 game up on 9th)
The Blazers have finished strong over the last couple of seasons, though that might be a bit tougher this season. They have the eighth-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, and they’ve struggled a bit lately, losing four of their last seven before hitting the All-Star break. Their last game was a decisive win over the Warriors, which might have been a confidence booster, but there have been some holes exposed.
Damian Lillard has been an absolute stud lately, averaging 32 points over the last seven games while the rest of the team has struggled. If you’re a Trail Blazers fan, the disconcerting thing here is that Portland’s net rating is -23.0 with Dame on the bench in that stretch. He is great, but he just can’t do everything. If the rest of the team doesn’t pick up a little, they could be the odd team out. Still, Portland finishes strong. That’s just what it does.
Verdict: The Trail Blazers do enough to get in and get a very interesting matchup with the Rockets or Warriors.
New Orleans Pelicans: 31-26 (Current: No. 8, 0.5 games up on 9th)
The Pelicans took a devastating hit when they lost DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending injury, but Anthony Davis has been out of his mind since then, averaging 31.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.2 steals, and 2.1 blocks per game while connecting on 49.8 percent of his field goals and 42.4 percent of his threes.
Unfortunately, the Pelicans have only won four of those nine games. They also have the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA with their opponents winning 52 percent of their games.
Sure, they’ve won three straight, the recently-acquired Nikola Mirotic has gotten acclimated to the team, and even Emeka Okafor (yeah, that Emeka Okafor) continues to make shocking contributions. But ultimately, it’s just too hard to overcome losing Cousins.
Verdict: The loss of Boogie is too much. The Hornets are one of the teams that will go fishing early.
Los Angeles Clippers: 30-26 (Current: No. 9, 0.5 games back of 8th)
Of all the teams in the hunt, the most dubious is the Los Angeles Clippers. They have the league’s third-toughest remaining schedule, with their opponents winning 53 percent of their games. They’ve gotten where they are at least in part on the grace of their schedule, which has been the fourth-easiest in the league to date.
Doc Rivers has done an amazing job keeping this thing together. They’ve won seven of their last nine, and haven’t been slowed one bit by trading Blake Griffin. Still, I can’t get over the feeling that the magic is about to run out and the post-break Clippers are going to have skid.
Verdict: The Clippers drop their early-April matchup against the Jazz, which is enough for Utah to move ahead of them in the standings and into the postseason.
Utah Jazz: 30-28 (Current: No. 10, 1.5 games back of 8th)
The Jazz are the furthest back, but they are also the hottest team in the league heading into the break, having won 11 straight. It’s not like all those wins were easy, either. Seven of them were on the road, and six of them were against playoff teams. Their net rating over the stretch is plus-14.6, the best in the NBA.
There are some questions about how sustainable that is, though. Ricky Rubio shooting 53 percent from the field and 54.2 percent from deep, for example, seems to be screaming for regression to the mean.
Still, there are real reasons believe that this can keep going. The team plays together very well, thriving on ball movement and defense. Those are the types of things that aren’t susceptible to regression. That they only have the 20th-toughest schedule for the remainder of the season doesn’t hurt, either.
Verdict: The Jazz just prove to be too good down the stretch, and will take over the 8-seed from the Clippers.