Sports | Analysis
March 5, 2018 at 6:00 AM
This first appeared in the March 5 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
For much of this NBA season, the attention of basketball fans has been fixated on the top of the Western Conference, where the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors — the league’s two best teams — are separated by a half-game in the standings.
In a normal season, such a race would be the most important story line in the league. After all, claiming home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs could be the difference in a pivotal Western Conference finals showdown between the two rivals.
But this is not a normal season. Not when there are eight teams in the West — from the Portland Trail Blazers in third place to the Utah Jazz in 10th place — that are separated by a just four games. With so many teams contending for so many of the West’s playoff spots, virtually every night has a game that could alter the race.
It also means an injury for any of these teams could, quite quickly, have disastrous consequences (as some of the teams involved have already realized). So, with 38 days left in the regular season, here is a deep dive into the remaining schedules of each of the eight teams in the fight for those six remaining playoff spots in the West — and what making or missing the playoffs could mean for all of them:
Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 37-26 (third place)
Remaining games against teams with winning records: 13
Remaining games against the other seven teams: 7 (at Clippers, at Thunder, at Pelicans, Clippers, at Spurs, at Nuggets, Jazz)
A run of six straight wins — including beating the Warriors and three of the other teams in this playoff fight (Utah, Minnesota and Oklahoma City) — has allowed Portland to surge into third place in the West. And with back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday against the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, Portland could easily push its unbeaten run to nine.
It would behoove the Trail Blazers to do so because — in something that will become a running theme among these teams — they then enter a brutal stretch. Eight of their following nine games are against teams with winning records, as are 13 of their final 17 games. And with their final three games coming against the Spurs, Nuggets and Jazz, the Blazers could play a pivotal role in the final outcome of this entire situation.
New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 36-26 (fourth place)
Remaining games against teams with winning records: 14
Remaining games against the other seven teams: 7 (at Clippers, Jazz, at Spurs, Trail Blazers, Thunder, at Clippers, Spurs
When DeMarcus Cousins went out for the remainder of the season — and beyond — with a torn Achilles’ tendon, it was assumed the Pelicans were done. That certainly looked like it would be the case once New Orleans lost five of its first six games without Cousins.
But with Sunday’s win over Dallas, the Pelicans have ripped off eight straight wins to surge into fourth in the West, while Anthony Davis has shoved his way into the conversation for the league’s most valuable player award by putting up staggering numbers over the 14 games Cousins has missed (33.6 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.4 blocks per game).
Given Davis’s own injury history, the Pelicans aren’t out of the woods. But with him playing at this level, they look to have a far better shot than a month ago.
Record: 38-28 (fifth place)
Remaining games against teams with winning records: 10
Remaining games against the other seven teams: 5 (at Spurs, Clippers, Jazz, at Nuggets, Nuggets)
Less than two weeks ago, the Timberwolves looked like a surefire playoff team that would be favored to finish at the top of the heap behind the Warriors and Rockets. Then Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury, and now it is a very real question whether Minnesota will make the playoffs at all.
The Timberwolves have played more games than any team in the NBA. That could be what saves Minnesota’s playoff hopes. But the Wolves are 0-2 to begin a stretch of eight straight games against teams with winning records. If they can’t improve on their issues when Butler sits (Minnesota has outscored teams by 7.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court and is outscored by 6.0 with him on the bench), they could find themselves in the unthinkable position of having their NBA-leading playoff drought stretch to 14 straight seasons.
(One other note: Minnesota’s first-round pick is lottery protected. So, if the Timberwolves do fall out of the playoffs, their pick doesn’t go to the Atlanta Hawks as everyone expected it would. Just another factor to keep in mind here).
San Antonio Spurs
Record: 36-27 (sixth place)
Remaining games against teams with winning records: 15
Remaining games against the other seven teams: 8 (at Thunder, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Jazz, Thunder, at Clippers, Trail Blazers, at Pelicans)
In 19 of the last 20 years, the San Antonio Spurs have won at least 50 games. In the one season they didn’t, they went 37-13, in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
That streak is going to end this season.
To win 50 games this year, San Antonio would have to win 14 of its final 19 games. That would be a tough task even if the Spurs were whole. But LaMarcus Aldridge has been hobbled by an ankle injury lately, and Kawhi Leonard has basically missed the entire season because of ongoing issues with his quad.
San Antonio has the second-toughest schedule of any of the eight teams in this field, including a stretch of 10 straight games against teams with winning records. Add it all up, and not only might their streak of 18 straight seasons with 50 wins come to an end, but the truly unthinkable — San Antonio’s 20-year playoff streak — could, too.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 37-28 (seventh place)
Remaining games against teams with winning records: 13
Remaining games against the other seven teams: 6 (Spurs, Clippers, Trail Blazers, at Spurs, Nuggets, at Pelicans)
Oklahoma City is another team that’s been fundamentally altered by an injury. Andre Roberson’s obvious offensive limitations have been discussed at length, but the numbers bear out that the Thunder are a completely different team without him.
Through Jan. 27 — the day Roberson ruptured his patella tendon — Oklahoma City was scoring 106.9 points per 100 possessions and allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. In 16 games since then, the Thunder have almost an identical offensive rating (106.8), but have a 108.5 defensive rating. That is a drop from fifth in the league before Roberson’s injury to 17th after it — and helps explain why the Thunder went from a 50-win pace before his injury to a roughly .500 team since.
With 12 consecutive games against teams with winning records from March 16 through April 9, the Thunder will have its work cut out to turn things around.
Record: 35-28 (eighth place)
Remaining games against teams with winning records: 12
Remaining games against the other seven teams: 5 (at Thunder, Timberwolves, at Clippers, Trail Blazers, at Timberwolves)
The Nuggets have missed the playoffs four straight seasons, but their young squad was expected take a step forward and return to the postseason this year.
That they have been able to hang in the race with marquee free agent signing Paul Millsap missing three months with a wrist injury speaks to the way that youth movement has made strides. But it will be all for naught if Denver fails to make the playoffs.
The Nuggets, despite that youth, won’t have any excuses if they do miss the playoffs this season. Millsap is back and healthy, they have one of the easier schedules among these eight teams down the stretch (though they do end the season with 10 straight against teams with winning records), and they have their final four games against other teams fighting for one of these spots.
Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 34-28 (ninth place)
Remaining games against teams with winning records: 16
Remaining games against the other seven teams: 9 (Pelicans, at Thunder, Trail Blazers, at Timberwolves, at Trail Blazers, Spurs, at Jazz, Nuggets, Pelicans)
After all the years in which Doc Rivers was understandably maligned for some of the ways in which his work in the Clippers’ front office impaired his ability to coach, it is fitting that this season has produced his best coaching job in five seasons with the team. Even with a host of injury issues and the midseason trade of Blake Griffin, Los Angeles still has a chance of making the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
Doing so, however, won’t be easy. The Clippers have a brutal closing schedule, with eighty percent of their remaining games against teams with winning records. That said, they have nine games against the other seven teams in this mix — including five at home — and a chance to take their destiny into their own hands.
Record: 33-30 (10th place)
Remaining games against teams with winning records: 9
Remaining games against the other seven teams: 5 (at Pelicans, at Spurs, at Timberwolves, Clippers, at Trail Blazers)
Utah looked dead and buried in late January, when it sat at 21-28 and five games out of the last playoff spot in the West. But that was before the Jazz went on an 11-game winning streak to surge from potentially fighting for lottery positioning to a shot at the playoffs.
Jazz Coach Quin Snyder has done a remarkable job managing the loss of all-star Gordon Hayward in free agency and several injuries through the first half of the season — not to mention helping develop rookie Donovan Mitchell into a rookie of the year candidate and a potential superstar.
Despite having remained in 10th place for that entire run, the Jazz look like a favorite to climb into a playoff spot. Utah has looked like a different team since it got healthy, and it survived its own brutal stretch in the schedule earlier this season and now has – by far — the easiest remaining schedule of any of these eight teams.
It would be a remarkable story if, after everything the Jazz has gone through, it makes the playoffs. As it stands now, it’s all lining up for them to have a legitimate chance.
Are you interested in smart, thoughtful analysis of the NBA from The Washington Post and around the Web delivered to your inbox every Monday morning? If so, sign up for the Monday Morning Post Up, The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter.