Breaking Down the Insane Western Conference Playoff Picture

It’s hard to remember a playoff race being as close as this one. Just one game separates seeds three through seven, and we currently have eight teams fighting for just six playoff spots. With the season winding down, let’s look at each team’s chances and give some predictions for how we think the seeding will shake out.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Record: 38-27
Remaining Games: 17 (9 home, 8 away)
Playoff Chances (Basketball Reference): 96.5%

As it currently stands, Jimmy Butler’s injury is arguably the biggest hindrance for any hopeful playoff team. Since joining the team this season, Butler has asserted himself as top dog in Minnesota’s pecking order, and the team relies on him to consistently generate offense. With him on the mend, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague will be looked to fill the gaps, but neither player has had a particularly memorable 2018.

It’s been tough sledding for Minny in the past month. Their last legitimately good win was back on January 20th when Toronto came to Minnesota. Their last four victories have come against Sacramento (twice), Chicago, and the Lakers. Not exactly a list of world beaters.

Things won’t get easier moving forward. Eight of their first nine games to begin March will be against teams that are firmly in the thick of the playoff race.

Karl-Anthony Towns is a special talent, but he can’t do it alone. Luckily, they’ll get some gimme wins down the stretch against Memphis (twice), Atlanta and Dallas. However, it’s difficult to see them going much better than .500 the rest of the way.

New Arena Playoff Prediction: 6th Seed

San Antonio Spurs

Record: 36-26
Remaining Games: 20 (12 home, 8 away)
Playoff Chances (Basketball Reference): 94.3%

The Spurs don’t look the part of a team that is 10 games above .500, and are coming off one of their worst months in recent memory. San Antonio won just two games in February — a 38-point shellacking of the hapless Suns, and an inspired beat down of LeBron’s Cavs. The other seven games they played didn’t go quite as well. Denver beat the snot out of them twice, and they allowed 120-plus to New Orleans, Golden State, and Utah.

Popovich has had to rely on guys like Bryn Forbes and Joffrey Lauvergne to play significant minutes for him. In the last month, just about every player on their roster has been on the mend at some point. There’s no telling if Kawhi Leonard is actually attempting a comeback this season.

With that being said, there’s reason to stay optimistic about San Antonio’s chances. They play a home-heavy schedule with a few easy wins on the slate. It’s conceivable that they go 10-2 in the AT&T Center the rest of the way. As long as they can split their remaining road games 50/50, the Spurs will be able to extend their historic 50-win streak and secure their spot in the standings behind Houston and Golden State.

In Pop, we trust.

New Arena Playoff Prediction: 3rd Seed

Oklahoma City Thunder

Record: 36-27
Remaining Games: 19 (10 home, 9 away)
Playoff Chances (Basketball Reference): 92.4%

Barring a 20-game win streak to end the year, Oklahoma City’s 2018 will be widely regarded as a disappointing season. The injury to Andre Roberson has obviously hurt, but this team has far more problems than relying on a shooting guard who can’t shoot.

For one, Carmelo Anthony just isn’t very good anymore. The multiple time All-Star is beginning to trot down the same path as his 2003 draftee buddy Dwyane Wade. Anthony’s volume is that of a star, but his production reeks of a league-average player. His three-point shot has been off all year, and he legitimately can’t get to the free throw line anymore. He’s straying further and further away from the hoop. When his shot isn’t falling, Anthony doesn’t provide much of anything.

Paul George has been fantastic the past couple of months, and Russ is going to be Russ. The 2017 MVP will ramp up the intensity as the season closes — just like he did last year. If they can get anything out of the Abrines-Ferguson-Heustis-Grant group, then they’ll be fine, but that certainly isn’t a given.

OKC travels to Portland, Toronto, Boston and San Antonio this month. In the last week of the year, they play Golden State and Houston four days apart. Those would normally be games in which both of those teams would be resting players, but given the current race for the No. 1 seed, the Thunder could be facing the full-force Rockets and Warriors.

New Arena Playoff Prediction: 5th Seed

Portland Trailblazers

Record: 36-26
Remaining Games: 20 (11 home, 9 away)
Playoff Chances (Basketball Reference): 88.9%

Portland is quietly making a case for the hottest team in basketball. They began the post-All-Star break slate by ending Utah’s 11-game win streak. They’ve had convincing wins over Minnesota and Golden State over the past few weeks, and Damian Lillard is playing at an elite level.

The rest of their schedule is a mixed bag, but will get a few easier match-ups on the road. They’ve been good in the Moda Center this year, and will get to host Golden State, Houston, Boston and Oklahoma City there in March.

Lillard and C.J. McCollum can single handedly win games on the offensive end. Throw in a rejuvenated Jusuf Nurkic and a hot-shooting Al-Farouq Aminu and you have a team that will flirt with 50 wins.

New Arena Playoff Prediction: 4th Seed

New Orleans Pelicans

Record: 35-26
Remaining Games: 21 (12 home, 9 away)
Playoff Chances (Basketball Reference): 82.5%

When DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear, nobody would have expected the Pelicans to respond quite like this. New Orleans is now on a 7-game winning streak, and appear poised to control their destiny as the season comes to a close.

Anthony Davis has inexplicably put a small crack in the door of the MVP race. It’s still James Harden’s award to lose, but Davis is making voters salivate at the idea of putting Houston’s star guard second on their ballot for the third time in four seasons. Davis is coming off a month in which he averaged 35 points and 13 rebounds. The last time a player put up a stat line like that over a calendar month was Moses Freaking Malone.

Jrue Holiday has been a quality Robin to Davis’ Batman, and Nikola Mirotic is accustomed to being on teams that go on big winning streaks (see: Chicago Bulls). Two weeks ago, I would have had the Pelicans missing the playoffs altogether, but with how they’ve been playing as a response to Boogie’s injury, it’s impossible to leave them out of the picture.

New Arena Playoff Prediction: 7th Seed

Denver Nuggets

Record: 33-28
Remaining Games: 21 (8 home, 13 away)
Playoff Chances (Basketball Reference): 55.1%

The Nuggets are very good in the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets aren’t so good anywhere else.

Denver sports a 9-19 record away from home, meaning they have less road wins than both the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings (10). One of those three teams is fighting for playoff position, the other two are praying for ping-pong balls. It’s not great company to keep.

It doesn’t help knowing the Nuggets have the heaviest road schedule of any of the Western Conference playoff hopefuls to end the year. Road tilts against Cleveland, Washington, Toronto, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and Minnesota will be awfully telling for this young Denver squad.

They’re working Paul Millsap back into the rotation, which should allow for the rest of the lineup to settle into their natural positions. The duo of Millsap and Nikola Jokic haven’t played much together, but still project to be a quality pairing. Mike Malone will need Jamal Murray and Gary Harris to be a bit more aggressive attacking off the screen and roll to avoid the Boban Marjanovic disaster from last Tuesday.

In the end, they have the most talent of the remaining teams, and should clinch the 8th spot in the closing week of the season.

New Arena Playoff Prediction: 8th Seed

Los Angeles Clippers

Record: 32-28
Remaining Games: 22 (12 home, 10 away)
Playoff Chances (Basketball Reference): 51.9%

Doc Rivers should be commended for the job he’s done this season. It seems like every night, the Clippers are trotting out another player you’ve never heard of. They’re an entertaining bunch that have somehow managed to stay afloat after trading away the two best players in the franchise’s history. Lou Williams has cooled off a tad bit, but is still putting up 20-plus per game. Tobias Harris is making the fan bases wipe their Blake Griffin-induced tears. Montrezl Harrell looks as if he belongs.

However, talent always wins out in the NBA. LA won’t be catching anybody by surprise to end the year. They face virtually every single one of their competitors between two impending four-game stretches.

The first comes in a couple of weeks which includes trips to Houston, Oklahoma City and Minnesota — with a game against Portland at home in between. The second stretch is the last week of the season when the Clippers host San Antonio, Denver, and New Orleans, and travel to Utah as well. Their season will come down to those eight games, and I favor their opponents more often than not in those match-ups.

New Arena Playoff Prediction: Lottery

Utah Jazz

Record: 31-30
Remaining Games: 21 (11 home, 10 away)
Playoff Chances (Basketball Reference): 39.2%

For as impressive as the Jazz were during their recent 11-game tear, they may have dug themselves a hole too deep to climb out of to begin the year. They’re just two games back in the loss column for the 8-seed, but face an uphill battle. Dropping games to Phoenix, Chicago, and Atlanta earlier in the season has come back to haunt Quin Snyder’s group.

Donovan Mitchell has been given more responsibility than any other rookie in recent memory. He’s essentially their entire offense. Quality contributors like Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert completely rely on Mitchell to create for them. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a 21-year old.

Ricky Rubio’s recent scoring surge can’t be trusted. Teams will continue to sag off the Spaniard until he can produce at this level for at least half a season. Utah must completely abandon Rubio-Gobert-Favors lineups, as the spacing simply doesn’t work.

Utah has been a great story this year, and Mitchell has made a serious case for Rookie of the Year, but a playoff spot doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

New Arena Playoff Prediction: Lottery

Sources: Basketball Reference, Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports