The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.
1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.
2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.
3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.
The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:
4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).
5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.
6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.
7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.
8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.
Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves
9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.
10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.
11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.
So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?