It’s not only the top spots up for grabs in the NBA playoffs race. Virtually every position is wide open with around 15 fixtures remaining.
The Golden State Warriors are limping to the finish line in the absence of Kevin Durant, just one game ahead of the San Antonio Spurs. This is due to a run of 5-5 in their last ten, including a loss to the Spurs that really hurt their chances of keeping the No. 1 seed.
But what about the rest of the field? There’s still six spots in the West that need to be ironed out before the playoffs start in April. No slot is completely locked up and there’s still a team on the outside looking in with chance of sneaking through at the last minute.
3. Houston Rockets
The Rockets have found a new lease of life this season with Mike D’Antoni at the helm and James Harden having an MVP-level season averaging 28.9 points and 11.2 assists. The key to their success has been the pace-and-space offence that has seen them become one of the league’s best with ball in hand.
Houston puts up the most threes in the league and by a large margin. Their 40.6 three-point attempts per game is seven more than the next best team (Cleveland) and despite shooting 3% worse than the Cavs, they still make more threes than any other team. They’ve surrounded star man Harden with shooters that can spread the floor, create driving lanes and improved their already deep bench with the addition of Lou Williams at the trade deadline.
The Rockets are just about locked in for the No. 3 seed. A 47-21 record puts the franchise 5.5 games back from the Spurs and four games clear of Utah. This will likely lead to a matchup with either Oklahoma City or Memphis.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have finally capitalised on the potential that’s been talked about for the past few seasons. Their young core has matured into a group of veterans. Gordon Hayward picked up his play, averaging a career-high 22.0 points and 5.5 rebounds, and centre Rudy Gobert has become the best rim protector in the NBA.
The Jazz don’t put up the best numbers though. They rank in the bottom third in all three major categories per game – 100.7 points (28), 19.8 assists (28) and 43.0 rebounds (21), but lead the league in points allowed (96.4). While that doesn’t look like the state line of a team that’s fourth in the Western Conference, it’s worth noting that the Jazz play at the slowest pace in the NBA, averaging just 91.7 possessions per 48 minutes.
Despite this, Utah rank 12 for best offensive rating with 109.4 points per 100 possessions and the third-best defensive rating with 104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. This means Utah can slow teams down to their pace, grinding out wins in low scoring contests.
Their 43-25 record has them at the No. 4 spot, four games behind the Rockets and three ahead of the Clippers. At this juncture – a matchup with the Clippers awaits, unless the Thunder make a last-minute run to improve their seeding.
5. LA Clippers
The Clippers have experienced a turbulent, injury-riddled season and rarely get to play their starters all at once. With all the injuries, Doc Rivers has had to start 11 different players over the course of the season.
Fortunately for the outfit, it all seems to be coming together in time for the playoffs. Chris Paul is back and will be 100% in time for the first round. They aren’t completely out of the woods yet though; Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are listed as day-to-day propositions and didn’t travel with the team to Denver on Friday.
The Clippers have been stagnant for the past few campaigns to always be in the playoff picture but rarely contending for the conference title. In that time, they haven’t made any moves to improve their roster either. The core is still the same, as is their style.
Meanwhile, Golden State sacrificed their bench for a first ballot Hall of Famer, San Antonio developed Kawai Leonard into a superstar, Houston started bombing threes and Utah became a sneakily good team.
The Clippers must be careful as they’re only 1.5 games ahead of the Thunder and could lose that No. 5 seed and more favourable matchup with Utah. If they drop down to No. 6, they’ll end up getting Houston in the first round and will likely get bundled out rather quickly.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Before the season started, the Thunder were expected to struggle without Kevin Durant as Russell Westbrook had to put the entire team on his shoulders. While they have dropped off from being a Finals contender, they haven’t totally capitulated.
Westbrook is averaging a triple-double to carry the team to a 38-29 record and likely another playoff appearance. They’ve made some improvements to their roster with the additions of Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson at the trade deadline.
OKC is in a precarious position right now. 1.5 games back from the No. 5 seed but just half a game ahead of Memphis and the No. 7 seed. With their run home including games against the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs and Grizzlies, it might be tough for the Thunder to hold their spot.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis have continued to play their “Grit & Grind” style that’s become the team’s trademark. They only score 101.3 points on average at 27 in the league, yet allow just 100.6 points the other end, ranking fourth in the league. Their core is still intact, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are both averaging 20 points, while Zach Randolph is recording 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds.
The Grizzlies 38-30 record puts them half a game back from the No. 6 seed, but with their remaining schedule including three meetings with the Spurs and a trip to Oakland, they’ll need to take advantage and win every game they can to improve their seeding. Fortunately, they’re 5.5 games clear of Denver and probably won’t drop any lower than the No. 7 seed.
8. Denver Nuggets
Denver has been a bit of a surprise this season, sneaking into the No. 8 seed despite a losing record of 33-35. They’re a team that like to run, score and share the ball, playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league to score 111.0 points with 24.9 assists per game.
While Danilo Gallinari leads the team in scoring, they have six players averaging double-digits and another four averaging nine or more. They lead the league in rebounding – a big part of which has come with the improved play of sophomore Nikola Jokic who has been a vital injection for the Nuggets.
They’re a long shot to improve their standing, but will need to make sure they get through their tough run home to hold off Portland, a side that is just two games back.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have been a bit disappointing this season after a great playoff run in 2016 in which they took the Warriors to the limit. At 30-37, they’re two games outside of the playoffs and will have to fight hard to earn that last spot. Portland are suspect defensively, allowing 110.2 points to be the fifth-worst in the league but score at a decent clip, averaging 108.1 points per game (6).
They tend to rely on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum for most of their scoring with the duo averaging a combined 49.8 on the scoreboard. The recent addition of Jusuf Nurkic from Denver has helped, with the big man averaging 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds.
The Blazers don’t have the worst run home and definitely have a shot at knocking Denver out of that No. 8 seed. This would provide another playoff appearance.