Welcome to the NBA’s Western Conference Playoffs Fury Road

Welcome to the NBA’s Western Conference Playoffs Fury Road article feature image
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Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Two games in the loss column separate seven teams. The 10th team is two games back in the loss column, having won 11 in a row, and it has one of the easiest remaining schedules. Five of the teams are from the same division. The Spurs are suddenly in the pack — the Spurs! Despite being without their All-Star player, the Nuggets have won seven of ten games. The Clippers traded away Blake Griffin and have won four of five. Cats and dogs, living together, mass hysteria.

Welcome to the Western Conference playoff race, which is looking a lot like Fury Road.

I’ve been tracking playoff races in depth for seven seasons, and I’ve taken a lot of lessons from that process. Here are some quick things to know.

  • The loss column matters. You can make up wins. You can gain in that category. You can’t make up losses. If you’re six back in the loss column, you need the team you’re chasing to lose so you can catch it. That’s why you hear “(x) games back in the loss column.”
  • Schedule always matters, but it matters way more when the standings are tight down the stretch. Do you play the Warriors in early March when they’re still rattling off wins, or do you play them twice in the final week of the season when they may be resting players? For the Jazz, it’s the latter. Do you play three games in four nights with the last one on the road? Or at home? Do you get teams on a back-to-back? Or a road-road back-to-back? Do you get a lucky matchup against a good team missing a key player with injuries? Or do you run into a buzzsaw stretch minus your best or second-best player? These things all matter.
  • Tiebreakers matter. They get overlooked, but there are commonly, even often, situations in which a head-to-head or division tiebreaker winds up determining who gets in and who gets what seed.
  • I break down teams into “locks” (absolutely going to make playoffs/seed), “near locks” (can’t rule out a collapse but it’s a safe bet), “in the hunt” (haven’t caught their prey but are within range) and “bubble teams.”

Here’s a rundown of the West teams fighting for a spot, where they stand, and where they’re headed.

San Antonio Spurs (3): 36-23

If the Spurs get back Kawhi Leonard (pictured), they’re safe. They are only up three games from the Clippers in the loss column, though, so we have to include them. The idea of San Antonio missing the playoffs is heresy, but the Spurs have just been snakebitten with injuries this year. LaMarcus Aldridge is expected back after the All-Star Break, but what if Leonard doesn’t come back at all and Aldridge goes down with an ankle sprain for two weeks? This roster doesn’t have enough firepower to win games in the West, even with the system and discipline that gets the Spurs 80 percent of the way there.

Again, if Leonard gets back, they could rattle off a winning streak that gets them the requisite distance. They’re up only three in the loss column, but they’re up four overall, meaning they have fewer games to get caught with. The Spurs are officially in this pack after losing to Utah and Denver, but I would still consider them less than near-locks for a spot. Also, just the idea of the Spurs missing the playoffs offends my worldview.

It must be noted, however, that the Spurs have the toughest remaining strength of schedule by win percentage, and 18 of their next 23 opponents are playoff teams.

This is going to get bumpy, folks.

Minnesota Timberwolves (4): 35-25

The Wolves looked like they were safe. They had built up a significant lead and looked like they might cruise to a division title. So much for that. They’re now back in a cage match with Oklahoma City for that division title. The Wolves landed a lot of big wins early to build that advantage but have slowly fallen back to Earth, going 12-11 since January 1.

Add on the fact that the Wolves have a March schedule that’s as tough as any, and it’s probably not going to be a breezy drift to the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round.

If the Wolves want to advance in the playoffs, getting home-court advantage will be important, but they do have some factors in their favor. The Wolves are two division wins away from clinching the division tiebreaker, which means that if they finish in a tie with any non-division winner they will get the higher seed. The Wolves are a stellar 9-2 in division, well above any other team with a comparable record.

Oklahoma City Thunder (5): 33-26

The Thunder likely would have taken possession of the No. 4 seed by now had it not been for injuries. The Andre Roberson injury compromises their entire defensive scheme, and they’ve missed Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony for select games.

As it stands, OKC is in what I would call “fake danger.” The Thunder can turn it on, handle business, and build a cushion, but they probably won’t, so they’re going to be in the mire for a while. They play a lot of big games late in the season.

Their schedule isn’t as tough as the schedules of the other teams with similar records, but the Thunder have also messed around consistently and can’t afford to do that anymore without Roberson. I keep coming back to the two buzzer-beater losses to Minnesota in October and November. Those games could matter a lot when it comes to seeding at the end of the season.

Denver Nuggets (6): 32-26

A seven-game road trip in March is going to matter a great deal. The Nuggets play 13 of their final 24 games on the road, and in seven of those they’ll be at a rest disadvantage. They are 9-19 on the road this season. Denver is going to have to earn its way in.

What do the Nuggets have going for them?

They have an 18-7 record vs. teams below .500. They will get Paul Millsap back sometime between early and late March, and they have been playing much better the last three weeks. They have the tiebreaker advantage over Portland, OKC, and New Orleans and are split with Utah.

If that stretch headed into the All-Star Break with wins over Golden State and San Antonio is the best ball of their season, they’re sunk. They have to find ways to sneak out a few more wins vs. great teams in the next few weeks and then make sure they handle business on the road in March.

Denver has positioned itself well, but if the Nuggets fall back, even a little bit, they’re toast.

Portland Trail Blazers (7): 32-26

Portland has the third-toughest remaining schedule by opponent win percentage among the teams in this group, but most of it is concentrated in games vs. teams like Golden State, Cleveland, and Houston (twice). The Blazers need to fatten up vs. teams like Memphis and Dallas and find a way to catch some wins late.  Of their remaining 24 games, 16 are against teams either currently in the playoffs or within two games in the loss column (Detroit, Utah).

The Blazers are 13-21 this season vs. teams over .500.

Portland has a 65 percent chance of making the playoffs per 538. That seems optimistic, but those figures tend to vary wildly with so many random games built in. Denver, for example, climbed 20 percentage points between February 1 and February 20 thanks to wins over Golden State and San Antonio.

For Portland, the crux is going to be games against teams in this race. The Blazers need to keep the teams behind them behind them by beating the Pelicans, Jazz, and Clippers (five games), and they need to take care of business vs. the bad teams (6-8 wins), and that will put them in a pretty good position. If the Blazers let those teams behind them gain, however, not even random wins vs. the good teams ahead of them will help much.

It should also be noted that their defense was elite for three months, and then it fell off the last three weeks. We’re still trying to figure out just what their identity is.

New Orleans Pelicans (8): 31-26

Oh, boy. The Pelicans are making a noble go of it, but it’s rough. They went on a three-game winning streak before the break to move their post-Boogie record to 4-5 with a -1.0 net rating differential.

The Pelicans had a game vs. Indiana cancelled due to a roof leak. As a result, they have six games in eight days at the end of March, including a back-to-back-to-back.

Not great.

Of their final 25 games, 14 are at home. That’s good! Seventeen of those 25, however, are vs. playoff teams. Not so good. New Orleans is obviously a team the Clippers and Jazz are eyeing like the wolf with Little Red Riding Hood. But sometimes teams with injuries rally to the cause. Additionally, the Pelicans’ net rating was roughly the same with Cousins and without. It’ll be on Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis to hold the fort.

The hordes are coming. Man the gates.

Los Angeles Clippers (9): 30-27

The Clippers just refuse to die. One game back in the loss column from four other teams, the Clippers should have been toast after trading Blake Griffin, but here they are. Having won seven of ten, the Clippers are getting it done with Lou Williams and solid play from a number of sub-stars.

Still, an injury could decimate them with how thin their roster is, and they face playoff teams in 19 of their final 26 games. They have the most back-to-backs (6) of any team in this race. They trail the Jazz, Thunder, Wolves, and Spurs in head-to-head and are tied with the Blazers and Pelicans 1-1. Oh, and half of their remaining games are on the road.

In other words, things are stacked against them. Being only one back in the loss column is great, but a small slip could turn into a big slide if things go sideways. The Clippers have to get a lot of things to go their way. Not only do they have to catch the teams ahead of them in the win column, but they also have to hold off Utah, which has a weak schedule.

The Clippers decided not to blow it up at the deadline. There’s a pretty good chance all that decision did was ensure that they will finish with a mediocre first-rounder.

Utah Jazz (10):  (30-28)

There are two stories here.

  1. The Jazz should have been left for dead. They were 19-28, and Ricky Rubio was a disaster. Rodney Hood never stepped up. Dante Exum missed most of the season; Rudy Gobert, much of it. It was a lost year after Gordon Hayward’s departure. And then . . . they won 11 games in a row. They’re right back into it.
  2. The Jazz were in 10th place when they were 19-28. They won 11 straight to go to two games over .500 at 30-28. They are still in 10th. All that, and they didn’t gain a single spot in the playoff race.

But here’s the biggest key: Utah’s remaining schedule is yogurt. It’s strawberry ice cream that’s been melted under a summer sun for three hours. It’s 1800-thread-count sheets. It’s cashmere that’s been beaten soft with a whiffle ball bat for 36 hours.

To put this in comparison, here are the remaining opponent winning percentages for the teams discussed above.

  • Spurs – .550
  • Clippers – .532
  • Blazers – .520
  • Thunder – .518
  • Pelicans – .517
  • Nuggets – .515
  • Wolves – .507
  • Jazz – 485

That’s the 22nd-overall strength of schedule for Utah. The Wolves, with the second-easiest schedule of the playoff-contending teams, are 14th. The Jazz have the fewest remaining back-to-backs of any team in this race. They have the fewest road games remaining. They have the fewest games with a rest disadvantage. They have the tiebreaker advantage (with games to play) vs. the Blazers, Clippers, and Pelicans.

Utah should have every expectation of making the playoffs.

However . . .

I always find it important to note in these situations that playing bad teams in games you should win doesn’t mean that’s how it goes down. The Jazz are 11-7 in games against opponents under .500. That’s a mediocre record against weak teams. Utah’s played its best basketball the last three weeks. Playing that way through the rest of the season is extremely difficult. You never play your best for that long. Utah’s going to come back down to Earth. The question is whether that Earth is still above the weak competition they play.

So Utah should get in because of their schedule. The Wolves should get in because of their win profile. The Spurs should get in because they’re the Spurs. Everything else is up in the air, and “should” won’t mean anything if teams don’t actually take care of business.

Every game matters, every possession counts, and all these teams need every win.

Buckle up.

Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports