Western Conference Playoff Picture: Three Tiers and Lots of Complications
USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15), Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0).
- The Western Conference is a jumbled mess with less than a month left in the regular season.
- Teams at the top and in the middle will likely be jockeying for playoff position down to the end.
- Matt Moore attempts to make sense of the highly confusing West race.
We’re almost to single-digit games left in the NBA playoff race. We know who the eight teams in the West will be, the Kings are too far back with too few tiebreakers.
Now we just have to sort out the seeds, and we start with a No. 1 seed that remains up for grabs with real potential to create chaos.
Golden State and Denver continue to flip-flop back and forth. Essentially, if the Warriors put the pedal down, they should be able to get distance from the Nuggets.
But if they keep messing around, this is going to be back and forth the rest of the way.
The Battle for No. 1 and No. 2
The Nuggets’ schedule is too difficult for them to get clear of Golden State, and the Warriors’ apathy is too high for them to end the conversation. We’re stuck in limbo, and the effects are huge for everyone else.
Take the Trail Blazers for example, currently sitting pretty in fourth place. They’re tied in the loss column with the Rockets, own their tiebreaker and have a great shot at third-place and a second-round matchup with Denver — considered to be the most vulnerable team.
However, say Portland catches third, and then in the last week of the season, Golden State slips behind Denver into the No. 2 spot. Portland would need to keep winning to avoid slipping out of home court in the first round, while also keeping an eye on where the Dubs end up.
The Nuggets had a great week. Their win over the Celtics combined with the Rockets’ loss to the Grizzlies gave them a win in a likely-loss scenario and a Rockets loss in a likely-win scenario. The result is a full five games in the loss column between Denver and Houston for third place in the West.
If Houston finishes 10-0 to close the year, Denver would have to go 9-4 to clinch the No. 2 seed. If the Rockets go a reasonable 8-2, the Nuggets have to only go 7-6, provided the Blazers don’t rush past them either.
The Rockets lead 2-1 in the season series with the final meeting next week. If the Nuggets were to somehow win that (Houston has owned them the past three seasons), there’s a very good chance they also secure tiebreaker based on conference record.
Denver is in prime position now to finish with the No. 2 seed at worst.
No. 3 and No. 4 are Now a Tier
Houston and Portland are now three games up on the rest of the gauntlet in the loss column.
The Blazers’ schedule is ridiculously easy from here on out. The only teams above .500 they face the rest of the way are the Pistons (twice), and Nuggets (twice). They also have the tiebreaker over the Rockets. Portland’s going to be able to control its destiny for the No. 3 seed.
This, again, gets mucked up by what Golden State does. If the Warriors fall to No. 2, does Portland try and tank to get back to fourth place?
And what about Houston?
Everyone wants the Nuggets and no one wants the Warriors.
It is possible one of the teams three-games back in the loss column can make a run to join these two, but that would be it. Schedules and team strength indicate that neither Houston nor Portland are falling past sixth place.
The Battle Royale of Doom
The Thunder were eighth in the West until the Jazz lost to the Hawks, which put them in a four-way tie with the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers. The Thunder lost tiebreakers to the Spurs and Clippers, but they went 4-0 against Utah, which helps immensely in tiebreaker conversations. After that tie, the Thunder jumped from No. 8 to No. 5, just like that.
A Clippers win resets all that and change the order, as does a Thunder loss to the Raptors if they again fall Friday night.
There’s a widespread sentiment that OKC will just keep slipping and I would warn against that. The Thunder have been playing their worst ball of the season the past three weeks, in conjunction with Paul George’s shoulder injury which has clearly limited him. It’s just unlikely that they’ll keep playing their worst ball for another three weeks even if their schedule is brutal.
The Jazz have the easiest schedule, but as the Hawks and Grizzlies losses show, they still have a propensity to lose winnable games. Utah’s going to likely finish no worse than fifth, but they need either Portland or Houston to lose winnable games as well for them to catch.
The Spurs rattled off nine in a row before losing to the Heat. Kind of the inverse of the Thunder, the Spurs have played their best ball for three weeks.
Can they keep that going?
Their closing schedule includes the Cavaliers twice and the Hawks, but those are sneaky-dangerous games now. The Spurs also only got four of 10 games at home, and they’ve been dreadful on the road this year.
The Clippers just won’t die. Their schedule is back-heavy; expect them to fatten up over the next week with the Cavaliers, Knicks, and Timberwolves, but they’ve got the Bucks, Warriors, Jazz, and Rockets left.
The Clippers’ games against the Warriors and Jazz are during the last week of the season. If things go according to the above, the Warriors may have locked the No. 1 seed based on Denver’s tough schedule, while the Jazz may have locked No. 5 seed and decided to rest players. That helps.
The Clippers are 2-2 vs. the Spurs and Thunder, so that could come down to conference record if they tie, which is too close to call.
*Not based on any formula, just looking at schedules, team win profiles, and season-long trends.
1. Golden State Warriors
2. Denver Nuggets
3. Portland Trail Blazers
4. Houston Rockets
5. Utah Jazz
6. Los Angeles Clippers
7. San Antonio Spurs
8. Oklahoma City Thunder