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Handicapping the Western Conference Playoff Race

With five teams vying for the final three playoff spots, it’s time to take stock of where each stands in the postseason picture

Jae Crowder shoots the ball Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s talk about the West. This season’s crop of playoff teams and playoff hopefuls aren’t wild so much as they are unpredictable and mediocre. The bottom of the conference is bunched up like sardines, with only 2.5 games separating the 6-seed and the 10th-place team. With fewer than 30 games to go, let’s handicap the playoff race in the conference where everything is ultimately meaningless.

Portland Trail Blazers (31–26)

Stakes: The Blazers have yet to play even 12 games in any single playoffs since they began a four-year postseason streak beginning in the 2013–14 season, and falling from the 6-seed out of the playoffs would be a disaster. Even an 8-seed finish would be a disappointment, given that, of these five teams, the Blazers have the two best players not named Anthony Davis.

Advantages: The Blazers are in good shape despite losing four of their past six and holding only a 2.5-game cushion over the 10-seed. They’re maxing out the talents of their off-brand big three in Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic, while getting nightly contributions from the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu, Shabazz Napier, and Ed Davis. (Lillard and McCollum are nearly four points per 100 possessions better when they share the floor with Davis than when they do with Nurkic.) Plus, they’re developing Zach Collins, their prized first-round pick who has shown flashes akin to a slow-mo strobe light. It’s good enough to net them a middle-of-the-pack seed, as opposed to last season, when they had to settle for the 8-seed and a hopeless matchup with the Warriors.

Disadvantages: If the Blazers were a boat, Lillard and McCollum would be the ones rowing oars while the rest of the roster uses their arms. Headlines like “Lillard’s 39 not enough” are all too familiar for this team. Lillard has averaged 30 points a game in Portland’s last six contests, of which the Blazers have lost four. It seems like the only guaranteed wins Portland can get are the contests when Lillard and McCollum combine for 60 or more. That’s not promising for the Blazers’ postseason chances, but it should be more than good enough for a playoff spot.

Denver Nuggets (30–26)

Stakes: The Nuggets should be higher than a 7-seed. They are in win-now mode, and, though you can make a case the injury to Paul Millsap has slowed them down, they still have enough talent on the roster to be in the middle of the West. Last season they missed the playoffs by a single game. They can’t afford to do that again.

Advantages: Paul Millsap is coming back in March, for starters, and though there are questions about how he will acclimate alongside Nikola Jokic (and vice versa), the Nuggets are in desperate need of more talent. Though Jokic’s scoring has regressed, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are making leaps and bounds this season, averaging 16 and 17 points a game, respectively. TL;DR: Mason Plumlee isn’t going to cut it.

Disadvantages: Denver is trending upward — it’s 7–3 over its past 10 games — but the team loses to too many bad opponents. In January alone, the Nuggets lost to the Kings, Suns, and Hawks. If they miss out on the playoffs by a hair again, those three games will be tough to look back at.

New Orleans Pelicans (29–26)

Stakes: FOMO. Fear of missing out on the playoffs … for the third straight season. In the long term, that reality may determine how Davis feels about the franchise going forward, even if he did sign a max, five-year extension in 2015. The summer of 2021 is closer than you think.

Advantages: DeMarcus Cousins is out for the season with a tragic Achilles injury, so this is simple, really. The Pelicans’ main advantage can be found in the word itself. AD. New Orleans goes as he does.

Disadvantages: Let’s see. The lack of another star, or even another top player (Jrue Holiday’s ceiling is the bottom of the league’s star floor). There’s a lack of shooters around Davis, though Nikola Mirotic is supposed to help with that after being traded there from Chicago. And just the inconsistency and mediocrity of the team overall. They are 5–5 in their past 10 games, have essentially the same record at home and on the road, and have losses to the Kings, Hawks, Knicks, Mavs, and Grizzlies in their past 20 games.

Los Angeles Clippers (28–26)

Stakes: Even if the Blake Griffin move was an eye toward the future, the Clippers somehow didn’t go all in on selling this year’s assets. Lou Williams signed an extension. They kept DeAndre Jordan and added two solid role players in Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris. They should make the playoffs with this roster, even if there is doubt about their overall plan.

Advantages: Doc Rivers is putting together his best coaching job since arriving in L.A., doing more than expected with a Chris Paul–less (and now Blake Griffin–less) roster that’s been hit by a plethora of injuries. Meanwhile, Williams is having a career year, Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic are finally healthy, and, for all Jordan’s detractors, he is still an athletic behemoth in the paint who is hard to contain. Plus, Harris is already averaging a cool 18 points and 6.3 rebounds in his four games as a Clipper.

Disadvantages: Is it a cop-out to say the Clipper Curse? But it feels like either injuries or an unraveling of team chemistry will derail this team. Since late December, when they lost to the Grizzlies, they have been undefeated against teams currently at or below .500.

Utah Jazz (28–28)

Stakes: Utah hasn’t made the playoffs two years in a row since the 2009 and 2010 postseasons, and though this was thought to be a campaign where the Jazz would regress without Gordon Hayward and George Hill, they’ve stayed in the mix. With an ongoing nine-game winning streak, their playoff aspirations remain a reality. There’s no need for them to even think about tanking anymore.

Advantages: Beyond their torrid winning streak, the Jazz are flat-out clicking on all levels. Joe Ingles has been on fire, posting a 77.3 effective field goal percentage during the streak. Rudy Gobert is back and protecting the rim like the Mountain protecting Cersei, while Derrick Favors, who was rumored to be on the trade block, has fit in much better alongside his frontcourt counterpart; when the two have been on the floor the past 10 games, they have a 26.3 net rating. Even Ricky Rubio has exploded for 34 and 29 points in the past week, and new addition Jae Crowder had 15 points in his debut. Oh, and rookie Donovan Mitchell is still running circles around defenders and breaking rims:

Utah has a plus-1.7 point differential, which is the best of the teams listed here, and is now only 1.5 games behind the 8-seed. The Jazz are a playoff team on paper.

Disadvantage: Their go-to scorer is a 21-year-old rookie.