True to reputation, the Western Conference is the more competitive of the two this season. Seven teams are on the postseason bubble, essentially chasing just one spot, with only four games currently separating them. The difference this go-round is that these teams have been competitive only against one another. From New Orleans in the 14th spot all the way up to San Antonio in eighth, there are no winning records. The experiences and situations overlap: almost all the would-be contenders burdened with injuries, poisoned with losing streaks, and subjected to mystifying lineups.
Here’s a guide to the glob of Western Conference teams stuck in the middle:
San Antonio Spurs (Eighth Seed, 15-20)
To understand the Spurs, I’d like you to meet Toby, a web programmer from Reading, England. Toby appeared on Season 2 of The Great British Baking Show, which, for those who are unfamiliar, is a cheery, endearing series for amateur bakers in which cookies are called biscuits and the word patisserie is normalized. In the very first episode, our Toby errs. Toby confuses the salt with the sugar while mixing his angel food cake batter. As a result, Toby’s cake becomes an inedible repository of sodium chloride. Toby is eliminated at the end of the episode.
The five players that compose San Antonio’s starting lineup were not meant to play together. Its most expensive members, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, are often out of place on the court. Both are awkward and borderline antiquated fits for the modern NBA, on top of DeRozan infecting the defense and Aldridge being in positional limbo. They shoot more midrange shots combined than any other tandem. Aldridge leads the league in attempts and DeRozan is third; ironically, Kawhi Leonard is sandwiched between the two. That DeRozan and LMA aren’t working for Gregg Popovich, one of the few remaining old-school coaches, makes the dissonance even worse. Like the fate of dear Toby’s bake, the situation appears to be—this season, at least—irreparable. A little harsh for an analogy involving the Great British Bake Off, but it would take a major trade or two before the February 6 deadline for hope to be restored, and I’d imagine the pair’s trade value is bottoming out.
It’s risky to pivot midseason—especially when the team is technically in the playoff picture with the roster as currently constructed—but it’s time for Popovich and Co. to lean into the next generation of Spurs. They deserve more—more playing time for Lonnie Walker, more experimental lineups for Derrick White and Dejounte Murray, more priority for Jakob Pöltl over Aldridge. San Antonio has a future, but it’s not in the immediate future.
This season would mark the Spurs’ 23rd straight postseason appearance, if they manage to stay on top of the mediocrity. A handful of teams under them seem more qualified to upset a top seed, though, and what’s worse than a first-round elimination? Toby?
TL;DR: San Antonio will risk a postseason bid this season if it cycles out DeRozan and Aldridge, but it would be for the greater good.
Memphis Grizzlies (Ninth, 15-22)
A playoff series featuring the Grizzlies would be spring break without the regrets. (Also without the hormones, money, confusion about where you’re going in life, crying, jail time [?].) Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA, in age and in spirit. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, both 20 years old, lead Memphis in scoring, and only four players on the roster are older than 24. (One of whom, 26-year-old Kyle Anderson, has a severe case of Baby Face. So technically 3.5.)
The Grizzlies are a week in Cancun on a basketball court. They’re inexperienced—Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder are the only starters who have played in the postseason—and they’re intoxicating; JJJ’s funky 3-point shot alone is enough to keep your attention. Memphis is wild (watch Morant dunk), Memphis is dangerous (watch Morant land), and Memphis wants to know whether you’d like another Corona.
These new, post–Grit and Grind Grizz are far ahead of their scheduled timeline. Missing the playoffs wouldn’t be too damning for them. Plus, they could get extra lucky in this year’s draft. The Grizzlies’ 2020 first-round pick is currently owed to Boston (an expensive souvenir from the deal that brought Jeff Green to town in 2015), but has protections; if Memphis lands anywhere between Pick 1 and Pick 6, it’ll keep the pick, and the Celtics will have to wait until 2021. Morant and Jackson are proof that the front office is capable of drafting well—rookie Brandon Clarke, too, who was acquired via draft-night trade. And that trio is the reason that Memphis isn’t a lottery lock halfway through a rebuilding season. The Grizz also have one of the least-intimidating remaining schedules on this list; only the Pelicans can expect a smoother ride. For the first time since I’ve said the word Bickerstaff out loud, I’m not out on Memphis making the playoffs.
TL;DR: I might be too drunk on Memphis to be realistic about its playoff chances, but the remaining schedule will be kind to the Grizzlies.
Portland Trail Blazers (10th, 15-22)
If the Blazers were a person, they’d be the experienced actor with a couple of bigger roles under their belt, the one who hasn’t necessarily made it but who’s had too many encouraging breaks to give up and return to their old sales job. Yet today, Portland is horrified to discover that everyone else in the audition waiting room is significantly younger. With teams like Phoenix, Minnesota, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Memphis as company, Portland is the adult in the room.
Experience is the biggest thing the Blazers have going this season. It’s equally invaluable and sad—invaluable because no other team competing for the eighth seed has it outside of the Spurs, and sad because Portland’s best attribute is in fact something from its past. But again, invaluable: The Blazers have clinched a playoff spot in each of the past six years. The five organizations listed above made a combined seven postseason appearances over that stretch. San Antonio’s streak is far longer than Portland’s, but the latter is the safer choice to make the playoffs this year based on star power alone. Damian Lillard ended a franchise last postseason; it’s well within his power to save one. An indestructible Dame has emerged many times to lift Portland late in the season, and he’s currently averaging a career-high 27.1 points.
What Portland needs most is a healer and some luck. The Blazers’ record is more understandable when viewed side-by-side with their injury report. Zach Collins has been out since shoulder surgery in November, Rodney Hood is out for the season after tearing his Achilles in December, and Jusuf Nurkic is still recovering from the horrific leg fracture he suffered last season. (He’s hoping to return soon; in December, he said that he’s “right where I want to be ... pain-free,” which could be the truth or wishful thinking, though lovely phrasing either way.) In all, three starters are missing, three key defenders gone from what’s now tied for the seventh-worst defense in the league.
TL;DR: The Blazers at full strength are capable of closing out a season, but the Blazers who opened the new year lost to the Knicks 117-93. Only so much can be improved on without a trade or a recovery (or recoveries).
Minnesota Timberwolves (11th, 14-21)
Minnesota won twice in the entire month of December. Their holiday season included a heinous 11-game losing streak, and on the back end of that streak, the Wolves lost Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to injury. During KAT’s absence, The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss reported that the Warriors are “monitoring” Towns because he’s unhappy in Minnesota.
Wiggins, who has finally hit his stride this season, is healthy again. Towns is still day-to-day, though in his absence, Minnesota has gone full Moneyball. Jeff Teague is no longer starting. It’s been a collective effort between Robert Covington, names you haven’t heard since their collegiate days, and names you haven’t heard at all: Shabazz Napier, now starting, is a reliable scoring boost; Naz Reid is spreading the floor; Kelan Martin, called up one week ago from the G League, is the energy powering the bench unit; Keita Bates-Diop is handling more responsibility inside; Gorgui Dieng is an underpaid superstar.
TL;DR: I have no idea what’s going on here—I fell asleep during Moneyball—but none of it resembles a playoff team without Towns.
Phoenix Suns (12th, 14-22)
Phoenix lost eight consecutive games last month, which, considering the teams they’re sandwiched between, was kind of mild. It didn’t destroy the Suns’ chances of ending their nine-year playoff drought, because of the low level at which the rest of the middling West is operating. Potential, or even the faraway, radical idea of potential that James Jones read about in a pamphlet long ago, has fueled this organization for years. It’s finally showing returns this season, in part thanks to an influx of steady veterans, but Phoenix will need a couple of internal and external factors to fall in its favor to clinch a playoff spot.
Last week, I wrote about a possible trade for Kevin Love to elevate the Suns’ 3-point shooting to among the better threats in the league. The roster, as is, has an effort and consistency problem. Deandre Ayton needs to fully reacclimate. Mikal Bridges has to bring his offense up to par with his defense. But there really, truly still is hope. Devin Booker is averaging 34.8 points over his past six games, and Kelly Oubre Jr.’s intensity is infectious.
TL;DR: It’s not time to give up yet, but the Suns’ young core needs to shake its inconsistent habits.
Sacramento Kings (13th, 14-23)
If the Kings had managed to win three games between December 17 and the New Year, they’d be tied for the eighth seed. Instead, they dropped eight straight. Sacramento lives in the West’s basement now, a dolorous place where dealing Bogdan Bogdanovic for Kyle Kuzma is a possibility (I love a good laugh, don’t you?), and where someone of Dewayne Dedmon’s caliber has become so emboldened by dejection that he publicly demanded a trade. (For context, the last person to do this was Anthony Davis, and his audacity was shocking.) I really don’t understand why veterans keep signing with the Kings only to be disgruntled by January.
Last season’s speedy offense has decelerated under Luke Walton, who wants to focus on fundamentals first. Except De’Aaron Fox is not meant to slow down. He’s at his best when he’s a blur, something that Dave Joerger generously discovered for Walton during Sac’s fun and relatively successful 2018-19 season. Wanting to nail down the basics makes sense, but a faster pace also covered up the mistakes that the Kings were making because of that lack of basic training. Defenses aren’t set. Passing becomes subconscious. There’s a natural sense of urgency. That all disappears when an offense hits the brakes.
In the team’s defense, Sacramento has had injury woes of its own: Marvin Bagley III has missed 28 games in total, while Fox was absent for a 17-game stretch after an ankle pop in practice. Bagley is still far from returning, but Fox is back. Now’s the time to run.
TL;DR: SET THE MAN LOOSE.
New Orleans Pelicans (14th, 12-25)
I want to believe that the Pelicans still have a chance to make the playoffs. They bounced back from a 13-game losing streak—during which Alvin Gentry was miraculously not fired; may we all have David Griffin’s faith in one another—to win six of their past nine, including victories against the Nuggets and the Rockets. (Keep this between us, but New Orleans was also robbed of a last-second foul call in its most recent loss to Utah. The game should’ve gone to overtime.) Of all the teams on this list, the Pelicans have the weakest (read: the breeziest) remaining strength of schedule.
The sudden improvement is due to the lineup the Pelicans were expected to lean on in the preseason, sans Zion Williamson: Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors. Ball is finally rectifying his game post-Lakers, following in Ingram’s path and showing the aggression that only came in spurts in Los Angeles. Favors, meanwhile, has returned after missing 16 games due to back spasms and the passing of his mother. New Orleans is beginning to redeem its season, setting the table for Zion’s return, which is expected to be soon. On Tuesday, Jonathan Tjarks wrote about the big question surrounding the rookie, which is how to best use him. Within that is the reason for hope for New Orleans, what’s kept them alive since Anthony Davis left and this season began to crumble, that they’ll have the opportunity to use him at all.
TL;DR: At last, everything is aligning. At the risk of getting too high on the Pelicans again, let’s get too high on the Pelicans again.