The race for the no. 8 seed often carries a level of faux excitement. Are we really invested in which team gets the honor of being swept by the no. 1 seed? Is it just another way to keep ourselves entertained until the playoffs actually begin? This year, though, the competition to nab the last spot in the West will likely go down to the wire and include a wide variety of teams with different incentives to make the postseason. In other words, there’s an 8-seed candidate for everyone.
With the Blazers, Kings, Pelicans, and Spurs all within five games of the 8-seed-occupying Grizzlies, and with anywhere from 20 to 17 games left on the schedule for each of these teams, it’s officially crunch time. Every game, play, and moment is paramount. Likewise, every obstacle also becomes more crucial to overcome. So, what could be the one thing that holds each team back as they try to secure the 8-seed?
Memphis Grizzlies: The Schedule
The Grizzlies have been the darlings of this NBA season. A team that many expected to land in the lottery is instead making a run at relevancy thanks to Ja Morant’s NBA-ready, daredevil game, and the new culture that general manager Zach Kleiman and coach Taylor Jenkins have established. If Memphis flames out as gloriously as the team skyrocketed onto the scene, though, it will be because this group simply ran out of steam.
After going into the All-Star break with a 28-26 record, the Grizzlies have regressed slightly, going 4-6 in the 10 games since. That’s thanks in part to some tough matchups, but here’s the problem: The road isn’t getting easier. Memphis has the league’s third-toughest remaining schedule. Three of the Grizzlies’ supposedly “easiest” opponents are the Blazers (twice), Pelicans (twice), and Spurs—teams they’re fighting to stave off. That’s not all. Jaren Jackson Jr., the second-year player who’s shown a vast improvement in his performance over the past few months, sprained his knee in a loss to the Lakers on February 21 and has missed the past nine games. Fortunately, both he and Justise Winslow (who the Grizz acquired at the trade deadline but have yet to play because he’s dealing with a back injury) are expected to be back in a week. Memphis still holds the upper hand in this race, but this team has both a target on its back and the rockiest road ahead.
New Orleans Pelicans: Youth
Like the Grizzlies, the Pelicans are a team full of fun, young players with tantalizing upside. Unlike the Grizzlies, though, New Orleans was burdened with some heavy expectations heading into the season. After the haul the Pelicans received in this summer’s Anthony Davis trade—scoring Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart from the Lakers—and landing no. 1 pick Zion Williamson, many expected this group’s veterans to lead New Orleans to the postseason. Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, and JJ Redick have all been to the playoffs before (Redick has never missed them), and that experience seemed crucial to carving out a path in the West. But after a disastrous start to the season and a number of injuries (including to Zion), that formula now seems quaint. If the Pelicans do catch the Grizzlies, it won’t be because of that veteran trio, but rather because of what Zion, Ingram, and Ball do during this stretch run.
If you have watched the Pelicans’ youthful core play this season, you know it’s not a bad group to put your faith in. Ingram has had an All-Star-level season, Lonzo is humming like the player we expected him to be out of UCLA, and Zion has been as otherworldly as advertised. And yet, relying on these players—none of whom has any playoff or real stretch-run experience to speak of—is still a questionable proposition.
Sacramento Kings: Themselves
Oh, the Kings. Bless them—and actually, credit them, too. On January 22, they were 14 games below .500 during what looked to be a lost season filled with contract discord (see: Buddy Hield), injuries (see: De’Aaron Fox), and quizzical lineup choices (see: Luke Walton). Since then, though, the Kings have won 13 of their past 20 games to put themselves within reach of the playoff spot we all thought they might get last season.
Sacramento hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2005-06 season. In some ways, they’re like the Knicks’ dysfunctional counterparts in the West—a franchise that can’t seem to get out of its own way when it comes to making basketball decisions. And to be clear: This stretch of wins hasn’t quelled the internal conflict. Just this past week, Walton benched Hield and didn’t play him in crunch time of a game against the Raptors—one Sacramento had a chance to steal. A fan voiced his displeasure from the stands:
This Kings fan isn’t happy with Luke Walton benching Buddy Hield in crunch time— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) March 9, 2020
“Luke you’re an idiot! You have the 3 PT Champion! Play him! Where is Buddy?” pic.twitter.com/ewGKS4DYBo
On the bright side, Fox has been playing like a streak of lightning again, Richaun Holmes has been a revelation, and Harry Giles is starting to show more than flashes. That’s put the Kings in a position to be the spoiler to the party. Still, FiveThirtyEight gives them only an 8 percent chance of making the postseason (of this group, the Pelicans have the highest at 60 percent; the Grizzlies are next at 15 percent). It’s more likely than not that the Kings will have recorded two of their best seasons in the past 12 years back-to-back and still won’t have ended their playoff drought. Such is life in the Western Conference.
Portland Trail Blazers: Injuries
This may just not be Portland’s year. The fact that the Blazers are still in this after losing Zach Collins and Rodney Hood for the season and not having Jusuf Nurkic for any games so far is a testament to the kind of season Damian Lillard has had. If Portland was securely in the playoff field, he’d deserve at least a mention in the MVP conversation. But for all of Lillard’s phenomenal play, Portland hasn’t been able to put together anything longer than a four-game winning streak all season.
While the Blazers have been able to piece together an average-to-decent defense in seasons past to match their usually elite offense, this year their defense has been abysmal (27th in the league) while their offense has barely cracked the top 10. For the first time since the 2016-17 season, they have a negative net rating. Nurkic is expected to finally return to the floor in the coming games, which could help Portland manufacture a last-gasp effort. And we know Lillard will do everything in his power to catapult the Blazers into the playoffs again. But after their magical run to the conference finals last year, luck may not be on their side this season.
San Antonio Spurs: The Fact That at Some Point, They Have to Miss the Playoffs
I’m not going to lie: I have no idea how, after all these years, all this turnover, and with their lack of top-end talent, the Spurs still have a chance to make the playoffs for the 23rd straight season. It’s frankly absurd. This has to stop at some point, right? Right? Look, you’re not going to catch me doubting a Gregg Popovich–coached team, but it’s so hard to imagine this Spurs group finding the necessary momentum to make the playoffs. They do have the most games left to play (19) of all the teams here, which could be a good thing. Or—given that they’re 5-5 in their past 10 games and have a bottom-10 offense since the All-Star break—a bad thing.
Again: How are the Spurs still in this? Maybe it’s the schedule, or the fact that other teams can’t pull away from this tangle of mediocrity at the bottom of the conference. But I just don’t see how they can pull it together one more time. Of course, that sentence is going to age terribly once they do make it.