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Six Takeaways From the Six-Way West Play-in Race

The chase for the West’s final playoff spot has been as thrilling as expected. Here’s one thing to know about each team in the hunt.

Associated Press/Ringer illustration

What a pileup in the Western Conference. As of Thursday morning, the five teams vying for the ninth seed are all within two games of each other. The eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies have the hardest schedule remaining in the NBA and hold only a one-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers. The league is all but guaranteed a postseason play-in tournament between the West’s eighth and ninth seeds. It’s only a matter of which teams end up in those spots. Here are takeaways on each of the six teams in the West play-in race:

Grit and Guhhhh

The Grizzlies are 0-4 and will face Oklahoma City, Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee in their remaining seeding games. OKC and Boston have incentive to win. Toronto is tough no matter who’s in the lineup. Milwaukee could either use that final game to rest up or tune up for the postseason. Gulp.

There’s a real chance the Grizzlies will go 0-8 in Disney World. If they do, they could slip to the 10th seed and lose the chance to make the postseason. To pass an 0-8 Grizzlies team in the standings, the Trail Blazers (2-1 so far) and Pelicans (1-2) or Kings (0-3) would need to finish 4-4, the Spurs (2-2) would need to go 5-3, and the Suns (3-0) would need to go 6-2. Memphis needs to win only one game to dramatically increase its odds of holding on to a play-in spot, but it’s a shame it has come to this.

The Grizzlies were one of the best stories of the season. Ja Morant will be the Rookie of the Year and had a dynamite season. Brandon Clarke, who made my All-Rookie Team, is often the man screening for Morant and has already become one of the league’s best pick-and-roll lob threats. Unfortunately, Jaren Jackson Jr. tore the meniscus in his left knee. He’s a knockdown shooter (39.4 percent from 3 on 6.5 attempts per game) and a threat to score off the bounce.

This is one of many videos that exemplify how well this trio fits. Morant is the orchestrator of the offense. Clarke and Jackson are the finishers. In this clip, Clarke sets a screen to give Jackson just a bit more breathing room to unload his 3-pointer. In another situation, perhaps, Jackson would drive or Clarke would roll to the rim for a dunk. Though the Grizzlies were losing games, Jackson was blossoming by averaging 25.3 points. It’s awful that he’s done until next season, whenever that will be.

Zion’s Issues Go Beyond the Bursts

Zion Williamson is a transformative offensive talent whose blend of power and finesse resembles legends like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. We’ve already seen what he can do to defenses as a constant matchup problem. What Zion hasn’t shown is the ability to be a winning player on defense. In college, it was a different story:

As a Duke freshman, Williamson was a hustler. He chased down rebounds and loose balls, and closed out on shooters to make plays that’d make you break your controller if it had happened to you in a video game. But that version of Zion has been absent in the NBA. He looks lost on defense. He doesn’t box out for rebounds, doesn’t close out with any effort, loses track of his assignment, and can’t keep his own man in front of him. Zion has become a defensive spectator.

This past year, Williamson has dealt with major lower-body injuries that have hurt his conditioning, and he already carries such a heavy offensive workload. He’s also played only 22 games, and the learning curve for any young player can be steep considering how fast the NBA game moves. It’s not like Zion was a perfect defender at Duke, either; awareness and fundamentals were an issue there too. These are all reasonable excuses for his porous defense so far in the NBA. But Duke could always rely on Zion to give effort. The Pelicans can’t, and for the team to reach its long-term upside, that’ll need to change. Worry may be too strong of a word here, but considering Williamson’s long-term health concerns, his defense is certainly something to closely monitor.

DeMar DeRozan Shows Why Situation Matters

The Spurs look like a brand-new team without LaMarcus Aldridge, but really what they’ve done is take the existing principles they’ve used with their bench and applied them to their starters. Now they’re playing a modern style regardless of the lineup on the floor, as my teammate Rob Mahoney eloquently wrote this week. DeMar DeRozan is thriving with averages of 23.7 points and 6.7 assists, but it’s not really about the numbers here. It’s about how his play interacts with the environment the Spurs have created.

In the clips above, the Spurs went to a small-ball lineup with a DeRozan-and–Rudy Gay “frontcourt” to close the game. San Antonio had screens set for DeRozan to get him a preferable matchup, then let him go to work with an isolation. DeRozan delivered. It didn’t look too different from what the Rockets do with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. More and more offenses are becoming heliocentric by focusing on their best players for all shot creation.

DeRozan is an intriguing candidate for that type of job considering he has elite handles and footwork, and considering he’s blossomed as a playmaker with the Spurs. If you swap DeRozan for Westbrook, what happens? Do DeRozan’s numbers skyrocket in Houston? Does he live at the free throw line? Would the Rockets win games? So far, it sure is working for the Spurs, who are 2-2 in the seeding games and now have a real shot at the play-in tournament to continue their 22-year playoff streak. DeRozan is playing at basically the same level he’s been at for many years, but he serves an example of just how much the system around a player can influence the results.

Here Come the Suns

Are the Bright Future Suns becoming the Bright Now Suns? Phoenix is 3-0 in the seeding games so far, which have included wins over the Mavericks and Clippers. Devin Booker has been one of the league’s best scorers for three straight seasons, and now he has support with a deeper, healthier, suspension-free roster. Second-year center Deandre Ayton is emerging into a major two-way presence. Ayton’s progress on defense is nothing short of extraordinary; he went from a player who looked confused as an Arizona freshman to a scary rim protector. Opponents shoot 9.8 percent worse within 10 feet of the rim when Ayton is lurking nearby, per NBA Advanced Stats. He’s burly. He’s long. He’s nimble. He’s the enforcer the Suns need.

Ayton is also becoming a scoring partner for Booker. Ayton was already an impactful interior finisher off rolls and cuts last season. Now, he’s beginning to shoot 3s with confidence. He tried and missed three triples until the hiatus. At Disney World, he’s 3-for-6 (and 5-for-8 including the scrimmages). Ayton’s success from 3 changes what’s possible for Phoenix’s offense. A pick-and-pop involving Ayton can put further stress on the defense, opening driving lanes for slashers and passing lanes to shooters.

Booker and Ayton have the right pieces alongside them too. Mikal Bridges is an excellent wing defender, and I was wrong about the Cameron Johnson draft selection—last year’s no. 11 pick has already become a much better defender than he was in college. Both are low-usage scoring complements, as Bridges is a slasher and Johnson is a shooter. But it’s not just those two: Kelly Oubre Jr. hasn’t even played yet, and he provides even more of a spark on offense and length on defense. Ricky Rubio helps run the show, and Dario Saric has finally found a facilitating role off the bench. The Suns’ path to the playoffs will be hard—they pretty much have to go 8-0 and their upcoming games are against Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and Dallas. The odds aren’t in their favor. But at Disney World, they’re showing the present and future are both very bright.

Even the Good Is Bad for Sacramento

The Kings are 0-3 in the seeding games, Marvin Bagley III is injured, and they got pounded by Luka Doncic. They basically need to win both of their games against the Pelicans to have any chance of qualifying for the play-in tournament. It’s looking bad (again) for Sacramento, but I want to use this space today to discuss something positive: Harry Giles!

Yes, Giles has been a bright spot for the Kings. He scored 23 points in 20 minutes against Dallas while looking very much like the top high school recruit he once was. Giles displayed soft hands around the rim, catching some tough passes and either finishing or drawing a foul. And he hit some jumpers, like this one below.

This play all started with Giles making a precise bullet pass to a cutting Kent Bazemore. Giles had issues with passing accuracy in the past, and if he’s ever going to be the star he once seemed to be, it’s critical that he do the little things. His progress as a passer shows that, at worse, he’ll peak as a reliable rotation big. And if he can extend his range to beyond the 3-point line, he’ll have even more value.

The Kings are in a rough spot in the standings. But they have a strong foundation for the future in De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Giles. Actually, wait a minute—you’re telling me the Kings declined their team option for Giles and he’s about to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason? Ah, dang it. This was supposed to be all positive. But the reality is things aren’t good in Sacramento. Even when it’s good, it’s bad: The same people who sank this franchise with short-sighted signings and disastrous draft choices are still in charge.

The Blazers Have New Life

The Trail Blazers are a good example of why the NBA should permanently install a postseason play-in tournament. They got screwed by injuries early in the season, as Zach Collins was knocked out three games in and Jusuf Nurkic was already scheduled to be out for a long time. With a play-in spot available, Blazers players have more to play for and Blazers fans have more to root for.

A traditionalist might argue that injuries are part of the game, but above all else, the NBA is an entertainment product. It’s been exhilarating to watch so many teams compete in what already feel like playoff games. Portland beat Memphis in overtime, a team it needed to beat; lost to Boston after making a valiant comeback; and then used its size to take down the small Rockets. The current playoff format provides great drama, and it’d be amplified if the NBA installs its original proposal to have the 10th seed also eligible for a play-in spot. Just imagine the Mavericks’ urgency to scrap their way up the standings to avoid the seventh spot.

No matter the format in the future, the Blazers deserve an opportunity to make the playoffs. Damian Lillard had an MVP-caliber season, Carmelo Anthony has transformed himself into a reliable role player, and the team is finally healthy. Nurkic has been a joy to watch. He’s bringing infectious energy to the floor as a defender, screener, and rebounder. Plus, he makes slick passes.

These are just gorgeous plays that make his teammates better: Nurkic makes a sweet big-to-big pass on the roll to Collins, and then a one-handed high-low toss to Gary Trent Jr., who smartly cut to the rim. Trent has been a revelation: He’s hitting big 3s and playing better defense than he ever has. The Blazers need him to keep it up, especially considering their shortage of wings. This is a team full of great stories—Nurkic coming back, Melo evolving, Trent emerging. The players and their stories make this league what it is. The NBA’s new format puts the spotlight on more of them. We found something that makes this game even greater.