Barring a complete collapse by the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference, the only real playoff race will take place in the West, where six teams are still alive in an open hunt for the eighth seed.
The Memphis Grizzlies have held the conference’s final playoff spot ever since a seven-game win streak in early January helped them knock the San Antonio Spurs from the perch. But a brutal forthcoming schedule, a rotation-shaking trade and injuries to a pair of key young players threaten to keep Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant from a shocking playoff berth in his first season.
So, how exactly to the Grizzlies compare to the competition over the final six weeks? Using a variety of data and common sense, here is that race, listed from least to most likely to finish eighth.
Phoenix Suns (24-37)
Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .530 (seventh-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)
Home/away split: 12 of their 22 remaining games are on the road
Games left against this group: 3 (POR, @POR, @NOP)
Games left against contenders: 10 (six on the road)
Playoff odds: Less than 1 percent (via FiveThirtyEight)
The Suns are all but eliminated. They are six games back with 22 games left, facing a stacked remaining schedule, the majority of which will be played on the road. With only three games left against their competition for the eighth seed, they have little opportunity to make up ground.
Phoenix looked to be a challenger for their first playoff appearance in a decade at the start of the season — Devin Booker’s first — but poor execution in close games and a rash of absences sunk their chances. The Suns’ near-zero net rating suggests they should be closer to eighth place than 13th, but youth and inexperience often have a way of finding the wrong side of the score.
The midseason return of No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton from a 25-game PED suspension and a five-game ankle injury absence did little to spur momentum. He has shown more promise than his rookie season, especially on the defensive end, but the results are the same. Phoenix’s death knell, though, might be the season-ending injury to Kelly Oubre Jr. He was one of few battle-tested wings on the roster. The Suns are 0-3 since the injury, and the schedule is about to get a whole lot worse.
San Antonio Spurs (25-34)
Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .470 (fifth-easiest in the NBA)
Home/road split: 12 of their remaining 23 games are at home
Games left against this group: 6 (MEM, @NOP, @SAC, NOP, SAC, NOP)
Games left against contenders: 8 (three on the road)
Playoff odds: 3 percent
The Spurs have been relatively healthy all season, and we keep expecting them to make the sort of late-season push that has become the custom of coach Gregg Popovich’s charges, but it has yet to happen. San Antonio is in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Four games is a significant amount of ground to make up over the final 23 games, especially with four teams between them and the eighth seed. On the bright side, the Spurs have one of the NBA’s lightest remaining schedules and six games left against those four teams, including four at home. Their home record is only a game better than .500, and it will take far better to dig out of this hole.
San Antonio once again stayed pat at the deadline, save for the buyout of DeMarre Carroll. The offense spiked around Christmas, when LaMarcus Aldridge moved his mid-range game beyond the three-point arc, but the Spurs have been bad defensively, and now Aldridge is nursing a shoulder injury. They have lost eight of their last 11 games, albeit in their schedule’s most brutal stretch. The push better start on their current three-game road trip through Charlotte, Brooklyn and Cleveland.
Memphis Grizzlies (30-31)
Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .552 (second-hardest in the NBA)
Home/road split: 11 of their 21 remaining games are on the road
Games left against this group: 5 (@POR, @SAS, NOP, @NOP, @POR)
Games left against contenders (top-five seeds from either conference): 10 (six on the road)
Playoff odds: 10 percent
Everything is trending in the wrong direction for Memphis. According to FiveThirtyEight, three other teams have better odds of taking hold of the eighth seed. The Grizzlies have a brutal schedule down the stretch, mostly on the road and nearly half against the class of the NBA. Plus, four of their five remaining games against the teams also in contention for the eighth seed are on the road.
Worse, talented young forwards Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke are not even scheduled to be reevaluated for leg injuries for another week. Memphis already lost two rotational contributors — Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill — in a trade deadline deal that returned the injured Justise Winslow.
They are 4-6 since the trade, good enough to hold a three-game lead on the pack in the loss column. That included a lopsided win against the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, when Morant dropped 27 points and 14 assists. He will have to be that superhuman down the stretch in order to overcome all the obstacles in his way. Do not put it past the 20-year-old, either.
Sacramento Kings (26-34)
Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .492 (11th-easiest in the NBA)
Home/road split: 13 of their remaining 22 games are at home
Games left against this group: 5 (@POR, NOP, @NOP, SAS, @SAS)
Games left against contenders: 8 (three on the road)
Playoff odds: 11 percent
The Kings have quietly played their way into the hunt in recent weeks, despite the near season-long absence of Marvin Bagley and a midseason injury to Richaun Holmes, one of their most consistent players in a wildly inconsistent campaign. Things got so bad in Sacramento that Dewayne freaking Dedmon demanded a trade months into his three-year, $40 million gift of a contract from the team.
The Kings dealt Dedmon and fellow frustrated veteran Trevor Ariza before the deadline, returning a more willing Kent Bazemore. Bazemore has been a boost, but two rotation-shuffling moves have had an even greater impact. Kings coach Luke Walton sat Buddy Hield in favor of starting Bogdan Bogdanovic and gave Harry Giles the starting frontcourt spot afforded by Dedmon’s departure.
The result has been a 7-3 record since the trade, good enough to catch the pack three losses back from Memphis. If there is a sleeper in this race, it is Sacramento, provided De’Aaron Fox’s latest injury does not linger. The Kings were supposed to be here all along. Did they show up too late?
Portland Trail Blazers (27-35)
Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .465 (fourth-easiest in the NBA)
Home/road split: 12 of their 20 remaining games are at home
Games left against this group: 5 (@PHX, SAC, PHX, MEM, MEM)
Games left against contenders: 7 (two on the road)
Playoff odds: 14 percent
As injuries continued to pile up, it seemed as though the Blazers would finally break, but they have been the same team since losing a second starter to season-ending injury in early December — a sub-.500 group that struggles to stop anyone defensively. The addition of Carmelo Anthony was a short-lived boost, as they are back to being outscored by a slim margin with him on the floor.
The long-awaited comeback of starting center Jusuf Nurkic continues to remain a mystery weeks after his targeted return date. He tempered expectations last week, telling The Athletic’s Jason Quick, “I have no dates” for a debut, and a lack of practice time has delayed the last of his rehab from a broken leg. To expect much from him anyway after not playing for a year is a tall order.
The good news is that Damian Lillard — the best player on any team in contention for the final playoff spot — is set to return on Wednesday from the groin injury that cost him the last six games. Portland finished 2-4 in his absence. Lillard has been the saving grace of an otherwise lost season.
New Orleans Pelicans (26-34)
Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .441 (easiest in the NBA)
Home/road split: Half of their 22 remaining games are at home
Games left against this group: 8 (@SAC, SAS, @MEM, SAC, MEM, @SAS, PHX, @SAS)
Games left against contenders: 5 (three on the road)
Playoff odds: 62 percent
Whereas everything is trending poorly for Memphis, New Orleans is riding high since the debut of rookie sensation Zion Williamson. The Pelicans have by far the best chance of taking over the last playoff spot. They are outscoring opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the court, which would be the second-best mark in the league this season. Since he entered the starting lineup on Jan. 22, the Pelicans have the West’s fourth-best net rating. In that span, they leapfrogged one of the four teams ahead of them and moved into a virtual tie with two more.
Just as big as Williamson’s presence is their remaining schedule, the NBA’s easiest. New Orleans has just five games left against the league’s elite and plays one game against a team with a winning record after March 14. They also have not lost to a team with a losing record with Williamson in the lineup, good news for their eight remaining chances to beat their competition for the eighth seed.
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