The NBA will resume play on July 31, and 22 teams have been invited to compete in Orlando, Florida. They’ll finish the abbreviated regular season by playing eight more games to determine seeding for the 16 teams that will make the playoffs.
Thirteen Western Conference teams received an invitation, while only nine teams from the Eastern Conference did. If the ninth seed in either conference is more than four games behind the eighth, then the eighth seed will automatically make the playoffs. If the ninth seed is within four games of the eighth, then the two teams will begin a play-in tournament to determine who makes the playoffs. The tournament would be double-elimination for the eighth seed and single-elimination for the ninth.
The Orlando Magic are the eighth seed in the East, and the Washington Wizards are 5.5 games behind them. On the other hand, the Memphis Grizzlies will have to hold off the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, and Phoenix Suns in order to retain the eighth seed in the West and reach the postseason. All five except the Suns are within four games of Memphis.
The Trail Blazers will limp into Orlando with a depleted roster. Key contributors such as Zach Collins and Rodney Hood are still sidelined with long-term injuries, and starting center Jusuf Nurkic, the team’s unheralded star, still hasn’t played in over a year after suffering a scary leg injury that resulted in compound fractures.
The team will once again lean on Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and the resurgent Carmelo Anthony to lead one of the best offenses in the NBA. Portland made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, but it remains to be seen whether they can even make the playoffs after a tumultuous regular season.
Many doubted the Pelicans’ chances of reaching the postseason after they dealt Anthony Davis to the Lakers, but New Orleans is still in a position to fight for the eight-seed. Jrue Holiday has continued to lead his team on both ends of the court, and Brandon Ingram made his first All-Star appearance this year. Not only that, but rookie Zion Williamson has put on a show in his first 19 NBA games, averaging 23.6 points and shooting 59 percent from the field.
At the same time, the Pelicans only have two players over the age of 30 and are still dealing with chemistry issues following the trade that netted them Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart. Only five players on the roster were on the team for the 2018-19 season, which is not typically an indicator of a playoff team.
The Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2006, and they’ll have their work cut out for them if they want to change that this season. Their roster is also full of young players, though they’ve had more time to build team chemistry together than the Pelicans. Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox have emerged as rising stars and Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III are well on their way to achieving the same status. Veterans such as Harrison Barnes, Trevor Ariza, and Cory Joseph balance out the mix.
Inconsistency has plagued Sacramento for years. They’ve had the talent to reach the postseason more than once in the last decade, but never seem to have the right combination of experience and cohesiveness when they need it most. This team doesn’t appear much different, though they’re definitely headed in the right direction.
The Spurs are in a completely different position: They haven’t missed the playoffs since 1997. Yet, at the moment, they’re in danger of breaking that historic streak. They’re exactly four games back of Memphis, and the franchise just announced that star forward LaMarcus Aldridge will sit out the rest of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Aldridge was averaging 18.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
DeMar DeRozan will have to step up to carry some of Aldridge’s scoring load, as will players like Dejounte Murray, Rudy Gay, and Derrick White. The odds are against the Spurs, but they still have the experience and balanced scoring attack necessary to win important games.
The Suns sit six games back of the Grizzlies. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, and they’re in a position similar to the Kings’. The team has many talented young players, but they probably need at least another year or two to develop them. Devin Booker has proven he’s one of the best pure scorers in the league, but he needs more consistent production from his teammates.
The newly-acquired Kelly Oubre has improved his game drastically, and Deandre Ayton has established himself as one of the best young centers in the league. In addition, Phoenix brought in veterans like Ricky Rubio, Dario Šaric, and Aron Baynes to stabilize their offense. The team is clearly improving, but it will likely prove to be too little, too late.
The Grizzlies have the most pressure on them right now. They’re in eighth place in the West despite being under .500 and having a young core, and few expected them to be in this position. Ja Morant has had an electric rookie campaign, and he’s in line to win the Rookie of the Year award regardless of how his team performs. Do-it-all forward Jaren Jackson Jr. has continued to showcase his versatility in his second year as well.
Rookie Brandon Clarke has quietly had an incredibly-efficient season, averaging 12 points per game while shooting 62 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. Productive but often overlooked role players like Jae Crowder, Dillon Brooks, and Jonas Valanciunas have also contributed in a major way. The eighth seed is the Grizzlies’ to lose.
Given the circumstances, the Trail Blazers appear to be best-equipped to win the eighth seed. They’ll have to win most of their eight games to earn it, but they have the scoring and leadership to pull it off. A play-in tournament is almost inevitable if any team except for the Grizzlies take over the eighth place in the standings, but the Blazers have proven that they won’t fold under pressure.