In a Western Conference that promises an annual bloodbath for the top few seeds in the playoffs, perhaps the most captivating race to close out the 2019-2020 NBA season will be taking place at the bottom portion of the playoff pole.
There are five different teams within four games of obtaining the eighth seed in a stacked Western Conference, poised to make a run at the last playoff spot. This promises to provide an entertaining final month of the regular season.
Here is a look at the teams contending for a chance to prove themselves in the playoffs, and what it will take for each of them to get there:
Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)
If you had the Memphis Grizzlies sitting steadily in a playoff spot with a near .500 record going into the final stretch of the season, raise your hand.
It’s hard to imagine many hands shooting up if that scenario were to be proposed before this campaign began, and perhaps for good reason. Going into the regular season, Vegas betting odds placed the Grizzlies’ projected win total at a mere 27. As the youngest roster in the NBA with an average age of 24.3 years, expectations going into the season were cautiously low.
Enter Ja Morant.
The rookie out of Murray State has been on an absolute tear this season, averaging 17.6 points on 49 percent shooting from the field, ignore not his seven assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.
Thrown into the mix with the increased production of power forward-center combo Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valunciunas, a breakout scoring year for Dillon Brooks, and the recent surge of *checks notes* Josh Jackson (?), there has been a resurgence of belief in the Grind City.
However, as the season winds down, that belief may be dimming into more of a hopeful prayer, should Grizzlies fans take a look at the final stretch of the schedule.
Memphis has by far the most strenuous strength-of-schedule of the teams competing for the eighth seed, as the average winning percentage of their remaining opponents is an astounding .568.
Included in the Grizzlies gauntlet of an upcoming calendar: a trip to Milwaukee, a home-and-home versus Toronto, with visits from Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas and Oklahoma City on the horizon.
However, there is an added bonus for the Grizzlies should they make the playoffs: Memphis’ first-round pick is to be conveyed to Boston this upcoming draft, so the Grizzlies have ample motive to run this squad as far as they can go.
Memphis does have one key advantage as the race to the playoffs heats up, which is the control over their own destiny. Keep winning, and they’ll almost certainly be set up for a date with LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round.
Unfortunately, with a young team having to endure an end-of-season schedule like the one the Grizzlies are undertaking, winning many of these remaining games and snagging the final seed will be much easier said than done.
New Orleans Pelicans (28-36)
Brace yourselves, everyone. Zion-mania is soon to be in full effect.
The number-one overall pick has been a monstrous force to defend in the paint so far, putting up insane rookie numbers of 23.6 points and nearly seven rebounds during his 19 games with the Pelicans thus far.
New Orleans was a sneaky pick to insert themselves into the playoff picture before the season began but started the season playing without Williamson, who sat out for half the season due to a nagging knee injury. Since making his blockbuster debut in late January, New Orleans can now see a glimmer of hope toward securing the final spot in the Western Conference Playoffs.
Complementing the rookie’s immediate dominance has been the All-Star level play of Brandon Ingram at small forward, along with the stellar backcourt performance of Lonzo Ball (12.4 PPG) and Jrue Holiday (19.6 PPG) so far this season.
Contrary to Memphis, New Orleans’ strength of schedule for the remainder of the season ranks 30th of 30 teams in the NBA (.439), rendering Memphis likely unable to afford any missteps along the way. The Pelicans have the lowly Hawks (twice), Knicks, and Wizards remaining on their slate, with only three games remaining against teams currently over .500.
Oh, the media frenzy that would be a Lebron-Zion playoff series. Should the Pelicans continue their solid run of form, perhaps ESPN’s euphoric dream will become a reality even sooner than expected.
Sacramento Kings (28-36)
Somehow, someway, the Sacramento Kings are still standing (moderately) tall.
After starting the season an abysmal 15-29, the Kings have reeled off some impressive victories as of late, with two wins over both the Clippers and Grizzlies, along with hard-fought triumphs over Miami and Portland, as well.
Now, by no means are the Sacramento Kings a bad team. Not even close.
The franchise just remains painstakingly average. Every. Single. Year.
At some point, one has to begin feeling for the fans. The Kings are suffering through the longest playoff drought in the NBA, having missed the postseason for the last 13 consecutive years.
Will that change this season? Not without help, and a whole lot of it. In all likelihood, they will pretty much need Memphis to lose all of the games they are expected to, along with some they aren’t. They will undoubtedly need to beat New Orleans in both of the upcoming match-ups between the teams in the next two weeks.
But most importantly, Luke Walton’s team needs to take care of its own business. A favorable upcoming schedule works to Sacramento’s advantage, as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker currently held by the Kings over both the Grizzlies and Trail Blazers, with the opportunity to claim it from the Pelicans within the coming weeks.
If everything falls perfectly into place, Sacramento has a slim chance of breaking the city’s infamous postseason withdrawal. But for the time being, it appears that yet again, it’s going to be just out of their reach.
Sorry, Harrison Barnes. You might not be shaving that facial hair for a while.
Portland Trail Blazers (29-37)
This has been, to say the least, a disappointing season for Portland.
Riddled with injuries from the start, Terry Stotts has had little chance to right the ship at the Rose Garden this year.
After a storybook performance in the playoffs, last season – save for a thrashing at the hands of Golden State – Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were ready to lead the Blazers back to the brink of a championship appearance.
The Trail Blazers’ magical 2019 run seems to have been nothing but fool’s gold, however, as poor recent play has left Portland’s playoff chances on life support.
As entertaining as it would be to see Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs for what may be one of his final seasons in the league, the possibility seems to be dwindling with each loss Portland takes.
San Antonio Spurs (27-36)
It’s looking more and more as though Coach Pop and crew won’t get a shot at the playoffs this year, barring a late-season surge.
However, something is to be said for and admired about the culture in San Antonio and exactly what missing the playoffs this year would symbolize for the Spurs.
San Antonio currently sits on the longest active streak of playoff appearances across the entirety of the big four North American sports, with 22 straight seasons of playoff basketball having a home in the Alamo.
Were the Spurs to pull a miraculous run together to cap off the season and somehow slide into the final position, however, they would set the all-time NBA mark for most consecutive playoff appearances, surpassing the feats of the Philadelphia 76ers franchise from 1950-1971.
Good luck the rest of the way, San Antonio. But needless to say, if Demar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge can’t find a way to carry you through to the playoffs this season, it’s highly unlikely you’ll catch much in the way of sympathy from the rest of the association.
As the end of the season draws closer and closer, the crowded field of contenders in the Western Conference will likely dissolve into a two-team race.
The Grizzlies and Pelicans both appear to be the two squads best suited to emerge from the pack, as the Southwest Division rivals could end up battling for the final playoff spot down to the final day of the regular season.
Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant competing for the opportunity to prove themselves against the greatest player in the world in the playoffs? The proposition of the two stars duking it out for Rookie of the Year honors as well? You couldn’t script this one any better.
Buckle up, folks. This NBA season has already been one for the ages, and as we enter the final month, it’s about to get even better.