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The Wild NBA Western Conference Playoff Race

October 4, 2023

With the NBA All-Star break and trade deadline now in the rearview mirror, a sprint to the regular season finish line ensues as play resumes Thursday. The Western Conference is as bunched up as we’ve ever seen at this point in the season, with just 4.5 games separating third and 12th place in the standings, and two games between sixth and 12th.

Even with 25 or fewer regular-season games remaining, almost every team in the Western Conference still has a chance to either make the playoffs directly with a top-six seed or participate in the play-in tournament between the teams that finish seventh through 10th.

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There are only a few teams totally out of playoff contention. The Rockets have the worst record in the NBA at 13-45, and the Spurs are hot on their heels at 14-45. Those are the only two teams in the Western Conference currently more focused on the 2023 NBA Draft than the 2023 NBA playoffs.

Can Lebron Get To The Postseason?

There’s a Texas-sized gulf between those two teams and the Lakers, who occupy the antepenultimate spot in the Western Conference standings at 27-32. Just two games out of the final play-in spot, LeBron James and Co. are poised for a late-season playoff push after retooling at the trade deadline. Los Angeles addressed its dearth of shooting with the acquisitions of D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley while shedding the dead weight of Russell Westbrook in the process. The Lakers also acquired Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba and Rui Hachimura, but even with a retooled rotation, LA will be fighting an uphill battle against teams currently ahead of them in the standings.

The Trail Blazers (28-30), Jazz (29-31) and Thunder (28-29) are all just under .500, with OKC currently occupying the final play-in spot. Star guards Damian Lillard and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should keep the Blazers and Thunder, respectively, in the hunt down the stretch. Thanks in part to the breakout of All-Star forward Lauri Markkanen, Utah has exceeded expectations in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, but the Jazz don’t appear quite ready to truly contend.

Warriors Need Curry Back … Badly

Counting down from the ninth to seventh seeds, we have the Warriors (29-29), Timberwolves (31-30) and Pelicans (30-29). The teams in this range have struggled to find consistency but have a chance to peak at the right time. Golden State can never be counted out, and the defending champs will be tough to put away if they can get into the postseason given their championship pedigree. Doing so will likely require the return of Stephen Curry (lower leg) and solving their road woes, as the Warriors are a dreadful 7-22 outside the Chase Center.

The Timberwolves and Pelicans are attempting to overcome extended absences from star big men Karl-Anthony Towns (calf) and Zion Williamson (hamstring), respectively. Both teams are hoping to tread water until their stars return so they can regain full strength for the play-in tournament. Minnesota has more firepower to work with in the meantime between 2020 first overall pick Anthony Edwards and three-time NBA DPOY Rudy Gobert.

Durant Could Put Suns Over The Top

The Mavericks (31-29) and Suns (32-28) currently occupy the final two direct postseason entry spots, and they are more likely to climb up the standings than fall into the play-in range. Each of these teams added a star from the Nets at the trade deadline to improve a core that had already proven capable of getting deep into the playoffs. Dallas brought in Kyrie Irving as the Robin to Luka Doncic’s Batman. Doncic led the Mavs to the Western Conference Finals last year, eliminating the Suns in the process, who were the No. 1 seed after reaching the NBA Finals in 2021.

The core of Devin Booker and Chris Paul couldn’t quite get over the hump in the postseason, but Phoenix has arguably become the team to beat after acquiring Kevin Durant, who is recovering from a knee injury but is expected to make his Suns debut soon after the All-Star break.

At 33-28 and 32-25, the Clippers and Kings occupy the respective fourth and third spots in the Western Conference. For Los Angeles, it’s all about keeping Kawhi Leonard and Paul George healthy for the playoffs without slipping out of the top six. A top-four finish and home-court advantage in the first round would be the cherry on top. Despite having a small cushion, the Kings are the popular pick among the top teams to fade down the stretch. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis haven’t been here before, and the Kings seemingly lack both the star power and experience to hang with the other teams in this range.

Jokic Is Looking Incredible Again

After the logjam in the middle, we finally have some separation near the top. The Grizzlies are entrenched as the No. 2 seed at 35-22, five games behind the top-seeded Nuggets (41-18) and three ahead of the Kings. With the star power of Ja Morant complemented by a deep rotation, Memphis could be ready to take the next step after a six-game Conference semifinal loss to the eventual champion Warriors in 2022.

Denver has built up a nice cushion atop the Western Conference standings, and before the big moves by the Suns and Mavericks, the Nuggets looked like the clear favorites to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. With Nikola Jokic averaging a triple double and making a strong case for a third consecutive MVP award, the Nuggets could still finally come out of the West after posting two Conference semifinal appearances in addition to a trip to the Western Conference Finals over the past four seasons. Denver’s in great position to hold down home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs, which could prove pivotal since the Nuggets are 27-4 at Ball Arena.

The Nuggets have established themselves as the Western Conference team to beat heading into the NBA’s stretch run, but come the postseason, the Durant-Booker, Doncic-Irving and Leonard-George duos could all be every bit as effective as Jokic and Jamal Murray.

Sources:

Imago / Zuma Wire

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