Can anyone in the Western Conference catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff spot?
On opening night, this would’ve been an unlikely question. With just over a month remaining in the regular season, four teams are looking to provide a different answer. What’s the prize for claiming the No. 8 seed? A road trip to L.A. to face the likely No. 1 seed Los Angeles Lakers.
Our experts break down the five teams in contention for the final playoff spot and address what’s on the line if they don’t qualify.
Basketball Power Index Playoff Odds: 37.4% | FiveThirtyEight Odds: 18%
Why they’ll make it: The Grizzlies have a 4-game cushion over the current ninth-place Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans for the West’s final seed. Ja Morant is the rare rookie who tends to rise to the moment — and reinforcements will arrive soon for Memphis. Power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. is likely to return from a sprained knee this week. Small forward Justise Winslow, acquired at the deadline but sidelined by a back injury, is making progress toward a Memphis debut. Winslow has done contact work in practice and wrapped up his pregame workout Friday night with an eyebrow-raising windmill dunk. Rookie forward Brandon Clarke (quadriceps) is a little further away but expected to return during the regular season.
Why they won’t make it: Memphis has the most difficult remaining schedule in the league, according to BPI. The Grizzlies are extremely inexperienced after moving veterans Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill in the trade for Winslow — nevermind the playoffs, their three leading scorers don’t have any meaningful late-regular-season experience. Winslow is a wild card. And while Winslow could help, it wouldn’t be surprising if a young player who has been hurt most of the season initially struggles in a new system.
What’s at stake: They’ve greatly exceeded expectations just by having a chance to compete for a playoff spot so early in the franchise’s rebuilding process. The big question about Memphis coming into the season was whether the Grizzlies would be bad enough to keep the top-six-protected pick they owe Boston, not whether they’d be one of the West’s top eight teams. It’s all house money from here. At minimum, Memphis’ talented young core and first-year coach Taylor Jenkins get an invaluable developmental opportunity after earning the chance to play in March and April games that really matter.
— Tim MacMahon
New Orleans Pelicans
BPI Playoff Odds: 35.6% | FiveThirtyEight Odds: 60%
Why they’ll make it: In three words: sche-du-le. It’s not just that the Pelicans have the easiest remaining schedule among West teams, according to BPI, it’s also that they’ve played the hardest schedule thus far, which makes it all the more impressive that New Orleans’ minus-0.8 point differential is best of the contenders for eighth. Since Zion Williamson’s return, that has improved to plus-4.3 points per game, ninth-best in the NBA over that span. If the Pelicans keep up that level of play, they should finish the regular season on a tear. Just two of their remaining games are against above-.500 teams.
Why they won’t make it: Four games back in the loss column with 19 to play means little margin for error against the sub-.500 opponents New Orleans faces. Last week’s home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves caused the Pelicans’ statistical projections to tumble, though FiveThirtyEight’s model based on individual player ratings still has New Orleans as more likely than not to make the playoffs at 62% (BPI simulations put their chances at under 25%). In particular, head-to-head matchups with the Grizzlies on March 21 and March 24 loom large. The Pelicans also must avoid further key injuries with veteran guard JJ Redick sidelined by a hamstring strain.
What’s at stake: No team in this race has a brighter future than New Orleans, which boasts in Williamson the No. 2 player in our rankings of NBA talent 25 and younger. The biggest question is how to best build around Zion’s unique skillset, and a matchup with the Lakers would help answer those questions ahead of fellow starters Derrick Favors and Brandon Ingram (restricted) hitting free agency. As new lead executive David Griffin evaluates the roster, he’d surely like an opportunity to see it in the playoffs — and also to evaluate head coach Alvin Gentry, whose future is uncertain, in that setting.
— Kevin Pelton
BPI Playoff Odds: 9.3% | FiveThirtyEight Odds: 8%
Why they’ll make it: The Kings are playing their best basketball of the season, 7-3 in the past 10 games, and 10 of Sacramento’s final 18 games are at home. Those 10 games feature stretches of three and six games in a row. The Kings do play the Dallas Mavericks and both Los Angeles teams in those 10 games, but they also face five teams below .500. While their season ends with four of five on the road, two of those opponents, the Denver Nuggets and the Lakers, could be in rest mode with two others, the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves, counting the days until the offseason. It also helps that the Kings would have the tiebreaker over Memphis if they were to finish tied for the last spot.
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• Nuggets at Lakers, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
Why they won’t make it: The 17-point home loss to the undermanned Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday and falling behind by 17 points early to Detroit at home on March 1 (the Kings did pull this one out, 106-100) proved this roster cannot be trusted. While its play of late has been above-average, Sacramento is four games in the loss column behind Memphis and will have to put together a home win streak and play .500 basketball on the road. For the season, Sacramento has not won more than three games in a row.
What’s at stake: How about ending a playoff futility streak that stretches back to the 2005-06 season? Despite the fact that a first-round exit most likely awaits at the hands of the Lakers, there is no better experience for players like De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield than the postseason. With Bogdan Bogdanovic a restricted free agent and Fox extension-eligible, a postseason spot would help justify the significant financial commitment. There is also the Golden State element looming. Assuming the Warriors return to health in 2020-21, the Kings’ opportunity to compete for a final playoff spot could be limited. We can already pencil in both Los Angeles teams, the Houston Rockets, the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Mavericks and the Warriors as the eight projected playoff teams for next season.
— Bobby Marks
San Antonio Spurs
BPI Playoff Odds: 7.0% | FiveThirtyEight Odds: 1%
Why they’ll make it: After wrapping a road trip in Cleveland on Sunday, the Spurs have 12 of their remaining 19 games at home and 10 of them are against teams with losing records. And they have some control over their destiny — five of those games are against contenders for the eighth seed. San Antonio improved its 3-point shooting, both volume and accuracy, over the past two months and is fifth in percentage since the All-Star break. With young teams around the Spurs in the standings, they have an experienced veteran core that could prove valuable for a stretch run.
Why they won’t make it: Quite simply, this is the worst defensive team Gregg Popovich has coached since his very first season, ranking a miserable 26th. LaMarcus Aldridge has missed six straight games due to a shoulder injury and his status is unclear. And Jakob Poeltl is out two to four weeks with a knee injury, leaving the Spurs depleted inside. Though he’s declared himself fine, DeMar DeRozan’s offensive output has dipped since a bout of back spasms shut him down for two games last month.
What’s at stake: The Spurs have a 22-year run of making the playoffs, tying the NBA record and currently holding the longest such streak in major American sports. The Spurs are likely facing a rebuild, at long last, no matter how this season ends. But no one wants to be remembered as the team that ended this streak.
— Brian Windhorst
Portland Trail Blazers
BPI Playoff Odds: 10.6% | FiveThirtyEight Odds: 11%
Why they’ll make it: There’s one big reason — Portland has Damian Lillard and the other teams do not. “Dame Time” is all about coming up clutch, and the Blazers are in need of some last-minute heroics here. They are also getting healthy, with Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic returning soon. The Blazers aren’t the same team that made a surprising run to the Western Conference finals in 2018-19, but at full strength, they aren’t that far from it.
Why they won’t make it: They’re 27th in defensive rating. Since Jan. 1, they’re 29th, better than only the Cleveland Cavaliers. Relying on Lillard and CJ McCollum to go nova every night is not a great plan — nor is it sustainable. The Blazers were a stout defensive team last season, with gritty role players filling in around two high-level backcourt scorers. They had depth, they had talent. There’s a lot less of that to go around right now. Even with Nurkic and Collins eventually returning, they’ll be working back into form on the fly.
What’s at stake: Missing the playoffs a season after a breakthrough to the conference finals that validated so much of the patience and sustainability of the franchise would be troubling. But it wouldn’t be crushing. For a team without a lot of levers to pull to stock up around their backcourt stars, having a lottery pick wouldn’t be the worst thing. It could, though, show enough cause to make the changes many figured would come at some point. Maybe it’s shaking up the Lillard-McCollum backcourt, maybe it’s parting with coach Terry Stotts. Or maybe the Blazers recognize what a bad-luck season it was, get healthy over the summer, pick a top-14 player and get back in the mix next season.
— Royce Young