By: Zachariah Blott
Behind the Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, and Mavericks, a gaggle of Western Conference teams are still in the thick of things and making a push for the playoffs. There are essentially seven teams vying for the final four spots, so it’s surprising only two of them made significant trades aimed at improving their chances.
Let’s take a quick look at these seven teams and the key info about their remaining schedules and injury concerns, followed up with predictions for who’s in the postseason and who’s bound for the lottery.
5 – San Antonio Spurs (31-21, 3.5 games ahead of 9th spot)
The Spurs have a Pythagorean W-L record of 34-18, which indicates they are likely to get better. On the other hand, they still have 18 road games to play, compared to only 12 at home. They’ve been 12-11 on the road and are a veteran bunch, so this shouldn’t be a backbreaker for them. On the other hand, they play 9 more games against teams whose records are over .600, the most of this group.
Verdict: In – Although they could move up to the #4 seed, they’re more likely to drop a spot or two, especially since it’ll get them out of facing the Lakers in Round 2.
6 – Oklahoma City Thunder (31-21, 3.5 games ahead of 9th spot)
They’re on a roll and could easily win 10 of their next 12. Their schedule gets tougher from there, but not cripplingly so. The Thunder haven’t had injury problems this year, and if that keeps up, there’s no reason they don’t make it in.
Verdict: In – They could drop as far as 8th and face a first-round match-up with the Lakers, but have enough of a cushion and talent base to at least stay in the playoffs.
7 – Phoenix Suns (32-23, 3 games ahead of 9th spot)
They stuck with Amar’e Stoudemire, so Phoenix is hoping he can help carry them into the postseason. The Suns are blessed with 16 more home games (where they’re 18-7) and only 11 on the road. Their schedule gets pretty easy in March, but they end on a killer stretch: five Western Conference playoff teams/contenders and the Bucks, who will be fighting to make it in the East. Leandro Barbosa is out with a wrist injury (during which the Suns are 7-4), but he should be back in March.
Verdict: In – They get the easy schedule while Barbosa is out and being eased back into the rotation, so enough also-rans should fall back by their final stretch.
8 – Portland Trail Blazers (32-24, 2.5 games ahead of 9th spot)
Brandon Roy will be back to form at some point soon after missing most of the last 16 games, and they just picked up Marcus Camby, a prolific rebounder and solid defensive stopper they sorely needed in the middle. Everyone who’s not a center is finally healthy, so things definitely are looking up for the Blazers. They only play 11 more at home and 15 on the road, but the remaining schedule isn’t too bad, and they have a handful of hopeless teams near the end (Warriors, Clippers, Kings, Knicks).
Verdict: In – They have the best chance of moving up a spot or two because of Roy’s return and the Camby pickup.
A look at the rest of the Western playoff hunt after the break…
9 Houston Rockets (28-25, 2.5 games behind 8th spot)
They just acquired Kevin Martin and some height, so in theory that’s good. I’m not sure how exactly Martin fits Houston’s team-first, strong-defensive system, but he’ll be willing to shoot a lot. Jared Jeffries is a nice defender, but losing Carl Landry was a lot. It’s hard to say if they’re a better team now, and they have eight more back-to-backs the rest of the way, the most of all these teams.
Verdict: Out – Landry’s physical presence will be missed, and a tough early-April stretch could knock them out for good.
10 – New Orleans Hornets (28-26, 3 games behind 8th spot)
They won’t have Chris Paul for a while, so they’re effectively out of it. In addition, their Pythagorean W-L record of 25-29 indicates the breaks have yet to go against them, and they play nine more games against opponents who are over .600. On the good side, they only have five more back-to-backs.
Verdict: Out – They’re 3-5 without CP3 in this current stretch, and 7-9 overall this calendar year.
11 – Memphis Grizzlies (27-26, 3.5 games behind 8th spot)
Memphis was looking good for a while, but they’ve crashed back to Earth recently, losing 7 of their last 9. Zach Randolph isn’t who I would want to hitch my trailer to down a tough stretch, and their Pythagorean W-L record (25-28) doesn’t bode well for the future. On top of all of this, 9 of their final 10 opponents will be playoff teams/contenders.
Verdict: Out – They have too much of an uphill climb, and no true leader to rally the troops. As always, firing GM Chris Wallace would be a good start for next year. [Ed Note: Fair enough on Wallace, but something needs to be said for this team overachieving and competing when few thought they would.]
Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.