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NBA Daily: On The Outside Looking In

Entering the final quarter of the NBA regular season, Jordan Hicks takes a look at teams currently outside of the playoff picture and what has to happen for them to make the postseason.

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Every year, there are 16 teams that end up in the playoffs. If you do the math, you’ll see that there are quite a few teams that get left out. Not all of them are trying to make it to the postseason, as every year there are a handful of squads essentially trying to lose to secure a better draft position.

This conundrum still leaves a few select teams that may have tried their best, but just couldn’t make it to the playoffs. At the end of February, we are getting to that point of the season where there are those few teams that are on the outside looking in.

Let’s take a look at how they got to where they are and what needs to happen for them to actually find themselves in the postseason tournament.

Los Angeles Lakers (30-31)

Last 10: 4-6

Remaining strength of schedule: 8th

The Lakers find themselves in a really difficult spot. Prior to LeBron’s injury on Christmas Day, they were viewed as high as the second-best team in the Western Conference. After his stint of missing 18 straight games – combined with a key injury to Lonzo Ball – the Lakers are currently three games out of a playoff spot.

How did things turn so sour? Obviously, the injury to LeBron came at a less than ideal time. But the real issue, however, was the all the noise at the trade deadline. Just about every player on the roster – besides LeBron – was in talks to be traded for Anthony Davis. What makes this more intriguing is the fact that Davis demanded a trade, specifically to the Lakers, while being represented by the same agency that represents LeBron. You could see very easily how this might upset some of LeBron’s teammates.

Team morale seems to be low, they can’t find important wins against non-playoff opponents, and they are playing incredibly poor defense – 26th in defensive rating over the last 10 games.

Do the Lakers have what it takes to make a late-season push for the playoffs? Quite obviously – LeBron is on their team and he’s averaging a triple-double since his return from injury. But the Lakers have serious competition if they want to get in. Looking at the West, those final two spots will come down to at least five teams, two of whom will be discussed shortly.

Orlando Magic (28-34)

Last 10: 7-3

Remaining strength of schedule: 26th

No one would have thought the Magic had a legitimate shot to make the postseason 10 games ago, but after a strong stretch during that time – aided in part by stellar play from All-Star Nikola Vucevic and second-year player Jonathan Isaac – here we are.

Orlando clearly had the bones at the start of the season to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. The East is very clearly top-heavy, but the talent level team-to-team really drops off out of the top five. But after the up-and-down start they had, the playoffs very much looked out of reach.

Over the last 10 games, the Magic are seventh in the league from three shooting 37.9 percent. They’ve also been taking care of the ball, sixth-best in the league over that stretch with only 12.5 turnovers per game.

They’ll be battling with the likes of the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons for the final playoff spot, but being only one game out of the eighth seed with one of the easiest remaining schedules has to feel good for the Magic. With the current third-longest playoff drought in the NBA, Orlando has to be chomping at the bit to get in.

Sacramento Kings (31-30)

Last 10: 5-5

Remaining strength of schedule: 28th

If Orlando is happy, imagine how it is to be a Kings fan right now. Currently holding the crown for the longest playoff drought at a whopping 12 (!) seasons has got to be dreadful. This is the first time in a long, long time that Sacramento has been this close to a potential playoff birth.

One of the misfortunes of playing in the West is missing out on the playoffs, even with a winning record. If the Kings were in the East, they’d currently be a comfortable seventh seed. Things aren’t looking too bad on their side, however. They are only a game behind the Spurs for the eighth seed and two behind the Clippers for the seventh. With the Clippers offloading Tobias Harris – their only star – at the deadline, one can only assume they will slowly start to slip out of the race.

This leaves the Kings competing with the Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves for that final spot. It won’t be easy, but with one of the easiest schedules left to play, things are certainly looking up. Sacramento still has games against the Clippers and the Lakers, home and away respectively, so those will be absolutely pivotal to where they’ll end up.

The Kings definitely have enough talent to help them finish the season strong, but will it be enough to get them to the postseason and end their drought? Only time will tell.

Minnesota Timberwolves (29-32)

Last 10: 4-6

Remaining strength of schedule: 2nd

The Timberwolves are definitely on the outside looking in – more so than any other team on this list. A win on Monday against the Kings helped keep their hopes alive, but following that up with a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Hawks hurt.

They still have two games each to play against the Warriors and the Nuggets, as well as a home game against the top team in the East in the Toronto Raptors. Clearly, the schedule does not play in their favor to end the season. But the way they’ve prevailed this year after the whole Jimmy Butler fiasco has been more than admirable, so it’s tough to write them off just yet.

Trading Butler for Dario Saric and Robert Covington signaled that the Timberwolves weren’t ready to embrace a rebuild. Karl-Anthony Towns has played at an All-Star level this season, the reemergence of Derrick Rose has been a blessing, and the steady improvement of Andrew Wiggins has been subtle yet important.

Firing Tom Thibodeau felt like it took a little longer than it should have, but it hasn’t seemed to rattle the players at all. While the road to the postseason seems incredibly difficult for the Timberwolves, there is still a sliver of a chance. And that’s all any team in their position can hope for, really.

There were a handful of teams that weren’t discussed in this list. Both the Washington Wizards and Miami Heat – respectively losing four straight and three out of four (Dwayne Wade turned back the clock against the Golden State Warriors) – feel like they may be out of the race in the East. In the West, the Pelicans definitely don’t see the postseason in their future, as they struggle with what to make of the whole Anthony Davis dilemma.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the year plays out, but one thing is certain: watching these teams battle for a birth in the postseason will absolutely be must-watch television.

The strength of schedule ranking was pulled from Tankathon.com and is a combined winning percentage of the remainder of said team’s opponents.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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