Competing for a low playoff seed is an oft-maligned goal in the NBA. Pundits and fans will almost always call for a rebuild if a team is seemingly heading towards the dreaded 7-11 seed in their conference.
There are a valiant few that will drown out the noise and view any playoff berth as a success. These franchises are usually in the midst of an extended playoff drought, a young team looking for proof of progress or an old team with too much pride.
This season, the Western Conference will feature a large number of franchises that will feel as if they have failed without a playoff berth.
There are, of course, only eight spots available, and those spots begin to fill up very quickly when looking at the list of teams who will be vying for them. The Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz are considered by most to be bona fide locks. The Warriors still have a perennial MVP candidate and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate that will be playing with a chip on their shoulder. Then there are the Blazers, who seem to always manage to win five more games than they’re expected to and are coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance.
This would leave only one spot for the following four teams that seem eager to chase late-April basketball: Spurs, Mavericks, Pelicans, Kings.
Those four fall across all areas of the low-playoff seed spectrum. The Spurs are trying to maintain a 22-year playoff streak, while the Kings are trying to break a 13-year drought. The Mavericks and Pelicans both are led by players pinned as future superstars and feature a deep roster with veteran talent that they hope will be enough to mobilize a next step.
Barring a seismic injury or collapse, three of those teams will not make the playoffs. Let’s take a look at how each of them could win this battle, starting at the most likely to win that spot and working down.
San Antonio Spurs
Death, Taxes and the Spurs making the playoffs, right? Last season, the Spurs clawed their way to 48 wins and once again made the tournament. They did so on the back of a bench that blitzed teams all season long, outscoring opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge were on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Spurs also were elite from deep last season, hitting 40.1 percent of their three-point attempts throughout the year. While this number remained relatively unchanged for each lineup, the frequency at which they attempted these shots jumped whenever both DeRozan and Aldridge sat, per Cleaning the Glass.
It will be interesting to see if the Spurs can keep up the production from both the bench and from beyond the arc this season. Davis Bertans, a valuable reserve who shot 44 percent from deep, is now in Washington. He will be tough to replace, but coach Gregg Popovich has a track record of maximizing his talent.
There is also the return of Dejounte Murray, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Murray, an All-Defensive Second Team selection in 2017-18, could help shore up a defense that slipped all the way to 20th in the NBA last season.
There is some mild concern here that the playoff streak could be in jeopardy. The Spurs outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when Bertans was on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. DeRozan and Aldridge continue to age, and if their production slips it might be too much for the bench make up.
That said, it still would seem foolish to bet against the Spurs. If the defense rebounds to a Spurs-ian level, it could more than offset the slight dip in three-point accuracy we might see this season.
The Mavericks will enter the season with one of the more intriguing rosters in the league. There is the precocious Luka Doncic, who could be the cornerstone of this franchise for years to come. Kristaps Porzingis is also in tow and will be playing real basketball for the first time since just before the All-Star break in 2018.
Last season, the Mavericks stumbled to the finish line after trading multiple contributors for an injured Porzingis, finishing 33-49. Now with the Latvian big man healthy – and veteran difference makers like Seth Curry and Delon Wright in the fold – the expectations have rightfully risen.
Much of the Mavericks’ success this season will come down to the health of Porzingis. Before the injury, he was scoring 22.7 points and grabbing 6.6 rebounds per game with the Knicks, while shooting nearly 40 percent from deep and providing elite rim protection. That skill set is rare, and him finding his form will both solidify a creaky defense and open up a clogged offense.
Doncic will be the first to welcome a second option like Porzingis. After the trade last season, Luka’s usage shot up to around 35 percent, and his shooting percentages cratered as a result. With a better roster around him, the 6-foot-7 point forward should find more holes in opposing defenses.
The virtuoso talent flashed by Doncic last season has many predicting a sophomore year leap. This leap could be amplified by improved roster, as Doncic may be able to increase both his raw production and efficiency.
The Mavericks lacked in both shooting and playmaking outside of Doncic last season. Seth Curry could give a nice jolt to their 34.9 percent three-point shooting, and Delon Wright will bring rock solid point guard play.
Outside of the big names and new additions, the Mavericks will also look for internal improvements from the likes of Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber. Particularly Brunson, who enters his second season after a summer spent training with the USA Select team .
It is clear the Mavericks will house a better team this season; the question is whether that improvement will be enough for them to chase a playoff seed. If they do find themselves in that position, it will likely be on the back of a sophomore year leap from Doncic and a fully healthy Porzingis. Those two “what ifs” panning out for Dallas, plus the improved roster on the margins, could make for a feisty team in April.
The Kings bring back nearly every contributor from last season in their quest to snap a 13-year streak of lottery participation. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are coming off career years. Marvin Bagley III had a promising showing with the USA select team this summer, and Bogdan Bogdanovic showed promise win his Serbian team action as well.
Fox holds the key to the Kings’ future. He is the face of the team and one of the most exciting players in the league. His ability to grab a rebound and beat all five of his opponents to the other basket is reminiscent of prime John Wall or Russell Westbrook. The Kings were about six points per 100 possessions better with Fox on the court, per Cleaning the Glass.
He is still only 21, and him continuing his trajectory towards elite point guard will go a long way in keeping this team competitive. He had a nice summer practicing with the USA National Team before deciding to head home just before the tournament began.
Buddy Hield quietly made the seventh most three-pointers in a season ever last year, behind only four Stephen Curry seasons, and both James Harden and Paul George in 2018-19. He will turn 27 this season, and it’s possible that last season will go down as his best ever. Hield getting as close as he can to replicating that production will be necessary for the Kings’ playoff hopes.
The Kings’ wing rotation is deeper than last year with the addition of Trevor Ariza. Bogdanovic is 27 but entering only his third NBA season. His electric World Cup performance has inspired hopes of a big season off the bench. Harrison Barnes will likely man the starting role, and he is coming off his best shooting season as a pro.
The frontcourt is improved with the upgrade from Willie Cauley-Stein to Dewayne Dedmon. Dedmon brings veteran defense and better spacing at the center position, and should be a better fit next to Bagley. Bagley is another who showed promise over the summer with the USA Select Team, giving credence to the projection of a sophomore year leap from the bouncy power forward.
The Kings lack playmaking outside of Fox. Cory Joseph will take backup point guard duties, but he does not bring the shot-creating ability that the Kings may need in the minutes Fox sits. Harry Giles and Richaun Holmes both showed flashes last year and could make for serviceable frontcourt reserves.
The Kings should be better a team this season. Internal improvements from the young players and a slight bench upgrade might be all it takes to get above the .500 mark. Slightly above .500 may not be enough realize the playoff dream however, as it took 48 wins for the Spurs to get in last season.
To make it to that level, it may take another slight jump from Fox and large improvements from both Bagley and Bogdanovic. The improvements would also have to come with sustained production from Hield. There is also the unknown effect that new coach Luke Walton will have on the team. If his free-flowing offense open things up a little more in the half-court, the Kings could be in the race at the end of the season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are almost a completely new basketball team. Jrue Holiday returns as the team’s captain and best player. His ability to play both on and off the ball make him an ideal fit next to first overall pick Zion Williamson. The bundle of players received in the Anthony Davis trade will also make this roster deeper than in years past.
Williamson is the crown jewel here. His all-world athleticism, solid ball-handling, feel for the game and limitless motor combine to make him one of the best prospects of the 21st century. That said, there are still concerns about his shooting and the Pelicans’ ability to space the floor around him.
Despite that, he should make an immediate impact in transition for a team that will run as much as possible under coach Alvin Gentry. His athleticism and quick feet also have him slated as a plus-defender right out of the gate.
Holiday will bring his usual elite defense and playmaking to this group. The Pelicans collapsed whenever Holiday sat last season, per Cleaning the Glass. His shooting slipped to 33 percent from deep last season, and an improvement there would add some much needed breathing room to the Pelicans offense.
Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram will also play pivotal roles after coming over from Los Angeles. There has been particular noise around Ball’s improved shooting out of Pelicans camp. He will most likely be given the backup point guard role behind Holiday.
The Pelicans are also banking on improved three-point accuracy from Ingram, who fell to 33 percent from deep after shooting 40 percent the year before. Ingram showed flashes of playmaking with the Lakers, but also displayed a penchant for contested mid-range jumpers. That will need to be rectified for Ingram to take the next step this season.
The Pelicans did well in free agency to bring in helpful veterans in JJ Redick and Derrick Favors. Redick will give the Pelicans an elite shooter to space the floor, and someone who could develop a two-man dribble hand-off game with Williamson. Favors will provide rim protection and a lob threat at center to pair next to the rookie.
It is nearly impossible to project how the Pelicans will perform next season. The height of their ceiling will come down to how quickly Williamson can acclimate to the NBA. Ingram and Ball will also need to take a step forward for this team to reach their full potential. They may struggle to score in the half-court, especially early in the season, but the fury they could unleash in transition will make them entertaining to watch.
Everything will need to go right for the Pelicans to make the final eight. Even then, they will likely need help by a collapse from a team in front of them.
While the most likely playoff scenario seems like the seven aforementioned teams plus one of these four, anything can happen in the NBA. The Warriors and Blazers may just be one injury away from sliding down a tier. The Timberwolves could be a sleeper to enter this race if they stay healthy and get a rejuvenated Andrew Wiggins.
The Western Conference will be a bloodbath as usual, and at least three teams will come away from the wreckage with hung heads as they trek to the lottery.
It will be exciting to watch it play out.
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