If the NBA’s latest ponderings become reality, this year’s Western Conference drama would peak with a play-in tournament to close the regular season and kickstart the playoffs. By no means does the West need to wait for the 2022 possibility, though. This season always expected to pit a handful of contenders against each other for six months to earn the final berths in the playoffs.
Five weeks ago those contenders were projected to be a set of known names. Outside of the LA-centric title contenders and the seemingly-known playoff standards (the Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz, the Houston Rockets and the Portland Blazers), the final two playoff spots figured to be a fight among teams arrayed across the competitive spectrum:
— The Golden State Warriors coming off their title window, waiting for Klay Thompson’s return
— The Oklahoma City Thunder with a rebuilt roster around Chris Paul
— The San Antonio Spurs proving ever-reliable
— The Sacramento Kings looking to make good on their surprising run last season
— The Dallas Mavericks integrating two young superstars
— The Minnesota Timberwolves claiming a new ethos could yield sustainable success
— The New Orleans Pelicans with or without Zion Williamson
That was just a month and three days ago. Then, the second night of the season saw the Phoenix Suns run the Kings off the floor, 124-95. The Blazers fell apart in the fourth quarter against the Nuggets. The Thunder did the same in Utah. By the time the Warriors were blown out a night later, it was clear: The West’s bubble would not be made up of those expected in the preseason.
The Mavericks have ridden a high-powered offense into the top tier, a near-lock for the playoffs. That has left Phoenix, Minnesota, Sacramento and New Orleans in the No. 7-10 slots, the literal playoff fringe, and the possible spots for a play-in tournament in the future. (Sorry, San Antonio, but the current 2-8 stretch renders you more in line with the Memphis Grizzlies than the Pelicans, even if one game ahead of the former and tied with the latter.)
The Suns and Wolves are both at .500, as of Monday, with the Kings only two games behind that. New Orleans’ 1-6 start has held its record back to 6-11, but it is clear the final spots in the West will demand a .500 finish or close to it. In practical terms, this quartet needs to win against the Eastern Conference (of these four, only the Pelicans currently have a losing record across the Mississippi River), beat the Warriors, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies and lose to the West’s best.
That will leave each other. In other words, a tournament of sorts.
Minnesota, Phoenix and Sacramento all play each other four times this year, while each plays New Orleans only three times. Odd, perhaps, given each team plays everyone in the West four times with four exceptions. Three of the Pelicans’ reduced slates come from this subset, meaning they play more games against the West’s best.
The inverse of that could give the Kings an advantage in this race, getting one fewer game against both the Rockets and the Jazz, the best pairing within this quartet’s rarest opponents.
To date, the Suns have split two games with the Kings, beaten the Timberwolves and lost to the Pelicans. The rest of the games between each other have yet to be played. The tournament has yet to get rolling.
The NBA’s intentions are valid. A one-game playoff holds more drama than these season-long series. The play-in game between Denver and Minnesota following the 2018 season brought heights of intensity not seen during the regular season, even between two teams who already were not fond of each other.
And establishing a demarcation line between the No. 6 playoff seed and No. 7 will have effects beyond the playoff fringe.
The play-in idea for April, if approved, holds particular promise because only the top six teams in each conference would be guaranteed a playoff spot … thus giving teams more incentive to push for a top-six finish
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) November 25, 2019
But the actual play-in tournament already exists on the Western bubble this season. Each time Minnesota faces Sacramento (Dec. 26), it will have a chance to both take a step toward the playoffs and to knock back a challenger. When the Kings first meet the Pelicans (Jan. 4), Williamson might finally be playing and pushing New Orleans past its miserable start. When the Pelicans face the Suns (Dec. 5), this year’s two upstarts will look to prove who has the brighter future. When the Suns face the Timberwolves (Dec. 9), it is more than a Ricky Rubio reunion.
These moments may not elicit headlines or national ratings, but their effects on the standings will be tangible, nonetheless. These will be the nights that determine who slips into the playoffs and who crosses their fingers in the lottery.
At least until the NBA brings the headlines and ratings in a few years.
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