The Western Conference has been brutal the last several years and this season is no different. There are six teams that are virtual locks to make the playoffs when you look at the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies.
After these six teams are the New Orleans Pelicans, who are also healthy now and seem poised to return to the playoffs once again. Assuming major injuries or unexpected obstacles don’t derail any of these seven teams, it seems there will be one playoff seed open in the Western Conference.
Some teams just aren’t close to contention for the playoffs, no matter how things break for them. This is arguably the case for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks, who were both in the postseason in 2014-15 but lost a significant amount of talent this offseason. Also in this category are the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves – two teams that are rebuilding their respective rosters.
That leaves just four teams in the mix for the final spot; the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets are the long-shot here. Although they lost Ty Lawson, they certainly have some pieces in Denver. Danilo Gallinari is finally back at full strength, Kenneth Faried is a beast, the roster has a lot of young talent and, most importantly, promising rookie Emmanuel Mudiay is there to run the offense. He has a lot of potential and should thrive in the team’s up-tempo system. Also, the Nuggets have head coach Mike Malone on board to turn these youngsters into a competitive team.
Making the playoffs won’t be easy with so much youth, so Malone will need to be at his best. If everything goes right for Denver and they get a little help from some other teams, the Nuggets could nab that eighth spot in the Western Conference. However, it seems like they’re still at least a year or two away.
The Kings have a bunch of talent and an interesting mix of veterans and young players. Former All-Star Rajon Rondo will run the offense through DeMarcus Cousins, who will probably be the consensus number one center in the league by the end of the season. Add in Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, Marco Belinelli, the underrated addition of Kosta Koufos and the Kings have an intriguing squad. With George Karl at the helm, the coach with the sixth-most wins in NBA history, Sacramento is in good hands.
The Kings just need to keep the drama to a minimum this year, find their identity, stay the course for the whole year and focus on improving as a cohesive unit on the court. They can’t afford another mid-season coaching change or another internal power-struggle. If things go right, Sacramento may be right there in the mix.
The Jazz have a legitimate shot at ending their playoff drought, which dates back to the 2011-12 season. With Gordon Hayward continuing his development and leading the way as well as dominant big man Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint, Utah is looking good. Add in the rare combination of skill and physicality of power forward Derrick Favors as well as the return of Alec Burks and Utah has a pretty good starting lineup. This team played excellent basketball in the second half of last season (especially on the defensive end), so there’s a lot of optimism surrounding the Jazz right now.
If second-year point guard Dante Exum were healthy, the Jazz would likely be the obvious choice for the eighth spot in the West. However, losing him to a torn ACL was a huge blow to the team’s starting lineup and they will be need Trey Burke to step up in his absence.
One issue for Utah may be their lack of experience. They have talent, size and impact players on both sides of the court. They just lack the veteran savvy that tends to win a handful of games throughout the year. Utah should be fighting for a playoff berth right through the last couple weeks of the season and have a realistic shot at cracking the West’s top eight.
The final playoff seed, barring something unexpected, will likely come down to the Jazz and Suns. Over the offseason, Phoenix added Tyson Chandler, who provides important experience and will likely have a huge effect on the team. The Suns obviously have to deal with the Markieff Morris situation, but they have a bunch of talent on the roster. The guard duo of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight could be very good in their first season together. Not to mention, Phoenix has some talented role players around them such as small forward P.J. Tucker (whose defensive versatility is often underrated), Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems among others. Phoenix is looking to make the playoffs after missing the postseason the last five seasons. They certainly have the talent. Last season fell apart because they didn’t have a leader like Chandler and they lost team cohesion with several injuries and a third of their roster being dealt at the trade deadline.
Now, they have a solid starting lineup, a bunch of quality depth and a balanced team. If all goes as planned, they should be right there battling for the final spot at the end of the season.
Overall, the race for the West’s eighth seed will probably come down to Phoenix or Utah. This battle between two up-and-coming teams should be a lot of fun to watch throughout the course of the season.
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