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The Race To Eighth In The West

Basketball Insiders takes a look at who will likely secure the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

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So far this season, the Western Conference Playoff race has been tight. As of today, the eighth seed Phoenix Suns are six games behind the third-place Memphis Grizzlies, whereas in the Eastern Conference, the eighth seed Miami HEAT are 8 ½ games behind the third seed Wizards. To put this in perspective, the Suns, at 18-15, would be the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, and the tenth seed Oklahoma City Thunder would be the eighth seed at 15-17.

The eighth seed in the West is currently being wrestled for by five teams. Though the season is still relatively young, the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves have fallen outside of contention for the final Playoff spot in the West. There is enough time for things to change, but this article focuses on the teams that are most likely to be fighting for the eighth seed based on the current standings, assuming the top seven teams don’t encounter any significant setbacks.

Factors that are considered most significantly include recent performance, strength of schedule, the amount of road games to be played, tough stretches (e.g., back-to-backs, long road trips), injuries, and future performance indicators like offensive and defensive efficiency and net rating.

With that said, let’s take a look at which Western Conference teams have the best shot at securing the eighth and final Playoff spot.

5. Denver Nuggets (12)

Record: 13-19
Games Remaining: 50 (24 Home, 26 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500 teams: 25, West: 34, East: 16
Strength of Schedule: .522 (6)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 3-7
Efficiency: Offensive 101.5 (three-way tie for 20 with the Thunder and Bucks), Defensive 105 (22), Net Rating -3.5 (22)

The Denver Nuggets have had a disappointing start to the 2014-15 NBA season. The return of several players from injury, including Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson, JaVale McGee, and Nate Robinson, the trade for Arron Afflalo, the impressive FIBA World Tournament performance by Kenneth Faried and a second year under head coach Brian Shaw were all reasons for optimism in Denver entering this season. But Gallinari has been inconsistent and is now out with a meniscus injury, McGee is also sidelined, Afflalo has been underwhelming, Faried has played poorly until recently,and the team has not shown any real improvement in its second year under Shaw.

So far this season, the Nuggets have suffered through three losing streaks of three games or more (the longest one being six after winning their season opener against the Detroit Pistons). To their credit, the Nuggets have had the sixth toughest schedule in terms of opponents winning percentage (.522 overall), but losing to weak opponents like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t help their cause.

The Nuggets open 2015 with a tough road game against the Chicago Bulls, and a home game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Then, starting on January 14, the Nuggets enter a tough stretch where, over a two week period, they will face the Dallas Mavericks twice, the Golden State Warriors on the road, the San Antonio Spurs, the Washington Wizards, the Los Angeles Clippers, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies. The games against the Clippers, Pelicans and Grizzlies will be especially difficult considering they are all road games and are played over the course of four days. The only easy matchups in that two week span come against the Minnesota Timberwolves (who nearly beat the Nuggets in Denver on December 26), and the Boston Celtics.

Fortunately for the Nuggets, February opens with three road games against easy competition, including the Philadelphia 76ers, Celtics and Pistons. The Nuggets then have another road trip starting on March 15. In the span of a week, the Nuggets will face the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Rockets, HEAT and Magic. Assuming the Nuggets are still in range of the eighth seed at this point in the season, this road trip could be a critical stretch. It’s not likely Denver will be able to beat both the Grizzlies and Rockets on the road, but they should have a chance of knocking off the Pelicans, HEAT, and Magic.

But even if the Nuggets are in striking range entering the last few days of the season, they may still fall short. The Nuggets’ season ends with two road games, the first against the Clippers, and the second against the Warriors.

Another major issue for the Nuggets moving forward is that they have more road games than the teams they are competing against for the eighth seed (with the exception of the Sacramento Kings). So far, the Nuggets are 4-11 on the road (36.4 win percentage), including bad losses to the Kings, Knicks and Charlotte Hornets. The Nuggets need to figure out how to win big games on the road if they want to have any shot of securing the eighth seed.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, their -3.5 net rating indicates that they are a long shot at best to make the playoffs this season. The Nuggets’ defense and offense are both well below league average, and the players continue to struggle with ineffective play, frustration over playing time and injuries. The quad injury suffered to Wilson Chandler, who has been one of Denver’s most consistent players this season, is the most recent setback and another cause for concern.

Standing 5 ½ games behind the Suns is a huge issue, which means the Nuggets will need to sort out their lingering obstacles immediately in order to have a shot of stealing the eighth seed away from the competition. At this point in the season, there is little reason to expect that to happen.

4. Sacramento Kings (11)

Record: 13-18
Games Remaining: 51 (23 Home, 28 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 26, West: 29, East: 22
Strength of Schedule: .522 (7)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 2-8
Efficiency: Offensive 104.5 (13), Defensive 106.3 (24), Net Rating -1.8 (18)

The Sacramento Kings opened the 2014-15 NBA season as one of the hottest teams in the league. Through Sacramento’s first six games, the Kings knocked off teams like the Trail Blazers, Clippers, Nuggets (twice), and Suns. The Kings have been up and down since their fast start for several reasons, including the loss of star center DeMarcus Cousins for several games due to viral meningitis, and the unexpected firing of head coach Mike Malone on December 15.

Since December 9, the Kings have gone 2-8 and are in a complete nosedive at this point. Fortunately for Sacramento, the Kings’ next three opponents are the Celtics, Timberwolves and Pistons (all road games). The bad news is that once they complete their four game road trip, the Kings face, over the course of 11 days, the Thunder, Nuggets, Cavaliers, Mavericks, HEAT and Clippers (all home games). To close out January, the Kings have one home game against the Brooklyn Nets, and six road games against some stiff competition, including the Trail Blazers, Warriors, Raptors and Cavaliers.

The schedule doesn’t get much easier heading into February as the Kings’ first two games are against the Warriors and Mavericks. After this, the Kings play four games in five nights, including a key matchup with the Suns on February 8. February closes just as difficultly as it started with games against the Clippers, Grizzlies and Spurs.

Sacramento’s next long road trip starts on March 4 and ends on March 14. Over 11 days, the Kings will face a mixed bag of opponents and only one back-to-back against the Magic and HEAT. It will be critical for the Kings to knock off the teams they are supposed to, while upsetting some of the tougher opponents like the Hawks and Wizards. However, the fact that the Kings are 5-8 on the road so far this season, with bad losses to the Magic, Lakers and Pistons does not bode well for their chances on the road moving forward.

Assuming the Kings are still in contention for the eighth seed by late March, they will have a crucial four game road trip, which includes matches against the Suns and Pelicans (who are both candidates for the eighth seed), followed by a home game against the Pelicans on April 3.

Working in the Kings’ favor is that their regular season closes against some easy competition (unlike the Nuggets who close the season against the Clippers and Warriors). In their last three games, the Kings face the Nuggets on the road, and the Lakers twice in the span of three days. But the chances of the Kings being in striking distance for the eighth seed by the end of the season are not great at this point. Cousins and Rudy Gay have been great this season, but the loss of Cousins was a major blow, and the fact that the Kings are playing under an interim coach (Tyrone Corbin) does not provide much reason to expect a late playoff push from Sacramento.

3. New Orleans Pelicans (9)

Record: 16-15
Games Remaining: 51 (27 Home, 24 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 22, West: 30, East: 21
Strength of Schedule: .535 (2)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 106.4 (7), Defensive 107.3 (26), Net Rating -0.9 (16)

The argument could be made that the Suns should be ranked third on this list. The Suns just lost to the Pelicans last night, have played the 29th easiest schedule in the league so far (.460 win percentage of opponents), and are still figuring out how to best utilize their point guard heavy backcourt. However, the Pelicans get this spot mostly because of their surprisingly poor defense, injury concerns and lack of depth.

The Pelicans start the new year with two tough home games against the Rockets and the Wizards and then have a five-game road trip starting on January 12 and ending on January 19. Fortunately for the Pelicans, they face weak opponents like the Celtics, Pistons, 76ers and Knicks. Their toughest matchup of the trip is against the Raptors on January 18.

The Pelicans open February with two tough home games, the first against Atlanta, the second against the Thunder. They then face the Thunder on February 6 in Oklahoma City. These two games will be huge for the Pelicans since they are currently a game and a half ahead of the Thunder, who figure to keep pace in the West with the expected return of Durant from his recent ankle injury.

After February 6, the Pelicans don’t face any particularly tough portions of their schedule until March 19 when they go out on a three-game road trip to face the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers (March 19-22). Three days later, they will face the Houston Rockets at home. Their last tough stretch will then begin April 4 and end on April 12. During that stretch, the Pelicans will face the Trail Blazers (in Portland), Warriors, Grizzlies (in Memphis), Suns and the Rockets (in Houston).

Working in the Pelicans favor is the fact that they have played much tougher competition than the Suns thus far, and are still just a game back in the standings. New Orleans has less road games to play, and less games against Western Conference teams. However, the Pelicans’ net rating of -0.9 is cause for concern. While New Orleans’ offense is performing well (7th best in the NBA), their defense has been a disaster. This is surprising considering that head coach Monty Williams emphasizes defense first, Anthony Davis leads the league in blocks, Omer Asik is a good rim protector, and Jrue Holiday does a decent job of pressuring opposing ball-handlers. The loss of Gordon, who has been a solid wing-defender throughout his career, and insertion of Austin Rivers partially explains the defensive issues, but not completely.

The fact that players like Rivers, Luke Babbit, and John Salmons play significant minutes is another issue. After Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis, Asik and Ryan Anderson, there aren’t many above average players on the roster (Rivers, Babbit, Salmons, Dante Cunningham and even Gordon have PER ratings well below the league average of 15).

If the Pelicans can’t get their defense up to snuff quickly, they will eventually lose pace with the Suns and Thunder for the eighth seed, no matter how efficiently their offense is performing.

2. Phoenix Suns (8)

Record: 18-15
Games Remaining: 49 (27 Home, 22 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 29, West: 34, East 15
Strength of Schedule: .460 (29)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 106.5 (6), Defensive 104.2 (tied for 18 with the Los Angeles Clippers), Net Rating 2.3 (12)

On December 20, I wrote about the Phoenix Suns’ recent struggles and their dimming hopes of making the Playoffs. Since then, Alex Len has improved his play significantly and the Suns have won five of their last six games to fortify their hold over the eighth seed (however, they lost a big game against the Pelicans in New Orleans last night). There is no time for the Suns to dwell on the loss, however, as they face the Oklahoma City Thunder later tonight.

To start the new year, the Suns have seven games in 11 nights, including a four-game road trip where they will face top Western Conference opponents like the Spurs and Grizzlies. The pace of their schedule will slow down after playing the Grizzlies on January 11, however, after facing the Timberwolves and Lakers, the Suns close out January against the Trail Blazers, Rockets, Clippers, Wizards, Bulls, and Warriors.

Then, to start up the month of February, the Suns will face the Memphis Grizzlies, and Portland Trail Blazers. Things lighten up somewhat after that, but they will again play four games in six nights from February 20 through February 26 (including an important home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on the 26th).

March starts out with another road trip, which includes four games in six nights. However, each opponent is a beatable Eastern Conference team (HEAT, Magic, Nets, Cavaliers). March ends with four tough games from March 27 through April 2. The first two matchups are at home against the Trail Blazers, and then the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Suns will then hit the road and face the Trail Blazers in Portland, and then travel to face the Warriors.

The Suns’ season ends with five crucial games from April 7 through April 14. Four of the five games are on the road against tough opponents like the Hawks, Mavericks, Pelicans and Spurs. Then the Suns finish out the regular season against the Spurs and Clippers, two games that could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.

Working in the Suns’ favor is the fact that they have less road games remaining than any of their competition, and their offense has risen to sixth best in the league. Defense remains an issue, though that may become less of a problem if Len continues to be a significant contributor. Protecting the rim has been a problem for the Suns all season, but Len provides some hope of addressing that.

But even with a 2 ½ game lead over the Thunder, the Suns are very vulnerable now that Durant and Westbrook are (reportedly) healthy. The Suns had an opportunity to distance themselves more from the Thunder earlier in the season, but now will have to avoid any major setbacks if they hope to hold onto the eighth seed. But with just a 2 ½ game lead over the Thunder after playing one of the easiest schedules so far, and with a defense that is below league average, the Suns will have a tough time fending off the Thunder moving forward.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (10)

Record: 15-17
Games Remaining: 50 (26 Home, 24 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 29, West: 32, East: 18
Strength of Schedule: .486 (23)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 101.5 (three-way tie for 20), Defensive 99.9 (5), Net Rating 1.6 (13)

Near the end of November, I wrote about whether the Oklahoma City Thunder could still make the Playoffs after going 5-12 through their first 17 games without Kevin Durant, and (for the most part) Russell Westbrook. By applying the Thunder’s performance last season to their remaining schedule, it appeared that the Thunder had a shot at making the playoffs, so long as they didn’t face any major setbacks. Not long after that, Durant sprained his ankle and missed six games.

However, Durant is set to return tonight in a key matchup against the Suns. If the Thunder beat the Suns, they will be just one game behind Phoenix in the loss column. The Thunder then face the Wizards and the Warriors. This is an important and tough stretch for Oklahoma City, which makes Durant’s return timely.

Then the Thunder set out on a five game road trip starting on January 18 and ending on January 25. On the road trip, the Thunder will face the Magic, HEAT, Wizards, Hawks and Cavaliers. This is another tough stretch for the Thunder, but with Durant back, and hopefully healthy, they should be competitive in each game.

They then return home for an easy home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 26 before hitting the road again to face the Knicks and then the Grizzlies.

In early February, the Thunder have some big games, starting with back-to-back matchups with the New Orleans Pelicans (February 4 in New Orleans, February 6 in Oklahoma City). Two wins over the Pelicans would be a big boost for the Thunder, who have lost to the Pelicans twice already this season.

The Thunder then have a tough stretch of games starting on February 19 and ending on February 27 (six games in nine nights). Through nine days, the Thunder will face the Mavericks, Hornets, Nuggets, Pacers, Suns, and Trail Blazers. Oklahoma City then has a stretch of four games at home with three very winnable games against the Celtics, HEAT and Lakers. However, they face the Atlanta Hawks on March 20, which should be a tough matchup considering Atlanta’s recent play.

Then, on March 29, the Thunder have a big matchup against the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix after playing the night before against the Jazz in Utah. Following their match up in Phoenix, the Thunder have four tough games in a row, against the Mavericks, Grizzlies (in Memphis), Rockets and Spurs.

The Thunder close out the season with some winnable games against the Kings, Pacers and Timberwolves, but face the Trail Blazers on April 13.

Working in the Thunder’s favor is the recent play of Russell Westbrook, who has been a one-man wrecking crew recently. With Durant back, the Thunder should quickly improve on offense, where they are currently ranked 21st. Last season the Thunder were the seventh best offensive team in the league, and though they may not reach that level this season, they are certainly a top 10 offensive team with both Westbrook and Durant healthy. Coupled with a top five defense, the Thunder are primed for a strong push for the eighth seed. However, this assumes that Durant and Westbrook don’t miss any more significant time moving forward. Another significant injury to either player would make the Suns the favorite to secure the final Playoff spot in the West.

With early season injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Suns, Pelicans, Kings and Nuggets all had a huge opportunity to outpace the Thunder and grab a firm advantage in the race for the last playoff seed. However, for a range of reasons, none of these teams managed to do so. Now, even though they are 2 ½ games behind the Suns for the eighth seed, the Thunder are primed to climb the ranks and secure a Playoff spot. Though in the wild Western Conference, where just a few games separate the top Playoff teams from the bottom, anything is possible.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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