The Western Conference’s Wild Race for Eighth

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The Western Conference has always been wild, but there are some interesting wrinkles that have developed this season. The top seven teams currently in the standings appear to have a firm grip on the postseason, but there is a large group of hungry organizations that are set to make a run for the final playoff spot.

Heading into Saturday night’s games, the Los Angeles Lakers have a four and a half-game lead over Utah and the LA Clippers for the top seed. Denver is five games behind the Lakers while Dallas and Houston are the five and six seeds as the two Texas teams have identical records. The surprise Oklahoma City Thunder remain in the seventh seed, more than five games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies.

One team has made a move already as the Mavericks were in need of a big man after the devastating loss of their talented center Dwight Powell. They got their man yesterday, as they acquired Willie Cauley-Stein in a deal with the Golden State Warriors. The trade deadline is less than two weeks away and many of these teams will be searching for a deal or two to prepare them for the playoffs.

Looking further down the current standings, there are a handful of teams that still have a legitimate shot at getting the final playoff spot. Some will have to work much harder than others, and the upcoming trade deadline will surely play a significant role in the final outcome. The successful scenario for each team depends on a number of key elements that will need to come to fruition.

Memphis Grizzlies

The young Grizzlies currently own the No. 8 seed after a strong January push. Rookie sensation Ja Morant has shined as the new face of the franchise, with much help from his talented teammates. Jaren Jackson Jr has thrived next to Morant, giving Memphis one of the best young duos in the league. Should the Grizzlies hold on to the final spot, it would provide them with valuable playoff experience as they continue to build their team.

More than just those two, it has been guys like Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke that have emerged as solid contributors. The veteran presence of Jae Crowder has been an exceptional addition to this young core, as they have won eight of their last ten games. Jonas Valanciunas has played his part to perfection, a role that rookie head coach Taylor Jenkins crafted to maximize the value of both of his big men.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have some history they just aren’t ready to give up on yet. The playoff streak of 22 consecutive years was in peril early in the season as they struggled mightily. Gregg Popovich is more than capable of fixing any issues in San Antonio – and he seems to have gotten through to this group. While the roster construction may not be perfect, it was just a matter of tweaking a few things to get it right.

The willingness of LaMarcus Aldridge to take more three-pointers has done wonders for this team. In particular, DeMar DeRozan has blossomed into the player we had grown accustomed to seeing. The spacing provided in the midrange area now has opened up driving opportunities for their deep rotation of guards. Simply allowing Lonnie Walker IV to play through his mistakes has gone a long way to getting the Spurs train back on the tracks.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns have been one of the surprise teams this season, which is even more surprising when you consider the fact that Deandre Ayton missed 25 games with his suspension. That void was filled by Aron Baynes, who helped transform their offense from a one-man show in Devin Booker. While he is more than capable of being a shot creator and distributor, getting Booker off the ball more and allowing him to just finish plays has worked wonders.

Ricky Rubio has much to do with that and he has been sensational this year as he is putting up career numbers. The emergence of Kelly Oubre Jr has been a phenomenal thing to watch while both he and Mikal Bridges have become steady contributors. The roster changes have been a big part of their turnaround, but having a capable and knowledgeable head coach like Monty Williams looms large as well.

Portland Trail Blazers

No team has suffered through injuries more this season than the Portland Trail Blazers. The job that Terry Stotts has done is even more impressive when you literally list out all the players they’ve seen go down. From Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins to Rodney Hood and CJ McCollum, Portland has been reaching for the life vest often. Their desperation reached a new level when they moved for Hassan Whiteside and then signed Carmelo Anthony after the season began.

Portland has made those acquisitions work though – with, of course, a heavy dose of Damian Lillard keeping the boat afloat with sensational performances. Lillard’s steady play has enabled them to get through the rocky first half of the season. A Nurkic return and the continued progression of guys like Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. should give them a decent shot as they are only two and a half games out of the final playoff spot.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson’s debut went quite well for the Pelicans on Wednesday. They have lost both tightly-contested games at home, but expectations are rising as they incorporate their prized rookie into the lineup. With him back on the floor, the Pelicans have decided to hold on to their veterans Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick. Lonzo Ball has progressed nicely already and Derrick Favors has found his groove in New Orleans. Kenrich Williams and E’Twaun Moore continue to be two of the most sneaky, underrated players in the league.

Brandon Ingram’s fit with Zion in the fold will be the key to everything. The lengthy forward has been one of the most improved players in the league this year, without a doubt. There are a bunch of teams that the Pelicans must leapfrog in order to make the playoffs, but a first-round matchup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers would be a dream scenario for the league, and their television partners.

With the trade deadline and All-Star break right around the corner, all the teams lurking nearby a postseason spot need to decide where they stand. Either way, in a few weeks, we’ll start to see more clarity in terms of bankable contenders, sneaky dark horses and lottery-bound losers.