NBA

Who Gets The West’s Final Two Playoff Spots?

A look at what’s ahead for the Western Conference teams in contention for the seventh and eighth seeds.

Jesse Blancarte profile picture
Updated 1 year ago on

8 min read

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It seems like each season the Western Conference is disproportionately loaded with talented teams, resulting in at least one playoff-caliber team being squeezed out of the postseason. This season is no exception, with 10 Western Conference teams with records above .500 and another quickly shooting up the rankings post All-Star break.

On Monday, our John Zitzler covered the race for the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Now, let’s take a look at what is turning out to be an exciting race for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference.

Currently In:

7. San Antonio Spurs

Record: 41-25
Games Remaining: 16 (8 Home, 8 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 12
Games Remaining vs other Western Conference teams in the hunt: 6 (Mavericks twice, Thunder twice, Suns and Pelicans)

The San Antonio Spurs got off to a slow start this season, in part because of injuries to key players like Kawhi Leonard. However, the Spurs have won seven of their last 10 games and are currently four and a half games ahead of the eighth place New Orleans Pelicans. At this point in the season, there is little chance that the Spurs fall any further in the rankings, but they are in position to move upwards.

The Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks are both 43-25, good for just a one-game lead on the Spurs in the standings. The Clippers managed to stay afloat recently without Blake Griffin, who had been sidelined for weeks with a staph infection in his right elbow. Griffin is back now, but the Clippers are still missing Jamal Crawford. Meanwhile, the Mavericks have won five of their last 10 games and continue to search for their groove with midseason acquisition Rajon Rondo. Both teams are vulnerable for different reasons, though the Clippers finish off the season with a pretty favorable schedule.

As for the Spurs, they are finding their groove just in time for the postseason, which they seem to do each year. Tony Parker is playing better recently and Leonard is playing like the two-way force we expected to see coming off of last year’s Finals MVP award.

This team still isn’t playing quite like it did last season, especially on the road. Last season, the Spurs went 30-11 on the road, whereas this season they are just 16-17. They dropped last night’s game against the woeful New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, which should have never happened. Nevertheless, the Spurs are still just one of three teams in the league with a top-10 offense and defense, and are sixth in the league in overall net rating (+4.6), per NBA.com.

With upcoming road games against teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans, the Spurs have their work cut out for them over the next few weeks. But with a four-and-a-half-game lead over the Pelicans and Thunder, the seventh seed will likely be occupied by the Spurs (or perhaps the Clippers or Mavericks) at the end of the regular season.

8. New Orleans Pelicans

Record: 37-30
Games Remaining: 15 (6 Home, 9 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 10
Games Remaining vs other Western Conference teams in the hunt: 3 (Suns twice, Spurs).

The New Orleans Pelicans have dealt with injuries to key players recently, including Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis. But the Pelicans have held pace in the West, winning seven of their last 10 games.

The Pelicans’ strength is on offense, where they score 105.3 points per 100 possessions, which is the seventh best rate in the league. However, on defense the Pelicans give up 104.8 points per 100 possessions, which is the fifth worst mark in the league. The defensive woes are particularly surprising considering the fact that the Pelicans have guys like Davis and Omer Asik protecting the rim and defensively capable wings like Eric Gordon.

Speaking of Gordon, he has played well recently, crediting his recent play to his improved health. Since the beginning of February, Gordon is averaging 14.1 points, 4.3 assists and three rebounds per game, while shooting 49.2 percent from beyond-the-arc. Gordon missed significant time earlier this season with a shoulder injury, but he seems to have, at least for now, overcome the lower body issues that have slowed him down the last few seasons.

The Pelicans’ biggest threat at this point in the season is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have also been dealing with injury issues all season as well. The Thunder are also 37-30, but the Pelicans have the tie breaker, winning three-of-four games against Oklahoma City this season. It was reported yesterday that Serge Ibaka required knee surgery to alleviate soreness that has plagued him recently, and will now be sidelined for the next four-to-six weeks. The loss of Ibaka is a huge blow to the Thunder, who is still waiting for Kevin Durant to return from foot surgery.

The injuries to the Thunder should help the Pelicans in the home stretch, but they still face some tough competition to close out the season. The Pelicans will face the Phoenix Suns (twice), Golden State Warriors (twice), Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets (twice), Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs. That’s 10 games against some of the best teams in the league, several of which will take place on the road. The Pelicans will need to take care of business against the weaker teams on the schedule, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings (twice) and Minnesota Timberwolves (twice).

Outside Looking In:

Oklahoma City Thunder

Record: 37-30
Games Remaining: 15 (9 Home, 6 Away)
Games Remaining vs +. 500 Opponents: 8
Games Remaining vs other Western Conference teams in the hunt: 4 (Suns, Mavericks, Spurs twice)

While the Thunder are dealing with injury issues, they still have a chance to squeeze by the Pelicans for the eighth seed with a favorable remaining schedule.

The Thunder are 23-9 at home this season and nine of their remaining 15 games will be in Oklahoma City. The Thunder’s toughest games will be against the Atlanta Hawks, San Antonio Spurs (twice), Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, with some streaking opponents in the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers.

There are certainly some tough games ahead for the Thunder, but if they take care of their home court and tally off some winnable road games (e.g., Jazz, Suns, Timberwolves), they should have a good shot of making the postseason.

Russell Westbrook has been on a historically great run recently and is doing everything he can to get his team into the postseason. If Kevin Durant is able to return soon at close to full strength, the Thunder may be set for a first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors. But if they don’t have a healthy Serge Ibaka come the postseason, it may not matter much.

Phoenix Suns

Record: 37-30
Games Remaining: 14 (7 Home, 7 Away)
Games Remaining vs +. 500 Opponents: 12
Games Remaining vs other Western Conference teams in the hunt: 4 (Pelicans twice, Spurs, Mavericks)

The Phoenix Suns have had a disappointing 2014-15 season. They were one of the surprise teams from last season and seemed primed to make another leap forward this year. Instead, the Suns are again facing the possibility of just barely missing the postseason.

The Suns have taken over the Timberwolves’ mantle from last season as the team that can’t close out tight games, going 8-17 in games decided by five points or less (including some heartbreaking buzzer beaters).

Between losing tight games and the midseason drama surrounding Goran Dragic (who was eventually traded to the Miami HEAT) and Isaiah Thomas (traded to the Boston Celtics), it has been a rough season for the Suns and their fans. But in spite of all the Suns’ issues, they are still 35-33 and just two and a half games behind the Pelicans and Thunder in the standings.

Unfortunately, the Suns face teams like the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks (twice), Portland Trail Blazers (twice), Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers to close out the season. Their biggest games will come against the New Orleans Pelicans, who they will face once at home and once on the road. The Suns lost to the Pelicans in New Orleans in their one and only meeting so far this season.

The Suns have the talent to make a late season surge, but they are just 5-5 in their last 10 games and have not shown us much reason to think it will happen at this point. There is a potential opportunity to make up some ground with the Pelicans and Thunder both struggling with injuries right now, but then again, the Suns have failed to capitalize on opportunities all season.

Honorable Mention

Utah Jazz

At 30-36, the Utah Jazz are essentially out of the running for the playoffs. However, they are the hottest team in the league right now, winning nine of their last 10 games while playing stifling defense.

The Jazz are six and a half games behind the Thunder and Pelicans, with just 16 games remaining for Utah. They would need to basically be perfect the rest of the season, and hope that the Thunder and Pelicans fall off their pace, which is unlikely to happen.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder has done an excellent job developing and coaching his young group of players. The Jazz likely won’t make the postseason, but they have a bright future and a playoff berth may come as early as next season.

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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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