The NBA season will likely resume July 31 in Orlando, Florida, with 22 teams invited to play eight regular season games to determine playoff seeding, with a play-in series on tap should the eighth and ninth seeds be within four games of each other.
Of the six Western Conference teams vying for the eighth spot — the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings — the Pelicans are the best bet to make the playoffs.
The Phoenix Suns, in contrast, are least likely to claim the final seed — as the 13th seed, they’re lucky even to have been invited to Orlando. Furthermore, the Suns have perhaps the hardest remaining schedule of any of these teams. Phoenix has lost five of its past seven games and is projected to play against legitimate playoff contenders in seven out of its eight games.
The San Antonio Spurs epitomize the saying “all great things must come to an end.” Although they are currently tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for an NBA record of 22 consecutive playoff appearances, the Spurs are looking like huge underdogs — the squad just lost starting forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who was pumping out about 18.9 points per game, to a season-ending shoulder surgery. San Antonio is only two games ahead of the meager Phoenix Suns, and its schedule also looks to be very difficult. Six out of its eight remaining games will likely pit it against current playoff teams, and every team it will play boasts a better record than theirs.
The Sacramento Kings are sitting 3.5 games behind Memphis but have won 13 of their past 20 games. Sacramento had plenty of momentum before the shutdown, but its inconsistent young core coupled with its 18th-ranked offensive and defensive efficiency suggests its momentum won’t carry. De’Aaron Fox was on a tear, but even he can’t make up for the Kings’ sloppy starts. Although Sacramento’s schedule isn’t the toughest, it won’t be easy for the team to make up 3.5 games while contending with offensive juggernauts such as the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks.
The Portland Trail Blazers have a better chance than the Suns, Spurs or Kings do. Superstar Damian Lillard came under fire for a comment calling the remaining games in the abbreviated season “meaningless,” but Portland won’t be playing any meaningless games — every matchup on the schedule will be extremely crucial to making or breaking its playoff hopes. The Trail Blazers likely have to face a current playoff team in every game and incorporate former starting center Jusuf Nurkić back into the lineup. Although getting Nurkić back is a plus, it will take him more than eight games to get acclimated after being out for more than a year due to a leg injury. The Trail Blazers will truly need to blaze a trail in order to make a postseason run.
The Memphis Grizzlies currently hold the final playoff spot, but they have a tough schedule ahead of them, and the competition for the last seed will give many bubble teams some extra motivation. On top of this challenge, Memphis will also have to face the likes of the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the best record in the league, the Utah Jazz, who are the current fourth seed and who have won five out of the past six games, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, arguably the hottest team in the NBA before the pandemic-induced shutdown.
The New Orleans Pelicans are currently the 10th seed, but they are the best pick to make the playoffs, with a light schedule that includes only three current Western Conference playoff teams and two games against Memphis, a team the Pelicans have proven they can beat. In two regular season matchups, the Pelicans won quite comfortably, winning by 10 points in the first game without star forward Zion Williamson and routing the Grizzlies by 28 points in the second contest. Although history suggests that regular season matchups aren’t conclusive, those games are currently the best litmus test we have for a hopeful New Orleans team.
What the Pelicans lack in playoff experience, they make up for in depth and versatility. Rookie sensation Williamson has taken much of the spotlight as of late, averaging almost 24 points and seven rebounds per game. Besides Williamson, the Pelicans probably have the best defensive backcourt in the league in Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday. In addition, they have All-Star Brandon Ingram and veteran sharpshooter JJ Redick giving them plenty of offensive firepower. The Pelicans’ dynamic roster makes them a scary potential No. 8 seed opponent for any other playoff contender.
Justin Kim writes for Bear Bytes. Contact him at [email protected].