Handicapping the NBA Western Conference Playoff Race
by Trevor Whenham - 3/13/2014
We are in for one heck of a war in the NBA's Western Conference between now and the end of the regular season. There are three teams worthy of making the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed, and there are only two playoff spots for them. Memphis and Dallas are currently tied for the spots, with Phoenix just a game back. Memphis is dangerous, Phoenix is thrilling, and Dallas has long been built he right way, so it's hard to cheer against any of them.
Since the Suns would currently be sitting in third place if they played in the Eastern Conference, there has also never been a better argument for a crossover formula like they have in the CFL, but that's another discussion (If the fourth-place team in one conference has a better record than the third-place team in the other conference in the CFL then four teams from one conference and two from the other make the postseason). What is worthy of discussion here, though, is which of these three teams is most likely to be left on the outside looking in:
Recent form: Phoenix does not shine on this front. They have won just four games in their last 10. It's not completely humiliating - their losses have included games against the Clippers (twice), Golden State and Houston, and they did beat Oklahoma City. They need to be doing consistently better against elite opponents to prove that they are worthy of the playoffs, though.
Dallas is doing better, going 6-4 over their last 10. They have lost four of their last six, though, so if you tighten the time frame, they don't fare well.
On this front Memphis has the clear edge. They have gone 7-3, and they actually have wins in 10 of their last 13. Of some concern, though, is that all three losses have come on the road, and two came at opponents - Brooklyn and Charlotte - that this team should not be losing to.
Play against conference: Because of the massive disparity between the conferences in the NBA this year, the best simple measure of how these teams stack up is how they have done against their own conference. While all three teams are above .500, and have similar records, Phoenix has a slight edge here. They have a 23-19 record against the West compared to 20-19 for Memphis and 19-18 for Dallas.
When you compare all three of these records to the rest of the conference, you understand why these squads are the ones fighting for playoff scraps. Oklahoma City, for example, is 28-11 against the West. What stands out most when you look at the numbers, though, is how incredibly horrible the Grizzlies have been against their own division. Sure, they have it tough playing in the Southwest with San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. They are an ugly 2-11 against those foes plus New Orleans, though, and both of the wins came on consecutive nights against Houston. That's just not good enough, and it makes it hard to really trust this team in any meaningful way.
Remaining schedule: Dallas has an edge here in one sense - they have played three fewer home games than the other two, so they will have a slightly friendlier path the rest of the way. They have played two more games than Phoenix or Memphis, though, so that mitigates much of the advantage at home.
In what is nearly perfect scheduling by the league, Memphis finishes their season with a trip to Phoenix followed by a home game against Dallas, so this race could really come down to the last possible moment.
Health: Injuries are not going to be an excuse for any team in this race - at least not at this point. The closest thing to a concerning injury for any team is Eric Bledsoe's knee, but the Phoenix guard is returning to the lineup now after having been out of the lineup all of this calendar year. His return should be a boost for his squad. The other two teams are not dealing with any major injury concerns.
Coaching: Dallas has the clear edge here. Rick Carlisle has been an NBA head coach since 2001, and he has won a title with Dallas. David Joerger in Memphis and Jeff Hornacek with Phoenix, meanwhile, are both currently in their first years as head coaches, so they are going to be covering a lot of new ground heading down the stretch. Neither guy is hopeless, though - Hornacek was named coach of the month for the conference in December, and Joerger earned the same honor in February.
Joerger could have the edge over Hornacek because he was a long-time assistant in Memphis before taking over as head coach, so he better knows what buttons to push in the clutch than Hornacek, who was with the Jazz until this year.
What the oddsmakers say: Though I haven't yet seen prop bets about which team will be left out of the playoffs, we can learn a lot about the opinion of oddsmakers by looking at the odds of the three teams to win the Western Conference. At Bovada, Memphis is the seventh choice to win the conference at 25/1. Dallas is close behind at 33/1, with Phoenix a distant third at 50/1.
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