Expert NBA Handicapping: Which West Teams Could Sneak into Playoffs?
Things have changed so much in the NBA in recent years that much of what we had grown to believe was a fact of life is changing right in front of our eyes. Case in point - the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race. For a long time now, it has been the East that is ridiculously top-heavy and which allowed terrible teams into the postseason in the bottom spots, giving top teams a virtual first-round bye. In the West, meanwhile, we saw very good teams - teams that would have been deep into it in the East - not even making the playoffs in the West.
This year, things have changed a little. We are still all but certain to have a sub-.500 team in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but just one as it sits now. But there are only six good teams in the West right now, so we are very likely going to have two pretty lousy postseason squads. The two teams from L.A. are the class of the conference, with the Mavs, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz rounding up the truly solid teams. The rest? Various degrees of yuck.
The thing we can be sure of is that there will be eight playoff teams. No squad will forfeit those guaranteed home games, even if they have absolutely no chance of winning them. But who are those two playoff teams likely to be? And how does that shape up the rest of the regular season? As we adjust to our new reality, let's take a look:
Oklahoma City Thunder (13-14): Billy Donovan is doing a heck of a job coaching, and the team has feasted on a weak recent schedule to climb right into this race. They have an oddly constructed roster - three of their four leading scorers are natural point guards - and they are a long way from actually contending, so it is a good bet that they will be active as the trade deadline nears. The odds have them tied with Phoenix and San Antonio at +6600 to win the division, which is the eighth-best price. I lean much more towards them winding up out than in.
Sacramento Kings (12-15): I like this team a lot more than oddsmakers do - they are at +15000 to win the division, which has them tied with Golden State and ahead of only Memphis. I obviously don't think they are going to win anything of note, but De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley are both finally back from injury, and this team has more young talent than those around them right now. This is a playoff team in my eyes - one that will get humiliated in the first round, but a playoff team nonetheless.
Portland Trail Blazers (12-16): Things aren't as bad as the Warriors, but the injuries and setbacks this team has faced is still very tough to watch. They just can't stay healthy. And they were forced to add Carmelo Anthony, which has been an offensive boost, but he is such a defensive liability that the impact is minimal in the end. They should be better, but they aren't, and they don't seem to be moving in the right direction. With the backcourt they have, they should be a playoff lock, and oddsmakers have them well ahead of the rest of this pack of losers at +2500 to win the division. If the team were to miss the playoffs at this point, though, would you be even a little shocked? Sometimes you just have to write a season off, forget it, and move on.
Phoenix Suns (11-16): Their strong early start was a great story, and perhaps a sign of things to come. But then reality set in and they remembered who they are. They get a boost now as Deandre Ayton's 25-game suspension has come to an end. I find it really hard to judge this team right now because he was gone. I like them less than Sacramento right now, but maybe more than everyone else here. They are in the mix. I guess. Man, the bottom of this conference is terrible right now.
Minnesota Timberwolves (10-16): What a mess. This team has dropped eight in a row to fall from above .500 to 11th in the conference. They can't play defense even sort of right now, and it is sabotaging everything they are trying to do. Every time they step on the court, they serve as a reminder of what happens when maximum contracts are used incorrectly. They shouldn't be as bad as they have been the last couple of weeks, but they aren't nearly as good as they were at the start, either. It's time for scorched earth with this franchise, because what they are doing just isn't working. They are at +10000 to win the division, so oddsmakers are not even sort of into these guys - and with good reason.
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