It’s been a while since the Western Conference wasn’t jam-packed with high-end teams, and this season is no exception. If anything, it’s been even more absurdly competitive.
Five teams will almost certainly finish with 50 wins, and at least one team with a win total in the mid-40s is guaranteed to miss the playoffs. We know this because as of this writing, the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies own the 7-9 seeds with identical 43-30 records. Last I checked, only eight teams make the postseason.
The race is getting down to the wire, and it’s a helluva lotta fun to watch.
According to ESPN’s latest “Hollinger Playoff odds,” Memphis is looking at a 74.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, with Dallas at 67.9 and Phoenix at 58.0.
For those unfamiliar with this system, the results are created after a computer “plays out the remainder of the season 5,000 times to see the potential range of projected outcomes.” It’s like the movie War Games minus the threat of accidental World War III. The discrepancy comes in part as a result of varying strengths of schedule. With that in mind, here’s a look at how their respective schedules shake out:
3/31 at Denver
4/2 at Minnesota
4/4 vs. Denver
4/6 at San Antonio
4/9 vs. Miami
4/11 vs. Philadelphia
4/13 at Lakers
4/14 at Phoenix
4/16 vs. Dallas
4/1 vs. Golden State
4/3 at Clippers
4/4 at Lakers
4/6 at Sacramento
4/8 at Utah
4/10 vs. San Antonio
4/12 vs. Phoenix
4/16 at Memphis
4/2 vs. Clippers
4/4 at Portland
4/6 vs. Oklahoma City
4/9 at New Orleans
4/11 at San Antonio
4/12 at Dallas
4/14 vs. Memphis
4/16 at Sacramento
In my estimation, the most difficult schedule by far belongs to Phoenix, who’ll face a slate made up 75 percent of Western Conference playoff caliber teams. Memphis has the easiest go, with less than half of their opponents jockeying for the second season. (Of course, they also face the Sixers, who are as hot right now as they’ve been all season.) And Dallas is in the middle. But nobody’s gifted a cakewalk, and as an added bonus, all three will be pitted against each other during the last week of the season.
Doesn’t get much better than that.
The Suns were expected to be among those collecting ping-pong balls in a race to grab Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. Instead, Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and rookie coach Jeff Hornacek led a young, athletic core well ahead of their projected learning curve to among the more surprising campaigns in recent history.
The Dallas Mavericks were pegged a fringe playoff team whose biggest offseason acquisition (Monta Ellis) sparked derision. Ellis in turn carved out his best season in years, and is a big reason the Mavs have stayed in the hunt despite a sieve defense.
Anticipated among the conference’s elite, a slew of early injuries (in particular to Marc Gasol and Tony Allen) led to a standings nosedive for the Grizz, and many wrote them off for dead. But the Grit n’ Grind Gang held tough, got healthy, and clawed their way back into the thick of it. You know how many two-game losing streaks they’ve had since Jan. 1 arrived? Only two.
Ultimately, any of these teams getting in would be a cool story in its own right, and would reflect the collective resolve of the roster and staff. Somebody, however, is going to be left out, which won’t be an easy pill to swallow, particularly since residence east of the Mississippi River would have guaranteed not just a postseason berth, but a round of homecourt advantage by a country mile.
As the saying goes, “location, location, location.”
On to the rankings.
|Not only winning (17 straight) but resting players, too. No Spurs player has averaged even 31 minutes a game in March.||1|
|It’s easy to overreact to stuff like this, but on the other hand you’ll never see a Spurs player sent to the locker room by his coach, as Glen Davis was Saturday.||2|
|3||THUNDER(54-19)||Fair or not, this spring is shaping up to be a weeks-long referendum on Russell Westbrook. Perfect accompaniment to the previous referendums on Russell Westbrook.||3|
|Might be better off as a 2-seed, if it means missing the Chicago/Brooklyn winner. Even losing Wednesday, they’re still playing much better ball than Indy.||7|
|Even before Sunday’s loss in Cleveland, the Pacers had devolved into a terrible road team. Now 2-8 in their last 10, and the two wins were in Philly and Detroit.||6|
|Losing Patrick Beverly indefinitely is the type of thing taking the Rockets from dark horse Finals candidate to potential first-round loser.||4|
|Wonder what Mark Jackson’s coaching staff had to say to him after Sunday’s killer loss to the Knicks in Oakland. 84 points? Against that D?||5|
|The loss Sunday in L.A. is a killer, because now the sked gets real: Of their eight remaining games, six are against the LAC, Portland, OKC, San Antonio, Dallas, and Memphis.||11|
|9||GRIZZLIES(43-30)||Big advantage over Phoenix is their schedule. The Grizz still have games against Minny, Denver, Philly, and the Lakers.||9|
|Might win 50 games and still miss the top 8. Could also finish as high as sixth. Tuesday’s game against the Warriors will be critical.||8|
|If they can pick up a win over the three-game stretch starting Monday in Miami (then at home vs. HOU and IND), the rest of the slate is easy enough to hold the 3.||12|
|3-6 vs. +.500 teams in March. Take the starch out of people defensively, but an inability to score makes them unlikely to make real noise in the postseason.||13|
|The NBA’s sixth-best O and eight-best D, fifth-best efficiency differential this month. The Nets are shaping up to be a scary postseason draw.||14|
|Nice to have LMA back. Sunday’s W vs. Grizz was Portland’s first win over a Western Conference playoff contender since Jan. 18 (at Dallas).||10|
|K-Love’s March – 24.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 40 percent from downtown – only looks small compared to his MVP caliber February.||16|
|Who says nobody wants to face the Bulls in playoffs. These guys, who appear locked into 6th, are 2-0 vs. Chicago, 1-3 vs. Toronto. Wall’s maturation deserves headlines, but support of Ariza and Gortat has been huge.||15|
|A seven-seed feels likely, but with two games remaining against Washington (plus two vs. Philly, and games with Boston, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Orlando) moving up is possible.||17|
|In 13 games as a starter, Tyreke Evans is averaging 21.4 points, 5.5 boards, and 6.8 assists while shooting 52 percent (vs. 40 as a reserve).||21|
|Sunday’s upset in Oakland was critical, because NY faces a brutal April in which they see nothing but playoff teams.||18|
|A marginal team when everyone was healthy, the wheels have come off Brian Shaw’s wagon as injuries pile up.||20|
|Back up five straight wins with six straight losses. In a normal year, they’d be safely in the lottery and put out of their misery. This year, they have the Knicks and Cavs chasing them.||19|
|Wins in four of five – including against the Knicks, Toronto, and Sunday in Indy – leaves them still sniffing an 8-seed. All with Kyrie Irving sidelined.||23|
|Looked like they were getting back to reality with losses to Milwaukee and Minnesota before shocking the on Suns Sunday. Good win for morale, bad for the lottery.||26|
|In a season where tanking is front and center, you can’t accuse the Kings of any chicanery. Which, it could be argued, makes their lack of success that much more disturbing.||22|
|Brad Stevens had the C’s defending early in the year, but the second half hasn’t been kind. Boston is entrenched as a bottom-third squad efficiency-wise this month.||27|
|April can’t come fast enough. The Jazz will tote a 2-14 record (and the NBA’s worst efficiency differential this month) into Monday’s March finale vs. the Knicks in Salt Lake City.||25|
|Lack of competition has allowed Victor Oladipo to make headway in the ROY race, but big picture he’s been a model of rookie inefficiency this year.||28|
|If only they could play the Lakers 82 times a year, nobody would call them tankers.||29|
|Name a team in the league with a better point differential since Saturday night than the Sixers? I’ll wait…||30|
|At some point, a team was bound to lose to the Sixers… and that team was bound to drop to the bottom of these rankings, at least for a week.||24|
Andy Kamenetzky is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. Follow him and his brother, Brian, on Twitter.