NBA Playoff Picture: Everything you need to know about the crowded West field

Yahoo Sports

Every day there’s movement in the race for the Western Conference’s final six playoff seeds behind the runaway favorites in Houston and Golden State. Portland’s win over Minnesota on Thursday night made the field even more crowded, with just one loss separating the third seed from the ninth seed.

It’s tough to see the the horizon through the window of ever-changing standings, so we’ll do our best here to regularly paint a big picture of the landscape for each team as they look to avoid the lottery.

Will the loss of <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4912/" data-ylk="slk:Jimmy Butler">Jimmy Butler</a> send the Timberwolves spiraling? (AP)
Will the loss of Jimmy Butler send the Timberwolves spiraling? (AP)
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MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (38-27, currently in third place)
• Half-game up on third place, 3.5 games up on ninth place

Projected record: 48-34
Net rating: 3.0
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 17-9
Games left against teams above .500
: 11
Home games left: 9
Road games left
: 8

• The Wolves own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Pelicans, Thunder and Clippers. They are also 2-0 with two games left against both the Nuggets and Jazz. Minnesota currently holds a division-record tiebreaker against the Blazers and will break a season series tie with the Spurs on March 17.

Good news: The Wolves got a great head start. They’re just one game up in the loss column on the ninth-place Clippers, but they’ve got at least two wins in hand on the field (and six on the Clips). After playing the Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back on Friday, the Wolves have five days off (no small concession for a Tom Thibodeau-coached team) before playing 16 games in the final 35 days of the regular season. And Karl-Anthony Towns has been a plus/minus beast since Thanksgiving, helping to make Minnesota 21.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in that span — one of many reasons the Wolves are an impressive 22-17 against teams with a .500 record or better.

Bad news: They lost All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, the team’s other anchor — and its defensive heartbeat. The Wolves have played two games (win over Sacramento, loss to Portland) since Butler suffered a torn right meniscus that could keep him out for the next six weeks. Now, they face a brutal stretch without him, playing their next seven games against teams vying for playoff positioning (at Jazz, vs. Celtics, vs. Warriors, at Wizards, at Spurs, vs. Rockets). And the shallow Wolves have allowed an abysmal 113.6 points per 100 possessions in 1,063 minutes with Butler on the bench.

• Upcoming: at Utah (March 2), vs. Boston (March 8)

The Blazers are in good hands with <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5012/" data-ylk="slk:Damian Lillard">Damian Lillard</a> and C.J. McCollum. (AP)
The Blazers are in good hands with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. (AP)

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (36-26, currently in fourth place)
• Half-game behind third place, three games up on ninth place

Projected record: 47-35
Net rating: 1.1
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 10-14
Games left against teams above .500: 14
Home games left: 11
Road games left: 9

• The Blazers currently own conference-record tiebreakers against the Spurs and Clippers. They’re 2-0 against the Thunder with two head-to-head games left this month. They trail their season series against the Pelicans, Nuggets and Jazz with one game left against each to even the score. Portland finished 2-2 against Minnesota, but the Timberwolves currently hold a division-record tiebreaker. 

Good news: The Blazers have been consistently good, and even better since the turn of the calendar, carrying a 27-17 record in 2018. Their core is accustomed to winning, with four straight playoff berths under their belt, and it’s hard to imagine that changing so long as they continue to stay healthy. Terry Stotts has done well to field consistently productive lineups, and it helps that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are solidly in the black in their 1,429 minutes on the floor together this season.

Bad news: The Blazers have not been great against playoff competition, and eight of their remaining 20 games are against the seven teams vying for the West’s six open playoff spots. They have 14 games left against teams with winning records, and their seeding (if not their season) could come down to the final four games, when they visit the Rockets, Spurs and Nuggets before returning home for the regular-season finale against the Jazz. They’re depending on Lillard’s closing skills more than ever.

• Upcoming: vs. Oklahoma City (March 3), at L.A. Lakers (March 5), vs. New York (March 6)

SAN ANTONIO SPURS (36-26, currently in fifth place)
• Half-game behind third place, three games up on ninth place

Projected record: 46-36
Net rating: 3.2
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 7-14
Games left against teams above .500: 15
Home games left: 12
Road games left: 8

• The Spurs own the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Clippers. They currently hold the conference-record tiebreaker against the Nuggets. They lost their season series against the Jazz. A March 7 game against the Blazers will determine that tiebreaker. They’ve split two meetings against the Thunder with two to play, and they must win both remaining games against the Pelicans to even that series.

Good news: The Spurs finally received encouraging news on the Kawhi Leonard front, as the star forward is now expected to return this month. If Leonard is anything close to the two-time First Team All-NBA wing and Defensive Player of the Year for the stretch run, it’s hard to imagine the Spurs falling out of the race, especially since they play just two back-to-backs the rest of the season. They have the best coach of the bunch, and they haven’t won fewer than 50 games since the Clinton administration.

Bad news: If it feels like Gregg Popovich has patched the Spurs together with smoke and mirrors without Leonard’s services for all but nine games this season, it’s because he has. San Antonio has pounded sub-.500 teams, outscoring them by 10.4 points per 100 possessions. Against teams with winning records? The Spurs own a negative net rating (minus-0.9 points per 100) and a 13-21 record. Even worse news: They play 15 of their final 20 games against teams playing .500 ball or better.

• Upcoming: vs. L.A. Lakers (March 3), vs. Memphis (March 5), at Golden State (March 8)

Anthony Davis is chasing more than a playoff spot. (AP)
Anthony Davis is chasing more than a playoff spot. (AP)

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (35-26, currently in sixth place)
• One game behind third place, 2.5 games up on ninth place

Projected record: 46-36
Net rating: 1.0
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 10-15
Games left against teams above .500: 14
Home games left: 12
Road games left: 9

• The Pelicans own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Thunder. They’ve lost season series to the Wolves and Nuggets. They’re leading their season series against the Blazers, 2-1, with one game to play. They must win a March 11 game against the Jazz to even that series. They’ve split two games with the Clippers with two to play, and their March 15 game against the Spurs will break a head-to-head tie.

Good news: Anthony Davis is a godsend. Since DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending ruptured left Achilles injury in late January, Davis is averaging 33.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.8 combined blocks/steals and 2.2 assists, including another monster double-double in a win over the Spurs on Wednesday night. The Pelicans have won a season-high seven straight games, and Davis is building an MVP case with each passing victory. Resurgent play from Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and Emeka Okafor (!) has helped, and their recent stretch of success has coincided with the arrival of Nikola Mirotic.

Bad news: Despite rising to nine games above .500 and fifth in the West (even with the third-place Wolves in the loss column), the Pelicans continued to operate like a .500 team. They’re sub-.500 in the Western Conference and exactly 18-18 against teams with winning records this season. Their net rating has hovered right around even all season, and their actually being narrowly outscored per 100 possessions since losing Cousins. That could catch up to them, either before or after they close the season against the Warriors, Clippers and Spurs, unless Davis continues to play like a superhuman.

• Upcoming: at Dallas (March 4), at L.A. Clippers (March 6), at Sacramento (March 7)

Can Russell Westbrook and Paul George carry the Thunder by themselves? (AP)
Can Russell Westbrook and Paul George carry the Thunder by themselves? (AP)

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (36-27, currently in seventh place)
• One game behind third place, 2.5 games up on ninth place

Projected record: 47-35
Net rating: 2.6
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 11-12
Games left against teams above .500: 14
Home games left: 10
Road games left: 9

• The Thunder own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Jazz and Clippers. They lost season series to the Wolves and Pelicans. They’ve split two games against the Spurs with two to play. They must win their final game against the Nuggets and their last two against the Blazers to forge ties in those series.

Good news: They’re front-loaded with firepower. Russell Westbrook is quietly (for him) hovering around another triple-double campaign (24.9 points, a league-leading 10.3 assists and 9.6 rebounds per game), even if that 28.5 percent shooting from 3-point range is a sore spot. And Paul George has been a monster since Christmas, averaging 24.9 points (on 62.6 true shooting), 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists, all while being a First Team All-Defensive caliber player. And Steven Adams just does work.

Bad news: If Carmelo Anthony is saving himself for the playoffs, he better start taking risks now, because the Thunder need reinforcements. They’ve been average against teams in their conference, where they play 14 of their final 19 games, they’ve been worse against the teams they’re chasing for a playoff spot, and they face a brutal slate for almost a full month from March 16 to April 9: vs. Clippers, at Raptors, at Celtics, vs. Heat, vs. Blazers, at Spurs, vs. Nuggets, at Pelicans, vs. Warriors, at Rockets and at Heat. What a blow it would be to their chances of keeping George if they miss the playoffs.

• Upcoming: at Phoenix (March 2), at Portland (March 3), vs. Houston (March 6), vs. Phoenix (March 8) 

The return of Paul Millsap could provide a boost for Denver. (AP)
The return of Paul Millsap could provide a boost for Denver. (AP)

DENVER NUGGETS (33-28, currently in eighth place)
• Three games behind third place, half-game up on ninth place

Projected record: 44-38
Net rating: 0.2
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 12-16
Games left against teams above .500: 13
Home games left: 8
Road games left: 13

• The Nuggets own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Pelicans, and they lost their season series to the Clippers. They split season series against the Jazz and Spurs, holding a division-record tiebreaker against Utah and trailing a conference-record tiebreaker to San Antonio. They lead series against the Thunder and Blazers, 2-1, with one game to play apiece. And they must win their final two games against the Timberwolves to even that series.

Good news: After three months without their big-name free agency signing, the Nuggets returned Paul Millsap from a wrist injury on Tuesday. He was still getting his legs back in a tough two-point loss to a Clippers that trails them by a half-game in the standings, but Millsap should provide a defensive boost to a team in desperate need of one. Denver should also benefit from playing just five more games against their Western Conference competitors — the fewest of all eight teams in the mix.

Bad news: The Nuggets just haven’t been that good all season, especially over the past two months, when their net rating has dropped into the red. Their homecourt advantage has given them some cushion, but they’re just 9-19 away from home, with 13 of their final 21 games on the road — the worst travel schedule of any of these teams. And this 10-game finish to the season is rough: at Wizards, at 76ers, at Raptors, at Thunder, vs. Bucks, vs. Pacers, vs. Wolves, at Clippers, vs. Blazers and at Wolves.

• Upcoming: at Memphis (March 2), at Cleveland (March 3), at Dallas (March 6), vs. Cleveland (March 7)

The Clippers need Avery Bradley back for the stretch run. (AP)
The Clippers need Avery Bradley back for the stretch run. (AP)

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (32-28, currently in ninth place)
• Half-game behind eighth place, 3.5 games behind third place

Projected record: 45-37
Net rating: 0.7
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 8-15
Games left against teams above .500: 16
Home games left: 12
Road games left: 10

• The Clippers own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Nuggets. They lost season series to the Wolves, Spurs and Thunder. They’ve split their first two meetings with the Blazers and Pelicans with two games apiece to play. And they must win an April 5 game against the Jazz to forge a series tie.

Good news: The Clippers are 7-3 since inserting the players they got back in the Blake Griffin trade into the lineup, including wins over the Celtics and Nuggets. Granted, they’ve benefited from playing a number of tanking teams, but two of the losses also came against the Warriors and Rockets. Tobias Harris has arguably been an upgrade over Griffin, Boban Marjanovic has even given them some run, and if they can get Avery Bradley back from a groin injury sooner rather than later, this is a deep team.

Bad news: The injury bug bit Danilo Gallinari once again, as a hand injury has kept him from the last two games, and Lou Williams has fallen back to Earth a bit in February after submitting an All-Star-worthy season through the season’s first three months. The Clippers are shallow on star players, and now is when they might miss them most. Nine of their final 22 games are against these seven other teams, and the Clippers own a 5-11 record against that group. The schedule doesn’t get any easier outside of that, either, with games also left against the Rockets, Raptors, Cavaliers, Bucks and Pacers.

• Upcoming: vs. New York (March 2), vs. Brooklyn (March 4), vs. New Orleans (March 6)

Can the Jazz tap into Jae Crowder’s talents in time for the playoffs? (AP)
Can the Jazz tap into Jae Crowder’s talents in time for the playoffs? (AP)

UTAH JAZZ (31-30, currently in 10th place)
• Two games behind eighth place, five games behind third place

Projected record: 44-38
Net rating: 1.6
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 13-13
Games left against teams above .500: 10
Home games left: 11
Road games left: 10

• The Jazz own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Spurs and lost their season series to the Thunder. They currently own a division-record tiebreaker against the Nuggets. They lead season series against the Blazers, Pelicans and Clippers, 2-1, with one game to play apiece. They must win their two remaining games against the Timberwolves to forge a tie in that series.

Good news: The Jazz have been the best of this bunch since Jan. 1, outscoring opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions — the equivalent of a top-four team. Their defense has been predictably solid all season, with Rudy Gobert patrolling the middle, and the offense has improved along with rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell and the reemergence of do-everything wing Joe Ingles. The Jazz also have the easiest remaining slate, with the majority of their remaining games coming against losing teams.

Bad news: Utah has a mountain two climb, with at least two more losses and as many as five fewer wins than the teams they’re chasing. That’s tough, even with an easier schedule and tiebreakers against both the Nuggets and Clippers under their control. It took time for Quinn Snyder to strike the right balance with his lineups after a roster overhaul in the summer, and the trades of Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson are another wrench. The Jazz are running out of time to keep the rhythm.

• Upcoming: vs. Minnesota (March 2), at Sacramento (March 3), vs. Orlando (March 5), at Indiana (March 7)

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