Predicting the Race for the Western Conference Playoffs

Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs trying to stop Kevin Durant and the Thunder from taking the 1st seed in the West. - Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

With less than twenty games to go in the regular season, it's time to take a look at the race for playoff seeding. The weak East is pretty much set but the other conference is a whole 'nother story. The West is a dog fight from top to bottom.

In the following piece, I looked at each Western Conference team that is still in the playoff hunt and broke down their remaining games according to number of home/away games and games against playoff bound/hopeful teams, which for me, includes the current 1-8 seeds in the East, and nearly the entire West, save for Sacramento, Phoenix, New Orleans and Minnesota. It's not scientific, and if I broke down each remaining game one by one, this article would be much, much too long…it's long in its current form. Let me know your predictions and what I got wrong in the comments below.


Western Standings

GP W-L PCT
San Antonio Spurs 65 49-16 .754
Oklahoma City Thunder 65 48-17 .738
Memphis Grizzlies 63 44-19 .698
Los Angeles Clippers 66 45-21 .681
Denver Nuggets 66 44-22 .667
Golden State Warriors 66 37-29 .561
Houston Rockets 65 35-30 .538
Los Angeles Lakers 66 34-32 .515
Utah Jazz 65 33-32 .508
Dallas Mavericks 63 30-33 .476
Portland Trail Blazers 63 29-34 .460
Minnesota Timberwolves 62 22-40 .355
Sacramento Kings 66 23-43 .348
Phoenix Suns 65 22-43 .338
New Orleans Hornets 65 22-43 .338


The Battle for the Top Seed

This comes down to the Spurs and the OKC Thunder (the Clippers are unlikely to be a threat for this anymore, and are currently in 4th place, beneath the Grizzlies). The Spurs have 17 games left (11 at home, 6 away), the same amount as the Thunder, who have 8 at home and 9 away. The Spurs have a relatively tough schedule up ahead, facing 12 playoff bound or playoff hopeful teams in the process. Some nuggets: they face OKC once again, Golden State twice, Denver twice, and Miami, Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, the Lakers, and the Jazz. The Thunder have a slightly easier schedule compared to the Spurs, even though they have more away games than SAS, facing off against 12 playoff bound/hopeful teams, most on the bottom half in the playoff seeding. Significant games include Portland twice, Milwaukee twice, Utah, Indiana, New York, Denver, GS, Memphis, and of course San Antonio amongst their toughest match ups. With only a single game lead over the Thunder after falling to Minnesota, the Spurs will have a difficult time holding on to the 1st seed in the West, and overall as well, as Miami has a pretty easy schedule coming up, with only 8 out of their remaining 19 games against playoff bound/hopeful teams. Their toughest opponents include Boston (twice), Chicago (twice), Milwaukee (twice), San Antonio and New York. They also face off against Orlando twice, Cleveland twice, Charlotte twice and Detroit, Washington and New Orleans, all lottery bound teams. This will likely result in a 64-18 record, as I can only see them realistically at most four times, barring injury or massive resting during the last week. I can even see them reaching 66-16. They've already locked up a playoff berth in the super-weak East, where they currently hold a 9.5 game lead over the 2nd place Indiana Pacers. If the Pacers were in the West, they would be 6th, way below Denver and just above Golden State.

If all goes well for the Spurs, they can squeak by OKC for the first seed in West, but will lose out to the Heat for the best seed overall, losing a crucial home court advantage against the defending champions. I don't want to call any games, but even without Tony Parker, the Spurs *should* be able to take care of at almost half of the games remaining, beating the likes of Sacramento, Atlanta, Orlando, Utah, Cleveland and Dallas with ease. These games amount to eight of their last 19 games. If they split their remaining 11 (go 6-5, which is likely, due to Tony missing a month), they will end with a 62-20 record. Considering their current record of 24-10 against teams over .500 (70%), they could go 8-3 and finish with a 64-18 record. The Spurs face off against nearly every team fighting for the last three seeds in the West, meaning they will have a huge hand in deciding who makes the playoffs and where they end up. They play the Lakers on April 14th, the second to last week of the season, in what will be a heated game with playoff seeding implications. Oklahoma City has 10 games against lesser opponents remaining, likely dispatching Milwaukee, Sacramento, Minnesota, Orlando and Washington with relative ease. If they split the other 9 games, they will end up with 61-21 record, just a single game behind the Spurs. If they follow their record of 21-14 (60%) against teams with a record of .500 or better, they will end with a 62-20 record. These next few games can make a huge difference if they are to meet in the Western Conference Finals, and is a race that Pounders should keep an eye on. The Spurs will need to focus in their two upcoming games against the Thunder, because if they tie the season matchup, AND end up tied overall, they will fall to the second seed, seeing as their current conference record is 27-12 compared to 31-10 for OKC. Of course the Spurs' record will depend on Pop's decision to rest players and whether or not he is willing to overplay his players. While I am all for being safe, some of our guys need to be able to play more than 35 minutes a night if they are to have a chance in the playoffs.

Settling 3 Through 5

The Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets are within two games of each other, making the battle for these three middle spots as close as the one for the 6-8 seeds. Memphis (44-19), LAC (45-21) and Denver (44-22) are trying to get in the top half of the West, as that will assure them home court for at least a single round.

Memphis has a tough schedule up ahead, with 13 games out of 19 against playoff bound/hopeful teams. 11 of them are away, and 8 are at home. If they win their match ups against the lottery bound teams, and split the 15 remaining games (8-7), they can end up at 56-26. Their record against .500 or better teams is 21-13, good for 62%. If they win 62% of their more difficult games, their record will be 9-6, with a record of 57-25. Their next game against the Clipper will be crucial to their hopes for a top 3 or 4 seed. If they lose the last game between the two, they will stand a good chance at dropping to 5th due to their worse conference record.

LAC has 16 games left, with half of them from Staples Center, where they have one of the best home records in the league, at 24-7. 10 of their games come against playoff bound/hopeful teams; if they split these and win the other eight, they will come out with a 57-25 record, giving the franchise their first ever 50 win season. Their toughest games come against Memphis (twice), New York, San Antonio, Indiana, Houston and Portland. If they follow their 63% rate versus .500 teams or better, they will win 6 out of 10 and likely 5 out of the 6 against easier opponents, their record will be 56-26.

Denver has 16 games left, with (again, like the Clippers) 7 games away from Mile High City but more (9) at home, where they have the second best record in the league, at 29-3. Applying the same logic as I have for the previous few teams, the Nuggets have 12 of these 16 games against playoff bound/hopeful teams, facing the Spurs twice, Dallas twice, Memphis, OKC, Houston, Chicago and Portland as their toughest competition. If they follow their 66% rate versus .500 teams or better, they will win 8 out of 12 and likely 3 out of the 4 against easier opponents, making their record 55-27, just above the Clippers, and tied with the Grizzlies. The Nuggets lead the season series 2-1, and their remaining matchup is in Denver, which the Nuggets are likely to win. This will drop the Grizzlies from their current perch at 3rd to 4th, and forced to face the Clippers instead of an easier team like the Warriors or the Rockets.

Who Will Make the Playoffs?

The 6-8 seeds are pretty much up for grabs these last twenty games, as Golden State (6th), Houston (7th) and Lakers (8th) struggle to hold off the Jazz (9th), Dallas (10th) and Portland (11th). The 6th seed is separated by 6 games from the 11th; while it is unlikely that Dallas or Portland advance to the postseason, to quote Kevin Garnett, "ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!"

Golden State has been terrible on the road, but luckily most of their remaining games are at home, where they will host 10 of their last 16. They will face 10 playoff bound/hopeful teams, with San Antonio (twice), Portland (twice), Los Angeles (twice), Chicago, Houston, and Oklahoma City as their toughest opponents. The games against Portland and Los Angeles will have huge playoff ramifications, and if those two teams are still on the edge or just outside of the 8th seed, they will mark the game against Golden State as a significant game for their playoff dreams. Golden State must finish strong in order to stay in the playoff picture, but have been backsliding this entire calendar year. After a 21-10 start in 2012, they have gone 16-19 since, and are on a 7-11 slide in their past 18 games. If they play .500 ball the rest of the way (going 8-8), they will end with a record of 45-37, which will be enough to get into the playoffs. This is the likely outcome considering their sub-par record against teams .500 or better (17-21; 45%) means they will likely go 4-6 against their tougher opponents, and their 78% record against .500 or worse teams will mean they will go 4-2 against their easier opponents, pushing their record will be 45-37. If they continue their backsliding ways, they could go 7-11, finishing with a record of 42-40. Is this enough for the playoffs?

Houston is currently in the seventh seed, in a season that was thought to be a rebuilding year in order to integrate so many new players into the team. Regardless, behind the star power of James Harden, and lesser stars such as Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons, the Rockets have built a high-flying team that will cause trouble for any team they come across. They don't play much defense, but they will definitely score on you, boasting a top five offense and players that will rain threes. Unfortunately for Houston, they have learned that offense can't win you every game, and currently have a record of 35-30, due to their porous defense, second to last in the league in points allowed. They are one and a half games behind Golden State and a one and a half game ahead of the Lakers, and depending on a good or bad stretch of games, they can jump to sixth or fall out of the playoff picture all together, so these next 17 games will decide if this young team is really up to the challenge of vying for a playoff spot. 11 of their remaining games are at home, and they face 10 playoff bound/hopeful teams. Their toughest match ups will be Memphis (twice), LAC, Golden State, San Antonio, Portland and the Lakers, who they play in both team's final game of the season. This game could decide the playoff fates for both teams, but I predict it will matter more for the Lakers, who have been the more inconsistent of the two. If the Rockets defeat more than half of their easier opponents and win 60% against their tougher opponents, they will have a 45-37 record, a very capable feat, seeing as their record against .500 teams or better is 23-15, while 15-12 against less than .500 teams. I think they're a better team than people give them credit for, seeing as their point differential (a very good indicator of how good a team is) is +3.2, while Golden State, Utah, Portland and Dallas all have negative ones. Guess who has a positive point differential, yet had to fight nearly all season to claw back into playoff contention?

That's right, the Los Angeles Lakers. I'm sure ESPN has covered them well enough, so I'll do this one quickly. Kobe has essentially put the team on his back and is willing the Lakers to the playoffs, which they would currently advance to if the season ended today. At 34-32, they occupy the 8th seed, a half game above Utah and 3 above Dallas and 4 above Portland. They have 17 games remaining, but only 8 are at home. They face 12 playoff bound/hopeful teams, and tough 'better than their record' teams such as Phoenix, New Orleans, Washington and Minnesota. Kobe just got hurt, suffering a severe ankle sprain last night in the final seconds of a game against Atlanta, so this team may just go down the drain now. If they somehow split their remaining games, which they are unlikely to do, due to their sieve of a defense (25th in points allowed), they will finish at 42-40 but is that good enough for the final spot? I think it's more likely they'll fall to around 40-42 if Kobe is off the court for awhile.

Utah had a firm grip on the 8th spot for much of the season, but a recent backslide (2-8 in their past 10), coupled with an 7-3 run by the Lakers, has dropped the Jazz out of the current playoff picture. Unfortunately for Utah, they have 17 games remaining, with 12 of them coming against playoff bound/hopeful teams. They will face Memphis and Portland twice, New York, San Antonio, Houston, Denver and Golden State. Even their easier games are against decent teams, with Philadelphia, Phoenix, New Orleans and Minnesota liable to beat them at least once or twice. If they win 4 of their 5 asy games and somehow split the other 12 (6-6), they will finish with a 43-39 record, good for the final spot in the playoffs. Games against Houston, Portland, Dallas and Golden State will be crucial for their chances at reaching the postseason. However, they are unlikely to post that record against the better teams, seeing as their record against teams .500 or better is a measly 11-25 (31%). If they win a third of their 12 games against playoff bound/hopeful teams, they'll only win 4. They'll need to sweep their games against easier opponents to get to 42-40, which should be good enough for 8th.

Dallas and Portland have 30-33 and 29-34 records, respectively, but still have an outside chance at sneaking into the playoffs given the right circumstances. Both teams are dangerous, with Dirk Nowitzki rounding into shape after his injury set him back early this season, and the Blazers with their intriguing core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, J.J. Hickson, Wes Matthews and eventual Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. The Mavericks have 12 home games and 7 away games, with a whopping 14 out of 19 of these games against playoff bound/hopeful teams. In order to get their record around 42-40, the Mavs will have to go 13-7, a tall task considering their 9-26 record against teams .500 or better. This means they definitely need to defeat their easier match ups in Cleveland, Sacramento, and New Orleans. The bigger tasks lie in the games against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Denver and the two Los Angeles teams. This will not be easy, and due to this, I predict they'll likely go 40-42 at the very best, winning their five easy games and at most five of their difficult ones. The Trail Blazers have 9 games away and 10 at home, with 17 of those games against playoff bound/hopeful teams. Their easiest games come against Detroit and Philadelphia, dangerous teams on given nights. If Dallas didn't have much of a chance, then Portland stands an even lesser chance to make the playoffs, and will likely end with a best possible outcome of 38-48, winning their easy games and maybe pulling upsets against Milwaukee, Atlanta, Golden State and Utah. I guess the Mavs won't get to shave those beards after all.

Predictions:

1. San Antonio 63-19

2. Oklahoma City 61-21

3. Los Angeles Clippers 57-25

4. Denver Nuggets 56-26

5. Memphis Grizzlies 56-26

6. Houston Rockets 46-36

7. Golden State 45-37

8. Utah Jazz 42-20

****************************

9. Los Angeles Lakers 41-41

10. Dallas 39-43

11. Portland 37-45

To reiterate, this was not very scientific article a la J. Gomez, ghost, or cam4, and I purely looked at schedules, focusing on home and away games and match ups against teams vying for the playoffs.

Take a look at John Hollinger's Playoff Odds for his take, and let me know your own predictions. Who do you think will face off with who, and what match ups will be the most intriguing? Do the Spurs stand a better chance against the Jazz, Lakers, Golden State or Houston? I personally think they stand the best chance against the Lakers and their terrible defense, but I don't want the Spurs to waste energy on stopping a hell-bent Kobe Bryant in his final years. They would take care of the Jazz as well, but they always give them decent games. Golden State isn't disciplined enough, nor are the Rockets.

All schedules and stats from espn.com

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