Early in the season, the top of the Western Conference looks as deadly as ever.
The Golden State Warriors look poised to be even better than last season, a terrifying proposition for the rest of the league. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have a deeper team around them for the Los Angeles Clippers. The San Antonio Spurs got a new star, and everyone knows what a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder team is capable of doing.
One of the more interesting storylines this season, however, has been the mediocrity of the middle of the Western Conference. With some teams that were thought to be shoo-ins for the playoffs playing below expectations, there’s an opportunity for plenty of teams to sneak into the postseason. Assuming the Houston Rockets right the ship and get in easily, that leaves three spots for the rest of the conference. Here are some odds for the rest of the teams to make it to the playoffs, in ascending order.
Sacramento Kings+Denver Nuggets+Los Angeles Lakers – 5% Combined
Here’s the “not going to happen” division. Los Angeles combines a coach who’s unwilling to play his young players as much as he should and a stubborn former superstar who continues to shoot his teams out of games. Denver has played well so far this season and would be higher, but the Wilson Chandler season-ending injury hurts the Nuggets a lot, and there will continue to be growing pains. Sacramento has DeMarcus Cousins, giving it the most likely chance of the three. But the team is in such turmoil and has started the year playing so badly it’s hard to imagine it getting turned around enough for a playoff spot.
Portland Trail Blazers – 20%
Portland has played .500 ball and still has Damian Lillard. So why so low?
Well, the schedule has been kind to the Trail Blazers, as the team hasn’t had to face a lot of attacking guards. When Portland has faced talented players who get to the rim, Lillard and C.J. McCollum have struggled to stop them. Al-Farouq Aminu isn’t likely to keep shooting as well as he has, and the team just isn’t built for a playoff run this season. Couple that with the incentive to miss the playoffs (Portland owes a first-round pick to Denver that’s lottery protected for the next two years and turns into two second-rounders after that), and Portland seems very unlikely to reach the playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves – 25%
This may seem too high for a team that was expected to compete for the worst record in the West and relies on a lot of young players.
But Karl-Anthony Towns has proven he’s ready to be a force right away, and Andrew Wiggins has turned things around after a rough start. Ricky Rubio is better than people give him credit for, and there are enough other pieces here to see a version of the Timberwolves that makes the playoffs.
It still seems very unlikely, though. Relying on rookies to be consistent in Year 1 almost never works out, and if Towns goes through a slump, there isn’t enough firepower to get the team through it. It would take a lot of breaks for Minnesota to make the playoffs this year, but there’s a bright future ahead.
Dallas Mavericks – 30%
While Minnesota’s percentage may seem high, the Mavericks chances seem low at first glance. The team was expected to take a step back but has been respectable in the early going.
But the roster construction issues of Dallas didn’t go away. This is a shallow team of old players that has several injury risks. Dirk Nowitzki has to be otherwordly on offense (which he has been at times) to compensate for how bad he is defensively at this stage of his career. Deron Williams has to be good a lot, which has been an issue for the last few years. Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews are going to have to buck historical trends and produce a lot of value coming off serious injuries.
So many things have to go right for Dallas to make the playoffs this year. In fact, if it wasn’t for Rick Carlisle, this percentage would be even lower.
Phoenix Suns – 40%
It hasn’t been a great start for Phoenix, as the team’s offense has been brutally bad. After convincing Markieff Morris to stay, the team hasn’t gotten any production out of him. Morris is shooting a woeful 36 percent and has looked lost at times.
The good news is that Tyson Chandler has helped the team play league-average defense, and the team is only 3-4. It’s reasonable to assume Morris will improve, and Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight have shown flashes of gelling as a backcourt. T.J. Warren has continued to impress as well.
Phoenix has an uphill battle, but if the team can continue to be an average defensive team and maintain good health, the offense should improve enough to have the Suns right on the cusp of a playoff berth.
New Orleans Pelicans – 45%
Everything has gone wrong for the Pelicans so far. Everything.
Anthony Davis has struggled and is now dealing with a nagging hip injury. The team, already very thin, was so banged up on opening night that Nate Robinson and Kendrick Perkins both started. Tyreke Evans is still weeks away from returning from his knee injury, and the team is already well behind the playoff pace at 1-7.
The only thing keeping the team this high is Davis, who was one of the most popular picks for MVP to start the season. His skills didn’t disappear in seven games. If he can stay fairly healthy and the team as a whole can get a little healthier, New Orleans will be able to overcome its early season swoon. But those are big ifs with everything that’s already taken place.
Memphis Grizzlies – 65%
It’s been a brutal start for the Grizzlies as well, as the team is 3-6 and looks completely beaten down. Mike Conley and Zach Randolph haven’t been good, and the lack of shooting is hurting the team more than ever.
But the lack of great teams at the back end of the West helps Memphis more than any other team. It’s hard to imagine this team not bouncing back at least somewhat, especially when the schedule eases up. Half of the losses Memphis has have come at the hands of last year’s NBA Finalists (two to Golden State and one to Cleveland). Another was a close loss to a good team in the Clippers, leaving a 16-point loss in Portland and a 10-point loss in Utah as the only bad losses thus far. It’s fair to think Memphis will be less of a threat in the playoffs this year, but it’s unlikely that the team doesn’t at least get there.
Utah Jazz – 70%
Utah owns the sixth-best point differential in the NBA. It has excellence depth at the wing and in the frontcourt. The team is stifling defensively and should continue to get better as the starters play together.
Gordon Hayward has played well after a slow start to the season, and Derrick Favors has continued to be great. Alec Burks has returned and looked as good as anyone could’ve hoped, leaving Quin Snyder a great problem as he sorts through whether to play Rodney Hood or Burks more minutes. Rudy Gobert continues to be a menace inside and has flourished as a passer.
Utah may be only 4-3, but the team has looked more dangerous than that. The depth should help the Jazz withstand minor injuries, and the stifling defense will allow them to stay in games when the offense goes dry. Of all the teams fighting for one of the last three spots in the West, Utah has looked the most promising.