Here’s a hard and unfortunate truth: there are only eight playoff spots in the Western Conference. That may seem self-evident, but when I hear Kobe saying the Lakers will make the playoffs and others anointing bubble teams as playoff squads, I start to think that people might be forgetting how cutthroat the Western Conference playoff race really is. There isn’t room for the Lakers, Utah, Phoenix and Minnesota (yes, I’ve heard Minnesota called a playoff team in the comments) to all make the playoffs. Let’s take a look at how much room there is for a newcomer at the playoff table by filling the seats and seeing who’s sitting at the table and who’s awkwardly standing by the wall.
The Locks (Seeds 1-6 in some order): Golden State, Houston, L.A. Clippers, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis
These are the teams that aren’t missing the playoffs unless something unexpected happens. The only team in this group who didn’t make the playoffs last season was Oklahoma City, who suffered the kind of key injuries it’d take to derail one of these six teams into missing the playoffs. Memphis is likely the most naturally vulnerable of the pack, but they have enough talent that they should still make the top eight in the conference.
The Seventh Best Team: New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans is probably the team most fans of borderline playoff teams are hoping to unseat. As last year’s eighth seed, they’re the most obvious choice for a team to miss the playoffs. But that’s only if they get worse, something I’m fairly confident won’t happen just yet. Anthony Davis is, at the very least, a top 10 player in the league (can argue he’s top five or even top three), and those guys have a way of getting their teams to the playoffs. Combine that with Eric Gordon playing in a contract year, and I expect this team to move up a spot in the rankings and switch places with…
The Last Team In: Dallas Mavericks
I think the Mavericks are still a playoff team next year, but just barely. They’re definitely the most likely team in my top eight to miss the postseason. Thanks to the Rajon Rondo trade, Dallas lost Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson and Brandan Wright. This offseason, they moved on from Rondo and Tyson Chandler as well. They’ve replaced Rondo with Deron Williams and Chandler with Zaza Pachulia after they lost out on DeAndre Jordan. They also added Wesley Matthews this summer, albeit at a steep price. They’re relying on Matthews and Chandler Parsons to bounce back from serious injuries, but if they do, this should be an adequate team that I feel is just a step above the bottom of the conference.
Teams on the Bubble: Utah, Portland, The Best-Case Scenario Lakers, Phoenix
This is the only group I put in order of likelihood to make the playoffs. Utah played great at the end of last season and is a good pick to grab one of the lower playoff seeds, although the Dante Exum ACL injury is a setback. The Jazz will make the playoffs if they keep up their second-half pace, but I think the team is still a little young and a year away from a playoff berth.
Portland will go as far as Damian Lillard can carry them. If he’s the player his commercials say he is, that could be far enough for the eighth spot in the playoffs if another team stumbles, but I don’t think the rest of the team can help him get there on their own. Phoenix just always seems to be right on the bubble, so I don’t see why this year should be different.
As for the Lakers, even if everything goes right for them, I don’t think they’re good enough to make the playoffs. They need Kobe to play a full season, Roy Hibbert to have a renaissance in Byron Scott’s old-school system, their rookies to contribute immediately and for the roster to fit together, even though few members of the roster have played a full season with Kobe. Even with all of those things breaking right for the Lakers, are they even better than Dallas or Utah?
Any one of the bubble teams could sneak in for a playoff spot, but they’d have to take the place of one of the teams higher on the list. With a limited number of spots, any team coming in means another team is coming out. This year, I have Portland coming out and the Thunder coming in to take their place. More could be out and more could be in, but the West is extremely tough and it takes a lot more to unseat the Western playoff teams than it does in the East. My guess is that the turnover won’t be any greater than two teams this year, and that it’ll only end up being one.