Seven teams appear set for the Western Conference playoffs. As long as none of them self-destructs, the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies and Thunder will be fighting for playoff seeding between now and April.
But below them, there is a fascinating race shaping up for the eighth seed. Denver holds the spot right now with a 17-24 record coming into tonight, one game ahead of Portland. But eight teams are bundled within 4 1/2 games of one other, setting up a battle that could make every Western Conference game significant over the season’s final three months. It could also affect the moves that teams try to make between now and the February 23rd trade deadline.
Let’s look at the contenders:
- Nuggets (17-24) — Denver has plenty of cap room available if it decides to make a serious run at the playoffs. The Nuggets have accepted that pairing big men Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic didn’t work and are actively seeking to trade Nurkic. Denver has the potential to shake up its roster more than any other team on this list.
- Trail Blazers (18-27) — Portland has been a disappointment after grabbing the fifth seed last season, but has remained in the race because other teams are struggling as well. Defense is the main issue for the Blazers, who need to find a rim protector to make a serious playoff run.
- Pelicans (17-27) –New Orleans was short-handed in the early part of the season, with Tyreke Evans injured and Jrue Holiday taking a leave of absence to care for his ailing wife. Dwight Howard trade talks have apparently fallen through, but don’t be surprised if the Pelicans try to land another big-name star to team with Anthony Davis.
- Kings (16-26) — Rudy Gay‘s Achilles tendon tear may have been the death knell for Sacramento’s playoff hopes. The Kings, who have dropped four straight games and eight of their last 10, will be without their second-leading scorer and rebounder for the rest of the season.
- Timberwolves (15-28) — Trade rumors involving the Pistons may be dead, but Minnesota is trying to find a taker for Ricky Rubio before the deadline. The Wolves are expected to make a long-term commitment to their young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, but may try to acquire veteran help for a playoff push.
- Lakers (16-31) — L.A. has fallen on hard times after a promising 10-10 start. The organization must decide whether an effort to make the playoffs is worth it, considering that its first-round picks goes to Philadelphia if it falls outside of the top three.
- Mavericks (14-29) — Even after a disastrous start, owner Mark Cuban vowed that his team would not consider tanking. With plenty of veteran talent on the roster, Dallas is both a threat to make the playoffs and an attractive trading partner at the deadline.
- Suns (13-29) — Phoenix would reportedly like to move both P.J. Tucker and Brandon Knight. The Suns have a roster full of younger players who will probably get increased playing time over the second half of the season.
Who is your pick to be the eighth playoff team in the West? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. We look forward to what you have to say.