After moving to two games above .500 for the first time this season heading into the All-Star break, the Grizzlies lost four consecutive games on a post-All-Star road trip and now hold a 28-30 record. They still have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, according to Tankathon.com, and they’re missing two of their most important rotation players, as Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke are both sidelined with injuries.
It all points to a team that looks vulnerable to losing its hold on the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Especially since there are five challengers within 4.5 games of Memphis in the standings, ready to make a run at that eighth seed.
So far though, none of those challengers has gotten on the sort of run that really closes the gap with the Grizzlies. The closest current threats are the Trail Blazers (26-34) and Pelicans (25-33), who are each three games back of the No. 8 spot.
Portland lost its star player, Damian Lillard, to a groin injury at an inopportune time, and has dropped five of its last six games, but the All-Star guard could be back by early next week and the Blazers have the NBA’s third-easiest schedule the rest of the way, per Tankathon. Lillard is probably the best player on any of the six teams competing for the No. 8 slot, so if he gets on another hot streak like the one he was riding before his injury, it’s possible he’ll shoot the Blazers into the playoffs.
New Orleans is a more popular playoff pick, however, in large part because the team has looked rejuvenated since getting No. 1 pick Zion Williamson into its lineup. Adding Williamson to a group that already features Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram gives the Pelicans the most dangerous “Big Three” of any of the playoff competitors, and their schedule is the league’s second-easiest down the stretch, according to Tankathon. Still, it’s worth noting that the Pelicans are a modest 7-6 when Zion plays, so it’s not as if his return has transformed them into a contender overnight.
While one of those three teams is probably the best bet to earn the West’s final playoff spot, there are a few other teams not far behind. The Spurs (24-33) have a disastrous 10-20 record on the road, but will play 14 of their final 25 games at home and have the league’s sixth-lightest schedule in terms of opponents’ winning percentage. Gregg Popovich‘s squad won’t let its 22-year playoff streak end without a fight.
The Kings (24-34) and Suns (24-35) also still have an outside shot at a playoff berth if they can get hot. Injuries have hit Sacramento hard, with Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley missing for much of the season and De’Aaron Fox now battling an abdominal issue. But they’ve played much better in the last month than they did in the first half, winning nine of their last 14 games. And their end-of-season schedule is favorable — it’s the ninth-easiest, per Tankathon, with 14 of 24 games at home.
Phoenix, meanwhile, will badly miss Kelly Oubre, who had been averaging nearly 19 PPG before going down with a torn meniscus. The Suns are said to be considering free agency options to help replace Oubre, a signal that they haven’t given up on the playoff chase. If they want to stay in the hunt, they’ll need to play well in their next five games, all at home. After that, they finish with 12 of 18 on the road, against a pretty challenging slate of opponents.
What do you think? Will the Grizzlies hang onto the No. 8 seed? Will the rising Pelicans grab it from them? Will last year’s Western Conference finalists, the Trail Blazers, get back into the postseason? Will the Spurs extend their playoff streak to 23 years? Or can the upstart Kings or Suns make an end-of-season run for No. 8?
Vote in our poll, then head to the comment section below to weigh in with your thoughts!
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