Given the truncated nature of the NBA’s 72-game 2020/21 season, the standings in each conference figure to significantly fluctuate all year long, with any multi-game winning streak or losing streak more likely than ever to shake up the playoff picture.
Still, as we near the halfway point of the regular season, the Western Conference standings are – at least for the time being – easy enough to split into tiers.
The 27-8 Jazz are in a tier of their own at the top. Their 3.5-game lead over their next-closest competitor is the biggest margin between any two teams in the conference besides the gap between the 14th and 15th seeds. That cushion should allow Utah to have a bad week or two without necessarily falling out of the top spot in the West.
The next tier is currently made up of three Pacific teams, the Suns (23-11), Lakers (24-12), and Clippers (24-13). They’re all separated by a half-game and are at least three games ahead of any other team in the conference.
The two Los Angeles teams were expected to be here, and they comfortably hold top-four seeds despite having star players (Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George) miss some time due to injuries. Phoenix, on the other hand, is something of an upstart — expectations had increased for the Suns following their 8-0 run at last summer’s bubble and the offseason acquisition of Chris Paul, but few expected them to hold the No. 2 seed in the West with the All-Star break around the corner.
The Western Conference’s third tier consists of six teams bunched together within two games of each other, from the No. 5 Spurs (18-13) to the No. 10 Mavericks (17-16). Others in this group include the Trail Blazers (19-14), Nuggets (20-15), Warriors (19-16), and Grizzlies (16-15).
It remains to be seen whether the NBA’s new play-in format for the final two postseason spots in each conference will make this race more or less interesting. Having six clubs vie for four playoff berths would’ve been entertaining in its own right, but the play-in tournament adds a new wrinkle.
Assuming the Jazz, Suns, Lakers, and Clippers hang onto playoff spots, that will only leave two guaranteed postseason berths for the six “third-tier” clubs. The teams that finish in the 7-10 range would enter the play-in tournament, where the Nos. 7 and 8 teams would need to win one game to advance, while the Nos. 9 and 10 teams would have to win two.
Entering the season, the Mavs, Blazers, and Nuggets were viewed as the likeliest playoff teams from this group, but San Antonio and Memphis have substantially exceeded expectations, and Golden State has admirably overcome the loss of Klay Thompson. If pressed, I’d probably consider Denver and Portland the favorites to claim the fifth and sixth seeds, but this should be a fascinating race.
A few clubs further down in the standings have the potential to shake up the postseason picture too, but it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about the 7-28 Timberwolves or the 11-22 Rockets, both of whom are mired in horrible slumps, or the 14-20 Thunder, who are ostensibly rebuilding. The 13-21 Kings have also been hit hard by a recent cold streak and have a lot of ground to make up.
That leaves the Pelicans (15-19), who are the most intriguing wild card outside the Western Conference’s current top 10. All-Star forward Zion Williamson and 2020 All-Star Brandon Ingram give New Orleans a dangerous one-two punch on offense, but the club will need to tighten up its defense to make a run — the Pelicans’ 116.1 defensive rating ranks 29th in the NBA.
With the first half of the NBA season about to come to an end, we want to get your thoughts on where things stand in the Western Conference playoff race.
- Will the Jazz finish the season as the No. 1 seed?
- Will the Jazz, Suns, Lakers, or Clippers fall out of the top four?
- Which teams do you view as the best bets to claim the top six seeds in the conference?
- Which four clubs do you expect to take part in the play-in tournament?
- Will the Pelicans or another team currently in the bottom five force their way into the top 10? If so, which team are they knocking out?
Head to the comment section below to share your two cents!