Community Shootaround: Western Conference Play-In Race

The Western Conference standings have been bunched up for much of the 2022/23 season, but a Portland win and a New Orleans loss helped push the congestion in the play-in race to a new level on Monday night.

The Jazz, Trail Blazers, Lakers, and Pelicans now own matching 31-34 records, tying them for the Nos. 9 through 12 spots in the West. The No. 13 Thunder, at 30-34, are a half-game back of that quartet.

There’s also still a logjam a little higher in the standings. The 34-31 Warriors currently control the No. 5 seed in the conference, but they only lead the 34-32 Timberwolves by a half-game and the Mavericks (33-32) and Clippers (34-33) by one game apiece.

The Mavs and Clips have a two-game cushion on those four teams tied at 31-34, but both clubs have been inconsistent in recent weeks, so it’s not as either one has an iron grip on a top-eight seed.

With just over a month left in the regular season, it looks like the race for the West’s six guaranteed playoff spots and four play-in berths will go down to the wire.

On paper, the Lakers and Pelicans would seem to have an edge in the play-in race over the Jazz, Blazers, and Thunder. After all, Utah downgraded its roster at the trade deadline by trading away Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley, and you could argue Portland took a step back too by moving Josh Hart and Gary Payton II. Oklahoma City wasn’t exactly a deadline buyer and hasn’t shown any organizational urgency to make the playoffs this season.

The Lakers, meanwhile, traded away a first-round pick at the deadline to upgrade their roster, and the Pelicans entered the season determined to build on last year’s first-round exit. Both teams are highly motivated to play in the postseason.

Still, the Lakers are missing LeBron James and the Pelicans don’t have Zion Williamson available, so neither club is at full strength. The Blazers aren’t tanking, and if the Jazz and Thunder are, they’re not doing a great job of it so far — All-Stars Lauri Markkanen and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have helped make sure those two teams have been competitive all season.

Further up the standings, the Warriors, Wolves, Mavs, and Clippers all looked like good bets to make the playoffs entering the season, but all four have had some rocky stretches. Injuries (to Stephen Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kawhi Leonard, among others) have played a part, but the Wolves (Rudy Gobert), Mavs (Kyrie Irving), and Clippers (trade deadline additions, plus Russell Westbrook) have all had a hard time smoothly assimilating new players, and Golden State’s struggles on defense and in road games have resulted in an up-and-down season.

Strength of schedule could be an important factor in the season’s final weeks. According to Tankathon, the Pelicans, Mavericks, Lakers, and Thunder have some of the easiest schedules (based on opposing winning percentages) the rest of the way, while the Blazers, Jazz, Wolves, and Warriors will face tougher paths. The Clippers are right in the middle.

We want to know what you think.

  • Which six teams will clinch guaranteed playoff spots in the West?
  • Which four clubs will earn play-in berths?
  • Which three current play-in contenders will be left on the outside looking in, and which two teams will be eliminated in the play-in tournament without getting a playoff series?
  • Do you expect any of the teams currently outside the top four to move up into that group by catching the Grizzlies (38-25), Kings (38-26), or Suns (36-29)?

Head to the comment section below to share your thoughts and make your predictions!

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