The NBA’s Western Conference isn’t as strong as it once was. Last year saw LeBron James and the Lakers miss the postseason, and a once-surging Sacramento Kings team fall flat. The No. 8 seed won 48 games! Now, two sub-.500 could cross the finish line and play into May. The West has crapped out that quickly.
What’s changed? The almighty have fallen. Without the existence of the Knicks (4-19), the Golden State Warriors (5-19) would be the worst team in the NBA. Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, who’ve made every postseason since 1998, are sliding out of the picture, too.
So what’s shaping in the West as we pass the quarter-of-the-year mark?
Here are (barring unforeseen circumstances) the playoff locks
Twenty-something games into the season, we can tell who’s good and who isn’t. James’ Lakers, Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers, Luka Doncic’s Mavericks, James Harden’s Rockets, Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets, and Donovan Mitchell’s Jazz are the top six teams in the league, by record, respectively. Without injury to those stars, it’s hard to imagine these six teams falling out of the playoffs.
Two spots are open
Every team after those six has a record below .500.
Here’s what that looks like today:
Let’s make the case for each.
How the Phoenix Suns make the playoffs
The Suns might be a healthy Aron Baynes away from the playoffs. Seriously. Phoenix was hot out of the gate, running a finally-functioning offense with Ricky Rubio at the helm, and Baynes evolved into an All-Star caliber stretch big. Devin Booker finally has quality teammates, and his 26 points per game lead the way.
Despite Baynes not playing a game since Nov. 29 due to a calf injury, Phoenix still holds a slightly higher net rating than even the Jazz. They outscore opponents by 0.7 points per 100 possessions. They’re bound for a .500-ish season, and that might be enough.
How the Oklahoma City Thunder make the playoffs
The Thunder are halfway between a total rebuild and sticking around to compete. Trading out Russell Westbrook and Paul George in the same summer should’ve spelled playoff doom, but recouping Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has them in the conversation.
OKC has the next-best net rating behind Phoenix among the teams in the back end of the playoff mix. The question is if they want to be there by season’s end. Trading Gallinari or Paul to add to the asset stack is more appealing if the right offer comes around.
How the Minnesota Timberwolves make the playoffs
The Timberwolves want to be relevant so badly, but it’s hard to imagine this roster coming together to do so. Karl-Anthony Towns is having one of, if not the, best season of his career, and Andrew Wiggins is finally unlocking his potential, yet Minnesota is still outscored by 2.26 points per 100 possessions.
For the Wolves to put the pieces together, they’ll need Wiggins to develop more as a playmaker, and for Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie to make leaps quickly. More realistically, it might be time to move on from Jeff Teague.
How the Sacramento Kings make the playoffs
The Kings have a chance if they can just get healthy. De’Aaron Fox has played just nine games this season due to a sprained ankle, and Marvin Bagley’s played just one to a broken thumb. Both are nearing return, which is good news with plenty of season left to reroute the Kings’ direction.
This team’s been tough to evaluate with two crucial players missing, though Buddy Hield’s stood out sinking 37 percent of 10 threes per game. Combining his shooting with Fox’s play-making, will be key.
How the San Antonio Spurs make the playoffs
The Spurs can make the playoffs if they trade either LaMarcus Aldridge or DeMar DeRozan (hell, maybe both.) San Antonio’s role players have outplayed its so-called stars for long enough, and it’s time to move on. Maybe the Spurs can talk their way into a Kevin Love trade, maybe they try their way at an Andrew Wiggins discussion.
Their best chance is shaking up their core.
How the Portland Trail Blazers make the playoffs
The Blazers need wing scoring more than ever now that Rodney Hood is out for the year, and Carmelo Anthony is returning to Carmelo Anthony levels. Will they be able to find a viable replacement? Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can’t do this alone again. Without Zach Collins for most of the year, either, Portland’s in trouble.
How the Memphis Grizzlies make the playoffs
They don’t and that’s OK! Memphis has great prospects to try out in different spots. Ja Morant could be an all-star, and Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. look to be great supplementary players. The Grizzlies are where they want to be.
How the New Orleans Pelicans make the playoffs
Zion Williamson. That’s it. Him becoming the phenom we believe he is, is the only way.
How the Golden State Warriors make the playoffs
Prayer. Only the basketball gods can save this injury-filled disaster in time.