The wild wild west is about to become even wilder when the NBA returns to Orlando in a month’s time. The NBA just released their new schedule for when they return to play and some teams have it much easier than others. Some teams like the New Orleans Pelicans have a much easier schedule heading into the battle for the 8 seed than a team like Memphis, who has a much harder schedule despite currently being the 8 seed.
Let us break down the rankings for each team trying to grab the 8th and final seed in the Western Conference Playoffs:
6. Phoenix Suns:
Easily the worst team invited to the NBA bubble from the Western Conference. Sometimes I wonder, “Why were they even invited?” and I still think that. They rank below top 15 in both team offensive and defensive rating and they’re 6 games behind the current 8 seeded team (Memphis), meaning that if the season ended today, they wouldn’t even qualify for the play-in tournament.
I believe the only reason the Suns got an invite to the bubble was because they have Devin Booker, who is a heavily marketable player and brings in viewership, but other than that, there is really no reason why the Suns should be in Orlando.
5. San Antonio Spurs:
The Spurs don’t have nearly as much talent as any other team in the bubble but what they do have to their advantage is depth, experienced veterans, raw young players, and most importantly Gregg Popovich, who is one of the greatest coaches of all time.
That alone puts them over the Phoenix Suns. Another reason why they’re ranked this low is because they’ll be missing their star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, which will not only be a huge blow to their chances, but it gives DeMar DeRozan, who is detrimental to his team’s success, more freedom with the basketball.
Now you may be re-reading that sentence and thinking, “He really just said DeMar is detrimental to his team’s success?” Well yeah, if you watch the game or look at the basic advanced stats, it’s pretty obvious.
In his career, DeMar DeRozan’s team NET rating (Offensive rating – defensive rating) is a +0.1 with him on the court, and a +3 with him off the court meaning the team improves when DeMar isn’t in the game (This includes his years in Toronto as well). That’s just the regular season.
In the playoffs during his career, DeRozan’s team NET rating is a -7.9 with him on the court, and a +3.7 with him off the court meaning the team drastically improves when DeRozan isn’t in the game during the playoffs. In his one playoff appearance with the Spurs, the Spurs NET improved by +25.8 once DeMar exited the game.
Not to mention their defensive rating is top 6 in the league once DeMar leaves the court, but with him on the court, their defensive rating is ranked 28th. I can go on and on about how younger players get immediately better once DeMar leaves a team, but that’s a story for another day.
The bottom-line is that the Spurs can make legit noise in the hunt for the 8 seed if they give their young guys more responsibility, wear out teams with their devastating perimeter defense, and limit DeMar DeRozan’s negative impact. I can see all of that happening except one, and that one is going to be the cause of the Spurs downfall. I think you already know what that one is. No one should expect the Spurs to be very magical in Magic Kingdom.
4. Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings are a great young team. I would have them ahead of the team at number three if Marvin Bagley III was healthy and ready to go, but he isn’t. The former number two pick provides a great paint presence for them and has played great ball when he’s been healthy, but unfortunately, he hasn’t been healthy and isn’t expected to be ready by the time the season restarts.
With Bagley out, their best paint presence is Richaun Holmes, who is serviceable but doesn’t possess the same amount of talent Bagley does especially when he will be going up against big men like Jaren Jackson Jr, Jonas Valanciunas, Jusuf Nurkic, Hassan Whiteside, Derrick Favors, and Zion Williamson with all of them being arguably better than him.
However, this doesn’t mean you should easily count out Sacramento like you would Phoenix and San Antonio. They are still a deep team led by De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, and those two alone give Sacramento a chance against just about any team they will battle against for the 8th seed.
3. Memphis Grizzlies:
Now this is where things get very interesting. Memphis currently holds the 8th seed out west, but they’ve had one of the easiest schedules in the NBA up to this point. They’re a great young team led by Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, but they’re not quite on the same talent level and don’t have the same amount of experience as the teams ranked ahead of them.
They’ve had a pretty easy road up until this point, but I believe they will hit a reality check during the final eight games. They face Boston, Milwaukee, New Orleans, OKC, Portland, San Antonio, Toronto, and Utah. Six out of those eight teams are playoff locks and one of the two teams that isn’t (New Orleans) is more talented than them and have beat them in both head-to-head match-ups this season despite not having Zion Williamson for one of those match-ups.
Memphis definitely has the talent and their notorious “grit” to secure the 8th seed, but they’ll face their hardest test yet immediately once they get to Orlando. Will they pass this test or not will be the biggest question. I don’t believe they will.
2. Portland Trail Blazers:
This is where experience comes into play. Although Portland probably isn’t more talented than Memphis, they’re damn close and they are more playoff tested than the Grizzlies. Not to mention they have the best player out of all the teams battling for the 8 seed in Damian Lillard, who year after year leads Portland somewhere no one expected them to be.
They have players such as Jusuf Nurkic returning back from injury, who when healthy is easily a top 10 center in the league. That addition will almost be like a trade deadline acquisition for them and will give them a tremendous boost headed into the play-in tournament.
Everytime you count Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum out, they have proven time and time again that they can match up well with just about anybody. With a fully healthy lineup and the experience factor in their favor, don’t be surprised if the Blazers sneak into the 8th seed.
1. New Orleans Pelicans:
The Pelicans are the most talented team out of this pool, and they also have the experience factor as well. Their best player, Jrue Holiday, has had experience matching up against the 2nd best team on this list during the playoffs in Portland and absolutely shut down Damian Lillard during the 2018 playoffs.
Oh, and to address another point from that first sentence, Jrue Holiday is their best player and it really isn’t debatable. He’s had a tremendous impact on the Pelicans for years (even with AD on the team he had a greater impact), he is one of the best defensive guards and perimeter defenders in the league, he is an underrated scorer averaging about 20 points on 51.4% eFG, he is a phenomenal playmaker, and a great rebounder for his size as well.
There aren’t any holes in Jrue Holiday’s game. Not to mention he’s had positive playoff experience (fun fact: the Pelicans NET rating improves by +12.9 when Jrue is in the game during the playoffs). I haven’t even gotten to the rest of their team yet.
If you read my “Top 5 Young Cores in the NBA” article last week, you would know that the Pelicans top that list too. They have the 2019 number 1 pick in Zion Williamson, 2019-20 All-Star Brandon Ingram, and the 2nd pick from 2017 in Lonzo Ball highlighting their young core.
They also have key veteran and young role players in JJ Redick, Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Jaxson Hayes, Nicolo Melli, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Josh Hart, Jahlil Okafor, and Frank Jackson. All these role players once again prove my point of the perfect combination of young talent and veteran experience.
To me, that is too much firepower for any other team battling for the 8 seed to handle which is why I believe the New Orleans Pelicans should easily claim the 8th and final playoff spot in the west. Not to mention they have the easiest rSOS (remaining strength of schedule) in the NBA. They have no excuse to not make the playoffs.
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