Back in the Bubble: Race for the final West Playoff spot

The NBA is back. Kind of.

The league is facing their version of a new normal. In their words, it’s a whole new game for everyone. What wonders will the Disney Bubble bring to the teams, players, fans and even the league itself?

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The race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference makes for the best kind of entertainment when the NBA restarts this month. The eight seedings games to be played in the bubble will determine to fate for some of these hopefuls such as the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, and the Phoenix Suns. While these teams do not have the same amount of games played before the restart, the NBA gave us a primer for determining the last Western Playoff spot.

“If the eighth seed leads the ninth seed by four games or less, a play-in tournament is triggered where the eighth seed has a twice-to-beat advantage over the ninth seed for the final berth in the Playoffs. If the eighth seed leads the pack by four games or more, they automatically clinch the spot.”

The NBA could finally have a play-in tournament for the final Playoffs seed in the West. Remember the win-or-go-home game between the Wolves and Denver on the last day last season? Fans could have that in the bubble!

Take a look at the teams in the running for the eighth seed out West.

Memphis Grizzlies

  • Record: 32-33, .492 winning percentage;
  • Current Standing: Eighth Seed
  • Schedule: POR, SAS, NOP, UTA,OKC, TOR, BOS, MIL

The Grizzlies will enter the season restart with a healthy and full roster as they try to hold on to the final Playoff spot. Leading the way is ROY favorite Ja Morant averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game. The young team will have depth throughout their roster with the return of their three pivotal bigs in Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, and Jonas Valenciunas. That will definitely be a big help in the front court, especially out West. The break came at a perfect time for a team that was struggling with a 4-7 slate after the All-Star break.

Coach Taylor Jenkins has tailored a system that lets his young stars shine in a drive-heavy yet spacious offense. This is shown in the stats as they are second in two-point field-goals made, second in assists, sixth in rebounds, and seventh in blocks. The Grizzlies have capable and versatile scorers all over the roster, but are only middle of the pack in defense rating.

The Grizzlies have the fifth hardest schedule in the bubble according to ESPN, needing to go at least 5-3 in Orlando to hold on to the final Playoff spot. Their first three games are against their eighth-seed rivals and importance of winning two of those games is key where the result could mean twice as important in the standings. As they end the season against Eastern Conference powerhouses in the Raptors, Celtics, and the Bucks, they would want to lock up their playoff berth beforehand.

Portland Trailblazers

  • Record: 29-37, .439 winning percentage
  • Current Standing: 3.5 games away from the Eighth Seed
  • Schedule: MEM, BOS, HOU, DEN, LAC, PHI, DAL, BKN

The Trailblazers are facing good news and bad news heading into the season restart. The good news is that they get key players back in Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkić back from long-term injuries. The bad news is that they are without Trevor Ariza and have the sixth hardest schedule in the restart. It’s tough to bet against Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but they have some work to do to steal the final West Playoff spot. 

The Blazers starters should be given credit given they are 10th in offensive rating. The problem lies in their bench production as they are dead last in the league for that stat. They also have some major problems on defense where they are 27th in defensive rating and 26th in opponent points allowed at 115.2 per game. Given this, they hope the return of Collins and Nurkić would negate the loss of Ariza especially in defending at the rim.

They start with a pivotal game against the Grizzlies where a win could close the gap to 1.5 games and a loss would set them back to 5.5 games back. It doesn’t get any better as they’ve only won thrice in 14 games against their next seven opponents. Then again, no one would want to bet against a near-complete Blazers team with a fired up Dame DOLLA.

New Orleans Pelicans

  • Record: 28-36, .438 winning percentage;
  • Current Standing: 3.5 games away from the Eighth Seed
  • Schedule: UTA, LAC, MEM, SAC, WSH, SAS, SAC, ORL

New Orleans will be raring to go during the Orlando restart with their fully healthy young core of MIP candidate Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday. There’s also the hope that Zion Williamson will make it back in time after leaving the Bubble to attend to a family matter. Many have touted this team to have a high ceiling which begs the question of whether they can fast track their development to make the Playoffs this season. Together with seasoned veterans like Derrick Favors and J.J. Redick, many Pelicans fans are excited for a return to the Playoffs.

The Pelicans will enter the restart with the easiest strength of schedule among the 22 teams in Orlando. Conspiracy theorists will point to the league wanting Willaimson to face LeBron James in a first-round “passing of the torch” series, but this squad was poised for a lighter finish in the normal season anyway. The individual numbers have been great. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are posting career-best numbers while Williamson has outside shot of winning ROY with his production.

Five of their eight games are against teams currently outside of the Playoff picture. Their work gets even lighter especially when Bojan Bogdanovic, Bradley Beal, and LaMarcus Aldridge are all absent from their respective teams. Their fate is not totally in their own hands though, as they need the Grizzlies to lose at least four games to even have a shot at the play-in tournament. 

Sacramento Kings

  • Record: 28-36, .438 winning percentage;
  • Current Standing: 3.5 games away from the Eighth Seed
  • Schedule: SAS, ORL, DAL, NOP, BKN, HOU, NOP, LAL

Sacramento will look to regain their momentum after going 7-3 before the halt, continuing their push for the last Playoff spot. After a rough 0-5 start to the season, coach Luke Walton may have just found the formula for this young team behind DeAaron Fox and the resurgence of Richaun Holmes at center. Though Buddy Hield still comes off the bench with Bogdan Bogdanović starting, both players have done well in their new roles. Hield is averaging close to his last year’s stats and Bogdanović adds an additional playmaker in the starting lineup along with their star point guard.

The Kings will enter the restart banged up tough, as Fox recently sprained his ankle during practice. They are also currently monitoring their players who have tested positive for the Coronavirus in Hield, Harrison Barnes, Jabari Parker, and Alex Len. The team currently has no timeline for all the players above with the restart in two weeks.

They will have the eighth lightest schedule during the restart. Their schedule consists of five games against seventh-seeded teams or lower, including two pivotal games versus the Pelicans. They will need to go at least 4-4 together with some luck to force a play-in tournament to reach their first playoff appearance in 15 years.

San Antonio Spurs

  • Record: 27-36, .429 winning percentage
  • Current Standing: 4 games away from the Eight Seed
  • Schedule: SAC, MEM, PHI, DEN, UTA, NOP, HOU, UTA

The Spurs are coming to Orlando short handed leaving them very little room for error. This new-look Spurs team will be without LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles, as well as assistant coach Tim Duncan in the bubble. This is a team that is poised for a rebuild so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they will be focused on developing their young talent in Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker 

They still have a potent offense currently at 11th in the league thanks mostly to the mid-range scoring of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Coach Gregg Popovich’s system is still efficient in with the team limiting their turnovers and staying in top-10 in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free-throw percentage. Like many young teams; however, they struggle on defense ranking 24th in defensive rating. Making the Playoffs would definitely be a bonus for them, but they would more likely want the lottery pick and get a chance to retool for next season.

The Spurs will play the Kings, Grizzlies, and Pelicans in the bubble—teams they are battling for the final Playoff spot in the West as well. They will then play Western Conference powerhouses who have already clinched a playoff berth to round out their schedule. If they are to have a shot at the postseason, they will need to go at least 5-3 and hope the Grizzlies falter in their remaining regular-season games. 

Phoenix Suns

  • Record: 26-39, .400 winning percentage
  • Current Standing: 6 away from the Eighth Seed
  • Schedule: WAS, DAL, LAC, IND, MIA, OKC, PHI, DAL

Phoenix still has an outside shot of making the Playoffs after cooling off from their hot 5-2 start to the season. This new look Suns teams under coach Monty Williams are looking to finish off the season strong behind Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton. Forward Kelly Oubre Jr. is currently out for the restart but his availability could change at any moment. It will be interesting whether they can continue to push the pace and share the ball as often in the restart given their top 10 rankings in both pace and assists.

The season did not go as planned for the front office, but they still have a chance to salvage it by going on a hot streak in the bubble. Going 7-1 against teams like the Mavericks, Clippers, and Sixers is tough, but that is their job right now. They hope Devin Booker gets up to speed as he is responsible for 61.7% of his team share and the highest usage rate of 28.9% among his teammates by a wide margin. Suns fans also hope that Ricky Rubio will help Booker stay focused on scoring, keeping the playmaking and ball-handling duties within the point guard’s responsibilities.

The Suns will enter the restart with the eighth hardest schedule. The road to the Playoffs is doubly tough for them. Expect them to rotate heavily throughout their roster, maybe even giving their rookies in Cam Johnson and Ty Jerome more playing time once their fate is sealed. 

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