Western Conference Playoff Picture Still Murky in Season’s Final Week

Heading into the final week of the NBA season, the playoff picture in the Western Conference is still murky and Play-In Tournament spots are still up for grabs.

Kyrie Irving Luka Doncic Dallas Mavs Miss Play-In Tournament Western Conference Playoffs
Guards Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić from the Dallas Mavericks are on the verge of missing the 2023 NBA playoffs. (Image: USA Today Sports)

The Eastern Conference playoff standings are much more organized, and the final week of the season will determine the #1 seed and the seeding for the Play-In Tournament teams.

Five teams in the Western Conference, ranging from fourth place to eighth place, are within three games of each other. On the back end of the Play-In Tournament bubble, four teams are fighting for the final two spots. Those Western Conference bubble teams are within 2.5 games of each other, including the Dallas Mavericks, who would miss the Play-In Tournament if the season ended today.

The Denver Nuggets occupy first place in the Western Conference, and they’re close to locking up the #1 seed. The Memphis Grizzlies are in second place and trail the Nugs by three games. The third-place Kings locked up the #3 seed in the West. The Kings ended the longest playoff drought among the four major sports leagues with their first postseason berth since 2006.

Aside from the top three teams, the rest of the playoff seeding is still up for grabs in one of the closest Western Conference races in over 30 years. The addition of the Play-In Tournament generated buzz and excitement heading into the final week of the season.

Phoenix Suns Lurking at #4

The Suns are currently in fourth place with a 43-35 record, and their #4 seed isn’t exactly a lock. They hold a 2.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, and they opened up a three-game edge over the LA Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans. If the Suns retain the #4 seed, they’ll most likely meet any of those four teams in the opening round as the #5 seed.

The Suns became a popular pick to win the championship after they landed All-Star forward Kevin Durant in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Durant played only three games with the Suns before he was sidelined by a sprained ankle in early March. He returned to the lineup last week and scored 30-plus in back-to-back games, including 35 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night. Durant and the Suns only have four more games remaining in the regular season to develop chemistry before the playoffs begin.

With Durant in the mix, the Suns are the betting favorite to win the Western Conference at +210 odds. They’re third on DraftKings’ NBA futures board at +450 odds to win the championship, but they’re the highest team from the West.

Even though the public is backing the Suns with Durant, the stat geeks and data scientists at FiveThirtyEight paint a different picture with their postseason predictions. The Suns have only a 10% chance to advance to the NBA Finals and have just a 3% chance to win the championship, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Banged-Up Clippers Holding onto the #5 Seed

There’s a growing sentiment that teams don’t want the #5 seed because that would entail a first-round matchup against Durant and the #4 Suns. However, the Western Conference is so unpredictable that dodging anyone seems ridiculous and impossible heading into the final week of the season.

Only a half-game separates the Clippers, Warriors, Lakers, and Pelicans, yet all four teams have 38 losses. Two of those teams could avoid the Play-In Tournament by finishing in fifth or sixth place. The other two would be relegated to the Play-In Tournament.

The Clippers and Warriors are at a disadvantage with only three remaining games each. The Lakers and Pelicans have four games left on the schedule to make up ground.

The Clippers (41-38) caught another bad break in the injury department when shooting guard Paul George sustained a right leg injury two weeks ago. The Clippers will reevaluate his progress next week, and there’s a chance he misses the opening round. The fifth-place Clippers are focused on making sure they retain the #5 seed and avoid the Play-In Tournament.

The Clippers are +2200 odds to win the championship and +850 odds to win the conference. Their overall odds took a direct hit after George went down.

Warriors on Thin Ice, Could Sink to Play-In

Fans expect the Warriors to flip a switch in the playoffs and successfully defend their championship. However, there are some huge concerns involving forward Andrew Wiggins and their horrendous road record.

Wiggins hasn’t suited up for the Warriors since before the All-Star break. He’s handling a personal matter, which has led to rampant speculation on social media. The team has been vague about when they expect him to return. Even if Wiggins rejoins the Warriors in the playoffs, he’ll be rusty after missing the final quarter of the season.

The sixth-place Warriors (41-38) have only three remaining games, but two are on the road against the Kings and Portland Trail Blazers. The Warriors are one of the worst road teams in the NBA this season with a  9-30 away record, so there’s legitimate concern they could end up in the Play-In Tournament.

The Warriors are +1300 odds to win back-to-back NBA championships. You can back them at +550 odds to win the conference title in consecutive seasons.

Lakers and Pelicans Surging

The Lakers (40-38) have been on a tear with a 14-6 record over their last 20 games after they finally traded away unhappy point guard Russell Westbrook. The Lakers propelled themselves from the playoff bubble to seventh place over the last few weeks. They achieved this remarkable feat even though LeBron James missed some of that stretch with a foot injury. They’re now within striking distance of fifth place and the #5 seed.

The Lakers are +2000 odds to win the championship and +900 odds to win the Western Conference. The Lakers are a popular team that attracts a significant amount of public money in the preseason. Futures bettors holding tickets on the Lakers to win the championship found a new life during their recent surge. FiveThirtyEight predicts the Lakers have an 8% chance to return to the NBA Finals and a 2% chance to win the championship for the second time since 2020.

The Pelicans (40-38) are 7-1 in their last eight games and moved into eighth place. They could avoid the Play-In Tournament if they can continue their upward trajectory.

The Pelicans are in the middle of their best run of the season since they lost power forward Zion Williamson to a hamstring injury in early January. Williamson sustained multiple setbacks in his recovery and it’s still unknown whether he’ll be ready to rejoin the squad when the playoffs begin. He’s been working out with the team, but his status remains a question mark.

The Pelicans are +15000 odds to win the championship, and +4500 odds to win the conference.

Timberwolves, Thunder Cling to Play-In

The Minnesota Timberwolves (39-40) are currently in ninth place and hold a one-game lead over the 10th-place Oklahoma City Thunder (38-41). There’s a slim chance they could ladder up and move into the seventh or eighth-place spots, but both teams only have three remaining games.

The Timberwolves are in the middle of a three-game losing streak even though big man Karl-Anthony Towns returned to the lineup after missing several months with a calf injury. They play two more road games against the Brooklyn Nets and San Antonio Spurs before ending the season against the Pelicans in Minneapolis.

FiveThirtyEight projects the Timberwolves have a 3% chance to advance to the NBA Finals, with a 0.8% chance to win it all. As expected, the Timberwolves are a long shot at +20000 odds to win the championship.

The Thunder are the most vulnerable team with a one-game lead over the Mavs and a 1.5-game lead over the Utah Jazz. They have two more road games against the Warriors and Jazz before returning home to host the Grizzlies in the season finale.

FiveThirtyEight predicts the Thunder have less than a 0.1% chance to reach the NBA Finals and win the championship. It’s no surprise that the Thunder have astronomical odds to win the title at +100000.

The Bubble: Mavs and Jazz

The Mavs are a hot mess right now. They advanced to the Western Conference finals last season, but are on the verge of missing the Play-In Tournament.

The addition of point guard Kyrie Irving at the trade deadline has been a disaster. The Mavs are 1-7 in their last eight games and only 6-14 since the All-Star break. The Mavs gave up several key role players, including two astute defenders and 3-point shooters in guard Spencer Dinwiddie and forward Dorian-Finney Smith, as part of the trade package to acquire Irving.

The Mavs are in currently 11th place with a 37-42 record. They dropped three games in a row, including a heartbreaking loss in overtime against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night. The Mavs trail the Thunder by one game in the loss column. They have three games remaining on the schedule and all three are at home in Dallas against the Kings, Bulls, and Spurs.

FiveThirtyEight projects that the Mavs have a 6% chance to qualify for the playoffs. They’ll need to win out their final three games and hope the Thunder falter down the stretch if they expect to sneak into the backdoor of the Play-In Tournament as the 10th-place team.

The Jazz are currently in 12th place and 1.5 games behind the Thunder. The Jazz haven’t been mathematically eliminated from Play-In contention because they have four remaining games, including three at home in Salt Lake City. They play the Lakers twice more, and face the Nuggets and Thunder. FiveThirtyEight estimates the Jazz have a 0.3% chance to secure the #8 seed in the playoffs.

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