Western Conference: What team has the best chance of catching the Grizzlies if the NBA season resumes?
If the NBA decides to play the postseason at some point this year, the Memphis Grizzlies will be the eighth seed in the Western Conference. This derives from the astounding growth of their young core which includes stud rookie Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., and veteran center Jonas Valanciunas, among others.
However, what if the NBA decides to continue the regular season? The Grizzlies, 32-33, hold a three and a half game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. This was quietly a compelling playoff race before the league hiatus. Could one of these three teams go on a run to sneak into the playoffs if the season resumes? Who has the best chance of doing so?
Here is the case for and against all three teams catching the Grizzlies, as well as a verdict.
The case for the Portland Trail Blazers
In the midst of an immensely disappointing season, the Trail Blazers are still one of the most talented teams in the NBA with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum running the show. They’ve also gotten steady scoring from Carmelo Anthony.
Head coach Terry Stotts’ group has a lot of continuity. They’ve gotten past the first round of the playoffs numerous times and found ways to eke their way to the spring dance. The key is them bearing down defensively. Even with numerous injuries to proven scorers, they’ve managed to remain their potent selves offensively.
Can they right the ship defensively for four weeks? They’ve done it before; why can’t they do it again?
The case against the Portland Trail Blazers
With 16 games remaining in the regular season, you are what you are: The Trail Blazers are an underachieving team that appears to have missed its championship window. With a roster that has been stagnant all season, why would that all of a sudden change?
They’ve struggled mightily defensively; Portland is 26th in the NBA in opponent points per game (115.2). There have been few, if any signs of a light at the end of the tunnel for them with or without Damian Lillard on the floor. Their go-to scorers are established players with no room for growth. Occasionally a team has an off year, and the Trail Blazers are having a tedious season.
They’ve been the same team all year.
The case for the New Orleans Pelicans
All it took was Zion Williamson making his NBA debut to get buzz around the Pelicans. Over the 20 games Williamson appeared in the Pelicans were a different team than the one that had people thinking that selling at the trade deadline was the sensible route.
Williamson provided their offense with another dimension with his aggressive and interchangeable inside and outside game, taking some pressure off Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram. Meanwhile, they’ve been respectable defensively and have won 11 of their last 20 games, which is a pace that could get them up to Memphis in the final week of the season.
They’re hot, improving, and playing with nothing to lose, as they were deemed dead in the water months ago. This could make them a dangerous team in the Western Conference.
The case against the New Orleans Pelicans
The optimism is strong, and the future is bright, but making a playoff push is far from a given for the Pelicans. For starters, some of their high-minute rotation players are on rookie deals. Having to accumulate wins at a higher rate will be challenging as it requires a considerable spike in production.
It’s also possible that head coach Alvin Gentry is prudent with Williamson’s minutes, as he has endured injury scares over the last year. If they go all out down the stretch to make the playoffs, which they weren’t expected to make to begin with, they risk one of their youngsters getting hurt in games some might argue “don’t matter.”
Chasing the playoffs could be an exciting run for the Pelicans. It could also be one that reminds them they have a ways to go and maybe be hindered by coaching/management’s wishes.
The case for the Sacramento Kings
The Kings were a sleeper to make the playoffs this season based on their stellar young core: Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley and Bogdan Bogdanovic. And it didn’t exactly get off to a great start, as they lost their first five games of the season and have been inconsistent from all aspects of the game. There is another part to this story, though.
Prior to the league hiatus, the Kings were winners of 13 of their last 20 games and slowly climbing up the Western Conference standings. In that span, they’ve pulled off some impressive wins, defeating the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, who they’re chasing, twice apiece, as well as the Miami Heat. The Kings are finishing games, seeming to gel and playing up to expectations.
Perhaps they’ve figured it out?
The case against the Sacramento Kings
The Kings are in the same spot as they were last year at this time, but this time around one could argue they should’ve been a playoff team; close to no one felt the Grizzlies would be better than the Kings. Part of the problem possibly stems from coaching.
Luke Walton was hired to be the bridge that got the Kings to the playoffs, and there has been minimal roster growth, as a whole, this season. After a prolonged absence from the floor, Sacramento’s momentum could be halted, and they could revert to their old ways.
They’ve struggled to turn a collective corner this season and have been inconsistent on both ends of the floor.
The verdict: the Trail Blazers have the best chance of stealing the eighth seed
The Trail Blazers have been there before, and they know what they can do. From a talent standpoint, they’re the best of the three teams chasing a playoff spot in the West and the most likely to steal the eighth seed from the young Grizzlies.
The Kings have been a volatile bunch, and the Pelicans could be held back by internal forces; the Trail Blazers could be playing for their head coach’s job. If they miss the playoffs after a Conference Finals appearance and the Golden State Warriors going into a cave for a year, Stotts could get fired.
Will Portland catch Memphis in the Western Conference? It’s difficult to objectively say yes. The Grizzlies are a confident, young bunch unfazed by top competition and are only going to get better. But if any team is going to give them a run for their money it’s the Trail Blazers; they have the roster to hang with anybody.