The NBA playoff race was just starting to heat up when the coronavirus pandemic struck and shut down the games.
There is still no timetable for a return but should the NBA resume its 2019-20 season and finish all its regular-season games, the Western Conference will be in for an exciting finish.
As of the pause, the Memphis Grizzlies held the 8th and final playoff spot in the West with a record of 32-33. However, the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Sacramento Kings were breathing heavily behind their backs and were down by just 3.5 games in the team standings. Likewise, the San Antonio Spurs still have a chance of catching up as they are merely four games back of the Grizzlies.
Let’s take a look at which team has the biggest shot of catching up with the Grizzlies if the NBA’s 2019-20 regular season resumes:
1. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans were 28-36 when the season was suspended and they were just 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies in the team standings. Since Zion Williamson has played, the Pelicans have improved to +4.3 points per game against their opponents, ninth-best in the entire league. If Zion continues his brilliance when the season resumes, there is no doubt that New Orleans is the team that has the best chance of unseating Memphis.
The Pelicans have played the toughest schedule so far among the Western Conference teams and coming this close to the 8th spot is impressive because they didn’t have Williamson until January.
Having played a tough sked is also an advantage because when the season resumes, they will have the easiest strength of schedule.
No team in the playoff race has a higher ceiling than the Pelicans. Williamson is one of the best players in the league under 25 years old and Brandon Ingram is coming off his first-ever All-Star appearance. Ingram and Derrick Favors will be free agents after the season, and a playoff run would be good to evaluate how this team builds around Zion moving forward.
New Orleans has 18 games left in their regular-season schedule. That’s more than enough games to catch up with the Grizzlies. The average winning percentage of their remaining opponents is just 44% and only two of them have a record above the .500 mark. They still have two head to head matchups against Memphis and if they stay away from injuries, I think New Orleans has the best chance of catching up with the Grizzlies.
2. Sacramento Kings
Sacramento had a similar 28-36 record to New Orleans and they were one of three teams that are just 2.5 games behind Memphis in the last team standings. The Kings have the fifth easiest schedule in the Conference and they will play 10 out of their last 18 games at their home floor. Although games against the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers are included during that stretch five of the teams they play at home have records below .500
The Kings finish the regular season with four road games in their last five regular-season games. But two of those games are against the Denver Nuggets and The Los Angeles Lakers who will likely have locked up their respective spots in the Western Conference so the Kings should have a good chance.
Although the Kings look at the possibility of getting knocked out by the Lakers in the first round if they make it, they are very motivated at ending their long playoff drought which began in 2006. De’Aaron Fox will be eligible for an extension after the season while Bogdan Bogdanovic will be a free agent. These two should step up for the Kings when it matters most so that they will justify their next contracts.
Sacramento has been inconsistent this season and they have not won more than three straight games this season. However, with a chance to make up for a season that hasn’t gone as expected, I think the Kings will make the most out of this long break and finish strong when the season resumes.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are the third team that is just 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies in the team standings. Portland has been hounded by injuries this season but the long break should get them back Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic was almost ready to go when the season was suspended. He should be 100% when the 2019-20 campaign resumes and he should make the Blazers more dangerous.
But the main reason why Portland is a threat to unseat the Grizzlies is the fact that they have a leader like Damian Lillard who has the talent and experience to take over and win games for his team. The playoffs are always “Dame Time” and if the Blazers can get closer in the team standings, Lillard is a player who can carry them to the next level.
Portland is coming off a breakthrough year for this current group as they made it to the Western Conference Finals last year. They don’t have the same depth nor do they play the same gritty defense that allowed them to make a deep playoff run in 2019. Sure, this year’s group isn’t the same team as last year’s but if they are 100% healthy, they are close to that.
Rumors were floating that the Blazers could break up the Lillard and C.J. McCollum backcourt if the team misses the playoff bus in 2020. Gossips like those could add fire to the Blazers’ dynamic backcourt and help Lillard and McCollum play strong to finish the year. Among the teams that are chasing Memphis, Portland is probably the most dangerous given their playoff experience.
4. San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs are the team among these group that has the most to lose if they don’t make the playoffs. San Antonio has made the NBA postseason in the last 22 seasons and at four games back with a 27-36 record, they still have a chance to salvage their streak and go into the history books along on their own as the team who has made the longest consecutive playoff run in NBA history.
The Spurs have a good schedule too as they have the third easiest schedule in the Western Conference. 12 out of San Antonio’s last 19 games will be played at home and 10 of those are against opponents with a losing record.
The Spurs also still have five games against the three teams in our list so they still pretty much control their destiny.
However, the Spurs need to sharpen the iron. This has been the most inconsistent year of any Gregg Popovich team I’ve ever seen. This team ranks 26th in defense and is the worst Popovich team ever when it comes to that side of the court. However, this team should have Jakob Poeltl back from injury while DeMar DeRozan should have rested his back which had caused his numbers to dip just before the season was paused.
However, they are still coached by the best coach ever and they have an experienced line-up that can defeat the young teams that they are playing catchup with. If they can regroup when the season restarts and play like the Spurs that we used to know, they can still turn things around and make it happen.