The Race for 8th

The Race for 8th

Drink it in basketball fans, it's an absolute miracle... 

With the NBA officially resuming on Thursday, with two games as the "appetizer", things are going to heat up in a hurry with NBA action taking place each and every day. That means that fans are going to need to pay close attention to the Western Conference and specifically, the race for the 8th seed. There's a lot to consider when we talk about the 8th seed. For instance, this year's format is a bit different than what NBA fans were accustomed to for the Playoffs. With the pandemic putting a pause on the NBA season, Commisioner Adam Silver approved the proposal to have a "play-in" tournament for teams that are fighting for a playoff spot. 

THE PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT

It's been one of the hottest topics to consider when taking a look ahead at the NBA's resumption. At first, the thought of a play-in tournament seemed a bit insane. Given the circumstances, you'll find plenty of conspiracy fans out there thinking that this was a plot to give Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans a serious shot at the Playoffs. But let's not focus too much on that route for now.

Here's what we know. As it stands right now, the Memphis Grizzlies currently find themselves as the 8th seed. Three teams trail Memphis by 3.5 games. Those teams include the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Sacramento Kings in order. After that, the San Antonio Spurs trail by 4 games and the Phoenix Suns find themselves at the end trailing by 6. 

With the proposed "play-in" tournament, that will have major implications on the Western Conference specifically, there will be a tournament for the 8th seed if teams find themselves within 4 games of the final seed. The Athletic's Shams Charania broke it down previously.

...teams within four games of the 8th seed after that period will advance to a play-in tournament. If no team is within four games, the 8th seed automatically clinches a playoff spot. Otherwise, the 8th and 9th seeds play in a double-elimination tournament that gives the team with a better record the advantage. The 9th seed would have to defeat the 8th seed twice to take its spot, while the 8th seed would only have to win once."

Now remember, some of these teams are going to face a difficult up-hill battle with their remaining schedules at the NBA Bubble. If you take a look below at this tweet from Advanced NBA Stats Writer John Schuhmann, you'll notice a breakdown comparing the previous strength of remaining schedule to the new. 

What this tells us is that some of the teams in this Western Conference race are going up against a mountain of a difficult schedule. On the other hand, some have a favorable schedule that could lead towards them making a serious run at the 8th seed. Let's break each team down.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (32-33, Currently: 8th Seed)

The Grizzlies find themselves with a comfortable 3.5 game lead on the rest of the teams on the hunt for the 8th seed. While some might point out that the break in NBA action was favorable for a team like the Portland Trail Blazers, people seem to forget that the Memphis Grizzlies were a bit banged up before the NBA hiatus occurred. With key players like Jaren Jackson Jr and Brandon Clarke back at full health, expect the Grizzlies to hit the ground running in Orlando.

Currently, the Grizzlies have one of the more "testing" schedules remaining, as they rank 6th in terms of strength of schedule. When you consider the schedules for most of the teams at the bubble, you have to remember that the majority of the remaining teams are making the playoffs. That being said, here's a look at the remaining opponents for Grind City. 

Regular Season Table
Date Start (ET)       Opponent
Fri, Jul 31, 2020 4:00p     @ Portland Trail Blazers
Sun, Aug 2, 2020 4:00p       San Antonio Spurs
Mon, Aug 3, 2020 6:30p     @ New Orleans Pelicans
Wed, Aug 5, 2020 2:30p     @ Utah Jazz
Fri, Aug 7, 2020 4:00p       Oklahoma City Thunder
Sun, Aug 9, 2020 2:00p     @ Toronto Raptors
Tue, Aug 11, 2020 6:30p       Boston Celtics
Thu, Aug 13, 2020         Milwaukee Bucks
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/29/2020.

The first three games could be monstrous for the Grizzlies when it comes to the overall playoff picture. In those games, each team is trying to catch up to Memphis for the 8th seed. A couple of wins could do wonders for the Grizzlies moving forward. The final stretch after that is a bit of a warzone for Grind City, as they will face 5 teams that are projected to make some noise in the Playoffs. 

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (29-37, Currently 9th, 3.5 GB)

There's a large amount of momentum gaining when it comes to NBA fans discussing a potential sleeper in the race for the 8th seed. It's for good reason also, as the Portland Trail Blazers are getting some BIG pieces back to the puzzle. Talented big man Jusuf Nurkic has returned to action and looked more than ready to contribute for the Blazers during his impressive play in the Scrimmages this last week. Another big, Zach Collins, is finally healthy for Portland as well and is expected to be a big defensive presence for the Blazers moving forward. 

There's no denying that Portland has talent across the board to make some noise at a potential playoff berth. This team has struggled with the injury bug throughout the year and it looks as if they are finally getting healthy at the right time. All-Stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will provide the offensive punch out of the backcourt, and Carmelo Anthony will look to continue his productive year for Portland. If Hassan Whiteside can be a force alongside Nurkic or Collins, Portland could be a team no one wants to face.

Regular Season Table
Date Start (ET)       Opponent
Fri, Jul 31, 2020 4:00p       Memphis Grizzlies
Sun, Aug 2, 2020 3:30p     @ Boston Celtics
Tue, Aug 4, 2020 9:00p       Houston Rockets
Thu, Aug 6, 2020 8:00p     @ Denver Nuggets
Sat, Aug 8, 2020 1:00p       Los Angeles Clippers
Sun, Aug 9, 2020 6:30p       Philadelphia 76ers
Tue, Aug 11, 2020 5:00p     @ Dallas Mavericks
Thu, Aug 13, 2020       @ Brooklyn Nets
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/29/2020.

When it comes to Portland's schedule moving forward, they are going to face some challenges that's for sure. Portland now has the 5th most difficult schedule remaining, and they will have to hit the ground running to stay in the Playoff conversation. 

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (28-36, Currently 10th, 3.5 GB)

New Orleans is going to be the talk of this race due to the surging popularity with Zion Williamson, but the team can flat out play as well. Brandon Ingram has been sensational this year since the Pelicans acquired him, and will have plenty believing he deserves to be named this years Most Improved Player in the NBA. Lonzo Ball has taken steps forward in his development, as well as shown improvement as an outside shooter. Jrue Holiday continues to be one of the most underrated two-way guards in the NBA and JJ Redick still is getting buckets. This team is much better and deeper than people realize, but it also just shows you how ridiculous Zion Williamson has been...when he's played.

Another reason why so many people are drinking the Pelicans Kool-Aid as a Playoff contender is their remaining schedule. Currently, the Pelicans remaining schedule ranks 22nd in terms of strength, which would be the easiest of remaining teams. 

Regular Season Table
Date Start (ET)       Opponent
Thu, Jul 30, 2020 6:30p       Utah Jazz
Sat, Aug 1, 2020 6:00p     @ Los Angeles Clippers
Mon, Aug 3, 2020 6:30p       Memphis Grizzlies
Thu, Aug 6, 2020 1:30p     @ Sacramento Kings
Fri, Aug 7, 2020 8:00p       Washington Wizards
Sun, Aug 9, 2020 3:00p       San Antonio Spurs
Tue, Aug 11, 2020 9:00p     @ Sacramento Kings
Thu, Aug 13, 2020       @ Orlando Magic
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/30/2020.
SACRAMENTO KINGS (28-36, Currently 11th, 3.5 GB)

It's important to remember that the Sacramento Kings were a team that was starting to heat up before the NBA hit the pause button. There's no denying that the Kings have the talent to make some noise and surprise everyone in the race for the 8th seed. With a talented backcourt featuring De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Buddy Hield, the Kings have the firepower to cause opposing teams problems as we near towards the finish. 

But unfortunately for the Kings, they've experienced some setbacks in the bubble. Second year big Marvin Bagley III suffered an injury and will miss the remainder of the season. De'Aaron Fox had an ankle issue while in Orlando. A number of important rotational pieces have been held out of action while they recovered from the coronavirus. It's been a bit of a rocky start for the Kings, but now they have every ready to go as the season is back. Currently, the Kings find themselves with the 20th ranked remaining schedule in terms of strength. With two of their first 4 games against teams that are also chasing the 8th seed, it will be important for Sacramento to hit the ground running, especially in their first game against the Spurs. It's also important to point out that the Kings will face the Pelicans twice to finish the year.

Regular Season Table
Date Start (ET)       Opponent
Fri, Jul 31, 2020 8:00p     @ San Antonio Spurs
Sun, Aug 2, 2020 6:00p     @ Orlando Magic
Tue, Aug 4, 2020 2:30p       Dallas Mavericks
Thu, Aug 6, 2020 1:30p       New Orleans Pelicans
Fri, Aug 7, 2020 5:00p     @ Brooklyn Nets
Sun, Aug 9, 2020 8:00p       Houston Rockets
Tue, Aug 11, 2020 9:00p       New Orleans Pelicans
Thu, Aug 13, 2020       @ Los Angeles Lakers
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/30/2020.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (27-36, Currently 12th, 4 GB)

Now this is where things start to get a little dicey. On one hand, San Antonio looked like an incredibly scary darkhorse to make some noise and somehow sneak into the playoffs. That was until it was announced that big man Lamarcus Aldridge would miss the NBA resumption after having shoulder surgery. Alridge, who has been one of the consistent offensive forces for the Spurs, will be a hard piece to replace in terms of overall production. So yes, it would be easy to say that the Spurs have their work cut out for them.

Still, do we REALLY want to try to count out a team lead by Gregg Popovich? Have we not had this discussion too many times? While all of the odds might be stacked against Pop and the Spurs, there's still some intrigue to them making a run at this. The Spurs currently have the 12th toughest strength of schedule remaining. Which means they are about right in the smack middle of the back. With opening games against the Kings and Grizzlies, the Spurs could make up some serious ground if they hit the ground rolling. There's plenty of intriguing pieces still with the Spurs to keep an eye on, such as the young talented backcourt of Dejonte Murray and Derrick White. It will be interesting to see if the Spurs give a little extended run to rookie wing Keldon Johnson during the next couple of games as well. 

Regular Season Table
Date Start (ET)       Opponent
Fri, Jul 31, 2020 8:00p       Sacramento Kings
Sun, Aug 2, 2020 4:00p     @ Memphis Grizzlies
Mon, Aug 3, 2020 8:00p     @ Philadelphia 76ers
Wed, Aug 5, 2020 4:00p       Denver Nuggets
Fri, Aug 7, 2020 1:00p       Utah Jazz
Sun, Aug 9, 2020 3:00p     @ New Orleans Pelicans
Tue, Aug 11, 2020 2:00p       Houston Rockets
Thu, Aug 13, 2020       @ Utah Jazz
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/30/2020.
PHOENIX SUNS (26-39, Currently 13th, 6 GB)

The last of the potential contenders to make some noise as a potential 8th seed is the definition of an absolute wildcard. Now the Phoenix Suns might be one of the most exciting sleepers in this conversation, but they have a mountain to climb in order to seriously get into the conversation.

There's plenty of reasons why the Suns could get hot and cause some anarchy to this race. First, they have the talent. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton have shined throughout the year as well as some of the younger pieces including Mikal Bridges, who has been impressive during the scrimmages in Orlando. It would have been a real treat to see Kelly Oubre in the fold as well in Orlando, but he is expected to sit out while rehabbing a previous injury. 

Phoenix will have their work cut out for them. As of now they find themselves with the 7th toughest remaining schedule and will face only 1 team with a record below .500, as seen below in the tweet by John Schuhmann.

If Phoenix wants to have any sort of realistic shot for this, they are going to have to be close to perfect with the remaining games in the season. As you can see below the Suns will face off with the Wizards and then prepare themselves for a gauntlet of tough games remaining on their schedule. With Phoenix already sitting 6.0 games back of the Playoffs, they will have minimal room for error in order to sneak into the potential play-in tournament. 

Regular Season Table
Date Start (ET)       Opponent
Fri, Jul 31, 2020 4:00p     @ Washington Wizards
Sun, Aug 2, 2020 9:00p       Dallas Mavericks
Tue, Aug 4, 2020 4:00p     @ Los Angeles Clippers
Thu, Aug 6, 2020 4:00p       Indiana Pacers
Sat, Aug 8, 2020 7:30p     @ Miami Heat
Mon, Aug 10, 2020 2:30p       Oklahoma City Thunder
Tue, Aug 11, 2020 4:30p     @ Philadelphia 76ers
Thu, Aug 13, 2020         Dallas Mavericks
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/30/2020.