NBA Restart: The Battle for the Last Spots
As of today, I am still operating under the assumption that the NBA will be restarting on July 30th. Things can and will change, but until then I’m going to keep chugging along with the previews.
Following the All-Star Break, one of the most intriguing plot lines in the NBA was the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Teams like the Grizzlies, Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, and Suns all stayed in the hunt until the hiatus occurred. The biggest question was who could perform in the homestretch and earn the right to play the top dog in the West in the first round, hoping to pull a miraculous upset. Now, nearly four months after the suspension of the season, that question will finally be answered, so let’s see the road for each of the teams fighting to keep their seasons going just a bit longer. We’ll also check in on the Eastern Conference and the far less competitive fight for their last seed.
Memphis Grizzlies: Currently sitting in that coveted eighth seed, the Grizz were one of the most entertaining teams to watch all season. Likely ROTY Ja Morant led a high-flying, fast-paced team, a major change from the “grit ‘n grind” of the past in Memphis. It was expected to be a rebuilding season for the Grizzlies, but there was just too much talent on this roster with guys like Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and Jonas Valanciunas alongside Morant, which has resulted in a 32-33 record. This season is already a success, but holding onto a playoff spot and gaining invaluable experience for a young roster would be the icing on the cake for the Grizzlies.
Key to the Seed: Win early. Being already in the playoff picture, Memphis fans were desperately hoping the season would restart immediately with the first round. Instead, they must fend off the rest of the field for eight games to hold their spot. Playing the Blazers, Spurs, and Pelicans the first three games of the restart will be a major stretch in the outcome for the Grizz. Go 2-1 or 3-0, things look alright. Go 1-2 or 0-3, can pretty much guarantee somebody else is going to jump into the eighth seed. They control their own destiny, but they need to perform early to keep it that way.
Portland Trail Blazers: Opposite of the Grizzlies, this season has been a bit of a disappointment for Portland. Damian Lillard was incredible for most of the year, but injuries to key contributors and an inability to string together wins resulted in last season’s Western Conference Runner-ups outside of the playoffs at the beginning of the restart. At 29-37, the Blazers are close, but are still on the outside looking in. However, if the Blazers can find their way into the playoffs, they could be the scariest eight seed of all-time.
Key to the Seed: Unleash the full roster. Early reports are making it sound like the Blazers will have an almost fully-healthy roster for the restart, which would be absolutely incredible for Portland fans. Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t seen the floor all season due to the gruesome leg injury he sustained late last year, but is a walking double-double when healthy and changes the defensive dynamic for the team entirely. Zach Collins should also be back, and guys like Dame, CJ McCollum, Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony got a very-needed chance to heal up and rest. The rest of the Western Conference does not want a healthy Portland to sneak in because they will crash the party.
New Orleans Pelicans: Remember when Zion Williamson was not playing for the Pelicans? Seems like an absolute eternity ago now, and Pelicans fans certainly don’t want to look back. Brandon Ingram has had an all-star season and has led the group for most of the season and absolutely deserves MIP, but Williamson absolutely changed the face of the team as soon as he was healthy enough to play. The turnaround after a 6-22 start (!) to the season has been astounding, but New Orleans is still 28-36, and needs to win a lot after the restart to end up in the eight seed. However, New Orleans might be in the best spot of any team to make it happen.
Key to the Seed: Take advantage of an easy schedule. Of the eight games the Pelicans are scheduled to play, six of them are against teams currently below .500. They have the easiest road for those just out of the picture, and beating the relatively weak opponents in front of them shouldn’t be a problem. The Clippers are the only team on the schedule that is a true title contender, and the Pelicans played them very tough back in January, so seeing New Orleans go anywhere from 6-2 to 8-0 is not out of the question.
Sacramento Kings: Just as the Kings were starting to figure it out, the rug was pulled out from under them with the suspension of the season. After the All-Star Break the Kings went 7-3, and guys like De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Buddy Hield were showing they can be top-level players. Even vets like Harrison Barnes and Kent Bazemore (after he was traded from the Blazers at the deadline) were putting together solid seasons. Some of the heat has been taken off of Luke Walton’s job, but at 28-36 they sit right with the Pelicans outside of the playoffs. Behind in tiebreakers with New Orleans and with less games played before the suspension than the Blazers, they will need some help along with a lot of wins to grab the last seed.
Key to the Seed: Run fast and let it fly. The Kings had a big struggle with consistent scoring, averaging only 109.0 PPG, 23rd in the league. In an eight-game restart after a four-month break, players will be understandably rusty, but the Kings need to do what they do best. Get the ball in Fox’s hand in transition and let Hield, Bogdanovic, Barnes, and Nemanja Bjelica shoot from deep. Sacramento is okay on defense, but not talented enough to rely on that to win games against teams like the Lakers and Rockets. Trying to blitz teams out the gym is the best way for the Kings to try and steal the eighth seed.
San Antonio Spurs: The streak has never been in greater trouble than it is right now. Despite their starting line-up being relatively healthy the entire year and Demar DeRozan having one of his most efficient seasons of his career, the Spurs simply have not had the firepower to keep up with the rest of the teams in the West. Not having high draft picks for essentially two decades has finally caught up with Pop and Co., but not all is lost for the San Antonio fans quite yet. At 27-36, they have a long way to go, but betting against the Spurs in the summer rarely goes well. A chance is all the most successful team in Texas has ever needed.
Key to the Seed: Ride the veterans. Greg Popovich (if he makes the trip to Orlando) has some magic left in the tank, but it’s going to have to come from guys like DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge on both sides of the ball. Guards Bryn Forbes, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick White have proven they can carry the offense at different times, but the ball has to be in the best two scorers hands as often as possible. Patty Mills coming off the bench is a luxury, but the Spurs will need to go 6-2 to even have a chance at sneaking into the playoffs. For the streak to continue, San Antonio will have to trust the leaders and hope for some chaos.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns have a mountain to climb to find their way into the playoffs at 26-39. With the worst record of anyone in the restart besides the Wizards, Phoenix is just happy they get to play a few more games that matter. The odds of them breaking their nine-season slump and snagging the eight seed are slim, but not impossible. Devin Booker is one of the most entertaining players in the league at only 23 years old, Kelly Oubre Jr. is finally putting it all together (he will not play in the restart due to knee surgery), and Deandre Ayton is slowly proving he was a decent number one pick. The future looks brighter now than in recent memory for the Suns, but the playoffs this year look like a longshot.
Key to the Seed: Have nothing go catastrophically wrong. This is less of a key to earning the eighth seed and more a key to future success for Phoenix. Playing against teams like the Thunder, Clippers, Heat, and 76ers has things looking very bleak in the race for the playoffs, so the best Phoenix can hope for is getting out with everyone healthy and trying again next season.
Orlando Magic: Sitting in the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Magic have benefited greatly from the East being so weak this season. At 30-35, and still a full 5.5 games in front of the Wizards, Orlando is looking less to just make the playoffs and more to try and improve their seed. Only a half a game behind the seventh seed Brooklyn Nets, trying to avoid the Bucks in the first round and face either the Raptors or Celtics is the goal. Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier lead the team in scoring, but guys like Aaron Gordon, Terrance Ross, and Markelle Fultz could be the gamechangers to move the needle for the Magic.
Key to the Seed: Keep scores low. What the Magic do best is play defense. Led by head coach Steve Clifford and with length and strength at all positions, Orlando can lock up and create turnovers as good as any team in the league. During the restart, as offenses still try to figure it out, having a strong defense will make things far more difficult for opponents. As a team that tends to struggle with consistent offense, keeping teams in the double-digits will be vital for the Magic to lock up a playoff spot and hopefully move up a seed.
Washington Wizards: The lone team invited in the Eastern Conference not currently in a playoff spot, the 24-40 Wizards have been a relatively bad team this season besides Bradley Beal. Beal has taken on the role of primary scorer since John Wall went down with his achilles injury and has flourished. Not an all-star this season which was absolute robbery, he took it upon himself to keep Washington somewhat competitive while averaging over 30 PPG. However, until Wall comes back, this roster is just not near talented enough to be truly competitive in the league. Climbing back into the East eight seed is going to be incredibly difficult, but watching Beal put up 45 a game in the restart will be exciting.
Key to the Seed: Beal. This section might as well have just been called “The Bradley Beal Experience” because the Wizards will only go as far as he can take them. Catching the Orlando Magic for the eighth seed will be a major task, and with one of the hardest schedules of any team in the restart it seems near impossible. Similar to the Suns, if nothing goes horribly haywire for Washington, the restart will be a success.
Rest In Peace Kimani Donovan, it was a pleasure being your teammate. Fly high young man.