After months of consternation, NBA basketball is finally back.
In addition to the usual intrigue over who will win the NBA championship, there’s some additional excitement over which team will claim the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
For the first time ever, the NBA is giving the ninth-seeded team in each conference the opportunity to participate in a play-in tournament to take the final playoff seed.
To qualify, all a ninth-seeded team needs to do is finish within four games back of the eighth-seeded team. A maximum of two games will be held, and if the ninth-seeded team wins both games against the eighth-seeded team, the former will make the playoffs.
There isn’t a ton of intrigue over who will get the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Orlando Magic currently hold that spot, while the ninth-place Washington Wizards are six games behind Orlando.
The Wizards will have their work cut out for them, as star guard Bradley Beal is out for the duration of the restart with a rotator cuff injury.
However, there’s lots of uncertainty about the final seed in the Western Conference. The Memphis Grizzlies currently hold the spot, but the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs are all within four games of the Grizzlies as of now.
Which of these teams will ultimately make the playoffs and take on the top seed, which will likely be the Los Angeles Lakers?
Here’s a team-by-team breakdown and why each team can make it happen:
They’re the safe bet to make the postseason since they’re currently in eighth place.
Very little was expected of them coming into this season, as they have a very young roster and are rebuilding after the end of the “Grit and Grind” era.
Guard Ja Morant will likely be the Rookie of the Year, as he’s averaging 17.7 points and 7.0 assists a game while shooting 48.7 percent from the field. His explosiveness has gotten him some airtime on highlight reels throughout the season.
Another factor has been the improvement of second-year man Jaren Jackson Jr. as a prime 3-point threat, as well as the defense and rebounding of Jonas Valanciunas.
However, the Grizzlies will have a tough schedule during the eight “seeding” games. It starts with matchups against the Trail Blazers, Spurs and Pelicans, all of whom are looking to overtake Memphis.
If Memphis takes care of its first three games, the eighth seed could be all but theirs.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers could be the biggest dark horse team in the Western Conference.
Coming off a trip to the Western Conference Finals, they got off to a poor start this season by winning just five of their first 17 games.
In a head-scratching move, they picked up Carmelo Anthony, who many thought was washed up. But he’s had his best season in a while and helped the Blazers pick up their play.
At 30-37, one may think the Blazers are simply not a good team at first glance.
However, Jusuf Nurkic has returned after being out for over a year due to a leg injury. If Nurkic stays in form – he put up 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game last season – it will be a big boon for the Blazers.
Above all, their chances rest on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. He’s having a career-best season by averaging 28.9 points and 7.8 assists a game.
When it comes to money time, Lillard is perhaps the NBA’s most dangerous player, as evidenced by his long, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in last year’s playoffs to send the Oklahoma City Thunder to summer vacation.
If Lillard and backcourt partner C.J. McCollum get hot and stay hot for an extended period of time, Portland can not only make the playoffs but also give a team like the Lakers a real run for their money in the playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans
After missing the first half of the season with a knee injury, rookie sensation Zion Williamson finally made his NBA debut on Jan. 22. He hasn’t disappointed, as he’s averaged 22.3 points a game so far this season.
In the 21 games that Williamson has played in, the Pelicans have gone 10-11. This is in contrast to the 17-27 record they had going into Williamson’s first NBA contest.
All this has given the Pelicans arguably the brightest future of any NBA team, and that future starts now.
Their ability to get out and run as well as any team, coupled with their ability to hit the 3-ball could land them a spot in the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
The Kings may have just a tiny chance of making the playoffs, but anything is possible in a chaotic year like 2020.
Third-year point guard De’Aaron Fox has continued to emerge as an All-Star caliber player, putting up 20.8 points and 6.7 assists a game this season.
Also critical to the team’s growth has been the improvement of guard Buddy Hield, who is averaging 19.8 points per game and is one of the league’s better 3-point shooters.
Veteran Harrison Barnes has been a big help since his arrival from the Dallas Mavericks last season. Barnes has championship experience from his days with the Golden State Warriors and has given the Kings another deadly outside shooter.
If the Kings make it to the play-in tournament and face the Grizzlies, they could have a real shot of walking away with the eighth seed if Fox manages to outplay Morant and get some help from Hield.
San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich’s group has made the playoffs in each of the last 22 seasons, which is a phenomenal feat no matter how you slice it. But that streak is in serious jeopardy of ending.
However, the Spurs still possess a solid duo in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom have experience playing in very meaningful games.
Meanwhile, the return of 23-year-old point guard Dejounte Murray has filled in a huge gap in the backcourt. At age 33, Rudy Gay is still going strong and giving the Spurs a much-needed lift off the bench.
These may not be your older brother’s Spurs, but they do have a decent mix of youth and experience.
If they reach the play-in tournament, that experience, along with arguably the best coach in the NBA could deliver them their 23rd consecutive trip to the postseason.
Who Will It Be?
In the end, I personally feel the eighth seed in the Western Conference will be the Blazers. Their overtime victory on Friday over Memphis was proof that they can pull it off.
In that game, McCollum was white-hot, scoring 33 points on 14-of-21 shooting from the field. But a much more encouraging sign was the play of Nurkic, who put up 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and six blocks in his first game back.
Defensively, Portland held Morant to 7-of-22 shooting from the field.
Out of all the players on the teams mentioned here, Lillard is by far the scariest. At the end of the day, I feel he’ll put the Blazers over the top, then make the Lakers work hard to get past the first round of the playoffs.