For years, the NBA’s Eastern Conference has had a reputation as the weaker conference. After all, that’s where several teams with sub-.500 records made the playoffs more than once, while teams in the West with far more wins have missed out altogether. That could change this season, however. LeBron James and the Lakers site comfortably atop the standings, but the Western Conference is proving to be weaker at the bottom than it has been in quite some time.
Because of this, it could be one of the most interesting storylines to hit the NBA in quite some time.
Western Conference playoff picture
With the Los Angeles Lakers high atop the West, the six seeds after being separated by only five-and-a-half games as of January 16. The Denver Nuggets hold the second seed with a 28-12 record, while the Oklahoma City Thunder are thriving at 23-18. All of these teams have had their ups and downs, while the contending Los Angeles Clippers appear content to coast by until the playoffs approach.
The seeds after seven, however, are not looking so nice these days. While the Nets 18-22 record as the Eastern eighth seed might seem like par for the course, the 19-22 Memphis Grizzlies might surprise some people in the West. Some teams are underachieving and others overachieving, but none of them appear to be serious threats to grab a higer seed.
Several teams could take the eighth seed
The teams at the top of the Western Conference feature some of the best players in the NBA: Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, and the surprisingly athletic Nikola Jokic, to name a few. But so many teams are fighting for that last spot that it could make for thrilling television.
The Grizzlies, led by Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., have recently played much better than they did at the start of the season. They have fought hard every night and put away early struggles to show that they can become a playoff team with a little bit of consistency. Right on their trail, however, are the 17-22 San Antonio Spurs and the 18-24 Portland Trail Blazers, both of whom are teams that historically find a way to get in by the season’s end.
The Phoenix Suns’ hot start turned heads, but at 16-24, they are starting to show that they are similar to the team that has fed on the bottom of the conference for many years. Similar things can be said about the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are sitting at 15-25. For the New Orleans Pelicans, the young core has not been able to shake the Zion Williamson injury, although he might be back as soon as January 22.
The Sacramento Kings have been one of the most hit or miss teams on the season, at their best they have defeated the Mavericks and Thunder and stayed right in there against the Lakers. At their worst, they have fallen to some of the league’s worst teams and struggled to make games competitive. Only the Golden State Warriors appear to be out of the picture altogether, however, although if Stephen Curry returned from injury, a miracle could be in store.
Will the Lakers hold on to the top spot?
The teams in the eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds are the most likely to secure the eighth seed, and if the Thunder show some regression, two of these teams could sneak into the picture. The young and exciting Grizzlies squad has shown that they can be competitive on any given night, but young teams can also spiral out of control quickly.
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers have shown that they can be a second-half team, and coming off of the Conference Finals last year, the team will fight its hardest to get into the playoffs by game 82. The Spurs are coming off of two-decades in the playoffs, too, and as ESPN’s Tim Bontemps points out, coach Gregg Popovich has a knack for willing his teams there despite all odds.
The bottom of the Western playoff seeding is up for grabs, and for the right reasons or the wrong ones, the race could be intriguing going into the season’s second half.