The race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference is the hottest club of 2020. It has everything—an older squad holding on to its dignity (Spurs), a young team with two exciting talents (Grizzlies), a perennial playoff squad (Blazers), a perennial underachiever (Wolves), plus the Kings, Suns, and Pelicans. In all seriousness, as of this blog (the only unit of time that means anything to me) seeds eight through 14 in the West are separated by only four games. And after years of elitism and snobbery and only really good teams making the postseason, the West is finally slumming it with its cousins back East, as all seven of those teams are sub-.500. And all of them—with the exception of maybe Memphis—entered this season with playoff hopes. Which team would be the most fun to see in the first round? Let’s rank them.
I’m sorry you old farts, your time is done. The Spurs would probably give the No. 1 seed a decent fight because they’re a well-coached, veteran-laden squad. But we don’t need to see San Antonio in the playoffs anymore, or at least this iteration. Sure, the Spurs actually have a top-ten offense, but they shoot the fewest threes in the league, which means we’re forced to watch them try to beat teams with a thousand paper cuts. I respect San Antonio for not jumping head first into a reset after trading away Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs’ insistence on remaining competitive however doesn’t mean they’re exciting to watch, and the playoffs would be more interesting with some new blood. Let’s give Pop some time to chill before the Olympics. Maybe he can make a cameo on Terrace House instead of drawing up gameplans.
The Wolves are finally showing some signs of life, with Karl Towns becoming seven-footer Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins in the middle of a resurgence. The defense is still middling (it’s literally 15th in the league in efficiency) and Towns has been out since Dec. 13 with a knee injury. Minnesota could be intriguing if everyone gets healthy at the same time, but its worrisome that the trade sharks are circling around Robert Covington. If Minnesota is really ready to start selling off some pieces, then we have to wonder how seriously the front office wants to be a part of the postseason.
The Pelicans would maybe be No. 1 if Zion had actually played so far this season. Brandon Ingram has been putting up All-Star caliber numbers, and I still have dreams of him, Lonzo, and Zion running a terrifying fastbreak. Deep down, you have to imagine David Griffin would love to see the full roster he put together actually get a chance to play with one another. And a potential Zion-LeBron first-round matchup would be a really fun “Welcome to the NBA” moment. But New Orleans has some assets (Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick) that will pop up in trade rumors, and if they get moved, a playoff berth probably wouldn’t be in the cards. Unlike the Wolves, it would make more sense for the Pels to punt on this season. But even the faintest glimmer of Zion hopes bumps them up a couple spots.
T-3. Kings and Suns
I can’t separate these teams, and these are my rankings so it’s a tie. Sacramento was more fun last season, when it played the third-fastest pace in the league and seemingly every single one of its games had amazing potential for hijinks. Shockingly, Luke Walton has this team playing pretty slowly, even with De’Aaron Fox firmly back in the lineup after an early season injury. I still think this team can be fun if Fox and Marvin Bagley III get healthy at the same time, and if the front office actually holds on to Bogdan Bogdanovic. The version of the Kings many of us loved last season is still in there, it just needs some more time to come out.
Meanwhile, Phoenix came out the gates hot this season. Aron Baynes was playing like the best center in the league and Kelly Oubre was an MIP candidate. Then the Suns flamed out. Phoenix is obviously not as good as its shocking 7–4 start (it really is baby steps for this franchise.) The Suns have since had two three-game losing streaks in addition to an eight-game bender. But the signs of life we saw early in the season were the most encouraging in years. Oubre plays unhinged enough that he alone could make a postseason series interesting. And maybe Devin Booker would try to go off for 40 every night. That’s exactly the kind of chaos I want a team to bring to the playoffs.
The Blazers are a little bit of a sleeping, first-round giant! It wasn’t even a year ago when Damian Lillard hit the walk-off three that basically ended the Russell Westbrook era in Oklahoma City. Portland has been frustrating this season, but there’s a path that ends with them being a very tough first-round out. First and foremost, Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic have to get healthy. Both guys won’t come back looking completely like themselves right away, but having them on the floor will improve this team dramatically. Then things get interesting. What if the front office can acquire a wing at the deadline? Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside suddenly add depth when they’re coming off the bench instead of starting. Mix all these ingredients together and you have a tasty dish that nobody will want to eat early in the playoffs. I’m not ready to give up on Portland, and more so than any other team in the eight-seed race, the Blazers would bring serious star power to the postseason.
Have you seen the recklessness with which Ja Morant tries to dunk on people, often times at severe detriment to his own body? Have you experienced the dizzying heights of Jaren Jackson hitting several threes in a quarter in conjunction with the maddening lows of him picking up three fouls in two seconds? Memphis is weird, fun, unpredictable and somehow only one game out of a playoff spot. Would the Grizzlies stand a chance against say, the Lakers? No. Would they play with such freedom that they could make it interesting? Probably! Think of a Grizzlies playoff berth like a long-term investment. Sure, we could see another retread in the first round. Or we could see Ja and JJJ get a taste of the postseason early in their careers, suffer a bitter defeat, and then be motivated by that loss for years to come. New stars usually don’t emerge until they get a shot at the playoffs. Furthering along that process for exciting talents like Morant and Jackson would be worthwhile for everyone involved.