Before the Covid-19 pandemic paused the NBA season, the top of the Western Conference playoff race was intriguing.
In a battle for Los Angeles, the Lakers were attempting to hold off the Clippers for the No. 1 seed. In addition to the fact that the teams share a city and a home area, both rosters are packed with stars. The Lakers added Anthony Davis to complement LeBron James in the offseason, and the Clippers signed the top free agent available in Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George.
The Lakers had built a 5.5 game lead before the season stalled, but the Clippers were also just rounding into form after Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley all missed time with injuries. The Clippers also acquired help to bolster their lineup in Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, and Joakim Noah.
But, with the playoffs moving to one neutral location, home court advantage throughout the playoffs isn’t exactly the selling point it once was. Instead, just getting into the playoffs is what matters, and when the season restarts, the Western Conference offers an even more intriguing battle on that front.
Six teams at the bottom of the standings are all within six games of each other, with the Memphis Grizzlies currently holding onto the eighth and final playoff spot by 3.5 games.
That lead wasn’t exactly commanding, but Memphis was in a good position heading into the final stretch of the season. Now, with the new format, if the Grizzlies aren’t able to build that lead over four games, they’ll not only have to hold onto the spot, they’ll have to survive a mini-tournament for it. Whoever sits in ninth place trailing by four games or fewer at the end of the season would then have to beat the eight seed twice to steal their spot. The eight seed would clinch if they win once.
The teams vying for that spot have a mix of interesting stories. Ja Morant will likely win Rookie of the Year and has led an entertaining Memphis roster that has been a surprise success this season. Fellow rookie Zion Williamson would be running away with the Rookie of the Year award if he didn’t miss much of the season with an injury, but since he debuted, he’s played like an All-Star and the Pelicans have closed the gap on Memphis and trail by 3.5 games.
The Portland Trail Blazers also trail by 3.5 games, and Damian Lillard was one of the hottest players in the league prior to the league suspending the season, including a stretch where he scored 40 or more points in five out of six games. Lillard was playing through a calf injury before play stopped, so he should be rested and healthy.
Two young teams, the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns, are hanging around, trailing by 3.5 and 6 games respectively. They each feature young star guards in De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker. And the San Antonio Spurs are still in the mix, trailing by 4 games – and trying to avoid their NBA-best 22-year playoff streak coming to an end. The Spurs will have to compete without star LaMarcus Aldridge, who will miss the rest of the season after having shoulder surgery in June.
The Eastern Conference race is less busy, but the Washington Wizards are still hanging around, 5.5 games behind Orlando. The Wizards also have one of the league’s most exciting players in Bradley Beal, who would no doubt like the opportunity to show what he can do in a playoff series.
Although the eight seed is usually just first round fodder, the neutral location and historically unusual circumstances these playoffs will occur in make nothing certain.