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Predicting the final order of the Western Conference Playoffs

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Is your team going to survive the cut?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Sacramento Kings Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Sixteen games ago, the Utah Jazz were 19-28 and in 10th place in the Western Conference. They looked more poised to go on a tanking spree for a top pick than a winning streak. 16 games later they have won 14 out of 16 of their last games including rattling off 11 straight wins. Where does that put them in the playoff race? Same spot 10th place. To the outsider observer this would feel like Groundhog’s Day; no matter what the Jazz do this 10th seed will never end. But what if we told you Utah’s much closer to hosting a playoff series because of this win streak?

When the Utah Jazz started this whole winning thing, they were 10 games behind the 3rd seeded San Antonio Spurs and 4.5 games behind the 8th seeded Los Angeles Clippers. Fast forward to today and the Utah Jazz are only 3.5 games behind the 3rd seeded Minnesota Timberwolves and only 2.0 games behind the 8th seeded Denver Nuggets. While Utah has gone on its winning streak the entire pack fell behind. The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors still enjoy their perch away from the NBA peasants, but the rest of the “have not” Western Conference playoff contenders have been fighting THUNDERDOME style. But how could Utah possibly host a playoff series despite being in 10th in the Western Conference with only 19 games left?

Let’s dive into each remaining team’s schedule 3 seed to 10 seed and try to project the best we can how they’ll finish starting with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Minnesota Timberwolves

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Record: 47-35

Remaining Schedule / Projected Outcome vis 538.com

*Games projected by 10 percentage points or less in italics

You know what they say, where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. The Timberwolves have an uphill battle in protecting their homecourt status. They have just lost Jimmy Butler, they’re a young team with little experience getting to the playoffs, and Coach Thibs has a penchant for running his players into the ground when it comes to minutes. Add in Minnesota’s BRUTAL schedule coming up and it could get disastrous.

Right now 538’s projections don’t have added in the loss of Jimmy Butler. That means projected wins against the Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, and Celtics aren’t easy to come by. If just two of those games go the other way and become losses, Minnesota ends the season 45-37. In a world that is good and fair, that gets you into the playoffs. But we live in a world that doesn’t allow the best 16 teams into the playoffs. That could drop Minnesota out of the playoffs.

SLC Dunk Projection: 45-37

Portland Trail Blazers

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Record: 48-34

Remaining Schedule / Projected Outcome vis 538.com

  • @ Los Angeles Lakers - Loss
  • vs New York Knicks - Win
  • vs Golden State Warriors - Win
  • vs Miami Heat - Win
  • vs Cleveland Cavaliers - Win
  • vs Detroit Pistons - Win
  • @ Los Angeles Clippers - Loss
  • vs Houston Rockets - Loss
  • vs Boston Celtics - Win
  • @ Oklahoma City Thunder - Loss
  • @ New Orleans Pelicans - Loss
  • @ Memphis Grizzlies - Win
  • vs Los Angeles Clippers - Win
  • vs Memphis Grizzlies - Win
  • @ Dallas Mavericks - Win
  • @ Houston Rockets - Loss
  • @ San Antonio Spurs - Loss
  • @ Denver Nuggets - Loss

*Games projected by 10 percentage points or less in italics

The Portland Trail Blazers led by Damian Lillard have shown no signs of slowing down. They tore through Utah like a buzzsaw in their first game back from the All Star break and Damian Lillard has shown no signs of slowing down. The only hope of anyone catching the Trail Blazers in the standings is if Damian Lillard finally cools off. But even then they have CJ McCollum that can do heavy lifting in the scoring department. Looking at their schedule their projected record could be a couple games low as they are projected to lose to the Lakers (unlikely) and lose to the Rockets on April 7 when Houston most likely will be resting key players. Portland looks to have the inside lane to playoffs.

SLC Dunk projection: 50-32

Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Record: 47-35

Remaining Schedule / Projected Outcome vis 538.com

  • vs Houston Rockets - Loss
  • vs Phoenix Suns - Win
  • vs San Antonio Spurs - Win
  • vs Sacramento Kings - Win
  • @ Atlanta Hawks - Win
  • vs Los Angeles Clippers - Win
  • @ Toronto Raptors - Loss
  • @ Boston Celtics - Loss
  • vs Miami Heat - Win
  • vs Portland Trail Blazers - Win
  • @ San Antonio Spurs - Loss
  • vs Denver Nuggets - Win
  • @ New Orleans Pelicans - Loss
  • vs Golden State Warriors - Loss
  • @ Houston Rockets - Loss
  • @ Miami Heat - Win
  • vs Memphis Grizzlies - Win

*Games projected by 10 percentage points or less in italics

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the X-Factor in this whole Western Conference equation. They have the star power to turn it on if they can be cohesive. Unfortunately for OKC, they haven’t been the same since Andre Roberson went down. Their offense has stalled and defensively their missing their lockdown perimeter defender. They’ve had some luck with Melo out of the lineup, but if Roberson comes back healthy and the team picks up where they left off before he got injured, OKC has a chance to lockdown the 4th seed in the playoffs.

However, if Oklahoma City falters against the Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, or Los Angeles Clippers at home, they could be on the verge of missing the playoffs. Remember what we said, 45-37 might not get you a playoff spot this year.

SLC Dunk Projection: 47-35

San Antonio Spurs

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Record: 46-36

Remaining Schedule / Projected Outcome vis 538.com

  • vs Memphis Grizzlies - Win
  • @ Golden State Warriors - Loss
  • @ Oklahoma City Thunder - Loss
  • @ Houston Rockets - Loss
  • vs Orlando Magic - Win
  • vs New Orleans Pelicans - Win
  • vs Minnesota Timberwolves - Win
  • vs Golden State Warriors - Loss
  • vs Washington Wizards - Win
  • vs Utah Jazz - Win
  • @ Milwaukee Bucks - Loss
  • @ Washington Wizards - Loss
  • vs Oklahoma City Thunder - Win
  • vs Houston Rockets - Loss
  • @ Los Angeles Clippers - Loss
  • @ Los Angeles Lakers - Loss
  • vs Portland Trail Blazers - Win
  • vs Sacramento Kings - Win
  • @ New Orleans Pelicans - Loss

*Games projected by 10 percentage points or less in italics

The San Antonio Spurs are a team in free fall mode along with the Minnesota Timberwolves. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and while they are projected to go 46-36 ... it could be a lot worse. Rumors have been swirling back and forth about the potential return of Kawhi Leonard, but one has to wonder how in shape he’ll be when he returns. Even if he returns, it’s doubtful there’s enough time to shake off the rust and make a true impact in the win column while it matters.

538 has the Spurs going 10-9 the rest of the way but it could be a lot worse. We’re predicting worse with so many games projected to be wins being a thin margin.

SLC Dunk Projection: 44-38

New Orleans Pelicans

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Record: 46-36

Remaining Schedule / Projected Outcome vis 538.com

  • @ Dallas Mavericks - Win
  • @ Los Angeles Clippers - Loss
  • @ Sacramento Kings - Win
  • vs Washington Wizards - Win
  • vs Utah Jazz - Win
  • vs Charlotte Hornets
  • @ San Antonio Spurs - Loss
  • vs Houston Rockets
  • vs Boston Celtics - Win
  • vs Dallas Mavericks - Win
  • vs Indiana Pacers - Win
  • vs Los Angeles Lakers - Win
  • @ Houston Rockets - Loss
  • vs Portland Trail Blazers - Win
  • @ Cleveland Cavaliers - Loss
  • vs Oklahoma City Thunder - Win
  • vs Memphis Grizzlies - Win
  • @ Phoenix Suns - Win
  • @ Golden State Warriors - Loss
  • @ Los Angeles Clippers - Loss
  • vs San Antonio Spurs - Win

*Games projected by 10 percentage points or less in italics

When DeMarcus Cousins went down with his injury that was supposed to be when the wheels fell off of the New Orleans Pelicans playoff bandwagon. But due to Anthony Davis being ungodly good, they’re still in the race. One has to wonder how much longer he can shoulder this huge burden of leading this team. Luckily, post All Star Break Jrue Holiday has been a beast averaging 27.5 points per game. The Pellies are hot. But they have weaknesses. Beyond Davis and Holiday, no one is averaging more than 11 points a game.

Because of that it’s hard to project how real this trend is for New Orleans. Can they keep it up? I don’t know. They have a lot of toss up games that are projected wins (Jazz, Trail Blazers, Wizards, Thunder, Celtics) that can easily go the other direction. It’s hard to bet against the Uni-God, Anthony Davis. We say they fall one short of their projection.

SLC Dunk Projection: 45-39

Denver Nuggets

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Record: 46-36

Remaining Schedule / Projected Outcome vis 538.com

  • @ Dallas Mavericks - Win
  • vs Cleveland Cavaliers - Win
  • vs Los Angeles Lakers - Win
  • vs Sacramento Kings - Win
  • @ Los Angeles Lakers - Loss
  • vs Detroit Pistons - Win
  • @ Memphis Grizzlies - Win
  • @ Miami Heat - Loss
  • @ Chicago Bulls - Win
  • @ Washington Wizards - Loss
  • @ Philadelphia 76ers - Loss
  • @ Toronto Raptors - Loss
  • @ Oklahoma City Thunder - Loss
  • vs Milwaukee Bucks - Win
  • vs Indiana Pacers - Win
  • vs Minnesota Timberwolves - Win
  • @ Los Angeles Clippers - Loss
  • vs Portland Trail Blazers - Win
  • @ Minnesota Timberwolves - Loss

*Games projected by 10 percentage points or less in italics

Oh my goodness, the Denver Nuggets have a road trip during #playoffpush time that is just hellacious. 538 has the Denver Nuggets going 11-10 to finish the season. With that type of road trip, that would be best case scenario. The good news for Denver is they are getting healthy at just the right time with Millsap returning. The unfortunately thing is with the return of players, comes the difficult adjustment period of getting them back in the flow of the offense and defense. Denver doesn’t have a nice cupcake schedule that allows them to work someone back in slowly. It’s into the refiner’s fire immediately.

I do think Denver finishes this stretch at 11-10. That seems like a fair projection. The hope for Denver fans is that Denver surprises on their road trip. If they do they can sneak into having homecourt in Round 1.

SLC Dunk Projection: 46-36

Los Angeles Clippers

NBA: New York Knicks at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Record: 45-37

Remaining Schedule / Projected Outcome vis 538.com

  • vs Brooklyn Nets - Win
  • vs New Orleans Pelicans - Win
  • vs Cleveland Cavaliers - Win
  • vs Orlando Magic - Win
  • @ Chicago Bulls - Win
  • @ Houston Rockets - Loss
  • @ Oklahoma City Thunder - Loss
  • vs Portland Trail Blazers - Win
  • @ Minnesota Timberwolves - Loss
  • @ Milwaukee Bucks - Loss
  • @ Indiana Pacers - Loss
  • @ Toronto Raptors - Loss
  • vs Milwaukee Bucks - Win
  • @ Phoenix Suns - Win
  • @ Portland Trail Blazers - Loss
  • vs Indiana Pacers - Win
  • vs San Antonio Spurs - Win
  • @ Utah Jazz - Loss
  • vs Denver Nuggets - Win
  • vs New Orleans Pelicans - Win
  • vs Los Angeles Lakers - Win

*Games projected by 10 percentage points or less in italics

These Los Angeles Clippers zombies will not go away. Despite going fire sale at the trade deadline and being led by Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan, this team is still around. They are only 3-2 since the All Star Break, but they are entering a home stand that will make or break their playoff hopes. They host the Pelicans and the Cavaliers during that stretch. Lose any of those games and they’re definitely on the outside looking in as the rest of their schedule will not lighten up. Tobias Harris has been averaging almost 20 points with the Clippers and Montrezl Harrell has been playing great while backing up Jordan. I think this is the stretch that the wheels finally fall off the Clipper’s playoff hopes, but I’ve been saying that all season.

SLC Dunk Projection: 43-39

Utah Jazz

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Record: 45-37

Remaining Schedule / Projected Outcome vis 538.com

  • vs Orlando Magic - Win
  • @ Indiana Pacers - Loss
  • @ Memphis Grizzlies - Win
  • @ New Orleans Pelicans - Loss
  • vs Detroit Pistons - Win
  • vs Phoenix Suns - Win
  • vs Sacramento Kings - Win
  • vs Atlanta Hawks - Win
  • @ Dallas Mavericks - Win
  • @ San Antonio Spurs - Loss
  • @ Golden State Warriors - Loss
  • vs Boston Celtics - Win
  • vs Memphis Grizzlies - Win
  • @ Minnesota Timberwolves - Loss
  • vs Los Angeles Lakers - Win
  • vs Los Angeles Clippers - Win
  • @ Los Angeles Lakers - Loss
  • vs Golden State Warriors - Win
  • @ Portland Trail Blazers - Loss

*Games projected by 10 percentage points or less in italics

The Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the Western Conference outside of Houston or Portland. They’re a team that’s getting healthier by the day and Donovan Mitchell is just scratching the surface on his potential while averaging 20 points a game as a rookie. Dante Exum is close to coming back AND Jae Crowder is getting more comfortable in the offense. Normally the gap between Utah and the rest of this pack would be too much to overcome, but Utah has their nightmarish schedule in the rearview mirror. They now get to reap the rewards of their struggles. Since Jan 1, Utah is the best defense in the league by a wide margin and they’ll get to chomp on lottery squalor while racking up wins.

There is a conceivable path to another 11 game winning streak with easier opponents this time. By the time Utah goes to play the Spurs in San Antonio, they could be riding with that 11 game winning streak. Say the rest of the season goes according to projection and the Jazz flip projections on the Pacers and Pelicans games, Utah would finish the season 47-35. That would put them at a tie with Oklahoma City but they’d go to the 5 seed due to the tiebreaker. That leaves them looking for one more win on the calendar. The only other games that could give them that outcome are on the road against San Antonio or on the road against the Lakers.

That’s the best case scenario. Utah’s getting in the playoffs, but let’s avoid the jinx and say Utah ends the season 47-35.

SLC Dunk Projection: 47-35


Final Standings

So with our exercise finished, here’s what the West would look like.

3. Portland Trail Blazers

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

5. Utah Jazz

6. Denver Nuggets

7. New Orleans Pelicans

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

9. San Antonio Spurs

10. Los Angeles Clippers


What do you guys think? Sound off in the comments.