If someone had told me that, with 26 days left of the regular season, the Houston Rockets would own the first seed whilst the San Antonio Spurs would currently sit outside the playoffs, I would have laughed in their face. However, at the time of writing, the Golden State Warriors are two games behind the Rockets at the top, and the Spurs currently sit in tenth having lost eight of their last ten games.
Let's look at where we are with less than one month to go and postulate how things could play out going into the postseason.
The top two teams in the West are ten games ahead of the rest of the pack and are expected to meet each other in the conference finals. The questions as to whether Chris Paul can play with another ball handler have been answered and the Houston Rockets have exceeded expectation so far. The Golden State Warriors, on the other hand, are fighting complacency as they realize the struggles of reaching the NBA Finals for a fourth-straight time.
The real question for both of these teams is not whether they will make the playoffs or even thinking ahead to the playoffs themselves. The imminent battle is for the number one seed, which could play a massive impact on who reaches the NBA finals. Specifically, assuming the two teams meet each other in the conference finals, the top spot determines where the conclusive Game 7 is played. With Houston seen as the underdogs, it is vital for them as they would close the series on their home court, which increases their chances of winning by 60% if history is anything to go by.
Every team has the luxury of setting what they consider realistic expectations at the start of the season with either all their players healthy or a knowledge of those players who may enter the season at a later date. However, for some teams fighting for playoff spots in the west, the course of the season has taken its toll and they’ve had key injuries to players that will significantly affect their chances of success in the postseason.
The San Antonio Spurs have been without their star Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games this season. His ankle and quadricep injuries have lingered for months with some questioning his commitment to the team and the team's ability to help him recover as quickly as possible. Without him, the Spurs have done their best to be competitive and have once again overachieved with the talent they put on the floor.
However, it is all beginning to take its toll as the Spurs have just dropped out the playoffs with a record of 37-30, having lost eight of their last ten games. Even with Leonard reportedly making a comeback before the season is through, it may not be enough. If the Spurs don’t make the playoffs this year, it would be the first time since 1997.
The Minnesota Timberwolves had an extremely successful offseason last summer, acquiring Jimmy Butler amongst other talent. Expectations were high with most predicting the Timberwolves would be a lock to make the playoffs this postseason. However, in late February, Butler had to have surgery on his right meniscus and was sidelined for four to six weeks. Regardless, the Timberwolves, who currently sit in sixth position with the fourth easiest schedule remaining, look set to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Another team that has suffered a significant injury are the New Orleans Pelicans. One of their beasts in the front court, DeMarcus Cousins, ruptured his Achilles late in January and is expected to miss the rest of the season. Although, since Cousins has been confined to the bench, his partner in crime Anthony Davis has taken his game to another level and has put up some unbelievable numbers. The question for Pelicans fans is: How far can Davis take the Cousins-less team?
With the postseason fast approaching, it's time I make some bold predictions on how things pan out from here on in.
The Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets are a lock for the top two spots in the Western Conference. I can see Houston retaining the top seed entering the playoffs and wouldn’t be surprised if they beat Golden State in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
As far of the rest of the pack is concerned, with two games separating the fourth seed through the ninth seed, any prediction is a dangerous one. However, due to strength of schedule and injuries, I can see the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers just missing out, while Denver will creep in.
The Portland Trailblazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans and the Minnesota Timberwolves all seem a lock to make the postseason. However, it is just a matter of time before they bump into the top dogs of the conference and see their season end early in the playoffs.
Who do you think will make the postseason in the Western Conference? Comment below!