Unsurprisingly, Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (left) has sparked the team's drive for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Why Lakers should keep eye on intriguing duel for No. 8 seed

The jockeying for playoff positioning among teams seeded Nos. 2-7 in the Western Conference during the final stretch of the season will be fascinating. The Lakers have a four-game lead for the top seed, and the Nos. 2-4 seeds (Nuggets, Clippers, Jazz) are within 1.5 games of each other. No. 7 seed Dallas trails the Nos. 5-6 seeds (Rockets, Thunder) by two games.

When healthy, the Nuggets, Clippers and Jazz have very good and very balanced rosters. The Rockets, Thunder and Mavericks present unique problems for any opponent and are good enough to win at least one playoff series. Houston will play 48 minutes without a big man and shoot 50 threes every night. OKC’s best lineup attacks with three versatile point guards. And Dallas still has the top-rated offense in the league although Luka Doncic has missed 11 games.

Assuming the Lakers hold onto the top seed, they might not have a cakewalk in the first round. There's about to be one helluva second-half race for the eighth seed among the Grizzlies, Blazers, Spurs and Pelicans-- teams that are either surprisingly talented and/or may present interesting matchup problems for L.A. Here's an assessment of each and a prediction for which has the best shot at winning the most entertaining playoff race in years.


Grizzlies guard Ja Morant Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis Grizzlies: 28-27 (eighth place)

Memphis' balanced attack features Ja Morant (17.7 ppg.), Jaren Jackson Jr. (17.1 ppg.), Dillon Brooks (15.6 ppg.), Jonas Valančiūnas (14.7 ppg.) and Brandon Clarke (12.3 ppg.). All are capable of scoring from inside and outside (all are shooting over 35.5 percent from three). And despite having so many young players in its rotation, Memphis is surprisingly apt on defense (16th-rated in league).

Memphis' 3.5-game lead will be difficult to overcome for its challengers in less than 30 games, but the Grizzlies have one big thing working against them: the hardest remaining schedule in the entire NBA (their opponents’ average winning percentage is .554). They’ll have an ultra-important back-to-back against the Pelicans in games 71 and 72 and perhaps the biggest game of the season in Game 78 at Portland. Memphis almost certainly must win that game as it will be one of only two games against teams currently under .500 in their final 10 games.

Portland Trail Blazers: 25-31 (ninth place, 3.5 games games back)

It’s been Dame Time all season, but Damian Lillard’s teammates are making the clocks in Portland this season look like Salvador Dalí’s famous painting. Seriously, Lillard, who averages 29.5 points and 7.9 assists on 46-39-89 shooting splits, is doing everything in his power to drag this underperforming team to the playoffs. He’s had two 60-point games, two 50-point games and three 40-point games already this season. Unfortunately, he, like many of his teammates, recently caught the injury bug (groin), and if he misses any time after the All-Star Break, the Trail Blazers will be in trouble.

Portland’s biggest problem is its porous defense, which ranks 27th. Much of the Trail Blazers' struggles on that end of the court can be traced to Jusuf Nurkic’s leg injury from last season. There’s still a chance the 7-footer will return this season, but no timetable has been set. Zach Collins, sidelined with a shoulder injury in the third game, is on pace to return in March.  Hassan Whiteside has put up some nice stats in place of those big men (15.7 ppg., 14.1 rpg., 3.0 bpg.), but those numbers are inflated and have had little-to-no impact on winning.

The Blazers’ remaining schedule isn’t as hard as the Grizzlies’ or as easy as the Pelicans’, and after their Game 78 showdown at home against Memphis, they’ll close the season against the Cavaliers, Nuggets, Warriors and Clippers. With any luck, they might catch Denver and the Clippers on nights where they are load managing before the playoffs.


Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich  Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs: 23-31 (10th place, 4.5 games back)

Could this be the season the Spurs miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97? 

It’s not looking great for the league’s only team to refuse to embrace the three-point shot (29th in three-point attempts after being 30th last season). However, the team’s archaic offense is surprisingly not the reason for its struggles -- the Spurs have the 10th-rated offense in the league. San Antonio's biggest issue is on defense  (ranked 25th), which is surprising considering the Spurs have two of the better defensive guards in the league in Dejounte Murray (2017-18 second-team All Defense) and Derrick White. However, because they have DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes and Lonnie Walker IV in the guard rotation, Murray and White never play together. (Seriously, check out these lineup combinations.)

Gregg Popovich is arguably the best coach in NBA history, but his unwillingness to adapt and try new things is alarming. The Spurs must figure an identity for their last 28 games of the season -– do they want to rely solely on veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, DeRozan and Rudy Gay and make a serious run at the eighth seed? Or should they focus on developing young guards Murray, White and Walker?

If it weren’t such a terrible draft class, it would make the decision to compete or tank much easier. We’ll have a much better idea of whether this is a playoff contender or not after their first five games following the All-Star Break (at Utah, at OKC, vs. Dallas, vs. Orlando, vs. Indiana). If San Antonio can somehow go 3-2 during that stretch, its schedule opens up a bit. Perhaps the Spurs' final game of the season, at New Orleans, will be interesting.


Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram  Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Pelicans: 23-32 (11 th place, five games back)

Like the Grizzlies, the Pelicans have a roster loaded with young talent. Unlike Memphis, New Orleans has the easiest remaining schedule in the league (their opponents’ average winning percentage is only .449). In addition, the Pels have All-Star Brandon Ingram (24.9 ppg., 6.4 rpg., 4.2 apg., 47-40-86 shooting splits) and seasoned veterans Jrue Holiday (19.3 ppg., 6.5 apg.), JJ Redick (15.7 ppg., 45-46-90 shooting splits) and Derrick Favors (9.5 ppg., 9.9 rpg.) to help their youngsters in case they hit the rookie wall.

They also have this Zion Williamson guy, who already is one of the most impactful players in the NBA. New Orleans has a plus-12.8 points per possession with him on the court, per The Ringer’s Zach Kram. He averages 22.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in less than 28 minutes a night. Zion dominates in the post and near the basket, shooting 68.2 percent at the rim, and rebounds nearly any shot he misses (3.5 offensive rebounds per game). If he continues to play this way over the team’s last 27 games, the Pelicans should be hot on the Grizzlies’ tail when they the teams meet twice in late March.

Predictions

The Spurs will fall off quickly, and the Grizzlies will succumb to their schedule as Morant finally hits the rookie wall. Zion & Co. will nearly complete the huge turnaround, but the team’s terrible defensive habits will keep it from winning a couple close games. Lillard will continue his Herculean effort in what will be remembered as the best season of his career.  

No. 8 seed: Trail Blazers | 9th place: Pelicans | 10th place: Grizzlies | 11th place: Spurs

Pat Heery began his sports writing career in 2016 for The Has Been Sports Blog. He practices real estate law during the day and runs pick & rolls at night. Follow him on Twitter: @pheery12


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