Posted by Matt Moore
First-round fodder. Opening round patsies. Target practice. These are the kinds of terms used for the low playoff seeds each year. The NBA, more than any other sport, crowns a legitimate champion each year, in large part due to the difficulty of lesser teams to overcome better teams in a seven-game series. As a result, when you have eight teams from each conference to make the playoffs, you're going to have a whole lot of beatdowns. And we'll certainly see the same this year, with the conferences more top-heavy than ever. So in reality, the 6-7-8 seeds are largely irrelevant in the discussion of basketball that "matters."
But at the same time, making the playoffs is at once a huge reward for some teams and a dangerous development for others. In the realest sense, making the playoffs is a good thing. To put it simply, it means more money. More money for management, more money for ownership, more money for players. It gives the fans the experience of games that "matter" and pride in being in that tier of players. Often times, it's necessary to satisfy a fanbase's need for a team to legitimize itself, to throw the fans a bone. And at the end of the day, it means winning, and that's what sports is about.
But there's a downside. Making the playoffs can create a false sense of progress, convincing teams who are in need of a revamp that they are headed in the right direction. It becomes a crutch financially, forcing teams to make desperation moves to make the playoffs only to be swept out, which gets to be a huge detriment in fans' attitude after a few years, even worse than not making the playoffs.
In the West this year, we have a nice combination of both sides of the coin, and the answers to whether the playoffs are a good or bad thing is unclear. But there's a fascinating group vying for those final seeds as we head down the stretch, like lambs vying for the slaughter.
Outlook: 37-26. The Nuggets lost Melo, and have now won three straight. They are sharing the ball, playing with emotion, fighting in tough games, making the plays they need to in order to win, and invigorating the fanbase. But they have yet to face an elite team. In the next month, they have Orlando, Miami, San Antonio, and Atlanta. So there's going to be some discovery in terms of who the Nuggets are. They're riding a huge wave of emotion following the trade, but there's a question if that's going to hold. They do have a four game advantage over the ninth seeded Suns, but that's not a monstrous gap. With Memphis improving and Portland having acquired an All-Star, the Nuggets could find themselves in a dogfight very quickly if things change. But with Ty Lawson emerging with Aaron Afflalo, Nene holding down the middle and George Karl coaching his rear off, you have to like Denver's chances to at least make the playoffs.
Best-case scenario: They make the playoffs as the fifth seed following a huge fall by the Hornets, and wind up pushing Oklahoma City around due to their relative inexperience. A great playoff run sets them up for the future as a core that plays together, even without a star.
Worst-case scenario: The emotion runs out, the injuries pile up, and the team winds up in the lottery where they only have about seven tradeable assets, extra picks and cap flexibility. So pretty much, Denver's okay no matter what.
Outlook: 34-27. The Blazers just added a former All-Star in Gerald Wallace to make a push for the playoffs. They sloughed off very little salary, so they must make the playoffs. It's imperative for Paul Allen all the way down to the fans. They have to make the playoffs, make some money, and give the fans some hope in a season that's seen massive injuries. Again. They Blazers were at a position to either bail on the current core and rebuild or make a big push for the future. They chose to try and win now.
Ten of the next fourteen games for the Blazers are against current playoff teams. The going gets tough from here on out and the Blazers will be fighting tooth and nail to hang on to their spot.
Best-case scenario: A sixth seed appearance versus the Lakers, leading to a seven-game push to make a statement against the rivals. Blazers fans will tell you that they have a chance against the Mavericks. Blazer fans, as much I love them, are wrong. The Mavs are too good, too deep, and can match up too well with the Blazers. Besides, wouldn't pushing the Lakers be more satisfying for Blazers fans?
Worst-case scenario: Not making the playoffs is a disaster to the degree that it's nearly inconceivable. If it were to happen, it would be simply horrific for the franchise at all levels. A more likely worst-case scenario is winding up in the 8th spot and getting swept by the Spurs. A first-round sweep would be severely disappointing for how emotional this season has been for the Blazers, especially after bringing in Wallace.
Outlook: 34-28. Not a lock, by any means, but Memphis is making a strong push. They're on a roll, offensively and defensively, and this is without Rudy Gay. They've added Shane Battier and Leon Powe since the deadline, giving them much improved depth, and having Jason Williams as an actual viable back-up PG helps tremendously. The Grizzlies finally have a bench, O.J. Mayo actually looks better after his suspension, the team is playing together, and everything looks right for them to make a push. But of the next 14 games for Memphis to finish March, 12 are against current playoff opponents and one is against Utah, the 10th seed. These aren't weak playoff teams, either, with the Hornets, Spurs, Heat, Magic, Celtics, Mavericks, and Bulls among them. If Memphis makes it out of April in the same position they're in now, they'll be a lock. If not, they could plummet.
Best-case scenario: A first-round matchup against the Lakers in a 2 vs. 7 seed battle, with the Lakers still in cruise control, as the Grizzlies manage to win one in L.A. and one in Memphis to force a six-game series. That's a huge step for the franchise rebuilding from the Pau trade. Bringing the Lakers in for the playoff games is great for revenue, but terrible for home support as half the crowd would be bandwagon Lakers fans. Any other matchup simply wouldn't draw as well for the team, which says a lot about the fanbase itself.
Worst-case scenario: Missing the playoffs isn't a huge deal versus getting swept. Even without their 2011 first-rounder, the Grizzlies have a solid core for the future and some options for what they want to do. But making the first round of the playoffs as an eight seed, drawing San Antonio, and getting swept in a poor draw matchup to keep revenue low and the franchise without a playoff win? That's the worst of all worlds.
THE LONGER SHOTS
Outlook: How are they still here? They lost Jason Richardson, gained Vince Carter, have very little to rely on and are still hanging around at 31-28, just a game and a half back of the Grizzlies. Phoenix just doesn't know when to quit and with this group of veterans, they could be dangerous down the stretch. If you want to bet against Steve Nash, you go right ahead. I'll be over here. The Suns' schedule isn't tremendously difficult to go from here on out, but with their style, that's not necessarily a good thing. The Suns are 7-8 against "average" teams in the league, so there's no way of knowing how they'll do night to night.
Best-case scenario: Missing the playoffs. Missing the playoffs might prompt a full blow-up from management which would benefit the Suns long-term and push them away from NBA purgatory, constantly floating around the eighth seed. A full revamp with Alvin Gentry at the helm may lead to some progress and some moevement towards another shot at contention down the line. But given Robert Sarver's history, he wants that playoff dough.
Worst-case scenario: Making the eighth seed and getting blown out of the water by the Spurs. After the cathartic release for the fans last year in beating the Spurs, losing to San Antonio again would crush them. So there's that. A four game sweep by any of the top seeds would be extremely likely and extremely disappointing.
Outlook: 32-30. Watch out for flying wheels. The Jazz can't contend with the juggernauts, and are even bleeding against mediocre teams. The Jazz knew they'd be rebuilding after Deron Williams, but their playoff odds are spiraling out. The future's bright, but things don't look great for the Jazz making the playoffs at this point. The good news is the Jazz have a weaker schedule than most of their competitors.
Best-case scenario: A solid run as the team starts to gel, makes the playoffs and manages to avoid playing the Lakers. Even getting swept by San Antonio would be preferable to losing to L.A. at this point. Making the playoffs puts faith back in the franchise and gets the team more money.
Worst-case scenario: Missing the playoffs after the promise of this season would be devastating. Getting blasted out of the first round by L.A. would be similarly upsetting, even though the revenue would be nice. But missing the playoffs seems like a very real possibility at this point.
Honorable Mention: The Rockets could make a run. They've started defending better and moving Aaron Brooks has helped them in serious ways. But they're four games back, and that's a steep hill to climb for a team without a true star, with a defense that's still sub-par. They have to be considered the longest shot, and not just for current position.