The wait is finally over. The NBA is back and as the season gets ready to restart, there are many exciting teams hoping for the opportunity to play in an eighth vs ninth seed matchup in the West.
We can finally get a real taste of what Zion can do on the big stage, while his rookie counterpart Ja Morant looks to prove why he’s deserving of the Rookie of the Year. And of course any time Damian Lillard in the building, there is a high chance for fireworks.
The eighth seed in the west currently belongs to the Memphis Grizzlies. They go into the restart with a 3.5 game lead on the closest team behind them. The eighth seed is Memphis’s to lose right now. Their first three games are against teams that are also fighting for the eight seed. Memphis opens against the Blazers, followed by matchups with the Spurs and Pelicans. Realistically if they can win two out of those first three, they’d be almost a lock for the play in game(s). Led by young rising stars, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson, the Grizzlies have the potential to make some real noise in the bubble. However, it is worth noting that newly acquired forward Justise Winslow will be out with an ankle injury.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers enter the bubble sitting in the ninth seed, just percentage points above the Pelicans and Kings. Although Damian Lillard is having a terrific season, the Blazers haven’t found the success they were hoping for after reaching the Western conference finals last season. However, all of that can be turned around in the bubble. Although the Blazers do have one of the toughest schedules in the bubble, I would never count Damian Lillard out of anything. Of the six teams trying to get either the eighth or ninth seed in the West, I believe Portland has the most to prove. Portland is a lot more experienced than the teams surrounding them in the standings. The Blazers are built on veterans, when the other teams are built around youth. Being at least 30-years-old, guys like Damian Lillard, Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony are so much hungrier for a ring then these youngsters are, especially for Melo, as father time is looming heavily over his career. One thing that may hold the Blazers back, is their strength of schedule. Seven of their eight games in the bubble are against teams that currently hold a playoff spot.
New Orleans Pelicans
Can the young Pelicans pull it off? Everyone’s eyes are on Zion. It seems as if the NBA set it up for Zion and the Pelicans to get into the playoffs. The Pelicans have easily the easiest schedule in the bubble. As six of their eight games are against teams that were sub .500 before the suspension of the season. They are 3.5 games back of the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies. They only need to come within four games of the eight seed in order for a chance to compete. The Pelicans have shown flashes of greatness this season. Something that goes under the radar for New Orleans is how great Brandon Ingram has been this season. He has posted career highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals. Along with making his first all star game. The thing that scares me about New Orleans is how young they are. The majority of their core has never played in a playoff game. The Pelicans should definitely be one of the most interesting teams to watch come early August.
The Kings, unlike the Pelicans, have been almost completely slept on by the media. Nobody talks about their chances at getting in the playoffs even when they have the exact same record as New Orleans. Although they don’t have the flash and starpower as a team like the Pelicans, the Kings are still a very compelling team to watch in the bubble. Their young core of Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagely, DeAaron Fox, and Harry Giles are complemented well by guys like savvy veterans Harrison Barnes and Kent Bazemore. This team plays fast and is very scrappy. The Kings also have one of the easier schedules in the bubble as five of their eight games are against teams that are currently sub .500. The Pelicans and Kings actually play each other twice in the restart, these two games will definitely go a long way to see who ends up making the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs streak of 22 consecutive playoff berths is in jeopardy. The Spurs sit in 12th in the West. Their schedule isn’t exactly on the easier side as they only have three games against sub .500 teams. In order for the Spurs to make a run at this thing, it is crucial that they win their first two games of the restart against the Kings and Grizzlies. One thing the Spurs do have going for them is their coaching. Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest basketball coaches the game has ever seen. The team just simply isn’t that talented. That being said, Demar Derozan could step up and have a big playoff push, as he will try to keep himself regarded as one of the league's best swingmen. A reputation that is certainly fading.
The Suns sit six games back of the eighth seed in the West. They would need a real strong push in order to even have a chance to get in the playoffs. I think the Suns are viewing this time in the bubble as just more of an opportunity for their young guys to develop and gain some real highly competitive NBA basketball experience. The Suns have one of the hardest schedules in the bubble. Only one game against a sub .500 team, which is in their first game against the Wizards. Booker and Ayton will look to compete and get better in the bubble.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
9. New Orleans Pelicans
10. Sacramento Kings
11. Portland Trail Blazers
12. San Antonio Spurs
13. Phoenix Suns
I have the Grizzlies beating the Pelicans in the eighth vs ninth play-in. I feel the Grizzlies are a solid enough group, paired with their 3.5 game headstart, I just don’t see anybody catching them. I do believe the Pelicans will come within four games of Memphis though, and force the play-in. I don’t think Zion and the Pelicans will have enough to beat the Grizzlies two times in a row.
The Grizzlies are a tough team to begin with. The Pelicans are too young and inexperienced to hang with the stingy Grizzlies in back to back games. I do think the Kings will make a serious run at the ninth seed but will fall just short to the Pelicans.
As for the Blazers, I am not denying the fact that they might have the most talented group of the six teams, but it’s just not meant to be for the Blazers this year. Their schedule is just too difficult. Portland has to play against a solidified playoff team in six of their eight restart games. If every team had the same strength of schedule, I would have picked the Blazers to make the playoffs, but that's just not the case.
The Spurs and Suns will be interesting to watch because they have basically nothing to lose, but I just can’t see either of these teams making any kind of real noise this postseason.