Published On: Sat, Mar 3rd, 2018

The Western Conference playoff desperation power rankings

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With eight teams fighting for six spots, the Western Conference playoff race is a knock-down, drag-out barroom brawl that figures to extend into the wee hours of the regular season.

The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are lapping the field, but the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers, and Utah Jazz, seeded third through 10th, are all separated by just three games in the loss column.

Obviously, all these teams want very badly to make the postseason. All of them have plenty at stake. But who needs it most? Who has the most to gain or lose? Here are the Western Conference playoff hopefuls, ranked in order of desperation.

8. Jazz

Given the heartache the Jazz endured this summer when Gordon Hayward jilted them, getting back to the playoffs in their first year without him would be a healing balm. But the Jazz don’t really need to make it, not in the way some of the other teams in the race do. This has already been a feel-good season for them that’s produced plenty of optimism going forward.

They’re set up nicely for the future, with a 25-year-old perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Rudy Gobert and a 21-year-old offensive superstar-in-the-making in rookie Donovan Mitchell (who has already filled the Hayward-sized hole in Utah fans’ hearts, and then some). They have the makings of a top-five defense for years to come, and plenty of room to grow. Derrick Favors is their only significant rotation player who isn’t signed through at least next season. The playoffs would be gravy, but they’ve got time.

7. Clippers

This was always going to be a transition year for the Clippers, even before they traded Blake Griffin. Given the loss of Chris Paul, the roster turnover, the injuries they’ve suffered, all the lineup iterations (they’ve played 29 different starting fives!), just being in the race is a pretty staggering accomplishment. In the process, they’ve established a wacky, scrappy identity – the kind of unity they notably lacked during the Lob City era. The Griffin trade seemed like one they’d only win in the long run, but their roster is meshing just as well, if not better without him. Much like the Jazz, they are mostly playing without pressure or expectation.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have anything at stake. It would be a pity not to have any playoff games to show for Lou Williams‘ brilliant season, or for the win-now money they’re paying Danilo Gallinari, or the fact they held onto their most viable trade chips in DeAndre Jordan and Avery Bradley at the deadline. Unlike the Jazz, the Clippers don’t have any foundational young players to build around. Their path back to contention is through free agency, and making the playoffs could make them a more attractive destination. Still, this team has already exceeded expectations, and there would be no shame in missing out.

6. Spurs

It would be weird as hell not to see the Spurs in the playoffs, given that they’ve been a participant for 20 years running, but they don’t need to make it. They’ve been without their best player for virtually the entire season, and they have more than enough league-wide cachet and organizational structure to survive a one-year springtime hiatus.

At the same time, it seems we’re finally seeing the limits of that organizational structure. For the first time in decades, it feels as though things are moving in the wrong direction for the Spurs. From the increasingly vexing Kawhi Leonard situation, to LaMarcus Aldridge‘s trade request, to the depleted powers of the old guard, the team’s shroud of cultural and systematic indestructibility is starting to fray. And though falling short of the playoffs one time may seem like a minor speed bump for the big-picture-oriented Spurs, it could also symbolize a sort of karmic shift; a point of demarcation for the waning San Antonio empire.

Then again, if Leonard gets healthy and patches things up with management, this is all probably water under the bridge. And given what the Spurs have historically been able to find at the back end of the draft, arming themselves with a lottery pick might not be the worst outcome in the world.

5. Nuggets

The Nuggets have been loitering on the postseason doorstep for a while, and the front office signaled its intention of pushing its way through by signing veteran Paul Millsap to a three-year max deal last summer. Having already spent four straight years in the lottery, it will be a pretty big disappointment if they fall short again, even given all the time Millsap missed with a wrist injury.

Like the Jazz, the Nuggets aren’t necessarily in a hurry. Everyone of consequence save for Will Barton remains under team control this summer, and Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris are all 23 or younger. The Nuggets are, however, about to become very expensive, particularly if they opt to reject Jokic’s team option this summer (to prevent him from getting to unrestricted free agency in 2019) and re-sign him to a max or near-max deal.

For all their obvious talent and promise, it’s still pretty hard to discern what, exactly, these Nuggets are. Is Murray miscast as a point guard? Does Harris have another leap in him? Can Millsap’s defense make up for his awkward offensive fit? And can this be even an average defensive outfit with Jokic as a centerpiece? Those are kind of scary unknowns for a team that struggles to draw fans and may have to jump into the luxury tax to keep the band together for the near future. Getting back into the dance, and getting some postseason data points with this core, would be very welcome.

4. Trail Blazers

As it stands, the Blazers are stuck on the treadmill of pretty-goodness. That’s OK; they’re a fun team with one of the best backcourts in the league, and four straight playoff appearances in the West is nothing to sneeze at. Damian Lillard has taken his game up another notch this season, combining his lights-out off-the-dribble shooting with improved defense and playmaking. And he and backcourt mate C.J. McCollum are both locked up through 2021.

But there always seems to be something missing in Portland. In the past, the Blazers couldn’t stop anybody. This year, they’ve managed to craft a top-10 defense, but their once-potent offense has cratered around their high-scoring guards. How much longer can this core stagnate before either the front office or the player group starts itching for a shakeup? That could happen even if the Blazers top out as first-round fodder again, but missing the playoffs altogether would certainly intensify the angst.

3. Pelicans

Most people buried the Pelicans when DeMarcus Cousins went down, but as devastating as Boogie’s injury was, it also took some pressure off the rest of the team, since few expected them to hold onto a playoff spot. But since then, Anthony Davis has taken it upon himself to strap the Pelicans to his back and keep dragging them up the mountain.

Davis probably won’t be able to sustain his recent level, but at this point, if the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs, it will be because his supporting cast lets him down. We’ve already seen that movie too many times. The Pelicans have made one playoff appearance in Davis’ six-year career, and it lasted all of four games. Davis is under contract for two seasons after this one, but he’s already gazing wistfully at other teams and openly craving more organizational competence. The clock is ticking.

Meanwhile, Cousins will be a free agent this summer, and there’s no telling whether he’ll be back in New Orleans, or what kind of player the Pelicans will be paying for if they re-sign him. Trading for Nikola Mirotic was the right move, but dealing yet another first-round pick placed that much more importance on this season. Alvin Gentry has a team option on the final year of his contract next season and may be coaching for his job. There are few teams for whom meaningful forward momentum this season matters more.

2. Timberwolves

At 13 years, Minnesota owns the NBA’s longest active postseason drought, and the second longest in league history. Now, after more than a decade of fruitless rebuilds, David Khan blunders, disastrous Kurt Rambis-led triangle offenses, and squandered Kevin Love prime years, the Wolves finally have a playoff-worthy roster. And it still may not be enough.

Jimmy Butler is on the shelf for at least a month and the team has been a disaster without him on the floor. Andrew Wiggins is in year four and still hasn’t made the leap many expected. Karl-Anthony Towns remains a work in progress at the defensive end. Tom Thibodeau remains attached to his starters to an alarming degree (though it’s almost hard to blame him given how bad the bench has been). Butler has papered over so many of these issues, and without him, the rest of the Wolves have to prove they’ve grown beyond the team that remained frustratingly stunted before trading for him last summer.

Butler’s locked in for another season after this one, so the Wolves can make at least one more run at this if they miss out. But these years matter. Wiggins’ mega-extension is about to kick in, Towns will be eligible for one of his own this offseason, and Butler is going to cost a pretty penny come 2019. Keeping the roster together, and filling it out, is going to grow increasingly difficult, and Thibodeau’s players don’t exactly have strong track records of longevity. The Wolves can’t afford to waste these years of affordable production from their core.

1. Thunder

Simply making the playoffs may not be enough for the Thunder to keep Paul George this summer, but missing out would be tantamount to taking a blowtorch to their free-agent sales pitch.

George has repeatedly said his decision will be swayed by the ability to build something successful, and that’s one of the few things the Thunder can currently offer him that the Lakers (barring a Hollywood turn from LeBron James) cannot. But if the Thunder – with George, Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, and Carmelo Anthony – can’t even crack the postseason, what will they have to sell him on? And if he leaves, what will they have left to build upon? Will they be able to sell another star on playing alongside Westbrook, let alone playing in Oklahoma City?

Few teams have produced, and lost, as much talent as the Thunder have over the past decade. Given how good the players they gave up to get George have looked in Indiana, it’s hard to overstate how devastating it would be to lose another superstar for nothing. But that could well be in the cards for a team that continues to amount to far less than the sum of its parts.

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