So with roughly 30 (+/-) games left in the season, it may be a little early to start watching the scoreboard. But I can't remember a time when there were this many good teams in the West fighting for the playoffs. Three legitimately good teams with winning records are going to be left out in the cold. With a few frustrating losses and a rocky schedule ahead, I was starting to worry that we may be one of those teams. But rather than worry prematurely, I thought I'd take a glance at the remaining schedules to get an idea of where we're at juxtaposed to other teams, and what we can expect to see from other teams the rest of the way. Here are just a few thoughts ...
Our next 9 games are brutal. We should be in every game, but with team health still a question mark there is a legitimate possibility we could lose 9 straight. Our saving grace is that 7 are at home, Batum has provided a serious spark to the team, Miller is playing out of his mind lately, and Roy is expected back at some point, which should further fuel our energy level. If we can fight through with an even record over the next 9, we're looking at a patty cake schedule through the end of March. We could go on a serious winning streak if we can weather this storm. I'd go so far as to say there's still hope of a top #4 seed and home court in the first round if a few cards fall our way (we gotta have some good karma coming, don't we?).
At this point I'd say other obvious locks include L@L, Denver, Dallas, and Utah. Beyond that, though, everything else is wide open. Here is how I see the rest of the season panning out just based on teams schedules and my feel for how they've been playing lately ...
1. New Orleans: The Hornets struggled to come together early in the year, and didn't weather some missed games by Chris Paul particularly well. They have gelled at the right time, however, and have been beating tough teams both at home and on the road lately. Road games have been their achilles heel this season, though they boast one of the West's best home records. Thankfully for them they play 5 more home games than road games the rest of the way, including only one road trip of more than 2 games. I expect them to keep climbing the standings and comfortably secure a 5-7 seed by the end of the year.
2. Houston: My respect for this team has grown immensely this year. I just love the way they play the game. Actually, they remind me a lot of the Blazers. They (almost) always play together, they play tough defense, and they're in every game despite missing their best player all season. They have struggled lately, but much of that has to do with the caliber of opponent. Their schedule softens considerably in March, and I expect them to build a cushion that will eventually, like the Hornets, secure them a 5-7 seed.
3. San Antonio: They had a good stretch at the end of December and in early January, but they look to have come back to earth a little. Those wins prove hollow, though, as you look closer at the quality of opponents: Sacramento, Charlotte, LAC, Golden State, LAC, Milwaukee, NYK, Minny, Indiana, Wash, Detroit, NJ. And if you think our upcoming schedule is tough, look at theirs: 24 of final 36 games are on the road, including 12 of their next 15 and a 9 game road trip. That's not good news for a team that is under .500 on the road for the year. Not to mention their health has been an issue, specifically with Parker and Ginobli, and Duncan looks incapable of carrying a team like he used to. I expect them to make the playoffs just based on their experience, but they'll be fighting for that 8th seed down to the wire, and by the end we should be comfortably ahead of them. At the very least we hold the tiebreaker.
4. OKC: A team that has played well above expectations this year, but who I believe will ultimately be done in by the schedule. February and March are filled with road games, and though they end the season mostly at home, 11 of their final 14 games are against potential playoff teams. I really like this team and think they will be very good in the near future, but right now they lack experience and will fade down the stretch. They may very well be the last team eliminated, perhaps at Portland on the second-to-last game of the season.
5. Memphis: The Grizz have been surprisingly good this year and have been playing especially well lately. And unlike the Spurs, they have been beating tough teams and also winning on the road. Once again, though, the schedule gets tougher and experience usually wins out in the end, and I expect a drop off from this young team. Their final 9 games should seal their fate: Dallas, NO, @Orlando, Houston, @Dallas, @SA, Philly, @Denver, @OKC. Once again, it will be close, but ultimately I see them losing the fight for that last seed.
6. Phoenix: Last but not least (or maybe they are least), the Suns. Unlike the teams already mentioned, the Suns have not been playing well at all lately, losing to mediocre teams both at home and on the road. And that's not good considering their next 8 are against potential playoff teams, 6 of which are on the road. Also unlike most other teams in the West, they are experiencing some inner turmoil with trade rumors. If Amare gets traded, consider the Suns done. If they keep him through the year, I expect them to be up and down the rest of the way, but like Memphis they finish the year with some tough games against: SA, @OKC, Houston, Denver, @Utah. The Suns have been another fun team to watch this year, but ultimately I expect them to be with Oklahoma City and Memphis on the outside looking in.
So there it is. I expect the Western playoff field to include the following teams: L@L, Denver, Utah, Portland, Dallas, New Orleans, Houston, and San Antonio. Just based on a glance at the schedules and my feel for how teams are playing, I expect a 4-5 matchup with either Utah or Dallas. Obviously we're a long way out and something fluky could happen to us or someone else (trades, injuries), but at least this gets the conversation going. What did I miss? Where am I wrong? Looking forward to the discussion below.