The Wild, Wild, Mediocre West

As of this writing, four teams are tied for the last two play-in spots: the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Portland Trail Blazers are all 31-34. The Oklahoma City Thunder are just a half-game back of that quartet. Three of these teams will likely miss the play-in (barring an extraordinary collapse from the Mavericks or Clippers, the current seven and eight seeds, who are two games up on this pack).

The play-in was instituted as an anti-tanking measure, and hoo boy does it seem like it’s worked. Despite the presence of one generational prospect (Victor Wembanyama) and another who seems like a surefire superstar (Scoot Henderson), an astonishing 26 teams are still actively trying to win games. The play-in is good.

This year’s play-in is even more tantalizing, particularly for Western teams. Despite metrics painting the picture of a juggernaut, Denver as the top seed doesn’t scare anyone in the way that Golden State did in the past. Whoever wins the two-seed between Memphis and Sacramento will actually be seen as a more favorable matchup than lower-seeded teams like Phoenix and Golden State. These are crazy times, my friends, and even objectively “meh” teams think they can win a playoff series if things break right for them.

But for our handful of teams to win a playoff series, they have to win the play-in. And to win the play-in, they have to make the play-in. Most won’t!

We have a fifth of the season still remaining, so this is a bit of a fool’s errand. But I’ve certainly been called worse things. Let’s look at a few different factors and figure out which teams will make the play-in.

Strength of Schedule

Of all 30 teams, the Pelicans have the third-easiest remaining schedule by winning percentage, while the Lakers and Thunder have the fifth- and sixth-easiest slates remaining respectively. On the flip side, Portland and Utah have the second- and fourth-hardest remaining schedules. Portland, in particular, faces a murderer’s row: two games against Boston, two against the Kings (don’t laugh!), and one each against the 76ers, Grizzlies (a threat even without Morant), and Knicks. Their only gimme game is against San Antonio.

The home/road splits paint a different picture. The Pelicans and Lakers have 10 home games left vs. just seven on the road. The Blazers have nine at home, and the Jazz have eight. The poor Thunder have just seven home games and 11 away games remaining, not good for a team that is 11-19 on the road.

The intriguing subplot here is that all five of these teams face each other numerous times over the next few weeks, and those games will carry extra weight. The tiebreaker scenarios are too unsettled to predict right now. The only certainties: the Jazz have it over the Pelicans, the Thunder have clinched over the Blazers, and the Pelicans win the tiebreaker against Thunder. That’s it. All other permutations are up for grabs. (Brad Botkin at CBS Sports has a more in-depth look at the current tiebreakers, if you’re interested.)

Regardless of tiebreakers, it’s clear Portland and Utah have an uphill battle based on their remaining schedules.

Advantage: Lakers


Once at the top of the conference, the Pelicans are skydiving without a parachute right now. Any split you look at is terrible: 14-26 in their last 40 games, 5-15 in their previous 20 games, and 3-7 in their last 10. Worse, Zion Williamson is reportedly “not close” to returning to the court and doesn’t exactly have a history of quick returns.

The Lakers are 6-4 in their last 10 and coming off a crucial win over the Golden State Warriors that came without LeBron or D’Angelo Russell. Russell’s return is imminent, but James remains out for at least three more weeks. The Lakers are 2-2 since LeBron’s injury, but it’s fair to wonder if the collapse of their star will turn into a black hole.

The Blazers have been riddled with injuries. Anfernee Simons, their second-best scorer, and Jusuf Nurkic, their lumbering center, have both missed time of late. That said, neither Simons nor Nurkic is expected to miss too many more games, and both players are desperately needed, as the Blazers play the Celtics twice, Philly, and Knicks in four of their next five games. Although they’ve won two straight, Portland is just 4-6 in their last 10 games even amidst an explosive Lillard stretch. The defense has been atrocious regardless of who’s on the court all year long, and it’s hard to imagine it holding up enough for a serious run even after Nurkic’s return.

The Jazz have been a mediocre team since their fiery start, going 9-11 in their last 20, but two straight losses to the Thunder (one without Shai!) have been a brutal blow. The Jazz also screwed up a game against the Spurs, which should’ve been an easy win. There are a lot of tricky games left, so Utah will need to pull it together…assuming they even want to.

Conversely, Oklahoma City is feeling good after two big wins against the Jazz righted the ship. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is back after a two-week absence, and he’ll be desperate to get into the ‘yoffs and get more national exposure as he fights to be mentioned in the same breath as other elite point guards.

Advantage: Thunder


The Lakers are all-in on winning a playoff berth, even with LeBron James’ foot injury. They owe a first-round pick swap to the Pelicans, and the thought of giving up Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson keeps my Lakers friends up at night. If James thinks he can return, you better believe he has confidence they can knock off Denver in a seven-game series, and he’ll be pulling out whatever motivational tactics he can muster up.

The Blazers want in, as well. Despite some weird half-measures taken near the trade deadline, Portland is trying to get to the playoffs to support Damian Lillard, having arguably the best season of his career at age 32. They may or may not have the goods, but they’ll give it a shot.

The Jazz and Thunder will say they want in. Playoff seasoning, even of the play-in variety, is good for player development. The Jazz need to see if Lauri Markkannen can withstand being the focal point of a playoff defense, and the Thunder want to show signs of progress to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Additionally, the Thunder have engaged in a lot of tanking shenanigans in the past, and it’s hard to imagine Shai — having an All-NBA-caliber season — being okay with losing games while they still have something to play for.

But both teams are helmed by ruthless general managers. They may not explicitly try to tank this season, but both front offices are secretly hoping they miss the play-in and at least have a shot at one of the top draft guys. Keep an eye on how much each team starts talking about “development.”

New Orleans is a trickier case. A once-promising season has been derailed by yet another Zion injury. New Orleans thinks it can hang with anyone when at full health, but Zion hasn’t exactly been the quickest to recover from injuries, and there’s been a noticeable pall over the team for weeks. The Pels want to make the playoffs, but even the players haven’t been showing much fight.

Advantage: Lakers, Blazers


The New Orleans story is easily the most depressing in the league this season. Zion’s inability to recover from injuries is beyond concerning at this point, and it’s a shame. Playoff Zion is something every fan of basketball and/or flying mountains wants to see, but this supporting cast clearly can’t get it done in his absence. These birds are cooked.

The combination of a killer schedule and depleted depth (for at least a bit longer) makes Portland a tough cut. They’ll try hard, and it’s always possible Dame goes supernova and carries them to the play-in, but I’m not buying it, unfortunately. Portland’s out.

The feel-good Jazzmen, I’m sorry to say, are a long shot. They can’t seem to string together a quality stretch, and the team is inarguably worse since trading away several vets at the deadline. However, they also have the lowest ceiling of any of these five teams, even if they make the play-in, so they should be happy to get another decent draft pick to add to their fun core. We’ll see some tactical shifts as the Jazz “see what they have” by giving minutes to young players who won’t win a lot of games (expect a lot of Talen Horton-Tucker, Ochai Agbaji, and maybe even Kris Dunn going forward).

It’s wild to say this about a team that lost LeBron, but Los Angeles has a clear path to the play-in. If LeBron ends up needing surgery, it’s easy to envision the team falling apart. But as long as there is hope of his return, the players and coaches will fight like hell to make the play-in. Anthony Davis is the best overall player of anyone in this group (apologies to Dame and Shai), and if he can stay healthy himself, he may be able to carry a shockingly decent supporting cast on his back.

The Thunder’s road record is undoubtedly concerning, but three of their last four games are against Phoenix, Golden State, and Memphis. Any of those teams could opt to sit some starters in preparation for the playoffs, so Oklahoma City could make it by default. The Thunder have so many young guys, and they need to see which players could be part of a competitive core going forward. The playoffs often add clarity to those evaluations.

One final note: the last day of the season features a Lakers-Jazz matchup. It’s entirely possible that becomes a sudden-death game for one or both teams. The last time we had something like that was back in 2018, when the Jimmy Butler-led Timberwolves battled against the Nuggets, led by a third-year rising star named Nikola Jokic. The Wolves won Game 82 in overtime to claim the final playoff spot, sending the Nuggets home. It was one of the most remarkable games in NBA regular-season history, the closest thing the NBA has seen to March Madness. Another sudden-death Game 82 would be a fitting end to the most parity-driven season in memory.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.