Lakers vs. Pelicans would be tantalizing playoff matchup, but New Orleans isn’t alone in race for No. 8 seed

Tuesday’s national TV showcase between the Lakers and Pelicans isn’t just a chance to witness Zion Williamson and LeBron James battle for the first time. It’s also a potential playoff preview.

Heading into the matchup, New Orleans is only three games back of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. It’s an impressive turnaround considering just two months ago the Pelicans were ahead of only the lowly Warriors in the West basement. Los Angeles is holding a comfortable five-game lead atop the standings, setting up the rare No. 1 vs. No. 8 first-round series that would actually be highly entertaining.

The storylines would be plentiful: Zion vs. LeBron signifying future vs. present, Anthony Davis heading back to New Orleans after demanding a trade last season, the players dealt for Davis (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart) looking to prove their worth. Even if the Lakers swept the Pelicans off the floor, each game would be worth watching.

But that’s jumping ahead just a bit. The Pels still need to earn a playoff berth, and while the West’s top seven seems secure, that last spot is very much up for grabs.

2020 NBA playoff picture: The race for eighth

(Remaining strength of schedule via Tankathon)

No. 8 seed: Grizzlies

Record: 28-29

Net rating: Minus-1.9

Remaining games: 25

Remaining strength of schedule: .554 (hardest in NBA)

Why they will make it: Ja Morant continues his tremendous Rookie of the Year campaign (17.6 points, 6.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds per game) and guides Memphis to its first postseason appearance since the 2016-17 season. Role players like Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke provide enough support to cover for the absences of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow.

Why they won’t make it: ​Jackson’s injury hurts more than expected, and Morant’s production and efficiency drops slightly. The schedule slows the Grizzlies down, and a rough final stretch (vs. Mavericks, at Trail Blazers, at Nuggets, vs. Thunder, vs. 76ers, at Rockets) pushes them out of the playoff picture for good.

No. 9: Trail Blazers

Record: 26-32

Net rating: Minus-1.9

Remaining games: 24

Remaining strength of schedule: .471 (fifth-easiest in NBA)

Why they will make it: CJ McCollum catches fire to ensure Damian Lillard doesn’t collapse from the weight of having the entire city of Portland on his back. The Blazers rattle off a few key wins during a soft spot in the schedule (at Hawks, at Magic, vs. Wizards, at Suns, vs. Kings, vs. Suns).

Why they won’t make it: Lillard’s groin injury is worse than initially anticipated, and McCollum, Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside can’t score enough to offset the Blazers’ poor defense (113.5 defensive rating, fourth-worst in the league). Despite Terry Stotts’ best efforts, the lack of depth is too much to overcome.

No. 10: Pelicans

Record: 25-32

Net rating: Minus-1.2

Remaining games: 25

Remaining strength of schedule: .457 (third-easiest in NBA)

Why they will make it: Because Zion won’t accept anything else. It’s worth noting the small sample size, but the Pelicans hold a 13.6 net rating with him on the floor this season. They benefit from finally having their full group together and roll through a favorable schedule.

Why they won’t make it: The injury bug bites New Orleans one more time before the regular season ends. Williamson plays less like basketball Incredible Hulk and more like a normal human being. The Pels lose important games in late March (vs. Spurs, at Grizzlies, vs. Kings, vs. Grizzlies).

No. 11: Spurs

Record: 24-32

Net rating: Minus-1.3

Remaining games: 26

Remaining strength of schedule: .478 (sixth-easiest in NBA)

Why they will make it: Gregg Popovich’s squad capitalizes on a home-heavy schedule (15 of the final 26 games in San Antonio). DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge offer steady scoring, and Dejounte Murray bursts onto the scene with a run of two-way excellence that propels the Spurs past their competition.

Why they won’t make it: The 22-year playoff streak is over. DeRozan and Aldridge fill the box score, but the Spurs can’t stop anyone (112.6 defensive rating, seventh-worst in the league). San Antonio’s final five games (at Rockets, vs. 76ers, vs. Rockets, at Pacers, vs. Pelicans) put the nail in the coffin.

No. 12: Suns

Record: 24-34

Net rating: Minus-0.6

Remaining games: 24

Remaining strength of schedule: .514 (ninth-hardest in NBA)

Why they will make it: Devin Booker catches fire averages 30 points over the last 20-plus games of the campaign. Ricky Rubio remains a steady hand at point guard, and the occasional big nights from Deandre Ayton and Kelly Oubre help the Suns steal wins against elite opponents.

Why they won’t make it: Unlike other contenders for the No. 8 seed, Phoenix can’t feast on a weak schedule. Small injuries here and there take their toll until the Suns slowly fade away. It’s a terrific season to build on, but the Suns never completely cut down the five-game gap in the loss column.

No. 13: Kings

Record: 23-33

Net rating: Minus-2.3

Remaining games: 26

Remaining strength of schedule: .481 (seventh-easiest in NBA)

Why they will make it: The Kings are back! Sacramento ends its 13-year playoff drought behind a resurgent De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, who has been shooting an insane 48.2 percent on 3-pointers in the 12 games he has come off the bench. Hield’s acceptance of his new role motivates the rest of the Kings to follow suit under Luke Walton.

Why they won’t make it: Sacramento unsurprisingly can’t find consistency through March and April. Marvin Bagley III’s injury lingers over the franchise as Luka Doncic surges into the playoffs, and questions about the roster loom large as the Kings enter the 2020 offseason.

Source: Read Full Article