The Battle for the Eighth Seed – West
Although the order is likely to be in flux, the top seven playoff spots in the Western Conference are almost a certainty heading into the 2012-13 NBA season.
Spots one through seven in the West, barring serious injury, are virtually locked down. The Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies are all playoff teams, which leaves us with the number eight seed.
The Utah Jazz came away with the final spot in the West this past year, finishing strong in the lockout-shortened season and wrestling away the eighth seed from the Houston Rockets and the Phoenix Suns.
This season might turn out a bit differently with nearly every team in the loaded West improving over the summer, although the Jazz will certainly be expected to remain right in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the challengers for the eighth and final playoff spot in what is shaping up to be a challenging Western Conference.
Utah Jazz (8th place at 36-30 last season)
The reigning eighth place champs in the West should be the favorite heading into the upcoming season to hold onto to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Last season, Utah won it’s final five regular season games – including impressive victories over the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns – to earn a postseason trip and first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
Heading into 2012-13, the Jazz have made some subtle tweaks and are looking for young up-and-comers like Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward to continue to evolve. Utah is also hoping new additions Mo Williams and Marvin Williams step up and help this team to hold off the younger, more explosive teams gaining ground behind them.
With Favors, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap manning the post, the Jazz have a clear advantage in the paint over the other challengers on this list and will look to bully their way into the postseason once again in 2013.
Portland Trail Blazers (11th place at 28-38 last season)
It might surprise some that the depleted Blazers still finished ahead of both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors this past season. It also might be a surprise that it took seven straight losses from the Blazers to close out the season to get there.
With a new coach and a re-armed cast around one of the best power forwards in the game, LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland is banking on returning to the postseason in 2013 after a one-year hiatus. For this to happen, sixth overall pick Damian Lillard will have to play up to his sky-high potential and the reserves in Rip City will have to step up to create a serviceable bench.
Bottom line is that a lot of things have to go right for the Blazers to finish with a postseason berth in 2013, but these expectations aren’t exactly pie-in-the-sky aspirations for an extremely talented squad.
Minnesota Timberwolves (12th place at 26-40 last season)
Armed with a bevy of veterans to help a young and talented core already in Minnesota, expectations are high coming into the season for the T-Wolves. New additions to the starting five include Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko, who will be expected to keep order on an extremely talented but green core in Minnesota.
Kevin Love has already established himself as one of the best players in the NBA, but his frontcourt mate Nikola Pekovic needs to use a promising 2012 season to springboard to bigger and better things this season. Analyzing the roster, it’s apparent that the talent is there in Minnesota to make some serious noise in the West this season.
However, with the uncertainty of Roy’s knees and rookie sensation Ricky Rubio likely to miss the first couple of months of the season, there’s still a lot up in the air for Minnesota.
Golden State Warriors (13th place at 23-43 last season)
A flurry of moves at last season’s trade deadline along with a few notable signings over the summer have the Warriors expecting to be right in the West’s playoff hunt heading into the year. Andrew Bogut and David Lee have the potential to be one of the best frontcourts in the NBA, while the backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson continues to develop and also has the makings of one of the league’s best.
The only problem in all this is that two heavy hitters – Bogut and Curry – have had serious problems remaining healthy and staying on the court over the course of their careers. In that respect, Golden State has done a good job fortifying their roster to be two-deep at every position as reserves Carl Landry, Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush and Jarrett Jack have all been starters in this league.
On paper, it’s difficult to argue against the Warriors making the playoffs for just the second time in the last 20 years.
Who Wins the Battle for Eighth?
If healthy, there’s little doubt that Golden State possess the most talent of this bunch but staying on the court will be a huge hurdle to overcome this season in Oakland.
Utah is another logical choice, simply because they’ve been there before and only got better this offseason. Unfortunately for the Jazz, if the Blazers, T-Wolves or Warriors play up to their potential, each team is a better overall squad.
Minnesota also has its fair share of questions as the Timberwolves are betting on Rubio to make an early return and Roy’s knee’s to hold up for an entire 82-game season.
Portland has its flaws as well with not much depth aside from J.J. Hickson behind their starting five and high hopes for a couple of rookies in Lillard and Meyers Leonard.
Although it’s difficult to gauge this early which of these teams will come out on top for the final playoff spot in the West, there’s little doubt that this race will go down to the wire.
Which teams do you think will be battling for eighth in the Western Conference this April? Give us your predictions for this year’s playoff teams and near misses.