NBA

The Lead Roundtable: The West’s Eighth Seed

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When the NBA was deciding how to finish the season, the eighth seed in the West became a hot topic. With three teams within four games of the Memphis Grizzlies, the league felt those teams needed a chance to make a push. They decided to invite those teams to the Bubble, give them eight games to make up ground, and add a play-in series if they end up within four games of the Grizzlies. Fan reactions were mixed, but most agreed that the inclusion of these teams made the situation more interesting.

The league’s decision immediately sparked debates and trash talk across social media. Fans from each team unleashed their Twitter fingers and went after fans of their newfound rivals. We even got in on the fun:

Amid all the fun, though, there are some serious basketball discussions to be had. We got writers who cover each team in the race to come together and discuss the upcoming battle for the playoffs.

The Writers

  • Richmond Bailey Caldwell, Grizzlies contributor for The Lead
  • LB Martin, Trail Blazers contributor for The Lead
  • Brian Vollman, Pelicans contributor for The Lead
  • Kyle Easter, Kings contributor for The Lead

The Topics

1. What do you think will be your team’s biggest obstacle when play resumes?

Caldwell: Schedule. The NBA did a masterful job preserving each team’s schedule. The Grizzlies have the second-toughest schedule of any team in the hunt for the eighth seed, and only the Blazers have a more difficult slate.

Memphis’ first half consists of Portland, San Antonio, New Orleans, and Utah. Three of those teams are trying to take the eighth seed. Utah is already in the playoffs. The Grizzlies have had success against three out of the four, but have not defeated the Pelicans. That’s the most critical and challenging game of the first four. The Grizzlies’ last four games are particularly challenging. They face the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. At full strength, the Grizzlies might be lucky to take one of those games. Luckily, being the end of the season, Memphis may face those teams without their stars and could sneak a win or two. I see the Grizzlies going 4-4, but could see 5-3 or 3-5 happening. Regardless of record, I think our position in the play-in game is secure. But with the schedule we have, the situation could quickly go wrong.

Martin: Schedule. Out of all twenty-two teams participating in the NBA restart, the Blazers have arguably the most challenging schedule. The winning percentage of the Blazers’ eight opponents averages out at .601. This figure is the highest average opponent winning rate among any of the six eight-seed contenders. For comparison, the easiest path for the eight-seed hopefuls is New Orleans. The Pelicans face opponents who average a winning percentage at only .495 (far below the second-easiest schedule of the Spurs at .523). Although the Blazers hold a slight advantage in winning percentage, they will have to finish the final eight games with at least the same record as the Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs, all of whom have softer schedules. With only eight games, any misstep could be the difference between triggering the play-in tournament or missing the playoffs entirely.

Another complication is the lack of any time for the Blazers to integrate Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic into the lineup before having to play meaningful games. While the Blazers will get to see the much-heralded return of both big men in three scrimmages, coach Terry Stotts doesn’t have the luxury of experimenting when every game is a must-win affair. While both players undoubtedly make the Blazers much better, the tight return-to-play schedule may not allow the Blazers to capture their best performance before the season prematurely ends in disappointment.

Vollman: Becoming a reliable defensive team and being able to close out games. The Pels haven’t been all that on defense, giving up the 27th most points per game. The only team in the Bubble behind them is Washington at 29. New Orleans has also lost 13 games by five-six points.

Easter: Not to sound too pessimistic, but it is hard to think of something that isn’t an obstacle in Sacramento’s playoff path. In the Kings’ way are three teams with positive outlooks. In the eighth spot sits an early-blooming Memphis team led by young stars Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Tied with Sacramento in ninth are the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans. The Blazers will be getting back big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins after missing many months due to a leg and shoulder injury, respectively. Not to mention top NBA point guard Damian Lillard and his partner in crime C.J. McCollum. To round out the eighth-seed competitors is a Pelicans team that seemed to be figuring it all out before the NBA hiatus. While they are skeptical of Zion Williamson’s availability in the Bubble (family emergency), the Pelicans are extraordinarily well-rounded and deep.

Although, the other teams in the playoff picture may be the least of Sacramento’s worries. To recap the last few months: Buddy Hield, Alex Len, Jabari Parker, and Harrison Barnes were all diagnosed with COVID-19. Also, Richaun Holmes left the Bubble, De’Aaron Fox sprained his ankle, and now Marvin Bagley has a lateral foot strain ruling him out for the year. After this long string of unfortunate luck, the Kings are the clear underdogs. Then again, everyone has to play eight games, so anything could happen.

2. Who or what is your team’s X-factor?

Caldwell: Bench unit. The Grizzlies’ bench has been among the best in the league all season. The bench trio of Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton, and Tyus Jones posted a +20.2 net rating in 300 minutes played. Adding veteran Gorgui Dieng deepened Memphis’ big rotation, and Josh Jackson was on a hot streak before the shutdown. If necessary, the Grizzlies have capable players even further down the line. John Konchar had some strong outings earlier in the season. Grayson Allen is healthy and displaying talent. Anthony Tolliver didn’t seem to miss during his first 10-day deal.

The Grizzlies don’t have any players opting out, and the only injury on the roster is Justise Winslow. Fans were upset about his injury, but it shouldn’t affect the team too much. He had yet to play a game for the Grizzlies, so they’ll proceed as usual in the Bubble. Their ceiling may be a little lower without Winslow, but they’re still the same team that was burning through the league from January to March. With other groups missing pieces, the bench unit will be an advantage in nearly every game.

Martin: Gary Trent, Jr. While Collins and Nurkic are both returning for the restart, starting small forward Trevor Ariza opted out of the Bubble to spend more time with his son. The loss is a crucial one. The Blazers now have plenty of size on the interior (something sorely lacking during the regular season). However, Ariza was their main defensive perimeter wing and provided enough consistency on offense (11 pts on .491 FG %/.400 3P%) to justify his specialized role. Carmelo Anthony stated he is both mentally and physically ready to slide down from the power forward position to take over the small forward role. Based on Skinny Melo’s new physique and aggressive intensity defending in practice, he may be right. However, the Blazers are hoping that second-year player Trent Jr. can also fill the gap.

Trent Jr., a self-proclaimed “dog” on the court, has been a lock-down defender at times this year. He has also shown flashes of scoring brilliance, pouring in 20 or more points on five occasions this season. Unfortunately, he has also gone scoreless on more times (including his last game where he played 17 minutes and went 0-5 from the floor). To justify his presence in the lineup, Trent Jr. must display more consistent scoring to help alleviate the scoring burden from Lillard and McCollum on the offensive end. He has shown he has the defensive clamps to handle some of the best scorers in the league. That energy and doggedness will be necessary to both help spell Anthony and let Lillard and McCollum stay rested to close out games.

Vollman: Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The 17th pick in last year’s draft has only played 41 total games. He has not played since February 11th due to a hairline fracture in his right hand. However, Walker didn’t let that hold him back. The young shooting guard has had five months to rehab his hand. He spent the quarantine training his opposite hand, shooting and finishing with his left hand and studying film of lefty legend Manu Ginobili. He also grew an inch, now listed at 6-foot-6. His energy and effort off the bench could be vital for New Orleans.

Easter: Half-court offense. Anyone who has watched a Kings game in the last two years knows this team can run the floor when they want to. Luke Walton, the man who purposely slowed his team down, even acknowledged this fact. From day one, Walton has been prominent about improving other aspects of the team’s game before they return to their better skills. If anything positive came from the NBA break, it was the time to improve as a team. Of course, four months is an extended period, so Kings fans should be curious to see what Walton has implemented for offensive possessions.

3. Which player do you think will emerge as an eighth-seed race MVP?

Caldwell: Damian Lillard. These high stakes are nothing new to Lillard, who has carried the Blazers through worse. He is capable of elevating his game to a new level in moments like these. He had one of his best seasons this season and is getting two key pieces back. The return of Jusuf Nurkic will elevate Portland’s pick and roll game, making it even easier for Dame to go off. Earlier this season, Lillard had a six-game stretch in which he averaged 45 points and ten assists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a similar stretch in these eight games.

While there are cases to be made for other players, Damian Lillard has the most proven track record of anyone on these teams. I see no reason to bet against him.

Martin: Zion Williamson. Although we have only seen Zion for 19 games, those 19 games were remarkable. Zion has all the signs that he is going to be an incredibly unique player. One of the most significant questions marks for Zion was his conditioning and whether he would hold up for an 82 game season. However, with both his injury and the four-month layoff, Zion has had plenty of time to rest, and his conditioning will likely not be a factor for the eight seeding games where he’ll be needed most.

As much as I wanted to pick Lillard for this spot (and it was incredibly hard not to), the return of Nurkic and Collins and their effect on the Blazers’ defensive and offensive sets will likely bolster the team more. The Pelicans’ success (or failure) is entirely dependent on Zion’s play. In that sense, Zion is more valuable to his team’s chances. If Zion continues his stellar play, then the Pelicans could very easily win six of their remaining eight games and push the Grizzlies to the play-in tournament.

Vollman: Damian Lillard. He’s always had a chip on his shoulder, and now his team is fighting for the 8th seed. He’s coming off a career season with 4 50 point games. I expect a lot of scoring for Lillard and a lot of highlight-worthy plays in his attempt to make the playoffs.

Easter: Brandon Ingram. Ingram made a jump this year, and voters should consider him for the Most Improved Player award. He has put up stellar numbers in his 4th year averaging 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. The Pelicans have a wide range of guys who contribute every night. With that said, the most consistent factor has been Ingram’s play to this point in the year. There seems to be a possibility Zion will be unable to go upon the NBA’s return (he’s a game-time decision). While it would be a blow to the team, the Pelicans should still have high hopes. Players like Jrue Holliday, Lonzo Ball, and J.J. Redick will surely be useful. And, the threat from these guys will only spread the floor even wider so the Slenderman can go to work. Brandon Ingram is fully capable of leading this team on a hot streak.

4. Which player who opted out is the biggest loss?

Caldwell: Trevor Ariza. The Blazers are getting a lot back with the returns of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Those two will help bolster their interior presence on both ends. However, the loss of Ariza will create a hole in the perimeter that may effectively offset what they’re gaining. The Blazers’ schedule is full of teams with elite wings, and they’ll be without their best wing defender. Carmelo Anthony is preparing to step into the role, but it will be hard for him to replicate what Ariza would bring.

Ariza had also found his offensive footing in Portland after struggling in Sacramento. His field goal percentage was 12 points higher in Portland, and he was hitting 40% of his threes. He was averaging eleven points, five rebounds, and 1.6 steals over 21 games as a Blazer. In addition to his on-court performance, Ariza’s veteran experience would serve Portland very well during this stretch.

Martin: Avery Bradley. While the Nets, Kings, and Wizards are sending replacements teams to the Bubble, the loss of Avery Bradley to the LA Lakers is likely to have the most significant effect on the playoffs. Similar to the loss of Ariza to the Blazers, Bradley is a solid defensive player who contributed consistently on offense (8.6 pts on .444 FG %/.364 3P%). With Rajon Rondo’s injury and a lack of options at the guard position, LA will likely end up turning to recent signings of Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith and unproven Alex Caruso. If the Lakers end up facing off against the Blazers, the loss of Bradley to guard against either Lillard or McCollum will be especially evident.

Vollman: Avery Bradley. The Lakers will be without one of their best defenders, as he averages a steal a game and a 104 defensive rating. They will also be missing him on offense as he was scoring 8.6 a game on 36% 3pt shooting.

Easter: Lamarcus Aldridge. The San Antonio Spurs already were playoff-appearance underdogs this year. Their chances did not get any better with Aldridge’s shoulder injury. Aldridge produced another efficient season of 18.9 points and 7.4 rebounds at the age of 34. Yet, the biggest downside of his absence may not be statistical. With Aldridge’s age comes experience and leadership, something a young Spurs team could use in a playoff chase. During his stints in Portland and San Antonio, Aldridge made it to the playoffs nine times. Expect to see a different and possibly faster Spurs team with the veteran sidelined. While the loss is devastating, if there is something NBA fans know, it is never to count out a Popovich Spurs team.

5. Which team wins the play-in/makes the playoffs?

Caldwell: Grizzlies. I have no reason to doubt my team, even in these unique circumstances. They’ve been playing at a high level (for such a young squad) all season, and it will continue in Orlando. They’ve had four extra months of preparation, which has allowed them to progress even further in different areas. Ja Morant says he’s gained 12 pounds and is 100 percent. Coach Jenkins is raving about how the team has performed in practices. Grizzlies’ highlight reels on Twitter show Jaren Jackson Jr finishing with his right hand! I see a return to the playoffs this season.

There will be a play-in, though. I see the Blazers or Pelicans keeping the race close. I don’t see either team beating us twice. We’ve had success against Portland this season, and I don’t see Nurkic or Collins being enough to change that. While we’ve struggled mightily against New Orleans, I believe we would find a way to take a game from them, but it might take us two tries.

Martin: Blazers. The return-to-play format creates such a host of on-court and off-court changes that any prediction has to factor in more than pure basketball. What effect will the layoff have on teams’ chemistry, or in the case of nearly every organization, how will the addition or loss of players affect team chemistry? With all those qualifications, and despite the strict schedule, the Blazers are the team with the highest ceiling. The return of Nurkic and Collins completely changes the team’s character.

The Blazers become more versatile on offense, more stout on defense, and more dynamic in their personnel. While there is an excellent chance the Blazers don’t work out the kinks before their season is over, the ceiling for the Blazers is higher (this year) because of the immediate return of two ascending big men. For that reason, I predict the Blazers will hold off any challengers to the nine-seed, stay within four games of the Grizzlies, and ultimately beat the Grizzlies twice in a row to claim the playoffs’ final seed.

Vollman: Pelicans vs. Grizzlies. Pelicans will clinch the 8th seed.

Easter: The Memphis Grizzlies. 3.5 games is just too large of a gap for any team to close in 8 games. The Grizzlies would have to tank their games, and they are good enough to prevent that from happening.

Of the bubble teams, the New Orleans Pelicans will secure the 9th seed, within four games, and there will be a play-in tournament. The Pelicans have the most manageable schedule of all the bubble teams. Also, New Orleans may be the best team in the group of fringe teams. They surely have the highest ceiling.

New Orleans may take one game in the best-of-two series. But, due to the format and significant seeding advantage Memphis holds, they will return to the postseason. The Pelicans will not be able to beat the Grizzlies back-to-back with the pressure of the playoffs at stake.

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