Playoff Forecast: Who’s No. 8?

Pau Gasol - Dirk NowitzkiWith a win over New Jersey on Friday night or a San Antonio loss, the Lakers will make official what’s been known for weeks: L.A. will be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

That sentence is just as simple as it is important, since every Western Conference team the Lakers face in the playoffs will have to start out in STAPLES Center, where the Lakers are 31-5 this season (not that a league-best 26-9 on the road is bad).

What’s entirely unknown, however, is whom L.A. will face in the first round, as the eighth spot in the Wild West is less secure than a fan wearing purple and gold in Salt Lake City.

There are literally eight teams that could wind up in the final playoff spot: San Antonio (47-24) looks to be the safest to avoid L.A. in round one with an almost untouchable four game lead on Dallas (43-28) with 11 to play. On the other end, Phoenix (40-32) is 3.5 games outside of the playoffs, but still has a slight chance to sneak in if some team collapses. More likely is that Houston (47-26), Denver (46-26) or New Orleans (44-26) slide back a few spots. However, what’s most likely – based on respective yet-to-play schedules – is that either Portland (45-27) or Utah (44-27) drop into the last spot, or that Dallas stays put.

Still following? Basically, one might limit the speculation for spot No. 8 to three teams – Dallas, Portland and Utah. That said, each team in the mix deserves a closer look, so let’s get to our team-by-team breakdown, with much of the emphasis on the three most likely opponents for L.A.:

Jason Kidd - Kobe BryantDallas Mavericks (43-28, 8th)
Current Status: Dallas is a healthy four games up in the loss column on Phoenix, and is just one game behind Utah and 1.5 behind Portland and New Orleans for the five spot.
What’s Ahead: Seven of the Mavericks’ 11 remaining games are at home, where they are 26-8, tied for the league’s eighth best record. The Mavs are 17-20 on the road, but unlike the Jazz and Blazers have been solid against + .500 teams away from home, going 9-11. That’s a full seven more wins than Utah and five more than Portland.
At Home: Dallas welcomes Denver (46-26), Miami (38-34), Phoenix (40-32), Utah (44-27), New Orleans (44-26), Minnesota (20-52) and Houston (47-26) to their arena, which is about as difficult of a home schedule as possible at this stage of the season.
On the Road: Dallas has two (on paper) easy road games left at Memphis and Minnesota, as well as two tough ones at Cleveland (58-13, one loss at home) and New Orleans (26-11 at home).
A Guestimate: If Dallas splits on the road and wins 5-of-7 at home, they’ll finish at 50-32. If Dallas struggles with that tough home schedule and wins only 3-of-7 there, it would finish at 48-34, which would probably mean the eighth seed at best. Yet and still, Phoenix would need to win an unlikely 8-of-10 even in that 5-9 Dallas scenario just to tie the Mavs.

Deron Williams - Kobe BryantUtah Jazz (44-27, 7th)
Current Status: Utah’s just a game ahead of Dallas for the seventh spot, but is also just a half game back of the six spot and 1.5 games back of claiming their division, which would ensure a top four seed in the playoffs.
What’s Ahead: The problem with Utah’s 44-27 record is that they’re basically twice as good at home as they are on the road, and 6-of-11 remaining games for Deron Williams and Co. come away from Salt Lake City. To make matters worse, each of their road games come against a likely Western Conference playoff team. In related news, Utah is 2-14 on the road against teams with winning records, their only wins coming Dec. 19 against Detroit (OT) and Nov. 11 at Philly (the Sixers were 2-4 at the time but are 37-33 now). Utah has a terrific home court advantage (30-6, third best in the NBA), but certainly seems to suffer a major letdown on the road (14-21, the fewest wins of any playoff contending Western team).
At Home: The Jazz welcome Phoenix (40-32), New York (28-43), Minnesota (20-52), Golden State (25-57), and the L.A. Clippers (18-54) to an arena they haven’t lost in since Jan. 27 (San Antonio). Yet, for as easy as that home schedule looks on paper, that’s how tough the road will be…
On the Road: How’s this for a murderer’s row? Portland (45-27), Denver (46-26), New Orleans (44-26), Dallas (43-28), San Antonio (47-24), L.A. Lakers (57-14). Yup, they’ll have to earn it. Again, 2-14 against + .500 teams on the road.
A Guestimate: The numbers say that Utah won’t lose at home or win on the road, which would put them at (49-33). Chances aren’t bad, however, that the Jazz can find a way to win at least one road game now that they’re fully healthy, and it’s hard to picture them dropping one in Salt Lake City. So, let’s put them at 50 wins … Which is where we had Dallas. Go ahead and circle Wednesday, April 8, Utah @ Dallas on your calendar, as it may very well decide L.A.’s first round opponent. Utah does have an edge in the tiebreaker, however, having gone 2-1 against Dallas (and Portland) while having much better conference and division records.

Brandon Roy - Lamar OdomPortland Trail Blazers (45-27, 6th)
Current Status: The Blazers are 1.5 games ahead of Dallas for the eighth spot, a half game ahead of Utah for spot No. 6, tied with New Orleans for No. 5 and just 2.5 games behind San Antonio for the second spot. Portland is also only a game back of Denver in the Northwest Division.
What’s Ahead: It’s half and half for Portland: five at the Rose Garden and five on the road. Portland is similar to Utah in that they have a great home court advantage – where they’re 29-7 to tie for 5th in the league – but they also struggle mightily to beat good teams on the road, going 4-16 against + .500 teams outside of Portland. They’ve managed to go 12-5 against the bad teams on the road to bring their overall record outside Oregon to 16-20
At Home: Memphis (17-53), Utah (44-27), L.A. Lakers (57-14), Oklahoma City (20-51), and Denver (46-26). Portland doesn’t lose to poor teams at home and has the Lakers’ number, but on the other hand, there’s a chance L.A. will be playing for overall home court advantage, and Denver and Utah will undoubtedly depend on their @ Portland game for playoff positioning.
On the Road: Oklahoma City (20-51), Houston (47-26), Memphis (17-53), San Antonio (47-24), and L.A. Clippers (18-54). Again, Portland’s beaten the bad teams and lost to the good ones on the road, and this shouldn’t necessarily change in the final five.
A Guestimate: It’s reasonable that Portland could win three road games, though four is unlikely because one of the sub .500 teams (like a healthy bunch of Clips) could give them trouble. At home, let’s put the Blazers on at least three wins, with four more likely and possibly all five. Even if Portland drops 3-of-5 on the road and loses two home games, they’ll finish with 50 wins, right there with Dallas and Utah. More likely, they win either four at home and three on the road and get to 51. Portland’s problem is that they lost the tiebreaker with Dallas (0-3) and will lose the tiebreaker to Utah, with whom they can at best split, moving to the record-in-conference breaker which Utah leads by seven games. So they’d best not tie for the final spot unless they want to travel to L.A. (wait a sec … maybe they do want that?).

New Orleans Hornets (44-26, 5th)
Though the Hornets are just a game up in the loss column on Portland and play 8-of-12 games on the road, New Orleans has shown that it can win away from the Crescent City (18-15) and has gone 12-4 overall since Feb. 23.

Western Point GuardsDenver Nuggets (46-26, 4th)
Though only a game up in the Northwest, Denver is 19-18 on the road and plays 6-of-10 games at home, where it is 27-8. The Nuggets are also a game ahead of the Blazers in the loss column, but a season-ending showdown in Portland (April 15) is sure to have some interesting implications.

Houston Rockets (47-26, 3rd)
Three games clear of the eight spot with nine to play (four at home), the Rockets are in pretty good shape. Houston’s only 18-18 on the road, and doesn’t have an easy road schedule (Phoenix, Lakers, Sacramento, Golden State, Dallas), but they are 29-8 at home and have gone 15-4 overall since the All-Star break.

San Antonio Spurs (47-24, 2nd)
The Spurs have arguably the easiest remaining schedule in the West, with games against the Clippers, Thunder, Pacers, Thunder again, Kings and Warriors in hand. However, they do have to go on the road six times, and are still without a healthy Manu Ginobili and fully healthy Tim Duncan, meaning it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the Spurs slip a few spots in the standings (the six seed is 2.5 games back). Just not enough to land in the eight spot.

The Bottom Line
There’s a very logical case that puts Portland, Utah and Dallas on 50 wins each, and if it came down to a three-way tie, the Blazers would fall into the eighth spot. Yet and still, all of that speculating could mean exactly nothing. We simply have no idea how things will actually turn out, even if it’s fun to think about. All the Lakers can do is play out their schedule, forget about the West and focus on at least tying Cleveland for the league’s best record (tiebreaker goes to the Lakers).

After all, goodness knows there are eight other playoff viable teams in the West that would love to have just the Cavs about which to worry.