NBA Western Conference play-in contenders, ranked by upset potential in playoffs

Woah, woah, woah. Pump the brakes here.

We’re doing this all wrong.

The framing of the Western Conference jumble has been built around which teams are streaking and which are sliding as analysts and fans alike try to figure out which teams will make it to the playoffs. Seeds 4 thru 10 are all up for grabs and within reach of each other. Two unlucky franchises will miss the play-in tournament altogether.

While it’s nice to think about the joy of that play-in tournament, what really matters in the grand scheme of things is whether any of those teams have a chance to win a first-round series against the top teams in the Western Conference.

So instead of trying to predict who is most likely to make the playoffs, we’ll examine who is most likely to win or give a top seed a good scare if they can get to that point.

8. Utah Jazz

Record: 36-40

Would be toughest for: Memphis Grizzlies

The Jazz are 36-40, but they’ve only won one of their last five games. Their minutes allocations have trended younger over the last two weeks, inculcating Ochai Agbaji to the rotation more frequently and even playing 10-day signee Luka Samanic some first quarter minutes on Wednesday against San Antonio.

Lauri Markkanen was an All-Star, Walker Kessler has been a really good rim protector of late, and Agbaji hasn’t been half bad. They’re pretty banged up, with Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson a little wounded for the stretch run. There’s not a ton of depth after trading away most of their rotation players (and shooters) at the deadline.

Utah’s best chance at pulling off a first-round miracle would likely be against Memphis. The Jazz have two wins over the Grizzlies on the year and the frontcourt floor-spacing to really stretch out a Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams lineup. Memphis is banged up so they’ll be a popular answer for a team to lose in the first round here, but the Jazz match up fairly well thanks to Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk.

7. New Orleans Pelicans

Record: 38-38

Would be toughest for: Sacramento Kings

The Pelicans are two different teams depending on whether they have Zion Williamson in the lineup. Unfortunately, he’s sidelined with a hamstring injury and is questionable to come back in time for the playoffs.

With him, they’re a dynamic and well-rounded offensive force with positional versatility, a ton of depth, and one legitimate takeover superstar. That’s a dangerous team to run into as a potential eight-seed.

Without him, the Pelicans are a little starved for easy buckets and paint touches. CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram are great scorers, but they live in the mid-range or behind the 3-point line, thus not creating enough easy looks for the role players.

That said, we saw Willie Green rally these troops without Zion a year ago to a play-in set of victories and a scrappy six-game series with the Phoenix Suns. Their wing defensive unit is fantastic; the Pels can become a fearsome foe for opponents with multiple versatile scorers.

The Kings struggle on defense and don’t keep teams out of the lane, so the offensively-starved Pelicans could generate paint touches even without Zion. Leaning into a defensive-minded lineup and finding the right buttons to press against the Kings could make for a fun contrast of styles.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

Record: 38-39

Would be toughest for: Memphis Grizzlies

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a fantastic story this year. They’ve outperformed expectations and turned into a legitimately scary team in the West long-term. They have a true identity, too: they’re all smart and skilled, have good positional size, and compete their tails off every night.

Leading the charge is All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a walking paint touch who has picked up his effort on the defensive end. Despite not having a ton of fantastic individual defenders, the Thunder are scrappy and push teams to the brink every night. Sleep on them at your own peril.

Like Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies are built on their competitiveness and effort throughout the regular season. OKC’s comparative advantage won’t shrink against Memphis, the Grizzlies backcourt is a tad smaller in comparison to the Thunder, and the lack of a scorer at the 5 gives Oklahoma City’s lack of size on the interior a reprieve that Sacramento and Denver would not. While we like the Thunder a good deal as a group, they’re not well-constructed to harness Nikola Jokic or Domantas Sabonis, making it tough to put them high on this list.

5. Dallas Mavericks

Record: 37-40

Would be toughest for: Memphis Grizzlies

The Mavericks have been sliding down the stretch, losing four of their last five and on the outside of the play-in picture looking in. If they make it, they’re still a pretty tough opponent to face. Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are two of the most talented scorers in the universe and are tailor-made for the playoffs as isolation threats. They’ll score against any team they can face.

After the deadline acquisition of Irving, this roster is completely baren of defensive personnel. While they can score with the best of them, stopping some well-oiled machines in a best-of-seven series does not sound like a promising proposition. It’s unlikely the Mavs can take anyone out of their offense.

The Grizzlies have a middle-of-the-pack offense statistically, while the Kings and Nuggets are both elite threats that would likely eviscerate the Mavs lack of defensive personnel. If Dallas wants the best chance to advance, they’ll need to make a push before the regular season ends to get into the 7 or 8 spots.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

Record: 39-38

Would be toughest for: Denver Nuggets

Because Karl-Anthony Towns has missed most of the season due to injury, we still don’t know just how well he and Rudy Gobert gel together. The Timberwolves are about .500 in games where both play, and their unique fit together makes it difficult for the Wolves to mesh on the fly. They’ve been really good the last few weeks, and Anthony Edwards looks rejuvenated with the return of KAT.

We’ve also seen Gobert have issues in the playoffs before, part of the reason the Jazz moved on from the big man last summer. Mike Conley has been really good for them, and there are enough veteran role players to help stabilize the ship. They’re a real wild card in the West and have a creative coach in Chris Finch who can push the right buttons and make adjustments during a seven-game series.

Back in the bubble playoffs of 2020, Gobert and the Jazz gave the Nuggets a good scare in a seven-game series. It took a Jamal Murray herculean run in games five, six and seven to overcome a 3-1 deficit. The positive for any team with Gobert: he’s built a lead in the postseason before on a Jokic-led team. Perhaps they can do it again.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

Record: 41-36

Would be toughest for: Memphis Grizzlies

As we shoot up the standings, we run into teams who are within striking distance of the 4 and 5 seeds in the West. These teams could avoid a first-round matchup with the top teams in the Western Conference altogether, thus making them most likely to move on. But the Clippers (and everyone else in this race) is not out of the woods of falling into the play-in.

The elephant in the room for the Clippers is that one of their two superstars might not be ready to play at the start of the postseason. Paul George is banged up and out of the lineup. When healthy, he and Kawhi Leonard are a lethal tandem. Sprinkle in Ty Lue’s fantastic adjustments through a best-of-seven series and the Clippers are no fun to face.

But the fear of facing the Clippers is low if George is not in the lineup. Slap a big ole asterisk on the Clips and tie their postseason fate to PG-13’s health. They’re coming off of a win over the Grizzlies on Wednesday night without George in the lineup, so if there’s one group they’d have the confidence to hang with if George is out, it’s Memphis.

2. Golden State Warriors

Record: 40-37

Would be toughest for: Sacramento Kings

Like the Clippers, Golden State is potentially going to miss one of their key pieces. Without Andrew Wiggins, the Dubs are a tad thin on the wings of experience and defensive impact. He was a vital piece to their championship run a season ago.

That said, this roster is still fairly deep elsewhere, with both talent and championship experience. The Warriors may have another gear to go into once April hits and still have the most dangerous scorer on this list in Stephen Curry.

The Kings lack experience, have a porous defense, and have lost to the Warriors twice already this year. If these two teams matchup, my money might be on Steve Kerr’s squad.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

Record: 38-38

Would be toughest for: Everyone

This is the team I’d fear the most in the first round, and it doesn’t really matter who the matchup is. With Anthony Davis and Jarred Vanderbilt in the frontcourt, the Lakers can concoct so many different defensive gameplans and disrupt any style of play. They’ll also have LeBron James, the most experienced champion in the NBA and the one guy who can take over a game at the flip of a switch — on both ends.

This roster is humming, with better performances from role players like Austin Reaves and Troy Brown of late. The additions of Malik Beasley and D’Angelo Russell add 3-point shooting around their core and allow the Vanderbilt and Davis combo to thrive.

Look out for the Lakers, folks.

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