Now that we're a full month into the season, just about at the quarter pole for all teams, one thing is becoming vividly clear: the race for playoff spots and seedings in the Western Conference is going to be extraordinarily tight.
As of Tuesday morning, nine teams are within 3.5 games of the No. 3 seed. Six of those teams will make the playoffs, and three will sit in the lottery. This is a bit ridiculous even by the West's standards, where seemingly every season a team above .500 gets left out of the postseason. There's one team everyone is assuming will drop off at some point (the Minnesota Timberwolves), and other (the Utah Jazz) who few expected to be in the mix. But so long as they hang with the chase pack behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets (the latter of which is only a game ahead of the pack), this is a nasty little race.
And in a race like this, every game matters. We've seen in the past where a tiebreaker decided home-court advantage -- this season, those tiebreakers could be the difference between a spot in the playoffs and an early vacation. So let's take this opportunity to look at the teams competing for those spots broken into two groups: The Expected Powers and The Insurgent Forces.
THE EXPECTED POWERS
L.A. Clippers. The Clips sit all alone in the No. 3 spot after back-to-back wins over the two teams above them, the Thunder and Nuggets. A healthy Chris Paul is a true MVP candidate, and he's looked like it over the past two games, leading L.A. on both ends. Questions about CP3's durability and the team's defense remain, but it's hard to imagine this team dropping out of the playoff picture, despite the tight margins.
Dallas Mavericks. Even after losing Tyson Chandler and picking up a still-not-right Lamar Odom, few expected the champs to miss the postseason. That early slide and Dirk Nowitzki's lack of energy are of concern, though; it's feasible that the Mavericks could fade late on tired legs and get caught in a tough battle for a low seed. Or Dallas could build on recent success and pound out a top-4 seed. This is a real wildcard team in the wild West.
San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs actually fit in both categories. Before Manu Ginobili was injured, this seemed like a sure-bet playoff team; the Spurs did finish with the West's best record last season, after all. Once Manu went down and Tim Duncan continued to show his age, that certainty disappeared. But the bench has been strong -- Danny Green, y'all! -- and Duncan and Tony Parker have done this dance a ridiculous number of times. It's hard to bet against San Antonio.
L.A. Lakers. Watching the Lakers drop down to No. 9 in the standings last week shows you how tough this West has become. This is a legit title contender with one of the best guards in the NBA and perhaps the best starting frontcourt ... and they are currently in a dogfight to make the postseason. Depth matters, the black hole at point guard matters, a learning curve with a new coaching staff matters. But the Lakers at the bottom of the playoff seeds is just something else after the past four seasons.
THE INSURGENT FORCES
Utah Jazz. Well, hello Utah! The Jazz sit in the No. 5 spot currently with a 12-7 record that doesn't look ready to slow down. Other than weak guard play (where have you gone, Devin Harris?), there's one massive red flag attached to Utah's record: they have played 13 games at home, and six on the road. Among the teams in the hunt, only the Clippers have played so few; it's rather inconceivable that the Jazz will be able to hold a multi-game advantage on their competition once the schedule evens up. But that should only drop them down with the other fringe playoff contenders discussed below.
Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers, with the Lakers and Rockets at 12-9, are a perfect example of why Utah's record is difficult to trust: Portland has gone 9-1 at home and 3-8 on the road. That's extreme, but not surprising. Unless you're elite, you're generally hoping to go .500 or slightly better on the road and go nuts at home. The Blazers need improved guard play to meet the challenge away from the Rose Garden.
Houston Rockets. The Rockets' front office and new coach Kevin McHale said during the preseason that the playoffs were the goal, and Houston's right in the mix. Kyle Lowry's bubble has deflated quite a bit, but with Samuel Dalembert, Kevin Martin, Lowry and some solid bench play (Courtney Lee, Goran Dragic), this team should remain a viable challenge all season long. To get over the hump and earn one of those spots, Lowry will have to return to form after a rough few games.
Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis is hanging on without Zach Randolph, currently sitting 1.5 games behind the three-way tie for No. 7 in the conference. It could end up a simple numbers game for Memphis, who is good enough to beat just about any team in the West playoffs but may not get a chance.
Minnesota Timberwolves. We would be remiss to ignore the Wolves, who are sitting at 10-11 ... after going 32-132 over the past two seasons. Minnesota is two games out of a playoff spot right now, and a mediocre home road (5-7) is doing damage. But the team has looked so good with Ricky Rubio starting that it's hard to count them out. Rick Adelman is a genius.
Right now, it looks like the three teams who stand the highest likelihood of being left on the outside looking in are Utah, Memphis and Minnesota. The Clippers seem destined for a top-four seed and first-round home-court advantage, but the other spot up there is totally up for grabs. It should be one heckuva race for the next three months.
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