We once warned you that if you wait until Christmas to catch up on the NBA, you've missed the entire season.
Sure enough, the narratives of this season have been established. The Warriors are fully unstoppable, the Spurs and Cavaliers are excellent but comfortable biding their time until the spring, the East has risen, Kristaps Porzingis is a god, Anthony Davis' ascension is being stunted by the team around him, Kobe Bryant is saying goodbye and the Sixers are among the worst teams ever.
Of course, there's still plenty to be learned over the next 14 weeks of regular-season basketball, like the entire East playoff picture, the No. 3 spot in the MVP race (behind Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard) and whether there will be any major trades involving star talent.
There is also still the completely nonessential matter of the West No. 8 seed.
A key signal in the East's rise to relevance is the fact that none of the teams in the race for the West No. 8 are above .500. This has been common in the East over the past 15 years, with few exceptions. Typically, the East No. 8 is much worse than the West No. 9. The situation is reversed this season, as a group of otherwise disappointing, rebuilding and/or mediocre clubs are fighting for a place in West playoffs.
Considering that the Warriors are running away with the West No. 1 seed and are on pace to finish with the best record in NBA history, the No. 8 seed seems like a boobie prize. "Congratulations, you win a four-game humiliation at the hands of a team with at least 30 more wins than you!"
But all seven teams in the mix have some real motivation to claim that bitter reward. Let's lay it out.
First: Is there really only one spot available? Yes. Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are flying way out in front. The Clippers and Mavericks (against all odds) are comfortably above .500 at this point. Memphis is flitting around .500, but has seemed to find some level of groove with a revamped starting five. Houston is at .500, but trending upward. The Rockets are only up two games on No. 9 Utah, but I expect that gap to grow. Dallas or Memphis could slide down into the muck, but don't count on it.
And now, the seven teams in the sad, exhilarating race for No. 8, ranked in order of the likelihood they'll claim that final playoff spot.
Record: 12-16 (currently No. 8)
Why They'll Win The Spot: Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are excellent, and Rudy Gobert and Alec Burks are expected to return in February. That's a really solid top four. Utah also has a nice little supporting cast led by Rodney Hood.
Why They Might Not: While the offense has performed well overall, this might be the worst passing team in the league. Also, Utah's defense was mediocre at times even before Gobert went out with injury. Could last season have been fool's gold?
Why They Want It: The Jazz were the it team in the West entering the season. Even if they end up right below .500, getting that No. 8 spot would justify their hype. It should be noted that Utah with Gobert gave the Warriors a scare during that 24-game win streak.
Record: 10-20 (3 games back)
Why They'll Win The Spot: Anthony Davis. They've gone 9-9 since that atrocious 1-10 start as other players have healed up and re-entered the rotation.
Why They Might Not: New Orleans boasts the league's second-worst defense, and it often looks even worse than that. It's time to start questioning whether Davis' immense defensive gifts help at this point. We're at two straight years in which a Davis-Omer Asik front line anchors a bottom-10 defense.
Why They Want It: Missing the playoffs after the 2015 triumph would be a step back, and you don't want backward steps when you have a young superstar in a non-glamour city. Plus, New Orleans needs to be good to sell tickets and stay profitable. Another playoff berth helps sell those season tickets and keep the Smoothie King Center full.
Record: 12-18 (1 game back)
Why They'll Win The Spot: DeMarcus Cousins is the game's best scoring big man, Rajon Rondo is getting role players and Boogie easy shots (when he isn't committing turnovers and not playing defense) and this team is desperate to win. They will absolutely (continue to) mortgage the future at the deadline if it's the difference between getting No. 8 or not.
Why They Might Not: A horrific defense (which often includes Boogie, who doesn't look like he'll be back in shape this season after an early injury), crazy turnover problems, shockingly mediocre rebounding and total inconsistency from Rudy Gay. Plus it remains clear that the team's best player and the coach still don't really get along.
Why They Want It: The Kings haven't made the playoffs since 2006 and they are moving into a new arena next season. They would love to get smoked by the Warriors. It'd be a dream come true.
Record: 13-20 (1.5 games back)
Why They'll Win The Spot: Damian Lillard is a star, C.J. McCollum is legit and the Blazers have fully invested in a shooting-heavy attack that keeps them in practically every game. Also, Allen Crabbe's hair.
Why They Might Not: Broken record alert, but holy hell these teams chasing No. 8 having some bad defenses. Mason Plumlee knows where to be, Ed Davis and Gerald Henderson are solid and Al-Farouq Aminu is a big plus, but the rest of the rotation is filled with defensive minuses, including the high-scoring starting backcourt. Noah Vonleh is completely unproductive. There's just not quite enough talent beyond Lillard, McCollum, Aminu, Davis and Crabbe's hair.
Why They Want It: To prove to LaMarcus Aldridge that they are good enough, and gosh darn it, people like them.
Record:12-19 (1.5 games back)
Why They'll Win The Spot: Uh, well, they seem well-coached, they have a few nice veterans, they have pieces to move in potential trades and Will Barton is their best player.
Why They Might Not: Will Barton is their best player. (No, really: Will Barton is their best player. It's actually quite difficult to find something they do well other than play Will Barton starter minutes off of the bench. They rebound well, too.)
Why They Want It: Denver is the one team in the chase that I'm not sure has any remote motivation to make the playoffs. The team is clearly focused on the future, much like Portland, but without a star on the roster. Other than Will Barton.
Record: 12-20 (2 games back)
Why They'll Win The Spot: It is increasingly difficult to envision the Suns winning the spot, especially now that Eric Bledsoe has torn his meniscus. Brandon Knight is quite good, though, and the roster has enough quality defenders (led by P.J. Tucker) to be a top-10 unit on that end.
Why They Might Not: Bledsoe's out for two months or so, and it's difficult to imagine Phoenix scoring efficiently enough to beat most opponents if they aren't defending up to their potential, which they are not. Also, you know, Jeff Hornacek is probably going to get fired within the next couple weeks barring a massive reversal of fortune. The Suns are 5-15 over their last 20 games ... and that was with Bledsoe. There's also the unresolved Markieff Morris mess looming in the background. (He's currently under suspension after throwing a towel at Hornacek during a game. This team is just a bucket of sunshine.)
Why They Want It: Phoenix isn't accustomed to hanging out in the lottery. The Suns are quietly one of the winningest franchises in league history, a fact undercut by the distinct lack of championships. GM Ryan McDonough built this team to compete, which is why Hornacek is on the hot seat.
Record: 11-19 (2 games back)
Why They'll Win The Spot: Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are one helluva battery, even at this stage of their careers. Ricky Rubio still can't shoot, but he can pass and he can defend. Kevin Garnett is holding everyone accountable. The team also has a pretty incredible spirit as they play this season for Flip Saunders.
Why They Might Not: Towns, and to a lesser extent Wiggins, are raw, there's woefully little shooting on the roster and the defensive schemes aren't fully making use of the talent available. The Wolves just aren't quite ready, but they're closer than anyone thought.
Why They Want It: Longest playoff drought in the NBA. The memory of Flip. Potentially KG's swan song. These Wolves are hungry. Why wait for next year?
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