We're past the midway point of the NBA season and the playoff picture is starting to take shape in each conference.
Out West, the standings have developed into two different races. You have seven teams jockeying for placement as the top seven seeds in the conference while seven other teams fight for the one last playoff spot.
Zion Williamson's rookie debut is set to make an earthquake-like shake-up in the race for that final playoff spot, as 5.0 games separate eighth and 14th place in the Western Conference.
Who are the seven teams fighting for the No. 8 seed and why should you root for each of them?
The race for eighth place in the West
Memphis Grizzlies - Current No. 8 seed
Reason to root for them: The Ja Morant show
The Rookie of the Year frontrunner has become must-see-TV every time he steps on the court and he's already performing way beyond his expectations. As a result, he has his young Grizzlies team sitting in sole possession of the No. 8 seed in the West as the rest of these teams chase them.
Who wouldn't want to see the Ja Morant show in the playoffs?
This 20-year-old is willing to risk his health and well-being for a posterizing dunk as we've already seen him do so many times throughout the first half-season of his career.
PEEP THIS ANGLE 😤 pic.twitter.com/OOlLYxu3VV- Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) December 12, 2019
Even when he doesn't finish a highlight-reel play, it's still newsworthy. That's just how electric this kid is.
Imagine if @JaMorant finished these 😫 pic.twitter.com/56tPsMzfCa- ESPN (@espn) January 18, 2020
The Grizzlies have been great since the calendar turned to 2020 - they're 7-2 in the month of January so far, surging up to the No. 8 seed. Only the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers have been better than Memphis in the New Year.
The Grizzlies are built for the future, but they have the talent to reach the playoffs now.
San Antonio Spurs - 0.5 games back
Reason to root for them: History
The Spurs have qualified for the playoffs in 22-consecutive seasons, tying the North American professional sports record for most-consecutive playoff appearances.
Their chances of breaking that record is on the ropes as San Antonio finds themselves a half-game back of a playoff spot midway through the season.
An awful November where they went 4-12, including an eight-game losing streak, put this team in a hole that they have since been trying to dig themselves out of. They've played just-over-.500 basketball since then, which is a good enough pace to keep that playoff streak alive if the rest of these teams continue at the rate they have been so far this year.
DeMar DeRozan is doing everything he can to turn things around for his squad - in the month of January he's averaging 26.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game shooting a remarkable 56.7% from the field. His teammate LaMarcus Aldridge has recently learned the value in extending his range, attempting more 3-pointers in 21 days of the New Year than he did all last season, coverting at a successful rate of 47.1% (24-for-51).
If you're a fan of history, midrange jumpers and fundamental basketball, the Spurs are the team for you.
Portland Trail Blazers - 2.0 games back
Reason to root for them: Playoff Dame
The Trail Blazers have made the playoffs six years in a row but that streak is in jeopardy as this team has struggled its way through the first half of the season.
Their supporting cast that played a huge role in helping Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum get this team to the Western Conference a season ago is long gone. The players they were replaced with have not gotten the job done, though injuries have played a role in that. Carmelo Anthony has been a blessing for this team, but defensively they still leave much to be desired.
Lillard has been as good as he's ever been, but even that hasn't been enough to be the bandaid that covers up this team's problems. He's averaging career-highs with 27.9 points and 7.0 assists per game while shooting a career-best 44.6% from the field. It took a career-high 61 points for this team to just barely beat the last-place, 10-win Warriors.
Lillard is special as it is and he takes his game, and clutch gene, to a different level in the playoffs. With last season's game-winning buzzer beater to send the Thunder home, he became the first player in NBA history with two series-clinching buzzer beaters.
🗣M 🗣V 🗣P 🗣 pic.twitter.com/iu9Rz77UyQ- Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) April 24, 2019
It's robbery if Lillard is playing this well and we don't get to see him carry that into the playoffs. That's why you should root for the Blazers.
Phoenix Suns - 2.0 games back
Reason to root for them: Chaos
I can see it now... it's Game 2 of a first round series between the Lakers and Suns. The Lakers grinded out a Game 1 win but this fiesty Phoenix team is back with a vengence.
A newly efficient Devin Booker has 34 points on 12-for-16 shooting from the field. Deandre Ayton has a 20-20 double-double, playing like he's sick of hearing people talk about Luka Doncic and Trae Young. The Suns have frustrated Los Angeles to the point that they have a solid lead when Ricky Rubio comes up with a help-side steal. He pushes it to Kelly Oubre Jr. in transition as LeBron James paces himself for a momentum-changing chasedown block.
Oubre Jr. flushes it on LeBron's head, flexing at a silent STAPLES Center crowd. NBA Twitter bursts into flames as the Suns bring the series back to Phoenix tied 1-1.
They might drop three-straight after that, but man was that Game 2 fun.
That's the type of team this is. When they're clicking on defence, they're a joy to watch. Booker has been an All-Star-calibre player this season. Ayton has been fantastic since he returned from his suspension and injury and Rubio has looked like one of the best floor generals in the league.
The Suns have had their moments where they look like a playoff team this season. They've also had low moments like losing eight games in a row. That's the type of inconsistent chaos that makes this team worth rooting for to make the playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans - 3.5 games back
Reason to root for them: More Zion Williamson
We've already been robbed of 44 games of the rookie sensation that is Zion Williamson. It's only right that the Pelicans make a playoff push to reward us with at least four extra games of the 20-year-old phenom.
Williamson was a wrecking ball in the preseason averaging 23.3 points shooting 71.4% from the field in just 27.2 minutes per game, essentially getting to the rim whenever he wanted against whoever he wanted. That scoring average was the fourth-best in the NBA for the preseason and it resulted in New Orleans finishing with a perfect 5-0 record behind the play of their No. 1 overall pick.
The Pelicans couldn't exactly keep that same energy with Williamson out of the lineup to start the season, but they've changed their trajectory significantly at the perfect time - just before their superstar forward returns.
New Orleans has won 10 of their last 14 games to put themselves just 3.5 games back from a playoff spot. If this team looks anything like it did in the preseason with Zion in the lineup, they should have no trouble closing that gap even further.
Could you imagine a potential first-round revenge playoff series with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart playing against their former team? Now add the Zion versus LeBron storyline and Anthony Davis playing against his former team and you have the type of script that would seem pre-written since before the season started.
More Zion Williamson is enough of a reason to hope the Pelicans take the No. 8 seed. Those other storylines are just an added bonus.
Minnesota Timberwolves - 5.0 games back
Reason: A bigger Towns and Wiggins playoff sample size
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have both been slandered for their one playoff series they've played in their careers. A late push to the postseason would likely mean these two are playing some of the best basketball of their careers, which would give us another chance to see the duo perform under that playoff spotlight. Minnesota hasn't been able to avoid falling into brutal losing streaks this season, and that will have to change as soon as possible if they're going to make a push.
Sacramento Kings - 5.0 games back
Reason: Snapping the playoff drought
The Kings haven't made the playoffs since 2006. Their 13-year playoff drought is the longest in the NBA by four years, with the Suns next in line at nine-consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance. For a while last season, the Kings were hanging around that No. 8 seed but eventually fell off after the All-Star break. Many expected this team to be in that exact same spot this season but an underwhelming start to the year put this team in a hole early. De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield will need to step things up significantly if Sacramento is going to end their playoff drought this season.
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