With under two months remaining in the regular season, it's becoming more and more likely that the Los Angeles Lakers will earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
What remains unclear is who Los Angeles would face in the opening round of the postseason.
As we enter the season's stretch run, five teams - the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs - each have a realistic shot at the West's final playoff spot.
I'm not forecasting a first round upset here, but the above list does contain six very different teams that pose different levels of threats to the Lakers.
Let's take a closer look at each of the Lakers' potential playoff pairings with an assist from FiveThirtyEight's NBA Predictions model.
New Orleans Pelicans
Season series: Lakers lead 3-0
Playoff experience: Four players, 192 games
Chance of earning 8th seed: 74%
When you think of the Pelicans, you think of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson and how he's widely regarded as the best prospect since LeBron James. Williamson himself poses a threat to the Lakers in that he's become one of the league's most prolific inside scorers less than 20 games into his career.
And it's not just Williamson, either. New Orleans has a young core comprised of former Lakers in Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and All-Star Brandon Ingram, a trio that would have plenty of motivation to deliver memorable postseason performances against their old team.
The Pelicans' unique roster also has four veterans in Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, E'Twaun Moore and J.J. Redick, who have a bevy of playoff experience and could help keep the young guys even-keeled as they adjust to the newness of postseason basketball.
Of the teams in contention for the eighth seed, the Pelicans are by far the more complex and in turn, the most intriguing. It seems like James and Anthony Davis have acknowledged this as well.
The Lakers would be tuned in from the get-go in a potential series against the Pelicans, as evidenced by these individual performances from James and Davis during their head-to-head meetings this season.
|Nov. 27, 2019||Lakers 114, Pelicans 110||41 PTS (15-30 FG), 9 REB, 3 STL, 1 BLK||29 PTS (10-18 FG), 11 AST, 5 REB, 2 STL|
|Jan. 3, 2020||Lakers 123, Pelicans 113||46 PTS (15-21 FG, 13-13 FT), 13 REB, 3 STL||17 PTS (7-17 FG), 15 AST, 8 REB, 2 STL|
|Feb. 25, 2020||Lakers 118, Pelicans 109||21 PTS (6-21 FG), 14 REB, 6 BLK, 3 AST||40 PTS (17-27 FG, 5-11 3FG), 8 REB, 6 AST|
|AVG||-||36.0 PTS, 12.0 REB, 2.7 BLK, 2.3 STL, 50.0 FG%||28.7 PTS, 10.7 AST, 7.0 REB, 54.8 FG%|
New Orleans has a talented roster but it doesn't have an answer for L.A.'s All-Star duo, which has led to a 3-0 season series thus far.
It's no doubt that the Pelicans and Lakers would make for an electric first round series.
Portland Trail Blazers
Season series: Lakers lead 2-1
Playoff experience: Seven players, 292 games (Nurkic and Collins, 25 games)
Chance of earning 8th seed: 11%
In Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers have the best player among all the teams vying for the eighth spot. This season, Lillard is averaging 36.0 points, 9.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds through three games against the Lakers.
With Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland boasts a prolific backcourt that provides matchup problems for Los Angeles. Who do you turn to in order to slow them down? Is it Avery Bradley? Alex Caruso? Danny Green? Rajon Rondo?
That the Trail Blazers have such a strong backcourt shifts the focus to the frontcourt, where the Lakers have the clear upper hand with James and Davis. But Trevor Ariza and Hassan Whiteside each have the defensive pedigree to at least make things difficult for them because, if we're being honest, stopping them isn't in the cards for anyone anymore.
Portland also has an abundance of postseason experience through the above four players as well as Carmelo Anthony, who has gone up against Playoff Bron before and has been a reliable offensive threat this season.
The problem is that this Blazers team has been injury-riddled throughout the year, which is part of the reason they are fighting for their playoff lives after making a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2019. Could Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins return to the lineup? Would that help?
With or without those two bigs, it's pretty clear that Portland just wouldn't have enough to make things that difficult for L.A. I consider them the biggest threat because Lillard is liable to take over to explode for 40-plus to deliver a win or two, but the Lakers' star-studded duo would ultimately overpower its foes from the Pacific Northwest.
Season series: Lakers lead 3-0
Playoff experience: Seven players, 134 games
Chance of earning 8th seed: 4%
The Grizzlies have been one of the league's biggest surprises and are way ahead of schedule thanks to the young duo of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. This promise was on full display in late November as Memphis led by as many as 15 points until the Lakers duo of James and Davis overpowered them to escape the FedEx Forum with a one-point win.
Close, but not close enough.
The above sentence sums up a game that represents the gap between the Grizzlies becoming a team that could truly cause the Lakers to sweat in a first-round series. Jonas Valanciunas (42 games) is the team's most seasoned playoff veteran, while guys like Jordan Bell (32 games) and Kyle Anderson (30 games) have been before, albeit in much different roles than they find themselves with Memphis.
Unlike New Orleans' group of veterans, it'll be a bit more difficult for the Grizzlies' more seasoned players to help their young teammates remain calm once the game speeds up in the postseason.
And, of course, there's the question of who guards James and Davis.
Memphis is a fun young team and will only get better in the coming years, but this year isn't the year for it to be much of a formidable foe for L.A.
Sacramento Kings: After defeating the Grizzlies on Saturday, Sacramento now has better odds to make the playoffs than Memphis at 7%, according to FiveThirtyEight. With a core of De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento is young and talented. There's a sense of familiarity with former Lakers head coach Luke Walton at the helm for the Kings but this team still isn't quite at the point where they could push the Lakers in a series.
San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs are the Spurs and since 1998, there hasn't been a postseason without Gregg Popovich and company. This year, while that league-best streak is in serious jeopardy (4% chance to qualify per FiveThirtyEight), you can't count San Antonio out. With Pop's strategy, talented young guards and the established veteran duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs would be a tough first round matchup from a game planning and adjustment standpoint.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns are still technically in the picture, but a loss to Derrick Rose and the Detroit Pistons on Saturday, as well as an injury to Kelly Oubre Jr., gives them the toughest road to making the playoffs, to the point where FiveThirtyEight now gives them a 1% chance.
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