Predicting Who's In and Who's Out in NBA Western Conference Playoff Race
The Los Angeles Lakers are currently a playoff team—as wild as that may sound.
As of Sunday’s victory against the Chicago Bulls, the Lakers have surged within the NBA’s Western Conference playoff picture as the Utah Jazz have been pushed out.
The Lakers' sudden jump comes thanks to a combined seven consecutive losses by the Utah Jazz (four), Golden State Warriors (two) and Houston Rockets (one).
The bottom half of the West's playoff seedings has been shaken, as five teams are competing for the remaining three spots.
The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets look firm in their positions as Nos. 1 through 5.
But how will the rest of West’s playoff race shape up? And what could happen in the opening round of the postseason?
It's becoming easier to predict.
Portland Trail Blazers (Prediction: 10th in the West)
One quick peek at the Portland Trail Blazers schedule and it’s obvious they won’t be making the playoffs.
Portland, already three games back from the eighth-seeded Lakers, are dreadful on the road (9-23), where they still have nine games remaining.
Of the Trail Blazers’ final 20 games, 15 come against opponents currently slotted as playoff teams.
Even if they won each of their games against non-playoff teams, tossing aside the road disadvantage, they’d still need to win more than half of their games left against current playoff-bound teams.
That isn’t going to happen; the seven-game slide in February sucked them too far away to recover.
Current record: 29-33 (10th in the Western Conference)
Predicted finish: 10-10
Overall finish: 39-43, 10th in the Western Conference
Utah Jazz (Prediction: 9th in the West)
The Utah Jazz are leading the collapse of the Western Conference’s bottom playoff teams.
Utah has lost seven of its last eight games and is no longer a playoff team after the Los Angeles Lakers pulled ahead with their win on Sunday.
Is it "the Utah Jazz are officially awful" or "the Utah Jazz is officially awful"?— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 10, 2013
Utah has been hurt by injuries at the wrong time. Mo Williams returned, but they have missed Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, both who have dealt with recent ankle ailments.
Utah's backcourt play hasn't helped, hurt by the poor shooting of late by Randy Foye and Gordon Hayward.
The team's four-game winless road trip is further proof of what we already knew: the Jazz are terrible on the road (10-23).
With a short reprieve on Monday—a home game against the Detroit Pistons that should break the losing streak—the Jazz then play a stretch of five games that will break them: at OKC, versus Memphis and New York, and then back on the road for Houston and San Antonio.
By then, the playoffs will be out of reach.
Current record: 32-31 (9th in the Western Conference)
Predicted finish: 8-11
Overall finish: 40-42, 9th in the Western Conference
Golden State Warriors (Prediction: 8th in the West)
The belief is running dry.
Since climbing to a season-high 13 games above .500 with a home win against the Phoenix Suns to open February, the Warriors have now lost 12 of their last 17 games.
The wins haven't been impressive, either.
During that stretch of 17 games, Golden State’s wins came against the Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings and, the lone quality win, in overtime against the San Antonio Spurs.
Andrew Bogut’s return has been empty, as the oft-injured center is still lengthy steps slower than he was years ago with the Milwaukee Bucks. They needed more from Bogut, as the play of rookie Festus Ezeli has fallen off since being the we-didn’t-expect-that-at-all-from-him guy earlier in the year.
For Golden State to work, they need both Stephen Curry and David Lee to play at an All-Star level while receiving Sixth Man of the Year-type play from both Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry.
If all four of those pieces aren’t on the same page, the results suffer.
The Warriors do have two pieces working in their favor that will provide the franchise its second playoff appearance in 18 seasons.
1. Golden State plays 12 of their final 18 games at home.
2. The Warriors' remaining opponents sit at a winning percentage just under .500, according to PlayoffStatus.com.
Current record: 35-29 (6th in the Western Conference)
Predicted finish: 10-8
Overall finish: 45-37, 8th in the Western Conference
First-round prediction: Series loss versus the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs
The Warriors will have a golden "We Believe" T-shirt for every fan that walks through the doors in Oakland for this first-round matchup.
But Don Nelson's playoff magic over the Dallas Mavericks is long gone and Gregg Popovich's Spurs have long dominated the Warriors.
It will be a quick exit for Golden State, but making the postseason alone is a great step forward for the young and talented Warriors, even if a late-season stumble dropped them to a No. 8 seed.
Houston Rockets (Prediction: 7th in the West)
The Houston Rockets weren’t supposed to be here.
With a roster loaded with young, inexperienced talent, the quick climb led by budding superstar James Harden is a surprise.
The question down the stretch will be whether or not that inexperience comes with a price when it matters most.
The Rockets' climbs and falls in the standings created what, for most of the season, seemed to be the quintessential .500 team. The Rockets are playing above the mark now, but where they go next is anyone’s guess.
Houston will begin a seven-game homestand that features just three teams currently seeded for the playoffs: the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers.
Twelve of Houston’s remaining 18 games are on the road and the Rockets face nine of 18 opponents with losing records.
Current record: 34-30 (7th in the Western Conference)
Predicted finish: 12-6
Overall finish: 46-36, 7th in the Western Conference
First-round prediction: Series loss against the No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder
The Rockets' jovial run into the playoffs will lead James Harden back to Oklahoma City. Ultimately, the talented Thunder led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be too much for the inexperienced Rockets.
Kevin Martin will walk away perhaps the biggest winner.
Los Angeles Lakers (Prediction: 6th in the West)
Current record: 33-31 (8th in Western Conference)
Kobe Bryant’s predictions don’t take long.
Just over two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Lakers star emphatically stated that his struggling Lakers would be in the postseason.
Bryant told Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated: “It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver ... whoever. I have zero nervousness about that.”
Nevermind that his Lakers hadn’t played consistently good basketball all season and were three games under .500 at the time, trailing the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets by 3.5 games.
Oh how quickly things can change.
The Lakers were a season-worst eight games under .500 (17-25) after a Jan. 23 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Since then, the Lakers are 16-6, as Bryant continues one of his best seasons. And Dwight Howard has averaged 15.4 points and 14.1 rebounds since the All-Star Break.
The Lakers will need to continue winning on the road—a trend that has developed as of late, going 6-4 on the road since Feb. 1. The Lakers had been 5-16 on the road prior to this latest run.
Of their 18 remaining games, 10 come on the road and half are against current lottery-bound teams. The Lakers schedule is light to finish the season, including eight games against opponents with losing records.
Los Angeles has caught fire and a look at the schedule shows they will continue their improbable climb up the West's standings.
Current record: 33-31 (8th in the Western Conference)
Predicted finish: 14-4
Overall finish: 47-35, 6th in the Western Conference
First-round prediction: Victory over the No. 3 seed Los Angeles Clippers
The build-up to this opening round series will be epic. In a battle of Los Angeles, Bryant will grind out each clutch possession in a chippy series that could decide ownership of Hollywood for years to come.
Matt Barnes won't be yelling that the Clippers own the town after Bryant leads the surging Lakers past Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and crew.
The postseason style fits the Lakers, and so does Bryant's ability to stay home throughout the series.
Jimmy Spencer is an NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @JimmySpencerNBA