Contrary to popular opinion, there are storylines in the NBA that don't involve the Miami Heat. Far away from the glitz and glamour of South Beach, an interesting race is playing out in the Western Conference as three teams—the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies—are all making a serious run at the No. 3 seed.
The three are separated by mere percentage points, and it's likely that they'll be jockeying for playoff positioning until the last week of the season. All have already punched a ticket to the playoffs, but the difference between the No. 3 seed and No. 5 seed is significant: Since homecourt advantage is based entirely on seeding, the fifth-seeded team will have to win at least one road game in the first round in order to advance.
With a 32-3 record at home this season, it would be in the Nuggets' best interests to open the postseason in the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center. Denver is the only team currently among the top five squads out West that has a losing road record this season, and winding up with the No. 5 seed would deprive the team of its best asset.
"I think our fans are pretty good," said Nuggets' head coach George Karl in an interview with Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. "I don't know if it's a top-five or top-10 court, but it's a good home court."
After losing in the opening round of the Western Conference Playoffs in each of the past three seasons, this may be Karl's best opportunity to make a deep postseason run in the post-Carmelo Anthony era.
"The whole scenario is to get through the first round," said Karl. "I always believe that with a young team, the first round is the biggest step they take."
The Clippers haven't been overly impressive recently, but their sizeable lead in the Pacific Division all but ensures that they'll head into the playoffs with one of the top four seeds out West. Expectations are high for a team that has only made the postseason once in the past seven years, and L.A. is less concerned about positioning than they are about how well they're playing entering the playoffs.
"I want the highest seed possible but I've always been in a situation where we just want to be playing the right way in the playoffs," said Clippers' point guard Chris Paul in an interview with Derek Page of Hoopsworld. "I think we have the capability that, regardless of if we're home or not, you've got to be able to win on the road so either way it doesn't matter."
The Grizzlies aren't just looking up at the Clippers and the Nuggets in the standings, they're also facing a potential second-round matchup against either the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder.
To their credit, Memphis has had mixed success against both teams this year (2-1 vs. OKC, 1-2 vs. San Antonio). But with center Marc Gasol fighting through an abdominal injury, a Grizzlies' team with a rather pedestrian offense—17th in the league in Offensive Rating—will struggle to put up points against either the Thunder or the Spurs, both of whom are ranked in the top four in Defensive Rating.
With so much uncertainty heading into the homestretch among all of the Western Conference playoff teams, it really doesn't pay for the Grizzlies, Clippers or Nuggets to deliberately try to position themselves in any particular slot. That said, winning as many games as possible can have some unintended consequences.
While nabbing the No. 3 seed may allow a team to avoid San Antonio until the conference finals, it may result in a first-round matchup versus a Houston Rockets team that leads the league in pace (96.1) and is second in the NBA in scoring (106.1 PPG).
For what it's worth, all three teams are 1-2 against the Spurs this year, but the Nuggets (3-1) and the Grizzlies (2-1) have both been able to handle the Thunder. The Clippers, meanwhile, are 0-3 versus Oklahoma City this season.
In terms of difficulty, there's very little difference in the remaining schedules for the Grizzlies, Nuggets and Clippers. As such, look for the standings to pretty much hold up as they are with Los Angeles locking down the No. 3 spot while Denver will finish with the No. 4 seed (and homecourt advantage) in their first-round matchup against Memphis.
If that happens, don't expect the Grizzlies to make a deep playoff run this year. Since the league moved to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, no No. 5 seed has made the NBA Finals.
If the seedings hold up during the course of the postseason, the fifth-seeded team would have to open each round of the playoffs on the road. Since home teams win nearly 67 percent of the first-round matchups (and more than 65 percent of all series), lower-seeded teams clearly have their work cut out for them.
The Nuggets, Grizzlies and Clippers are all aware of this, and as a result, the final few weeks of the season should be pretty exciting. And now that the Heat's streak has ended, perhaps the rest of the world will finally begin to pay attention.