LeBron, Curry, KD, Luka, or Sabonis: Who won’t make the playoffs?

The race for the NBA’s Western Conference play-in tournament — and to avoid it all together — is heating up with just under a month remaining in the regular season. And there are some star-studded races to watch down the stretch.

Let’s start toward the bottom, where the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors are on a collision course for the 9-10 game. LeBron James and Stephen Curry, each with four NBA titles, will likely have to win twice in the tournament to just reach the playoffs and have a chance at a fifth ring.

Above L.A. and Golden State sit three teams battling for the coveted 6-seed: the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks. The Kings currently have the inside track, thanks to a double-digit win over the Lakers on Wednesday.

How will the standings shake out? Which teams have the toughest schedules remaining? What matchups and stats will matter most? Our NBA Insiders are breaking down what lies ahead for each contender and what they need to do for a playoff berth.


Note: Remaining strength of schedule and seeding odds courtesy of ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI).


6. Sacramento Kings

2023-24 record: 38-27
Remaining SOS: No. 19
BPI odds at No. 6 seed: 46.8%

Nothing about this team is a given, apart from Domantas Sabonis‘ nightly double-double performances (48 straight games, the third-longest in-season streak since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger). But since suffering a deflating home defeat to the Chicago Bulls in which they blew a 22-point lead, the Kings have won four their past five games and are a season-best 11 games over .500. And since the All-Star break, Sacramento has earned victories over the first-place Denver Nuggets (twice), third-place Minnesota Timberwolves and the fourth-place LA Clippers within the last month and change.

In March, the club owns a top-five offense and top-five net rating. There has been one bright spot lately on defense among this porous group: Second-year guard Keon Ellis limited Damian Lillard and D’Angelo Russell to 10 points or fewer in back-to-back games this week.

Still, De’Aaron Fox, Sabonis and the Kings have their work cut out for them schedule-wise. Among the teams that are fighting to avoid the play-in round, only the No. 7 Suns have a tougher remaining schedule. Sacramento’s upcoming 10-game slate from March 26 to April 12 includes a pair of games against All-NBA floor general Luka Doncic and the Mavs, the Clippers, the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics, the Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans and the Suns. – Chris Herring

Number to watch down the stretch: 22-20 vs. teams with winning records

The Lakers aren’t the only team that might not want to see the Kings in the play-in. Sacramento trails the season series against just two West postseason teams: the Clippers (1-2) and the Pelicans (0-4).

The Kings are one of eight teams with a winning record against teams .500 or better, a feat the Suns, Mavs, Lakers and Warriors can’t boast. By contrast, Sacramento has gone 16-7 (.696) against the league’s below-.500 drags, far worse than Dallas (21-5, .808) and Golden State (20-5, .800). – Kevin Pelton

7. Phoenix Suns

2023-24 record: 38-28
Remaining SOS: No. 2
BPI odds at No. 6 seed: 27.7%

When Phoenix dropped to 14-15 after losing on Christmas Day to the Mavericks, it seemed the team’s big three of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal wasn’t going to pay off. At that point injuries had zapped the team, with Beal and Jusuf Nurkic both out.

Since then, Phoenix has gone 24-12 to turn around their season. Beal played in just six games prior to Christmas but has been mostly healthy since. With Durant and Booker playing at an All-NBA level, Phoenix hopes it’ll have enough to get out of the play-in tournament and get a much-needed five or six days off before the first round starts.

Unfortunately for Phoenix, the Suns have the toughest remaining schedule in the West, with 11 of their 17 remaining games on the road. Their final six regular-season games could decide their postseason fate, with the Suns set to face contenders in the Timberwolves, Pelicans, Clippers and Kings. – Andrew Lopez

Number to watch down the stretch: 45% 3-point shooting from starting five

If the Suns are going to avoid the play-in and make a deep playoff run, they’ll do it on the strength of their shooting. Phoenix’s overall 38% 3-point shooting, good for seventh in the league, understates the danger presented by the Suns’ starters.

Among the three lineups this season that have shot at least 44% on at least 100 3-point attempts, per NBA Advanced Stats, two are from Phoenix: 45% with the starters (best of any lineup that’s shot at least 150 3s) and 44.5% with Eric Gordon in place of Beal. – Pelton


8. Dallas Mavericks

2023-24 record: 38-29
Remaining SOS: No. 17
BPI odds at No. 6 seed: 40.5%

Dallas has dealt with injuries and inconsistency while searching for the best fits to complement their co-superstars Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, employing 33 different starting lineups so far this season.

The Mavs have aggressively attempted to upgrade Doncic’s supporting cast over the last few transaction cycles, starting with the Irving trade, giving up 2027 and 2029 first-round picks and 2028 and 2030 swap rights.

Dallas is 5-0 when this season’s deadline additions Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington start alongside Doncic and Irving. Dallas is 24-15 when Doncic and Irving both play, a drastic upgrade from the duo’s 5-11 record en route to the lottery last season, but now Doncic is dealing with left hamstring soreness that sidelined him Thursday night in Oklahoma City.

The Mavericks’ two clashes with the Kings on March 26 and 29 could determine whether Dallas has realistic hopes of climbing out of the play-in picture. Sacramento won the previous two meetings between the teams, so Dallas would have to sweep the set for a chance at a tiebreaker (conference record).

The good news? The Mavs have earned the tiebreaker over the Suns, the other team in the tightly bunched group between sixth and eighth in the standings. – Tim MacMahon

Number to watch down the stretch: 28th in defense since All-Star break

The Mavericks’ offense has been surging. Only the Celtics and Nuggets — the two title favorites — have better offensive ratings in the past month. Yet Dallas has gone just 6-5 because of a bottom-three defense in that span. The Mavericks have been hit by opponent’s 3-point shooting variance, with the 39% they’re shooting ranks 29th in the league.

However, the newly acquired Washington has been miscast in the role of wing stopper, understandably struggling to contain the league’s best scorers. If Dallas is going to make a playoff run, the defense must tighten up. – Pelton


9. Los Angeles Lakers

2023-24 record: 36-31
Remaining SOS: No. 21
BPI odds at No. 6 seed: 4.3%

Are the Lakers the same team that made the conference finals last spring and won the inaugural in-season tournament in December? Are they a title-caliber team just barraged by injuries? Or are they simply not good enough to be considered a true contender?

While they might be trending upward — 12-6 since Feb. 1 — the Lakers’ overall performance has been middle of the pack: 17th in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency. Given last season’s playoff run as the No. 7 seed and the possible returns of key contributors Jarred Vanderbilt, Gabe Vincent and Christian Wood means L.A. can’t be counted out

But James has likened this season’s Lakers to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a reason.

The No. 9 Lakers have a one-game lead over the Warriors and play them two more times in the final month of the regular season, after the teams split their first two meetings. L.A. still has aspirations of winning enough down the stretch to avoid the play-in tournament completely, but if that surge doesn’t happen, those games against Golden State — Saturday and April 9 in L.A. — could very well decide who hosts a single-elimination No. 9 vs. No. 10 play-in game. – Dave McMenamin

Number to watch down the stretch: Anthony Davis‘ 0-10 career record vs. Sabonis

The Lakers don’t want a play-in matchup with the Kings, who swept the regular-season series 4-0, keeping Davis winless in his career head-to-head with Sabonis. The mark is inflated by four wins in Sabonis’ 2016-17 rookie season in Oklahoma City, during which Davis (then with the Pelicans) outscored Sabonis 117-20.

The two players somehow never matched up in the time between when Davis joined the Lakers and Sabonis was traded to Sacramento. Since then, Davis has struggled in head-to-head meetings (shooting 44%) more than Sabonis has necessarily overperformed. Eventually, Davis will best Sabonis, but the Lakers would rather not take that chance now. – Pelton


10. Golden State Warriors

2023-24 record: 34-31
Remaining SOS: No. 14
BPI odds at No. 6 seed: 0.9%

Coming out of the All-Star break, the 10th-place Warriors still had their sights on securing a top-six seed in the Western Conference.

“We’re not really focused on 7 [seed], 8, 9, 10. We’re looking at No. 6 and No. 5,” Warriors guard Brandin Podziemski said.

Stephen Curry agreed: “It’s a lofty goal, but we can get there.”

Now, with less than a month left in the regular season and still in 10th place — one game behind the Lakers for ninth and four games behind Sacramento for sixth — the Warriors are near locks for the play-in tournament.

They should focus on climbing into the seventh or eighth seed. When healthy, the Warriors have proven they can put up a fight against a title contender. Klay Thompson and Chris Paul have steadied the second unit, while the emergence of young players such as Podziemski and Trayce Jackson-Davis have given them some depth. Jonathan Kuminga has had a breakout season with a career high 16.1 points per game — and the team is 15-8 since he became a starter in December.

They still have massive lapses, failing to finish games — they are 18-20 in 38 clutch games, tied for second-most in the league — and struggling to compete with the top teams, most recently being blown out by 52 points against the Celtics.

Golden State plays 10 of their final 17 games on the road, which might be a blessing in disguise. The Warriors are 17-13 away from Chase Center — a massive improvement over their 11-30 road record last season, fourth-worst in the NBA. Helping the Warriors is the 10th easiest remaining schedule in the league — and second-easiest among West contenders currently in the play-in race. – Kendra Andrews

Number to watch down the stretch: Thompson averaging 19.7 points per game as a reserve

The ankle sprain that sidelined Curry the past three games — two losses during that span — temporarily moved Thompson back into the starting five. But before that, bringing the future Hall of Famer off the bench was working for the Warriors. Thompson averaged more points in 26.3 minutes per game as a reserve than he did in 30.2 MPG as a starter (16.6 PPG).

Thompson hit 44% of his 3s as a reserve, up from 37% as a starter. And playing Thompson with the reserves allowed Golden State to feature him with a higher usage rate (27%, up from 23% as a starter). – Pelton

Source link