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Breaking down the Western Conference playoff picture

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The Nuggets have a lot of competition in the playoff race this season, and anything can happen

NBA: All Star Saturday Night Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA All-Star game festivities are over, and while most players are still enjoying their midseason vacations or in the process of returning home, coaches and front office personnel are gearing up for the home stretch of the season.

Every team in the NBA has between 21 games (Minnesota Timberwolves) and 27 games (Philadelphia 76ers) left on their schedule. The playoff picture has taken form, and every game truly matters in the standings from here on out.

In the Eastern Conference, nine teams are competing for eight spots. At 28-29, the Detroit Pistons currently sit in ninth place and outside the playoff picture. In the Western Conference, ten teams are competing for eight spots. At 30-26, the Los Angeles Clippers currently sit a half game outside of the playoff picture, followed by the 30-28 Utah Jazz.

For now, let’s focus on the Western Conference for two reasons:

  1. It’s where the Denver Nuggets reside
  2. The group from the 3rd seed to the 10th seed is certified insanity.
The Western Conference is completely insane.
ESPN.com

At 32-26, the Nuggets are right in the middle of the pack of eight teams competing for a playoff spot. On one hand, recent momentum would suggest that they are heading up the standings as opposed to down. On the other hand, the Jazz have won 11 straight games. The Clippers are 7-3 in their last ten, just like Denver. The New Orleans Pelicans are holding on by a thread but still have Anthony Davis. The Portland Trail Blazers are tied with Denver, and if Nuggets fans know anything, it’s to not trust Damian Lillard.

So, what do the Nuggets have to do over their final 24 games to earn a playoff spot?

Let’s look at the final games for every team in the playoff hunt, highlighting the most important games, winnable games, and games each team might need to steal to make the postseason:

A color-coded schedule for the Western Conference bloodbath.

To go with it, here are the number of games in each category that each team has remaining on its schedule.

The Timberwolves and Jazz have the easiest schedules from here on out.

A few takeaways:

  • The Timberwolves and the Jazz have the easiest remaining schedules among the group of eight. Minnesota has already played 61 games, and with just 21 games to go and only 11 against top five opponents or the other seven WC playoff contenders, their schedules features more rest than any other team. The Jazz have almost the exact same layout as the T’Wolves, but with three extra games coming against non-playoff contenders. Under the ‘UTA’ column in the first graphic, it’s clear that Utah’s schedule is pretty easy for the next 14 games with eight coming against non-playoff contenders and only one against a top five team.
  • The San Antonio Spurs have the hardest schedule from here on out. With 15 of their 23 games against top five opponents and WC playoff contenders, the Spurs are in a tough spot. Only five of their games come against non-playoff contenders, and three of those are on a second night of a back-to-back. San Antonio is 7-5 on second night of a back-to-back games so far, so it’s no guarantee that they win those contests either.
  • The Los Angeles Clippers have the second most difficult schedule in my opinion based on the sheer number of games they have to play until April 11th. Like the Spurs, 15 of their games come against the top five or WC playoff contenders. The difference is, LAC has to play an additional three games, including six back-to-backs, the most of any team. LAC also plays a stretch of 14 out of 16 games against top five team and playoff contenders from both conferences to wrap up their schedule.
  • The Nuggets have the weirdest schedule of the bunch. They play four games against top five teams, but three of those are on the second night of a back-to-back. They play six games against Eastern Conference playoff contenders, the most of any team. They’re the only team with a road trip of six straight games or more (seven games). Oh, and their final ten games feature no non-playoff contenders. That’s a hard schedule as well.

Now, how does this affect the Nuggets and the number of games they must win in the final weeks?

If every team won:

  • 100% of their games against non-playoff contenders
  • 50% of their games against WC and EC playoff contenders
  • 0% of their games against top five teams

Here’s how the standings would play out:

Winning 44 games may not be enough to make the playoff in the Western Conference.

To be safe, the Nuggets will have to shoot for 46 wins to make the playoffs this year. Last year, they only needed 42 wins to make it, but this year, the race is far more competitive. With just 24 games to go and currently sitting at 32-26, that means Denver must bank AT LEAST 14 wins over their next 24 games in order to feel comfortable that they will make the playoffs.

Looking at Denver’s schedule, it’s not hard to see where they need to pick up 14 wins. The next three games feature two against WC playoff contenders, and winning both of them would be huge.

The following seven games feature five non-playoff contenders and two games against Cleveland on second nights of a back-to-back. Winning five games there sets Denver up nicely.

The following eight games feature a seven game road trip against predominantly EC playoff teams and finishing up at Oklahoma City. Winning at least three of those eight is essential, and stealing one or two more would give Denver some insurance.

The final six games feature a five of the six at home and all against teams potentially competing for the playoffs. At this point, Denver should hopefully have at least ten wins in the bank, meaning they must finish winning four of their final six games, featuring some tough contests against Milwaukee, Minnesota twice, and who else? Portland.

That would (hypothetically) put Denver at 46 wins, but the most important factor in all of this is that every single game matters. Denver already dropped games against Sacramento, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Dallas this year, all teams looking to now tank their way into a high draft pick. Had Denver banked those wins earlier in the season, they would have some extra wiggle room. As it stands, they are in a race to the death right now against seven other difficult opponents. Dropping more games against the likes of those teams should be unacceptable. Stealing a win or two from top five teams becomes paramount in playoff positioning.

Above all else though, winning games against the other seven teams fighting for a playoff spot is the key to success. Denver only has seven opportunities to win while handing someone else in this race a loss. If they don’t make the most of those seven games, they will fall out of this playoff race.

So, take it one step at a time. Next up on the schedule is a home game against San Antonio on Friday, and the Nuggets better be prepared to make the most of it.

Poll

For the Nuggets, the most important games left on the schedule are:

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    The 4 against top five teams
    (18 votes)
  • 40%
    The 7 against WC playoff contenders
    (408 votes)
  • 3%
    The 6 against EC playoff contenders
    (37 votes)
  • 11%
    The 7 against non-playoff contenders
    (110 votes)
  • 42%
    They’re ALL important
    (424 votes)
997 votes total Vote Now