The Western Conference is insane this season.
While the Portland Trail Blazers have officially separated from the pack of ravenous dogs that is the Western Conference bloodbath of a playoff race this year, the other seven teams haven’t been quite so lucky. Just four games separate the 45-32 San Antonio Spurs (currently in fourth place) and the 41-36 Los Angeles Clippers (currently in tenth place). In the middle of those two teams are five others, constantly jockeying for position in what has been a legitimate playoff race for about two months.
The Denver Nuggets are currently on the outside looking in, stuck in ninth place with a 42-35 record. With five games remaining and four against other Western Conference teams, Denver does control their own destiny. If Denver does in fact go 5-0, the maximum number of wins the Clippers can reach is 45. The Minnesota Timberwolves can reach is 46, compared to Denver’s 47, so both of those teams would likely fall out while Denver would be squarely in the playoffs.
However, the likelihood of Denver going 5-0 over the next five games is somewhere in between 2% and 4%. So, what are Denver’s options if they go 4-1 or less?
(If you would like to know more about NBA playoff tiebreaker scenarios, click here.)
*denotes tie between two teams
**denotes tie between three teams
***denotes tie between four or more teams (hint, hint)
Scenario 1: Denver goes winless
While Nuggets fans won’t want to think about it, the chance Denver goes 0-5 is close to as likely as Denver going 5-0. I don’t think this will happen, but just to illustrate, there’s no way for Denver to get into the playoffs by losing out. Because the Clippers play the Nuggets, they automatically pick up a win. The Clippers and Pelicans also play each other, so one of those teams must win. Ultimately, there’s no statistical way for Denver to make up that extra game.
Scenario #2 - Denver goes 3-2, everyone else wins their home games
Denver goes 3-2 in this scenario, but their losses to the Clippers and T’Wolves make it impossible to get in. Even if the Pelicans lost their final game to the Spurs (a legitimate possibility given San Antonio’s desire for home court advantage in the first round), the resulting three-way tie-breaker between the Pelicans, Nuggets and Clippers would mean the Clippers advance due to their combined record against the other two.
The point being, even 3-2 is unlikely to cut it if the other teams don’t falter down the stretch. Because the Pelicans have two games against tanking teams in the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns (two professional tankers that are a combined 4-36 after the All-Star break), it’s extremely likely that the Pelicans will have at least 45 wins. If Denver wins their game against either the Clippers on the road or the T’Wolves on the road (in addition to their home games), they will likely make the playoffs as an eighth seed.
Scenario #3a - Denver goes 4-1, losing to the Clippers
In this scenario, Denver finds themselves in a three-way tie at 46-36 with the T’Wolves and Pelicans. This is both good and bad news for Denver. Because they tied with the other two, they will get in, and the Pelicans will be eliminated; however, the Nuggets would instead fall behind the T’Wolves and sit in eighth place because of tiebreaker rules. The first tiebreaker when three teams have matching records is the records of each of those teams against each other, and because the T’Wolves swept the Pelicans this season, they have the better record than Denver. The Nuggets would make it in, but they would be stuck facing the Houston Rockets.
If the Pelicans lost to the Spurs in their final game, Denver would be in a two-way tie with the Timberwolves instead, and as long as Denver wins against the Blazers and not the Clippers, they would move up to seventh place due to a better record against the Northwest Division.
Scenario #3b - Denver goes 4-1, losing to the Timberwolves
In this scenario, Denver once again goes 4-1, but because their loss comes against the T’Wolves, the T-Wolves pick up the extra win to prevent a three-way tie with the Pelicans and Nuggets (they of course fall into their own three-way tie with the Thunder and Jazz...so is life in the West). The Nuggets then are left to deal with the Pelicans on their own, which becomes a relatively easy scenario. Even though the Pelicans win against the Clippers (who Denver would eliminate after a win), I have them losing against the Spurs in this scenario because the Spurs (once again) are attempting to clinch home court on the final game. Denver owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Pelicans due to a 2-1 record against them. Denver would be in the eighth seed once again.
Scenario #4 - Denver goes 5-0, clinches 5 or 6 seed
This is why the Nuggets control their own destiny. If Denver goes 5-0, the Timberwolves and Clippers are automatically sitting behind them in the standings. Other teams may falter too, but Denver is guaranteed to be at least an eighth seed if they go 5-0.
In this particular scenario, Denver goes 5-0, while Oklahoma City goes 2-2 and Utah goes 3-2. Either of those teams may pick up an extra game, but they may pick up a loss against other teams (Miami is dangerous, as are each of the Los Angeles franchises). Because of this, Denver slots into a three-way tie with the aforementioned Thunder and Jazz. Their combined record against those two is higher than each of the others; therefore, Denver would be a fifth seed and face the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.
How crazy would that be? After all that’s happened this year, Denver going 5-0 in the last five games could not only earn them a playoff spot, but an opportunity to play an opponent in the first round that’s not Houston or Golden State. Even if the Jazz win their final game against the Blazers (who would likely rest) Denver would still be the sixth seed and face the Trail Blazers. As the kids say, that would be lit.
Scenario #5 - I want to see the world burn
What if every team seeded fourth through tenth finished at 46-36? It’s legitimately possible, though extremely unlikely.
Obviously, the Spurs are unlikely to go 1-4, and the Jazz going 2-3, given their pace, is something I wouldn’t bet on. The Clippers going 5-0 and Denver’s only loss coming to the Clippers is equally unlikely.
But what if?
A seven-team tiebreaker has never occurred before, but it’s treated in a similar way to a three team tiebreaker. All of the teams would sum their records against the other tying teams and compare in the first stage of the tiebreak, which would look something like this:
The Total W/L record for each team is hypothetical, based on the scenario outlined above, but it leads to some interesting thoughts. The Timberwolves have done a great job against this group, while the Jazz edge out the Thunder and the Nuggets by way of playing an extra game against this group. Because the Thunder and Nuggets tie, they move into comparing division records since they both play in the Northwest, meaning Denver would have the edge between the two.
To me, it has become very clear that the Nuggets must finish 4-1 or better to close out the year if they want to play in the postseason. In most scenarios, them finishing 4-1 leads them to a playoff birth with 46 wins, given that two of those come against the T-Wolves, the likelihood that one of those wins is against the Clippers, and that the Pelicans play a tough final three games.
It’s crazy that Denver even has room to drop a game, meaning that if they lose tonight against the Pacers, they aren’t quite out of it. Still, it will take a major effort for Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray, and the rest of the Denver Nuggets to come through in the clutch, but if they do, it should be celebrated.
There have been ups and downs for Denver this year. If they do miss the playoffs, it will be a disappointing year. If they end up making it though, it likely means that Denver won at least seven of their final ten games, all against playoff opponents. That should be celebrated with jubilation.
What will Denver’s record be in their final five games?
This poll is closed