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Western Conference seeding scenarios heading into the final day of the season

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To tank or not to tank? That is the question.

2021 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

With just one more day left in the regular season, all 30 teams will play on Sunday to determine the final playoff picture, play-in tournament, and lottery odds heading into postseason play. The 10 teams in the Western Conference postseason have already been determined, but seedings remain up in the air for all but the San Antonio Spurs, who will be in the 10th and final seed.

Here are the standings, seeding battlegrounds, and the motivations for the Denver Nuggets heading into the final day:

Current Standings

  1. Utah Jazz, 51-20
  2. Phoenix Suns, 50-21
  3. Denver Nuggets, 47-24
  4. Los Angeles Clippers, 47-24
  5. Dallas Mavericks, 42-29
  6. Portland Trail Blazers, 41-30
  7. Los Angeles Lakers, 41-30
  8. Golden State Warriors, 38-33
  9. Memphis Grizzlies, 38-33
  10. San Antonio Spurs, 33-38

Seeding Battlegrounds

Utah Jazz versus Phoenix Suns for the first seed

The Jazz currently sit one game ahead of the Suns for the top seed in the ultra competitive Western Conference, the preferred spot for both teams given that the Los Angeles Lakers currently sit in seventh. The play-in game could complicate matters, but the most likely outcome involves the Lakers finishing in seventh and the Warriors finishing in eighth. Neither the Jazz nor the Suns want to face the Lakers in the first round, and both will attempt to clinch the top spot in the West on Sunday. The Jazz have the inside track in a game against the Sacramento Kings, but if they slip up, the Suns will have an opportunity to clinch against the San Antonio Spurs.

Denver Nuggets versus Los Angeles Clippers for the third/fourth seed

After the Nuggets beat the Detroit Pistons on Friday night, the Clippers intentionally tanked against the Houston Rockets, the worst team in the NBA, to guaranteed that they cannot face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. It was a smart move, despite its blatancy, and it will give the Clippers an easier path in the playoffs. Their final game of the regular season against the Oklahoma City Thunder doesn’t matter a ton. They don’t care whether they face the Dallas Mavericks or the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Nuggets care though, because how hard the Nuggets try in Sunday’s game versus the Blazers might determine whether Denver faces the Mavericks, Blazers, or Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. If the Nuggets win, they (assuming the Lakers win versus the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday) will face the Lakers. If the Nuggets lose, they guarantee they won’t face the Lakers and will instead face either the Mavericks or Blazers, depending on the outcome of Mavericks versus Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Nuggets control their own destiny of whether they want to see the Lakers or not. How they choose to act on that will determine much of the playoff picture in the West.

The Mavericks, Blazers, and Lakers battle for fifth, sixth, and seventh

Here is the easiest way to describe this trio:

The Mavericks can be the fifth or sixth seed. They have already clinched a playoff spot and won’t fall to the play-in tournament. The Blazers can be the fifth, sixth, or seventh seed. Their game with the Nuggets has major ramifications. The Lakers can only be the sixth or seventh seed. They cannot rise to the fifth seed, and if the Blazers win on Sunday, the Lakers cannot rise to sixth either.

  • If the Mavericks win versus the T’Wolves, they will be the fifth seed guaranteed
  • If the Lakers lose versus the Pelicans, they will be the seventh seed guaranteed

There are several scenarios that I could outline by hand, but rather than do that painstaking work on short notice, here’s a great flow chart created by Matt Moore of The Action Network outlining what happens after these results unfold:

Basically, if the Nuggets win, they will most likely face the Lakers. If the Nuggets lose, they will face either the Mavericks or the Blazers, depending on results from the Clippers and Mavericks.

Warriors versus Grizzlies for the eighth seed

Finally, we have a matchup that has gone under the radar but should be rather interesting and entertaining: the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies will play each other on ESPN in a battle for sole possession of the eighth seed. Normally, this would be the final spot in the playoff picture with an opportunity to topple the top seed; however, the play-in tournament offers a new wrinkle. Whoever wins this game will go to the play-in tournament and face the seventh seed. The winner of that will play whoever finishes in second place. The loser will play an elimination game against the winner of ninth versus tenth seeds for the opportunity to claim the eighth and final spot in the playoff field.


There are benefits and detriments to the Nuggets winning or losing their game against the Blazers on Sunday. If the Nuggets want to ensure that they avoid the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, they can guarantee that by losing to the Blazers, who clinch a top six seed in that scenario. That’s a benefit in my eyes.

Others believe that the Nuggets should welcome the challenge of facing the Lakers in the first round and attempt to play them in the first round, doing so by trying to win the final game if the season. The Lakers aren’t completely healthy with LeBron James and Anthony Davis still working their way back from injuries. The Nuggets, though they have injuries themselves, might be better off trying to best the Lakers earlier in the playoffs rather than later. Very few teams know how to match up with Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr., and several of Denver’s other guards like Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, and Shaquille Harrison are on a limited number of scouting reports with such limited minutes. It’s possible that those players could surprise the Lakers.

If the Nuggets ultimately lose on Sunday, they will be faced with either the Mavericks or the Blazers in the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets can certainly beat either of those teams. Anything beyond a first round victory, given Jamal Murray’s season-ending injury, should be considered an successful season.

Whatever happens on Sunday, the Nuggets will have to be ready to face whoever when the playoffs come around. They, like many other teams, are operating at a major disadvantage in this cursed season. With the likely Most Valuable Player in their corner, anything remains possible.