NBA Playoff Race Update: Who Has the Best Shot at the 8 Seed in the West?

The Western Conference has seven surefire playoff teams, and the remaining eight squads are all in the hunt for the 8 seed. Who has the best shot at it?

Yes, this is way to early for our NBA Playoff Race Update column to get started this year.

We usually fire up this weekly column during the last month or so of the season, looking at the updated odds that our algorithms give each team in the hunt of making the playoffs. Right now, we're only a little over halfway through the 2016-17 season, but the Western Conference playoff picture is already getting interesting enough to analyze.

First of all, there is a clear line straight down the middle between the haves and have-nots in the conference.

The "haves" are already shaping up to be surefire bets for playoff berths (team record and playoff chances according to our algorithms in parentheses):

(1) Golden State Warriors (36-6, 100.0%)
(2) San Antonio Spurs (32-9, 100.0%)
(3) Houston Rockets (33-12, 100.0%)
(4) Los Angeles Clippers (29-15, 100.0%)
(5) Utah Jazz (27-16, 100.0%)
(6) Memphis Grizzlies (25-19, 98.3%)
(7) Oklahoma City Thunder (25-19, 98.5%)

Meanwhile, the eight remaining "have-nots" are all within five games of each other in the standings, while the current 8 seed is a whole six games back of the 7-seeded Thunder. In other words, the first seven playoff spots are basically locked down (order to be determined) and every other team in the conference has at least a puncher's chance of making it.

Here are the current records of those remaining teams, including what our algorithms say are their playoff chances:

(8) Denver Nuggets (17-24, 28.2%)
(9) Portland Trail Blazers (18-26, 37.0%)
(10) New Orleans Pelicans (17-26, 15.5%)
(11) Sacramento Kings (16-25, 11.3%)
(12) Minnesota Timberwolves (15-28, 5.2%)
(13) Dallas Mavericks (14-28, 4.6%)
(14) Los Angeles Lakers (15-31, 0.7%)
(15) Phoenix Suns (13-29, 0.7%)

As it stands right now, the Blazers have the best chance of snagging that eighth and final playoff spot, even though it's currently occupied by the Denver Nuggets. It's interesting that there is such a difference, say, between the playoff odds of the Blazers and those of the Sacramento Kings, considering the Nuggets (28.2%), Blazers (37.0%), New Orleans Pelicans (15.5%), and Kings (11.3%) are all separated by only one measly game in the standings.

That's where it might help to look past simple win-loss record and instead study a few other statistics -- including our nERD metric -- that measure team success. That way, we can get a better idea of which of these teams has been playing the best basketball this season, and thus has the best shot of making the postseason.

TeamMargin of
O Rtg
D Rtg
Net Rtg
Denver Nuggets-1.78-1.72107.2 (9th)110.4 (29th)-3.2 (22nd)42.4
Portland Trail Blazers-3.16-2.33106.5 (12th)109.3 (27th)-2.8 (20th)42.0
New Orleans Pelicans-2.28-2.11101.4 (26th)103.1 (7th)-1.6 (19th)46.3
Sacramento Kings-2.83-2.48104.6 (18th)108.6 (26th)-3.9 (24th)38.6
Minnesota T'wolves-1.24-0.86106.1 (13th)107.3 (23rd)-1.3 (17th)44.7
Dallas Mavericks-4.71-3.63102.3 (25th)106.9 (22nd)-4.6 (25th)34.9
Los Angeles Lakers-5.85-5.21104.0 (20th)110.5 (30th)-6.5 (29th)29.8
Phoenix Suns-5.76-4.79103.0 (22nd)107.9 (24th)-4.9 (26th)34.8

The Minnesota Timberwolves are an interesting dark horse in this race, considering they have the best margin of victory and simple rating system (combination of margin of victory and strength of schedule) of the eight teams. By extension, they would have a Pythagorean win-loss record of 19-23 for a Pythagorean win-loss percentage of 0.452, which is the best among this sampling as well. In other words, the Wolves are better than their record suggests.

The Nuggets have the most efficient offense of the bunch (9th in the NBA), but they're among the worst on defense (29th). The Pelicans have a top-10 defense (7th), but their offense is putrid (26th). Outside of the Pelicans, every single one of these teams is in the bottom third of the NBA in defensive efficiency.

Considering the old "defense wins championships" adage, it's no wonder that the only team that registers even the slightest bit of what you might call a shot at the title is the Nuggets with 0.1% chance of winning it all (while the rest stand at 0.0%).

The best combination of offensive and defensive rating, however, is once again the Timberwolves, who have a net rating of -1.3, followed closely by the Pelicans with -1.6. If you look at our proprietary metric, nERD -- a team ranking on a scale from 0-100, with 50 as the league average, that is meant to be predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage -- the Wolves and Pelicans once again rise to the top of the pack, with the Pelicans leading the way at 46.3 and the Timberwolves trailing closely behind at 44.7.

So while the Blazers and Nuggets have the best odds of making the playoffs based on their current standings, the Timberwolves and Pelicans are the teams that have played the best all-around basketball of the bunch this season.

Of course, we've still got a lot of basketball left to be played before this race is decided -- half a season, in fact -- but we'll be checking in on it from time to time here at numberFire to give you the updated odds.

After all, there's a lot at stake here for teams like the Timberwolves and Kings, for example, as they have the NBA's longest playoff droughts at 12 and 10 consecutive years, respectively. Sure, the prize for winning this race is simply a date with the Golden State Warriors in the first round and most likely a sweep at their hands, but the fans of the most postseason-starved franchises in the Association would probably take that at this point.

Let's see how it goes.