The Wild, Wild West: Examining the Race for the 8 Seed

The race for the 8 seed out West features superstars as well as well-balanced teams. Who has the advantage?

Now that the All-Star break has come and gone, the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs is heating up.

The last spot in the playoffs in the West is likely to come down to three teams: the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder, the up-and-coming New Orleans Pelicans, and the new-look Phoenix Suns.

Which team has the best shot to secure the final seed in the West?

Phoenix Suns

Let’s begin with the Phoenix Suns.

As of today, the Suns, who rank 15th in our power rankings with a nERD score of 52.2, are the 9 seed in the West with a record of 29-25.

The Suns just traded away two of their three point guards as both Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas left the Suns in Thursday's trade deadline. The Suns brought in combo guard Brandon Knight from Milwaukee to push the tempo alongside of Eric Bledsoe as well as their freakishly athletic wingman Gerald Green.

The moves, though, don't exactly help their playoff push. According to our probability modes, the Suns are projected to finish with a record of 43-39 and currently have a 23.4% chance of making the playoffs.

New Orleans Pelicans

The 27-26 New Orleans Pelicans are the 10 seed in the West. The Pelicans, who rank slightly behind the Suns in our nERD power rankings at 16 with a 50.4 rating, traded away reserve swingman John Salmons Thursday in order to bring in reserve point guard Norris Cole. The Pelicans’ Anthony Davis has been having one of the greatest seasons in recent NBA history, averaging 24.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 2.8 blocks per game, all while shooting 55% from the field and 83% from the free throw line. These numbers have led to him being the top rated player in our nERD category at 21.2. That would be the 13th-best nERD score in the NBA since 2000.

The Pelicans’ main problem this season has been the health of some of their key players. Along with Davis, starting point guard Jrue Holiday, starting shooting guard Eric Gordon, center Omer Asik, and smooth-shooting sixth man Ryan Anderson have all missed significant parts of the season.

Our probability models have the Pelicans finishing the season with a record of 41.5-40.5, giving them just a a 13.1% chance to make the playoffs, the lowest of the trio in the race.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder, who boast the reigning MVP in Kevin Durant and the electrifying All-Star Game MVP Russell Westbrook have been decimated by injuries all season.

The perennial postseason threats began the season without Durant and Westbrook and dug themselves into an early hole but have fought their way back to the 8 seed. The Thunder made their own moves at the deadline, trading away disgruntled backup point guard Reggie Jackson and bringing in the solid D.J. Augustin from Detroit. OKC also traded away long-time center Kendrick Perkins to the Jazz for the more offensive-minded center Enes Kanter. That move, though, may not have helped them in the short-term.

Durant and Westbrook have done everything they can, averaging 25.4 and 26.0 points per game, respectively, and our probability models think that the Thunder, who rank 13th in our nERD rankings at 55.2, will finish with a 45-37 record. The algorithms also give them a solid 69.3% chance of making the playoffs.

Circumstances are currently favoring the Thunder, but with an entire second half of the season to play, look for these rankings to fluctuate daily as the teams jockey for position and a chance to make some noise in the playoffs.