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The cases for and against the NBA’s nine fringe playoff teams

Nine NBA teams will head to the Orlando bubble in Florida looking to make a final push for a playoff spot.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Wednesday that some players on non-title-contending teams are hesitant to restart. Rosters might be tweaked as a result, but the potential for a surprise postseason run remains.

While the Memphis Grizzlies have the inside track at the Western Conference’s eighth seed, five teams are chasing them, including Damian Lillard‘s Portland Trail Blazers, Zion Williamson‘s New Orleans Pelicans and the San Antonio Spurs, who haven’t missed the postseason in 22 years. The Eastern Conference landscape is less crowded, as only the Washington Wizards — currently 5.5 games behind — have an outside chance to unseat the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic.

A play-in series will be instituted in either conference if the No. 9 seed is within four games of the No. 8 seed. The No. 9 seed will need to beat the No. 8 seed twice to earn the playoff berth, while the No. 8 will need one win from the two potential games.

What players and matchups will determine who gets into the 16-team field? Our NBA experts examine the cases for and against the teams in the running.

Note: The Dallas Mavericks have not officially clinched a playoff spot, but ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects the Mavs to have a greater than 99% chance at making the postseason, so we haven’t included them here.

MORE: Reintroducing the 22 teams that can still win the NBA title

2019-20 record: 32-33 (.492 win percentage)
Current seed: 8th in West

Best case for making the playoffs:
The Grizzlies, who have a 3.5-game cushion over the batch of teams behind them in the West standings, have earned favorite status in the fight for the conference’s final playoff spot. Memphis lacks playoff experience, but star rookie point guard Ja Morant in particular has displayed a knack for rising to the occasion when the pressure increases. The Grizzlies also are getting key reinforcements, with prized trade acquisition Justise Winslow (back) ready to make his Memphis debut and All-Rookie candidate Brandon Clarke (quad) hopeful to pick up where he left off.

Best case against making the playoffs:
If playoff experience matters in the bubble, Memphis has some serious problems. The active Grizzlies roster has a combined total of 2,189 career playoff minutes — only 112 more than Portland superstar Damian Lillard alone — and center Jonas Valanciunas accounts for about half of those. Memphis shipped out Jae Crowder, a veteran leader with the most playoff experience on the roster, in the trade with Miami to acquire Winslow. Of course, rookie head coach Taylor Jenkins has never been tested in these kind of pressure situations in his current role, either.

— Tim MacMahon


2019-20 record: 29-37 (.439)
Current seed: 9th in West

Best case for making the playoffs:
In Damian Lillard, the Blazers have the single best player among this group. That plus Portland’s playoff experience — having reached last year’s Western Conference finals — would be a big edge in a play-in matchup situation now that the Blazers will be closer to full strength with the likely returns of frontcourt starters Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Portland also benefits from the de facto tiebreaker of entering play with a record 1 percentage point better than New Orleans and Sacramento, which have one fewer win and one fewer loss.

Best case against making the playoffs:
Blazers coach Terry Stotts will have the challenge of rebuilding a rotation with a shortened training camp. Collins hasn’t played since the season’s first week, back before Portland signed Carmelo Anthony to replace him as a starter, and Nurkic hasn’t played at all this season while rehabbing from a major left leg injury. Stotts also must manage the expectations of four players (including Nurkic’s replacement, Hassan Whiteside) who can all rightfully think of themselves as starters. That means harder choices than the other contenders for eighth will have to make.

— Kevin Pelton


2019-20 record: 28-36 (.438)
Current seed: T-10th in West

Best case for making the playoffs:
Since Zion Williamson made his season debut on Jan. 22, the Pelicans have become a different team: New Orleans is first in points per game (120.1), first in assists per game (30.3), second in offensive rebounds per game (12.1) and second in total rebounds per game (49.6). After a 7-23 start, New Orleans was already turning the corner without Williamson, but the star rookie has helped the Pelicans shift into a higher gear.

Best case against making the playoffs:
While New Orleans’ defense has improved with Williamson (109.2 defensive rating, eighth in the NBA), the Pelicans have struggled in two areas: points off turnovers and fast-break points allowed. The Pelicans are giving up 20.2 points a game off of turnovers, last in the NBA since Jan. 22. Some of those turnovers lead to easy fast breaks, which is part of the reason New Orleans is yielding 17.2 such points per game, 27th in the league during that stretch. The Pelicans will need to clean up sloppy mistakes.

— Andrew Lopez


2019-20 record: 28-36 (.438)
Current seed: T-10th in West

Best case for making the playoffs:
To beat the odds in Orlando, De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and the rest of the young Kings on the roster need to find their rhythm quickly, and Marvin Bagley III must provide a presence in the middle. The Kings have been a streaky team all season, but they came into the suspension having won seven of their previous 10 games. Now they have a chance to ride a hot streak into the postseason for the first time since 2006.

Best case against making the playoffs:
The Kings’ season has been defined by inconsistent play. Long losing streaks have hampered them all season. Fox and Hield have yet to prove they can rise to the challenge in games that matter at the end of the season. Will Bagley be able to give them anything after playing just 13 games because of a left foot injury? The roster is full of more questions than answers right now.

— Nick Friedell


2019-20 record: 27-36 (.429)
Current seed: 12th in West

Best case for making the playoffs:
Reason No. 1: They’re the Spurs; the NBA hasn’t had a postseason without the Spurs having qualified since 1997. Reason No. 2: They have the sport’s best coach in Gregg Popovich, who is the master of maximizing talent on the floor through cohesive, connected basketball. If the Spurs are going to make it, it’s going to be about them tapping into the absolute core of their identity, which would be just about the Spursiest thing they could do.

Best case against making the playoffs:
Making up the deficit won’t be easy to begin with, but not having their best player, LaMarcus Aldridgeout for the season after shoulder surgery — doubles the difficulty. The frontcourt of the Spurs isn’t deep, and Aldridge has been the linchpin on both sides of the floor. It casts a heavier role onto Dejounte Murray to score, and DeMar DeRozan naturally will need to elevate even more. But in a scenario in which every game will matter immensely, the Spurs can’t afford to slip. Not having Aldridge makes the terrain far dicier to navigate.

— Royce Young


2019-20 record: 26-39 (.400)
Current seed: 13th in West

Best case for making the playoffs:
From a personnel standpoint, the Suns have the necessary pieces to string together a handful of wins in Orlando, especially now that they’re at full health with Kelly Oubre Jr. returning from knee surgery. In fact, Phoenix’s five-man lineup of Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton posted a 20.2 net rating over the course of 226 minutes together, second best in the NBA among lineups with at least 200 minutes. The Suns have a go-to scorer in Booker, switchable wings in Oubre and Bridges, a veteran floor general in Rubio and an emerging defensive anchor and finisher in Ayton — plus additional experience in Aron Baynes and Dario Saric.

Best case against making the playoffs:
The Suns have the youngest team in the NBA. On top of that, Phoenix did so much of its damage in transition during the regular season, boasting the league’s second-most efficient open-court offense. After such a long layoff, you’d expect that teams have to rely more on skill and experience than fresh legs, even if the Suns’ youth allows them to bounce back faster than most. The fact that Phoenix ranks 20th in the NBA in 3s made and 25th in the league in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency certainly raises questions as to how it’ll get its offense in the half court. If the Suns struggle on that end, are they consistent enough defensively to grind out tough wins down the stretch?

— Mike Schmitz

2019-20 record: 30-34 (.469)
Current seed: 7th in East

Best case for making the playoffs:
In order to make the strongest playoff campaign, Spencer Dinwiddie needs to pick up on the momentum he built as a starter in Kyrie Irving‘s absence. Caris LeVert, who missed more than six weeks with a thumb injury and was fully healthy when the season was halted, needs to continue to show progress. The Nets went into the break on a high — upsetting the Lakers in Staples Center. In that game, LeVert had 22 points in 38 minutes, and Dinwiddie had 23 points in 31 minutes.

Best case against making the playoffs:
Should the Wizards make up the games in the standings necessary to force a play-in against the Nets, Brooklyn could have its hands full. Washington beat the Nets in both of their regular-season meetings — and in one of them, Brooklyn had Irving. Add in the potential for John Wall making a comeback and there is a feasible scenario — however remote — where the Nets end up on the outside looking in.

— Malika Andrews


2019-20 record: 30-35 (.462)
Current seed: 8th in East

Best case for making the playoffs:
Orlando has a decent roster and a good coach in Steve Clifford. Although the Magic are a half-game behind the Nets, Orlando seems like a better bet to end up in seventh (given the Nets are without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant) than ninth. It would likely take multiple injuries to key players such as Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier for the Magic to actually be in danger of missing the playoffs.

Best case against making the playoffs:
They decide they don’t want to leave their nearby homes to quarantine and pass on participating? I kid … but only a little. Orlando is 5.5 games up on Washington for the eighth playoff spot — meaning the Wizards have to be two games better than the Magic just to force them into play-in games. Washington would then have to win twice in a row against Orlando to grab the eighth playoff spot. Is that possible? Sure. But the Wizards were 24-40 during the regular season. It’s hard to expect them to be dramatically better than that against a much more difficult slate of opponents now.

— Tim Bontemps


2019-20 record: 24-40 (.375)
Current seed: 9th in East

Best case for making the playoffs:
The Wizards have something that neither Brooklyn nor Orlando have on their rosters: an All-NBA candidate in Bradley Beal. In the last five games before the shutdown, Beal was averaging 32.4 points while shooting 43.1% from deep. In a play-in series against either Orlando or Brooklyn, the Wizards should be the favorite, even if they have to win two games.

Best case against making the playoffs:
While the Wizards can ride the hot hand of Beal, can you trust this team to string together three or four consecutive victories? Through 64 contests, Washington won consecutive games only four times, and it did not win more than two tilts in a row. There is one big reason the Wizards have lacked consistency this year: They rank 30th in defensive rating.

— Bobby Marks

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