Which teams should you bet on in the Western Conference playoff race?

ByAndré Snellings ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The bottom of the Western Conference playoffs race is scorching, with eight teams legitimately in play for the last five playoffs spots with 10 games left in the season. It's a giant game of musical chairs, where three teams will be left out when the music stops.

From a futures perspective, the race of interest isn't just who makes or misses the playoffs, but also who makes the play-in. The Rockets have won nine straight games to close within a game of the Warriors for that 10th and final play-in slot. From the other end, teams once considered favorites like the Clippers are in danger of sliding down to the play-in, which puts them at risk to miss the playoffs entirely.

Let's take a closer look at all eight teams, and whether their best futures values are to make the playoffs, make the play-in or miss the playoffs altogether.

LA Clippers: +1200 to participate in Western Conference play-in tournament

From the start of December through the All-Star Break in late February, the Clippers were arguably the best team in the NBA when Kawhi Leonard played. During that stretch, they went 25-5 with a +8.8 PPG scoring margin with Kawhi on the court, both marks that would've challenged the Celtics' at the time for the top of the league if extrapolated for the season. Had the Clippers continued at that pace, there was a good chance they could earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

The main question at the time was one of health: Leonard and Paul George both have extensive histories of injury absences, and at the time both had been available to play in most games. The good news, is, both have remained largely healthy and available in the games since. The bad news, is, the Clippers have fallen into a tailspin even with their best players on the court.

The Clippers are 9-11 in their past 20 games with a -2.9 PPG scoring margin, and that's with Leonard playing in 18 and George playing in 17 of the 20 games. Their biggest issue hasn't been health, but instead a startling lack of defense. In those 20 games, the Clippers have given up 114.6 PPG (below the league average of 114.5 PPG), compared to the 112.3 PPG they were allowing opponents through the first 51 games. Their defensive rating has slid to 19th in the NBA (116.2 points allowed per 100 possessions).

The good news for the Clippers' playoffs hopes is they had built such a large lead for the Pacific Division race that they still have a solid chance to hold on. They have a 2.5-game lead over both the Kings and the Suns with only 11 games left to play, and if they win the division they are automatically in the playoffs.

With that said, the Clippers still have three games left against those two teams and the Kings, in particular, have been playing much better than the Clips of late. Since both the Kings and the Suns are currently in the play-in range, if either overtake the Clippers that would likely mean the Clips would fall into the play-in themselves.

Put another way, in their last 12 games, the Kings are 8-4, the Suns are 7-5 and the Clippers are 5-7. If all three teams play at that same pace for the rest of the season, there is a much better than 12-1 chance that either/both of the Kings and Suns might overtake the Clippers and push them down into the play-in. So, I find solid long-shot value in the Clippers at +1200 to participate in the play-in.

New Orleans Pelicans: -3500 to make playoffs, -110 to win Southwest Division, +1000 to miss playoffs, +260 to participate in play-in

Dallas Mavericks: -2500 to make playoffs, -110 to win Southwest Division, +800 to miss playoffs, +240 to participate in play-in

The Pelicans have won nine of their last 12 games to move up to the fifth seed in the Western Conference, and they still hold the lead in the Southwest Division...barely. But the Mavericks are hot as fish grease right now (shoutout Mark Jones), winners of five straight games and nine of their last 10 and are only a game back.

The Pelicans have a two-game lead over both the seventh-seeded Kings and the eighth-seeded Suns, with all three teams having 10 games remaining. According to the Basketball Power Index (BPI), all three have very difficult schedules remaining with the Suns as the most difficult (0.363 BPI Strength of Schedule, projecting a 36.3 win percentage for an average team against their schedule), Kings fourth-hardest (0.444 BPI SoS) and Pelicans fifth-most difficult (0.455 BPI SoS). The Mavericks have an easier remaining schedule than their competitors, with a BPI SoS of 0.494 that ranks 14th.

In addition, the Pelicans will be without star Brandon Ingram for most of the rest of the season due to a bone contusion in his knee. In the three games since Ingram went down, the Pelicans are only 1-2 with their lone win over the lottery-bound Pistons. The Mavs are healthy, with Luka Doncic playing MVP-level ball, Kyrie Irving stepping up at All NBA level (including an iconic left-handed hook buzzer beater from 18 feet over Nikola Jokic) and their newly-traded-for big men providing stability on defense and on the glass.

I see reasonable value in Pelicans to participate in play-in at +260 but better value in Pelicans to miss the playoffs at +1000. If they were to slide enough down the stretch to fall into the play-in, their odds of losing two more games against motivated, playoffs-caliber competition in the play-in would be better than 4-to-1.

The Mavericks are mirrors to the Pelicans right now. I find it relatively unlikely that the Mavericks slide down the stretch, but everything changes with the possibility of injury. With that caveat, I would be neutral to the Mavericks participating in the play-in or missing the playoffs at +240 and +800, respectively. I see value in the Mavs to with the Southwest at -110.

Sacramento Kings: -280 to make playoffs, +210 to miss playoffs, +1400 to win Pacific Division, -275 to participate in play-in

Phoenix Suns: -260 to make playoffs, +200 to miss playoffs, +2000 to win Pacific Division, -550 to participate in play-in

The Kings and Suns have almost matching futures profiles right now, with the same record in the same division and currently residing in the top-two play-in seeds. Both have difficult schedules remaining, though the Suns' is more brutal. Both are generally playing better than the Clippers, but trail them by 2.5 games for the Pacific Division. The Clippers have advantages in the season series against both, a 2-1 record against the Kings (with one more head-to-head remaining) and a 2-0 against the Suns (with two more H2Hs left).

There isn't much juice in either team making the playoffs or participating in the play-in. Both are getting plus money to miss the playoffs entirely and longshot odds to win the Pacific Division, and I see some value for both teams for either bet. But, for missing the playoffs, I see more value in the Suns at +200 because they have the most difficult regular season schedule in the NBA which makes it likely they stay in a play-in spot. And if they do, the Suns have losing records this season against the teams they would be most likely to face. They are 2-2 against the currently seventh-seeded Kings with one more H2H left in Sacramento, and the Kings have outscored them by 16 points in the series thus far. The Suns are 2-3 against the currently ninth-seeded Lakers. The Kings are 4-0 against the Lakers, having won by an average of 10.8 PPG, so if the current seeds held true they would still have a good chance of playing themselves into the playoffs.

With the remaining schedules, and given the relative levels the Kings and Clippers are currently playing, I think the odds of the Kings catching the Clippers are much shorter than 14-to-1, maybe more like three or four to one. I therefore find good longshot value in the Kings to win the Pacific at +1400.

Los Angeles Lakers: -125 to make playoffs, -105 to miss playoffs, -1600 to participate in play-in

The Lakers are almost guaranteed a spot in the play-in. They are in the ninth spot, three games behind the sixth-seeded Mavericks and 3.5 games ahead of the 11th-seeded Rockets with 10 games left. With an extremely hot finish they could possibly overtake the Kings or Suns, both of whom they trail by two games. The most likely scenarios have them at eighth or ninth, right in the middle of the play-in -- where they have no juice at -1600.

The more interesting question is whether the Lakers are more likely to make or miss the playoffs, with close to even money odds in either direction. They are playing well right now, winners of six of their last eight games with all eight against teams currently slated to make the postseason. The Lakers' remaining schedule gets a bit easier, with a 0.510 BPI SoS that ranks 16th in the NBA. But, the play-in will be all about matchups, and the Lakers have had varying degrees of success against their likely opponents.

The Lakers are 0-4 with a -10.8 PPG scoring margin against the Kings who, like the Nuggets (against whom the Lakers are also winless with a double-digit average scoring deficit), run their offense through a do-it-all center that has proven too physical for Anthony Davis to slow down. The Lakers are 3-2 against the Clippers, 2-1 against the Pelicans, 1-2 against the Mavericks, 3-2 against the Suns and 1-2 against the Warriors. If the Lakers can play themselves up to the eighth seed and the Kings could sneak into the sixth seed, the Lakers would have a reasonable chance to win the 7-8 game and earn the seventh seed. But if the Kings stay in the play-in and the Lakers stay in the ninth spot, the Lakers could have a very tough road, having to defeat two teams against whom they currently have losing records to make the playoffs.

I lean toward the Lakers making the playoffs, and their BPI odds to make the playoffs are 52.1%..making this as close to a toss-up as you can get.

Golden State Warriors: +290 to make playoffs, -450 to miss playoffs, -3500 to participate in play-in

I find the difference in odds for these two teams fascinating. The Rockets have won nine straight games and closed to within a single game of the Warriors for the 10th seed and final play-in spot. The Warriors have lost six of their past 10 and seven of their last 12 games; they seem vulnerable. Yet, they are still the overwhelming favorites to participate in the play-in. Meanwhile, the Rockets are still getting big plus money to even make the play-in.

There are good reasons for the Warriors to be favored to hold off the Rockets. The Rockets have the much more difficult remaining schedule, with a BPI SoS of 0.430 that is third-hardest in the NBA. The Warriors' BPI SoS is 0.513, 18th-hardest. The Rocket' win streak is impressive, but only two of those wins were against teams with a better than .500 record.

The Warriors also have a dramatic experience and star-power advantage, and that could help them navigate these last few weeks to get into the play-in. The Warriors have also already won the season series, with a 2-0 H2H record against the Rockets and only one H2H remaining. Plus, the Rockets are without arguably their best player in Alperen Sengun, who injured his knee and is out for the season.

With that said, Sengun's injury seems to have allowed Jalen Green to flourish. The second overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft has exploded to 30.7 PPG (50.0 FG%, 80.0 FT%), 7.1 RPG, 4.7 3PG and 3.4 APG in the last seven games to spark the Rockets. And while their competition hasn't been the strongest, they have been dominant with an average scoring margin of +15.9 PPG during the seven games without Sengun.

As such, I find value in the Rockets to participate in the play-in at +375. I agree with the Warriors being favored, but the Rockets are right on the doorstep and playing at a very high level. If the Rockets can win their next matchup against the Warriors next week, this race becomes essentially a toss-up where the Rockets are getting significant juice.