Four weeks remain in the regular season with little separation between the Western Conference’s fourth and 12th seeds. No cream of the crop has risen to top after a handful of superstars were redistributed to contenders.
Barring collapse, the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies have secured one of the top three seeds. The rest are up for grabs and the contenders neck-and-neck — a win can shoot one team up three spots, a loss can push one out of the playoff picture.
The Warriors’ bizarre 7-28 road record has kept them in the middle of that jam. And their hopes to avoid the play-in have stayed alive with stellar play at Chase Center along with the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers’ blockbuster acquisitions missing time or not quite having the shifting impact expected.
Can Golden State keep out of the play-in tournament? Here’s a look at the biggest contributing factors.
West injuries and lack of rhythm
Stars pull their teams ahead at the finish line. And the West is rife with stars from Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić in Dallas to LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George there, too — and Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul in Phoenix.
But injuries and inconsistencies have kept all teams from pulling ahead.
Durant is out at least two weeks, including for Monday’s game against the Warriors, with a fluke ankle sprain suffered during a routine warm-up. On top of the knee sprain he brought with him to the Phoenix Suns from Brooklyn, Durant has had some trouble staying healthy. The Suns gave up depth in Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson for Durant, so they could be playing thin for most of what remains in the regular season. But Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton should keep them consistent.
Irving and Dončić haven’t found their chemistry as a dynamic backcourt duo quite yet. The Dallas Mavericks are 5-6 since Irving’s arrival, plus he and Dončić will miss time with a foot injury and thigh strain, respectively. Their 120.3 defensive rating since acquiring Irving (trading their better defender in Dorian Finney-Smith in the process) is among the worst in the NBA over that span.
The Los Angeles Lakers have one of the easiest remaining schedules among the contenders and have plenty of chemistry going even with LeBron James out a few more weeks with a foot injury. As of Monday afternoon, the Lakers are out of the playoff picture, but a win away from jumping back into the play-in bracket. Even without their superstar, the Lakers have a now-healthy D’Angelo Russell, some defensive length in Jarred Vanderbilt and added shooting with Malik Beasely and a shot to climb their way up the standings.
The Clippers‘ Leonard, George pairing, established in 2019, hasn’t quite worked out for myriad reasons — from Leonard’s ACL surgery last season to a star-dependent offense that’s perhaps most lethal in the playoffs but unsustainable in the regular season. The Clippers notably signed a bought-out Russell Westbrook and lost their first five games with him starting, but have since rebounded. Despite marketing itself as the team to beat, the Clippers have yet to prove they’re the team to beat.
Can the Warriors rise?
Golden State hasn’t been without their injury problems. Steph Curry missed time earlier this season with a shoulder injury, then most of February with a leg sprain. Andrew Wiggins has been out with an adductor strain and missed 12 games due to family matters. Draymond Green is playing through multiple injuries and their trade acquisition Gary Payton II has yet to play a game this year for the Warriors as he deals with adductor soreness.
But every team has their injury struggles. What ails the Warriors is defensive consistency — particularly on the road.
Recently they’ve deployed more complex defensive schemes that mimic playoff preparations against teams visiting Chase Center. Those schemes require focus and, most importantly, for every player involved to make the right rotations.
But the communication goes out the window on the road, as evidenced by their 120.8 defensive rating away from San Francisco and 109.8 rating at home.
But Curry, nearing age 35, is demonstrating himself to be the superstar to beat — still. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have made clear their confidence and playoff savvy make give them a distinct edge above the rest.
Four rings aside, this Warriors core take pride in having won a playoff road game in every postseason appearance. And they’re in rare territory: In the last 50 years, only the 1987-88 San Antonio Spurs (8-33) and 1985-86 Chicago Bulls (8-33) have lost fewer than 10 road games and made the playoffs. With eight road games remaining, their title hopes and ability to rise above the rest might hinge on their ability to change their horrendous habits.