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THE reason to get excited for NBA seeding games: Western Conference playoff race

Pelicans big Zion Williamson and Grizzlies guard Ja Morant

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 31: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans and Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies stand on the court during a NBA game at Smoothie King Center on January 31, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Why is the NBA holding seeding games rather than jumping straight to the playoffs? The two reported reasons:

Less mentioned: The games actually being quality products.

The NBA regular season has lost its luster. Load management, tanking and reduced home-court advantage have made regular-season games less meaningful. By the time the season got suspended in March, many were ready for the playoffs, anyway.

As the league resumes with eight seeding games per team, there isn’t much drama. Twelve of 16 playoff spots are clinched. A lack of home-court advantage at neutral-site Disney World and parity after a long layoff reduce seeding suspense. The race between the depleted Nets, depleted Wizards and Magic for the final two postseason spots in the Eastern Conference is uninspiring. Expect teams to mostly focus on staying healthy for the playoffs, even if that deprioritizes winning seeding games. Some teams are even reportedly treating the resumption as a glorified summer league.

But the NBA restart format has created one legitimately anticipated angle for seeding games: The Western Conference playoff race. The Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs and Suns are locked in a tight battle that could culminate in an unprecedented play-in.

If up more than four games on the ninth-place team at the conclusion of seeding games, the eighth-place team qualifies for the playoffs. Otherwise, the eighth- and ninth-place teams enter a play-in. The ninth-place team must win two games before the eighth-place team wins one.

The Mavericks (40-27) are technically in this race. But seven games up on Memphis, Dallas will almost certainly get a top-seven seed.

Here are the standings of the six teams truly battling for the final Western Conference playoff spot with records and games back:

8. Grizzlies (32-33) | --

9. Trail Blazers (29-37) | 3.5

10. Pelicans (28-36) | 3.5

10. Kings (28-36) | 3.5

12. Spurs (27-36) | 4.0

13. Suns (26-39) | 6.0

There will probably be a play-in. Memphis will probably be in it, probably as the No. 8 seed.

But that’s far from certain. Everyone has a chance.

A deeper look at the teams involved:

  • Grizzlies: Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke lead an exciting young core that’s ahead of schedule. This group is fearless and fun, holding onto eighth place far longer than expected. Center Jonas Valanciunas has quietly performed well at center. Memphis has plenty of substance to back the flash. It’ll be nice to get an extended look. Losing Justise Winslow to injury is a bummer, though.
  • Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard is the best player in this tier. But even he hasn’t gotten Portland rolling this season. Still, his leadership could be especially helpful in this environment. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins return from injury, and at this point, the bigs aren’t much rustier than everyone else. They’ll allow Carmelo Anthony to play more small forward – for better or worse. Portland has a major hole at the position with Trevor Ariza sitting out.
  • Pelicans: Zion Williamson provided a huge spark after missing most of the season due to injury. He played like a bona fide star in his limited minutes, and he looked even more ready for the resumption. Hopefully, he returns to the bubble soon. But New Orleans can compete, regardless. Brandon Ingram is having a breakout year, and the rotation is fairly deep. Still, Williamson is already the centerpiece for attracting attention both on and off the court.
  • Kings: Sacramento was playing better when the season got suspended. But this team has been in disarray. Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, Jabari Parker and Alex Len tested positive for coronavirus. Richaun Holmes violated bubble protocols and faced a lengthy quarantine. De’Aaron Fox got hurt, though should return. Marvin Bagley III got hurt and is done for the season. That injury might be a blessing in disguise for the Kings’ playoff hopes this season. As important as he is to Sacramento’s future, Bagley is still raw and learning how to contribute to winning. Him being sidelined could free the Kings to use better, though lower-upside, options in the frontcourt.
  • Spurs: Big LaMarcus Aldridge solved some of San Antonio’s offensive issues by starting to shoot 3-pointers this season. Point guard Dejounte Murray is a reluctant outside shooter, and wing DeMar DeRozan hoists from deep even less often. That created a spacing jam – until Aldridge adjusted. But Aldridge underwent season-ending surgery, and Jakob Poeltl won’t bring 3-point shooting. Another big with perimeter skills, Trey Lyles is also out. Coach Gregg Popovich must work a miracle to extend the Spurs’ playoff streak.
  • Suns: Phoenix is also playing.