Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
With a little more than a week left in the season, who do you like for No. 8 in the West? What’s going to make the difference?
Steve Aschburner: Houston. It would be nice, at this late stage of their careers, to have Steve Nash and Grant Hill in the postseason again but Phoenix faces a gauntlet of tough foes down the stretch (Thunder, Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, Spurs) with only that last opponent likely to ease up pre-playoffs. Going by strength of schedule – the biggest remaining factor – the potential-maxing Rockets are in the best shape, with New Orleans twice, Golden State once and a game at Miami on Sunday that might find the Heat in playoff-prep mode. Utah finishes with three home games but one is against the plucky Suns.
Fran Blinebury: The Suns have had the longest climb and they have the toughest finishing lineup of opponents. But only one road game. They are playing free and fearlessly and having a lot of fun and that goes a long way at this time of the year.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Houston because of the veteran presence. Phoenix was my first instinct, for playing the best of the candidates. Then I looked at their closing schedule. The Thunder, the Clippers (in a back-to-back), the Nuggets, the Jazz, the Spurs. Only one road game, Tuesday at Utah, but very unfriendly. If the Suns make it, they will definitely have earned it.
Shaun Powell: The wiseguy answer is, I like none of the contenders. They all have some sort of flaw, and you could easily make a case for each of them to finish ninth or even 10th. But because you asked, I’ll go on a limb and say the Jazz run the table and steal the final playoff spot. The Suns’ remaining schedule is beastly (OKC, LAC, Nuggets, Jazz, Spurs) and the Rockets are absolutely gutless right now.
John Schuhmann: Can I wait until after tonight’s Rockets-Mavs game to answer this one? Just guessing here, but I’ve got Denver finishing 37-29, Dallas finishing 37-29, Phoenix finishing 34-32, Houston finishing 35-31 and Utah finishing 35-31. So that puts Dallas in sixth (tie-breaker over Denver), Denver in seventh, Utah in eighth (tie-breaker over Houston), Houston in ninth, and Phoenix in 10th. Hard to see the Jazz losing more than one more, with two games against the Blazers and another against the Magic.
Sekou Smith: I like the Rockets for that eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. I really like the idea of Steve Nash, Grant Hill and the Suns making it into the playoff mix. But I love the idea of the Jazz clawing their way into that No. 8 spot, setting up a matchup against the Spurs and then watching Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap go toe-to-toe with Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair. With so many different ways this thing can play out over the next nine days, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what will decide the eighth spot. But next Tuesday’s Suns-Jazz game should make for great theater.