The NBA’s 2020-21 regular season will come to an end on March 16 and teams are jockeying for the top spot in the Western Conference. The Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz have identical records and sit atop the standings, but the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers aren’t far behind them. Let’s take a look at the chances of each frontrunner claiming the top spot.
The Jazz (47-18) will take on the San Antonio Spurs twice before facing the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Sacramento Kings to wrap up the regular season. Donovan Mitchell is the engine that powers the Jazz offensively and will have his ankle sprain re-evaluated in a week. Utah will only face one team that’s currently in the playoff picture down the home stretch but has been .500 since Mitchell hurt his ankle. If he doesn't return for the final few games of the season, it’s unlikely that the Jazz will hold off the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns are 46-18, 0.5 games behind the Jazz, but are in much better shape than Utah. Phoenix will play the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, and Portland Trail Blazers, before finishing the year with a back-to-back against the San Antonio Spurs. Jae Crowder is dealing with a minor ankle injury amid the Suns’ four-game winning streak, but the rest of Phoenix’s key players are in good health. Six of the Suns’ final eight games are on the road, and they have more road wins (21) than any NBA team.
The Nuggets (43-22) are tied for third in the West with the Los Angeles Clippers and have played spectacular basketball since Jamal Murray tore his ACL. Nikola Jokic has maintained his MVP form and Michael Porter Jr. has taken his offense to the next level. It’s unclear whether Denver can keep up its impressive run with Facundo Campazzo, but the return of Monte Morris (hamstring) and Will Barton (hamstring) could provide a boost as the regular season winds down. The Nuggets are 4.0 games back of the Jazz and will round out the year with games against the Los Angeles Lakers, New York, Knicks, Jazz, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, and Portland Trail Blazers. Having to face off against three top-10 defenses doesn’t bode well for the Nuggets.
Los Angeles (43-22) is the fourth seed and would have to gain some major ground over its last seven games to catch up to the leaders. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy, but injuries to Serge Ibaka (back) and Patrick Beverley (foot) won’t allow the Clippers to reach their peak ahead of the playoffs. Los Angeles will face the Toronto Raptors twice in its final seven games. The other teams on their schedule are the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma City Thunder. Making up a 4.0 game deficit in seven games is very unlikely given what the rest of the field is working with, and the winner will likely already be decided before Los Angeles walks over the Rockets and Thunder in their final two games.
Who will finish in first?
Pick: My pick to win the Western Conference is the Suns. They’re much healthier than the rest of the field, plus excel and dominate on the road. Getting the tiebreaker because of their head-to-head record against the Jazz this year is a dealbreaker.