One of the biggest storylines heading into the final 20 games of the season is the battle for the 8 seed in Western Conference, or what I like to refer to as: “Who is going to lose to the Lakers in 5 games?” The reality is, a team will emerge as the 8 seed and challenge the Lakers in the first round. I believe that team will be the surging New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans are filled with young talent, highlighted by Brandon Ingram, who is having a breakout year establishing himself as a consistent scorer in the NBA. Along with 1st overall pick Zion Williamson, who is making a late push for the ROY award. Not to mention, they have veteran experience in one of the best two-way guards in the league in Jrue Holiday.
They currently sit 2.5 games out of the playoff picture looking up at the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have been an impressive team that has already exceeded all previous expectations for this year. Led by ROY favorite and 2nd overall pick Ja Morant, the Grizzlies will also make a strong push for the 8 seed. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, they have been riddled with injuries lately while the Pelicans are peaking at full strength. The Grizzlies’ promising young forward, Jaren Jackson Jr., is out for the “foreseeable future” with a quad injury along with emerging rookie, fellow forward, Brandon Clarke also suffering a recent quad injury. With this recent rut of injuries, the Grizzlies have suffered along with an apparent lack of depth I think a window has opened for the Pelicans to snatch the 8 seed.
Another squad competing with Memphis and New Orleans for the coveted 8 seed is the Portland Trailblazers. A squad that in years past have not found themselves on the outside looking in at this point in the season. Sadly, the Blazers have also been undermanned for the majority of the season. Their starting center Jusuf Nurkic has not played a single game this whole year after he suffered a devastating leg injury at the end of last season. That being said, Hassan Whiteside has provided the Blazers with a more than adequate replacement, averaging 15 PPG, 14 RPG and a league-high 3.1 blocks a game. Those stats, however, have not boosted their win column. Alike Whiteside, Blazers superstar point guard, Damian Lillard has been putting up career numbers, averaging almost 30 points and 8 assists a game. Unfortunately, Lillard suffered a groin injury before the All-star break and is not able to help his squad make a late push for the 8 seed. Unless Lillard comes back and this squad goes on a miraculous run I do not see a playoff run in their future.
But back to the team that I think will emerge as the 8 seed from the West. The Pelicans have won 6 out of their last 8 games, are loaded with potential, and have guys who are hungry for playoff experience. 1st-time all-star, Brandon Ingram, is leading this squad and putting up career highs in points and rebounds averaging 24 PPG and 6 RPG. 1st overall pick, Zion Williamson, is shutting all criticism of his weight and playstyle down and is on an impressive run since returning from injury. While young guard Lonzo Ball is quietly putting together an impressive season mostly because he has been able to stay healthy and has already surpassed the most games played in a season. He has also worked tirelessly on his 3-pt shot and is averaging an impressive 37% from deep. With all this impressive young talent the Pelicans have in their arsenal, not only do I think they will win the battle for the 8 seed in the West, but I think they will be interesting to watch in the first round of the playoffs when they go toe to toe with the Lakers.