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Blazers, Clippers or Grizzlies: Which team is more likely to remain in the top 3 out West after 40 games?
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Steve Aschburner: Forty? How ‘bout 82, since that’s what Portland pulled off last season? The Clippers are a lot of fun and a group that’s easy to root for, especially in contrast to the star-driven expectations and impatience about the other NBA tenant at Staples Center. I’m old school enough to hope that Memphis’ counter-programming in pace and 3-point mania proves there still is more than one way to play in this league. But Portland’s face-plant last spring (getting swept by New Orleans) after snagging the West’s No. 3 seed is seared into the Blazers’ collective psyche. To rebound from that and to fully honor their revered owner, the late Paul Allen, that high-intangibles team wants and needs to max out this season however it can. A high seed is the surest way to facilitate (not guarantee) playoff advancement, and leader Damian Lillard won’t let himself or his mates take their eyes off that prize.
Shaun Powell: This usually leans toward strength of upcoming schedule, but let's go with the Blazers, who have the best player on either of the three teams -- Damian Lillard -- and obviously have learned a lesson from their first-round sweep last spring. of course, the Blazers can't prove anything until they return to the playoffs and prove they're built for at least the second round, but that's another story.
John Schuhmann: The Grizzlies have been the most pleasant surprise of the three, but it's tough to pick Memphis, despite their ability to stay in games with the league's second-ranked defense. They've have played the easiest schedule of the three, with only seven of their 16 games against other teams that currently have winning records. That defense has benefited from playing more than twice as many games against bottom-10 offenses (7) as it has against top-10 offenses (3). The Grizzlies' record is slightly better (11-5) than their point differential says it should be (10-6), and they have the toughest schedule of the three between now and Game 40, with only 10 of their next 23 games at home and 17 of them against teams that currently have winning records. Of the three teams, the Clippers have played the toughest schedule so far and will have the easiest schedule between now and Game 40. But I'll stick with the Blazers, who are not only in first place in the West, but have the best record (7-2) in games played between the 16 teams that have winning records. They have some games with a rest disadvantage coming up (including Wednesday in Milwaukee), but after they visit the Bucks and Warriors this week, they'll play 16 of their next 24 games at home.
Sekou Smith: The Trail Blazers have the right profile and should be the pick here. But the Clippers are a genuine surprise with the way they've performed. And yet, I find myself rooting for the [former Hang Time] Grizzlies to maintain their position, if for no other reason than to do so would validate what I've believed about Mike Conley and the impact he can have (when healthy) for a while now. Conley is one of the more underrated players at his (or any) position in a league stacked with point guard talent. Injuries have robbed him of the opportunity to show his best self the past couple of seasons. A Grizzlies team that stays in that top three mix in the Western Conference through 40 games would almost certainly need to have a healthy Conley running the show to accomplish such a feat.