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NBA Standings Watch: Playoff Scenarios and Rooting Interests for the Clippers

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A fuzzy image of the postseason refuses to clear up as we enter the final few days of the regular season, with the middle of the West in as much disarray as it's been all year. Let's try and defog the window a little.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't all that long ago that the playoff picture seemed fairly settled, with Golden State and Memphis ensconced in the top two seeds, and Houston and Portland holding sizeable leads over the Clippers and Spurs. But today chaos holds sway in the upper echelons of the West, and while not all the permutations are likely, any one of four powerhouses could finish in the second seed — and all of them could just as easily wind up in the sixth.

In an ideal world, we'd understand that we have essentially zero control over the outcomes of remaining games, and hold no rooting interests in tilts involving our fellow competitors. But we're all human and we're going to want to be rooting for or against certain teams in other games going on in the next few days. Let's try to break down some outcomes, and figure out who you should be rooting for (distasteful as it might be in some cases).

Current Standings and Remaining Games
Team Record Conf. Record Div. Record
San Antonio Spurs 55-26 32-19 8-7
Los Angeles Clippers 54-26 35-15 n/a
Memphis Grizzlies 54-26 35-16 9-7
Houston Rockets 54-26 32-19 8-8
LAC SAS MEM HOU
Mon. v. DEN @ GSW @ CHA
Tue. @ PHX
Wed. @ NOP v. IND v. UTA

Southwest Division Tiebreakers

The current tiebreakers are pretty much all set in stone — Memphis would beat both San Antonio and Houston on the strength of their division record (tied both regular season series), and San Antonio clinches over Houston thanks to their last two wins, holding a 3-1 advantage on the year.

So you'd think if we see a three-way finish at the top of the division, Memphis wins the tiebreaker, right? Right?!

If only things made that much sense. The first playoff tiebreaker in the event of a three-way tie is common record in games played between all tied teams. And that's where Memphis gets screwed.  In the event of a three-way tie, San Antonio wins the division thanks to their 5-3 combined record (as opposed to Memphis's 4-4, and the Rockets' 3-5). Essentially, the Grizzlies get screwed over thanks to Houston's failings.

If Memphis and San Antonio tie and Houston finishes a game behind, the playoff seedings would go Grizzlies, Spurs, Rockets. Yet if the Rockets also manage to enter the tie, they still finish last, but San Antonio suddenly leapfrogs over Memphis. I told you it would make your head spin.

Clippers Lose To Denver or Phoenix

If you lose a game, you drop down to the sixth seed and have to hope for another team to lose to move back up. The good news is that the Clippers hold individual tiebreakers over San Antonio and Houston, and possibly Memphis.

In the event Memphis drops another game and finished tied in the standings with Los Angeles, it matters who that loss comes to. If they drop one to the Warriors, they finish with one more conference loss and the Clippers automatically clinch the tiebreaker. But if they lose to Indiana in the season finale, the two teams will finish tied in conference record, and we go to the next tiebreaker, record against Western playoff teams, and Memphis wins that handily.

Four-Way Tie

This happens if all four teams win out (or if they all drop one game). Unfortunately, the Spurs end up grabbing the 2 seed here (because division winners must be decided first, and the Spurs win that thanks to the three-way tie we discussed earlier) by virtue of grabbing the division title. This leaves a three-way tie between Memphis, Houston, and the Clippers, and Los Angeles wins this thanks to their conference record (By winning out, the Clippers secure a superior conference record and tiebreaker over the Grizzlies). Clippers v. Rockets in the first round.

Four-Way Tie Minus Houston

My personal favorite scenario. Houston drops a game and the Spurs, Grizzlies, and Clippers all end the season at 56-26. Grizzlies win the division (and the two seed) over San Antonio on division record, and the Clippers then end up in the three seed by dint of their superior conference record. San Antonio falls into the five seed and the other side of the bracket, and Memphis and Los Angeles fans alike rejoice. Clippers v. Rockets in the first round.

Four-Way Tie Minus Memphis

More likely, because the Grizzlies are dealing with injuries and a game at Golden State. Spurs, Clippers, Rockets. Clippers v. Grizzlies in the first round.

Four-Way Tie Minus San Antonio

Thankfully won't happen. Grizzlies, Clippers, Rockets, but the Clippers get to play San Antonio in Round 1.

Other Teams Playing For Matchups

There are a few things that could happen here. If Golden State sees the four-way-sans-Houston scenario coming to fruition, they could go all out versus Memphis Monday night (not that they need that much effort to beat this Grizzlies team). You would imagine that they'd like to avoid the Spurs in the second round if it's within their abilities to do so.

Meanwhile, Houston knows that they'll finish in the sixth seed unless they beat another team outright. It's possible that they rest or willingly lose a game in order to stop a three-way tie for the Southwest Division, and keep the Spurs out of their bracket too. They'd rather be in a bracket with the Clippers and Grizzlies than the Clippers and Spurs, but we'll see if choosing prospective second round opponents has any value to them.

Overall Rules of Thumb
  • Clippers hold tiebreaker over Spurs or Rockets so long as neither wins their division
  • Grizzlies hold an advantage over both the Spurs and Rockets individually, but lose a three-way tie to the Spurs
  • To end up in the 4-5 matchup the Clippers must lose and hope for someone else to lose too

Also to note, home-court advantage may not be all that great as we think it is, especially since the Clippers' likely playoff opponent will have a similar regular season record. Per John Schuhmann, when you only look at series between teams finishing within four games of each other in standings, teams with home-court advantage have only won 29 of 62 series in the past decade.

There's a lot going on here, and a lot of dust that will hopefully settle sooner or later. Either way, we'll know what to expect for the playoffs by Wednesday, aka before the Yankees-Red Sox game ends.