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A Look Around the League: Starring Memphis and Sacramento

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There's a lot going on right now.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

We're at a weird place right now in the NBA.  Partially because of some weird stuff, partially because the general context of the year has been incredibly strange.  Consider that the 2015-2016 Western Conference features two of the best teams in the history of the NBA.  Golden State boasts a 46-4 record and the losses are excusable--one without Curry, one without Green, and two on the second night of a back-to-back--and the San Antonio Spurs sit at 43-8, with a better point differential than the Warriors.  The Cleveland Cavaliers, who made the NBA Finals last season and lost admirably to the aforementioned dominant Warriors without two of their three best players, fired their head coach mid-season.  The Dallas Mavericks, who weren't supposed to be good (I will fully admit that I predicted they would miss the playoffs and I was dead wrong) are in 6th place in the West, and they have a chance to move up to 5th because Marc Gasol is now out indefinitely with a broken foot that his head coach might have let him play on.

What?

It's been that kind of year.  Not to mention that, closer to home, Clippers star Blake Griffin broke his hand punching a team staffer, and have a substantially better record in his absence.  Jimmy Butler, it was announced today, will miss the next month with a knee injury, which could derail Chicago's shaky season.  The New Orleans Pelicans and their star Anthony Davis, who were supposed to be a playoff team and MVP candidate, have both massively disappointed and disappeared from the national conversation, and the Sacramento Kings met their lofty goals of competing for a playoff seed--up until losing 8 of their last 9 games (allowing 118 points per game), deciding to fire their coach George Karl, and then supposedly deciding to keep him today.  Sacramento plays the recently-not-so-awful Philadelphia tomorrow night, and it will be interesting to see if the ownership does another 180 should the Kings drop that game.

This, of course, would all be far more fascinating if it weren't placed in the context of the 2015-16 season that features the Warriors and Spurs, making all the drama and chaos seem like a race for third.  There's a reason they play the games, though, and it's because anything can happen, and the recent developments have opened up some interesting possibilities for the Clippers.

Initially, the Kings' now-recanted decision to fire George Karl was an encouraging sign for the Clippers' trade prospects--if Sacramento punts the season, the Clippers can sneak in and take on long-term salary in the form of Rudy Gay or Marco Belinelli.  However, now it looks as though Karl and Kings GM Vlade Divac are going all-in--attempting to fix this team over the All-Star break, bolster their defense, and try to finish the season strongly enough to please ownership.  Unless the team's owners act crazily over the weekend (which isn't exceptionally unlikely), it looks as though the Clippers are out of the running for a trade with the Kings.

Marc Gasol's injury impacts Memphis' seeding outlook, but it's hard to know exactly how much.  The Grizzlies are currently the 5-seed in the West with a 3-loss lead over the next tier of teams and 5 losses ahead of 9th place.  Can the team stay in the running without Gasol?  Will Brandan Wright return soon, and will he be enough to buoy the team's record?  Is there a chance that Marc returns for the playoffs?  Without answers, it's hard to predict how Memphis will act, but this news opens a window for uncertainty that wasn't there before.  Prior to this announcement, the Grizzlies seemed pretty settled in fifth, and now they could finish anywhere from fifth-ninth in the conference.  It still seems to me that Memphis will do their best to limp into the playoffs, but the door is widened for any potential trades.  Names like Courtney Lee and Jeff Green have been mentioned, and while it's definitely unlikely that the Clippers get involved, we're entering the most chaotic weekend of the NBA season, where anything can happen.

This of course brings up the issue of the Clippers' eventual first-round opponent.  The 3-seed still isn't out of play for Los Angeles, but with the brutal schedule coming up and Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers slated to miss extended time, it certainly seems incredibly unlikely.  It's hard to know if the Clippers will be able to hold on to home-court advantage as they enter a really brutal stretch in March, but if they do, it'll likely be as a 4-seed, and their three most likely opponents are Memphis, Dallas, and Houston--phew.  There's some baggage in all three of those matchups, given the Clippers' long post-season history against the Grizzles, their second-round flameout against the Rockets last year, and DeAndre Jordan's "Indecision" incident at the Mavericks' expense this summer.  The dark horse candidate is Utah, who is actually pretty scary if healthy.  It's been an insanely chaotic season, and it's only going to get crazier in the coming week--but after that, the dust will settle and the Clippers will grind through an incredibly tough March as they prepare to get Blake Griffin back and head to the post-season.