Ovie Soko gives the edge to the Memphis Grizzlies in the race for the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference.
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'Who earns the eighth seed? I'm riding with Ja Morant all day'
The race for the eighth seed in the West is really interesting. I feel like there are a couple of different variables that will decide who claims that final playoff place.
Number one is Damian Lillard. How healthy is he? How will he come back after his injury layoff? Will he be good to go? Groin injuries are funny ones. I've had groin troubles in the past and they can really be nagging injuries, regardless of what the doctor's timeframe is. It's one of those injuries that requires a lot of rest and gradual rehab. You can't jump straight back into things.
Given where Portland are at - and their schedule does get easier up ahead, it is certainly a lot easier than that of Memphis - it all depends on when 'Dame' gets back.
Given that, for me, the real race for eighth is between Zion Williamson's New Orleans Pelicans versus Ja Morant's Memphis Grizzlies. What we have to factor in here is the respective strengths of their schedules.
Zion seems to have the 'infinity stone' so far! The Pelicans winning percentage has shot up since he rejoined the team. They have got consistent scoring from Williamson and Brandon Ingram, who has been having a terrific year. With their strength of schedule - the Pelicans have the third easiest run-in, per Tankathon - means they will 'pop' a couple of teams.
Memphis have run into some recent adversity but the thing that continues to impress me is the maturity of Ja Morant and that Grizzlies unit as a whole. They play older than they are, like a group of guys who have been in the NBA a couple of years that have already got their feet wet.
I don't see Morant and Brandon Clarke hitting the rookie wall but the recent losses they have - starting forward Jaren Jackson Jr will miss at least two weeks with a knee injury - will definitely affect them.
I think this race between the Pelicans and Grizzlies will go all the way to the end of the season. Another important factor, one that I love, is Morant's leadership and his tendency to play well in the big games. We've seen it a couple of times already this season. When Morant goes up against the bigger teams, he always responds to those tough match-ups.
That's the beauty of this race. Morant will always play like he has something to prove, clearly! And Zion is trying to make sure no one has forgotten he was the No 1 overall pick in the 2019 Draft. He has certainly done that so far! He has come back with tremendous energy and injected life back into the Pelicans.
Ultimately, though, will the Pelicans be able to make up their three-game deficit to the Grizzlies? It's debatable. A two or three-game losing streak can change everything. It will be really entertaining to watch because both of those rookies have a lot to prove. Putting their teams into the playoffs would be huge for both of them.
What impact will the race for eighth have on this year's Rookie of the Year award? If Zion leads the Pelicans to the playoffs he gives himself a chance but you can't rule out Morant - he has been doing all season long.
That doesn't take anything away from Williamson - he has been handed a difficult situation and handled it great. He has done exactly what, as the No 1 pick, he is supposed to do and that is dominate. But, because he was out for so long, it is somewhat of a sample size. For me, he hasn't been out there long enough to be rewarded with Rookie of the Year.
So who am I picking? I'm sticking with Memphis. I'm riding with Ja Morant all day! I say that because he is the point guard and the impact he has on his team from that position is absolutely terrific. You see everyone around him soaking up that confidence and it is so entertaining to watch.
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