*Disclaimer* – I wrote this column before last night’s game; if David West is out for a long period of time, which I unfortunately think that he will be, everything obviuously changes. Let’s just hope for the best.
Before tonight’s game against the Phoenix Suns, the Hornets (41-31)  are in sole possession of the 7th seed, 1/2 a game behind the Blazers (41-30) and a full game in front of Memphis (40-32). On the flip side, the 2nd seeded Los Angeles Lakers (51-20) are 1.5 games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks (49-21). I can guarantee that the Lakers and Mavericks are both giving it their all to lock up that 2-seed with no regard for their first round match-up, because the only thing on their minds is home court advantage in the second round. The Hornets, on the other hand, need to win as many games as possible before the final week of the regular season for two reasons. First, the obvious reason of cementing a playoff berth, as they only sit 2 1/2 games in front of 9th seeded Houston at the moment. Secondly, once they have secured their place in the postseason, they could establish some flexibility as the battle between the Lakers and the Mavericks gets settled. The point here is simple – throughout this entire season, the Hornets have only seemed truly outmatched by one team in the NBA. As a result, New Orleans should do everything in its power to avoid a first round face-off with that team – the Los Angeles Lakers.

To figure out what the Hornets’ ideal seeding will be, we would first need to know where the Lakers or Mavericks will finish as well. To predict that, let’s look at each team’s remaining schedule.

Lakers: vs. Clippers, vs. New Orleans, vs. Dallas, at Utah, vs. Denver, vs. Utah, at Golden State, at Portland, vs. OKC, vs. San Antonio, at Sacramento

  • 7 home, 4 road
  • GS & SAC on 2nd night of back-to-back
  • Projected record: 8-3

Mavericks: vs. Minnesota, at Utah, at Phoenix, at Clippers, at Lakers, at Golden State, at Portland, vs. Denver, vs. Clippers, vs. Phoenix, at Houston, vs. New Orleans

  • 5 home, 7 road
  • PHO, LAL, POR, HOU on 2nd night of back-to-back
  • Projected record: 9-3

These outcomes would have the Lakers finishing one game ahead of the Mavericks in the standings. ESPN’s John Hollinger seems to agree with my prediction of the Lakers’ final record, but he takes a more conservative approach to Dallas’ final twelve games, putting them three games behind Los Angeles at season’s end. The season series between the two teams is tied at one, meaning the final game in Los Angeles (that Dallas has to play the night after playing the Clippers) will decide the tie-breaker; I expect the Lakers to win that one.

So, after examining the schedules of those two teams, I think we can say with reasonable confidence that the Lakers will end the season as the 2nd seed in the Western Conference. This outcome makes things pretty simple for the Hornets’ mindset – win as many games as possible. There should be no worries in anyone’s mind about a first round match with the Lakers as a reward for passing the Blazers and earning the 6th seed; if the Hornets are able to accomplish that feat, they will very likely be matched up against Dallas, which is probably the most favorable match-up for New Orleans.

Now, the next question - How good of a chance do the Hornets actually have to net the 6 seed? In my opinion, better than Hollinger’s playoff odds would indicate. Here are the remaining schedules for the Blazers, Hornets, and Grizzlies.

Blazers: vs. San Antonio, at OKC, at San Antonio, at New Orleans, vs. OKC, vs. Dallas, vs. Golden State, at Utah, vs. Lakers, vs. Memphis, at Golden State

  • 6 home, 5 road
  • @ SA, vs. LAL, @ GS on 2nd night of back-to-back
  • Projected record: 6-5

Hornets: at Utah, at Phoenix, at Lakers, vs. Blazers, vs. Memphis, vs. Pacers, vs. Rockets, vs. Suns, at Memphis, vs. Utah, at Dallas

  • 5 home, 5 road
  • @ PHX, vs. UTA on 2nd night of back-to-back
  • Projected record: 6-4

Grizzlies: at Chicago, vs. San Antonio, vs. Golden State, at New Orleans, vs. Minnesota, vs. Clippers, vs. Sacramento, vs. New Orleans, at Portland, at Clippers

  • 6 home, 4 road
  • vs. MIN, @ LAC on 2nd night of back-to-back
  • Projected record: 6-4

I really believe that Hollinger is under-cutting the Hornets by a game with his 6-5 projection for the team’s last eleven games. If I’m right, then the #6 seed will come down to the Blazers @ Hornets game on Wednesday, March 30th in the New Orleans Arena. If the Hornets win, they will have won the season series 3-1. If they lose, the Blazers will likely jump out to a two game lead, which will likely be insurmountable given both teams’ April schedules.

The wild card here is Memphis. With news breaking recently that Rudy Gay will not return this season, the Grizzlies’ chances of moving past the first round take a huge hit, but that does not mean they can’t make a push for the 6th seed in their final 10 games. I see Memphis finishing 6-4 in these games, including splitting two of those remaining games with the Hornets, as I expect each team to win at home. If this were to happen, it would lock the Grizzlies into a 3-way tie with both New Orleans and Portland. Luckily for the Hornets, they will hold the tie-breaker over Memphis as long as they split their final 2 meetings against them. Memphis and Portland play the rubber match of their 3-game season series in Portland on April 12th, the second to last day of the regular season, in a game that could have HUGE ramifications for both of those teams as well as the Hornets.

To sum things up, it is fairly obvious that New Orleans, Portland, and Memphis could finish in any possible combination of the 6th through 8th seeds in the Western Conference. In order for the Hornets to give themselves the best chance to come out on top of the other two, their objective is quite simple - take care of business at home. Doing so would inherently mean that they will have beaten the Blazers and Grizzlies, guaranteeing a season series victory over both teams (even if the Hornets were to lose their second game against Memphis on the road). Apart from those two games, New Orleans’ schedule is no more difficult than either Memphis’ or Portland’s, and merely matching the records of each of those two teams the rest of the way would ensure them the 6th seed and a likely first round date with Dirk and the Mavs.

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