As the calendar turns to April, both the NBA and NHL playoffs will arrive quickly. The Denver Nuggets, defending champions from last season’s epic playoff run, are right in the thick of the race once again. Nikola Jokic is currently the frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player award. The Nuggets are the frontrunner to advance out of the Western Conference and face the Boston Celtics (Eastern Conference favorite) in the NBA Finals.

But it order to get there, the regular season must finish up in the next two weeks, and with it, playoff seeding.

Last year around this time, the Nuggets were effectively shoo-ins for the top spot in the Western Conference playoff bracket. This year, with strong regular season performances from the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver’s playoff position is anything but assured.

Here’s the updated standings snapshot for the top 11 teams in the Western Conference, created by yours truly:

As shown above, the Thunder (OKC), Nuggets (DEN), and Timberwolves (MIN) have all clinched a top six spot in the playoffs. They will not be in the play-in tournament and will have homecourt advantage in the first round. The Nuggets have to win just one more game to effectively clinch a top four seed because of their tiebreaker advantage over the fifth seeded Dallas Mavericks, and with seven games to go, I think they can get that done.

Where things get tough for the Nuggets is figuring out the top three seeds. There’s still too much time left to be confident in the order. The Thunder have 22 losses, while the Nuggets and T’Wolves each have 23. That’s the most important column above, because while teams can make up wins, they cannot make up losses in the standings.

That means that if the Thunder win all of their remaining eight games, they will clinch the top spot in the West. While that’s unlikely, it means that the Thunder control their own destiny. Even if they slip up, the Nuggets would need to make up an extra game and be one above the Thunder in the standings when it’s all said and done because the Thunder have a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Nuggets anyway.

For example, let’s say the Thunder go 5-3 in their remaining eight games. Their record would be 57-25. For the Nuggets to clinch a higher seed, they would have to finish 58-24 or better, which means going at least 6-1 in their remaining seven games. The likelihood of the Thunder losing three games while Denver loses just one is unlikely.

Then, one can add in the Timberwolves as an extra layer of standings complication. They have the same number of losses as Denver, and if they finish tied in the standings with the Nuggets, the Timberwolves will get the tiebreaker. Now, the Nuggets do have one final opportunity to face the Timberwolves on April 10th, Game 80 out of 82 of the regular season. We will know more about the seriousness of that matchup when the time comes and whether the Nuggets actually have an opportunity to be one of the top seeds.

Suffice to say, the most likely seed Denver will be in the playoffs this year is the third seed, which isn’t that bad. They could be one of the top two, but it’s less likely. I’d say there’s about a 50% chance the Nuggets are the third seed, a 35% chance the Nuggets are the second seed, a 10% chance they become the first seed, and a 5% chance they drop to fourth.

With that in mind, the teams most likely to finish as the sixth seed are as follows:

  • New Orleans Pelicans
  • Phoenix Suns
  • Dallas Mavericks
  • Sacramento Kings

The Pelicans are currently the sixth seed with seven games to go. They have one fewer loss than both the Suns and the Kings, though the Suns do have a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Pelicans. Fortunately for the Pelicans, they have a much easier schedule than the Suns do. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, they have to play the Suns again, and that matchup could determine which of the teams avoids the play-in tournament.

The Mavericks are currently the fifth seed and are unlikely to drop. They’ve won seven in a row and have a one-game lead in the loss column (plus a likely tiebreaker) over the Pelicans. As long as the Mavericks take care of business, they will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, something they’re surely ecstatic about after losing their two previous playoff matchups against the Clippers.

Denver probably has a preference here to face the Pelicans or the Kings. Denver’s matchup against New Orleans makes sense schematically, with Nikola Jokic being primarily guarded by Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance Jr., and perhaps Zion Williamson or Cody Zeller. The Pelicans have dangerous wing players, but if they struggle to match up with Jokic consistently, that will be difficult for them. Ditto for the Kings, who do have Domantas Sabonis to match up with Jokic. That’s a matchup Jokic can/will figure out though.

Denver matching up with the Suns and Mavericks appears to be tougher, but certainly not impossible. Last year’s Suns are different from this year’s Suns, and Jokic in particular hasn’t had his best matchups against the Suns surprising center duo of Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks. Can Jokic figure that out? Certainly, but the rest of the Suns roster helps a ton on the interior, meaning Denver’s a bit more dependent on perimeter players hitting outside shots with consistency. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. would need to be big in a Suns series to outpace Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal.

The Mavericks are a relatively new commodity after in-season trades to add Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington, both frontcourt players to provide size and athleticism next to Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. That particular duo is about as dangerous as you can ask for in a playoff environment, and while the Nuggets should feel confident about their ability to score on Dallas when the time comes, the Mavericks will be tough to slow down on the other end. Both are capable of scoring 40+ points in a playoff game, and Doncic will add 10 to 15 assists to his scoring line. That’s frightening.

Whatever happens for the Nuggets, this path to a title, if it does manifest into more than just words, will be tougher than last year. The Nuggets took advantage of a rare down year in the Western Conference and breezed through the competition. This year, the Thunder and the Timberwolves will be tougher than last year’s first round exits of the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings. Top to bottom, the West is better, meaning the Nuggets will have to be diligent in every game of every series they play.

We will see how it all shakes out.