The Western Conference is where the power is.
Everyone knows that.
The East is definitely on the come up but the West is where every real title contender outside of Cleveland resides. From the heavily favoured Golden State Warriors to the always in the mix San Antonio Spurs to the fast-breaking and sharp-shooting Houston Rockets, the West has three powerhouses that could easily lay claim to the Larry O’Brien trophy.
I’d include the Clippers on this list but the Chris Paul injury has really put a damper on them as of late and it seems that there’s something always kind of going wrong with that squad (future article alert!). Even so, there are locked in a pretty tight race with the exciting, up-and-coming Utah Jazz for that fourth seed with the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder not far behind.
But that isn’t what this article is about.
I mean I’m eventually going to write about the legit contenders in the Western Conference and how much I personally love watching each of those aforementioned teams.
This one is going to be about the playoff seed that nobody was talking about until that big trade during All-Star Weekend.
The eighth seed in the West. The one that’s probably going to be taken by an underachieving, sub-.500 team that is going somehow manage to back into a playoff spot and draw a first round match-up with the Golden State Warriors and their four all-star line-up.
As of the all-star break, there are currently six teams within three and a half games of each other that are all within striking distance of 8th playoff spot in the West. Every one of them has a record well under .500 and barring major injuries or a miracle, not a single one of them poses a credible threat to Golden State.
But despite relatively lousy seasons from each, there are things to love about each squad and reasons to want them in the playoffs. Some might even be able to take at least a game from the Golden State Warriors in a first round match-up. Each has their story about why they’re in their current sub-.500 situation and each has the ability to go on a run and make that final playoff spot their own.
We’re going to start by taking a look at the team currently occupying the 8th seed.
Games out: N/A
Last 10 games: 4-6
Why they should make it: The Nuggets are definitely a team on the come up. Nikola Jokic has established himself as one of the premiere young big men in the league in his second NBA season. Despite only averaging 26.7 minutes per game in Denver’s loaded front court, Jokic is averaging 16.3 points, 9 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 58% including shooting 37% from three point range. The numbers become even more impressive when you consider that since becoming entrenched as starter this past December, he’s put up an impressive 20.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists while averaging 29.4 minutes over the past 27 games. His three point percentage has also shot up to 41% during that stretch. His production and shooting ability is impressive for a big man – even in an era when young bigs like Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid are stretching the floor on a nightly basis.
Beyond that, Jokic is one the best passers in the game. Not just for a big man. He legitimately delivers some of the nicest assists you will ever see in the NBA. His passing resembles an elite point guard a lot more than it does the often clunky passing that defines big men. He delivers precise passes at unique angles in a manner that is almost unheard of for a big man.
The most striking statistic for Jokic, and perhaps the one that attests to him being criminally underrated more than any other, is his box plus/minus (BPM) which at 8.3 is third in the NBA behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook, which is almost unheard of for a second year player in the association. It’s also third all-time for first or second year players in the history of the league behind only LeBron James and David Robinson. He’s also got the ninth highest player efficiency rating in the entire NBA. Given the elite company that Jokic is sharing in terms of the quality of his contribution to his team, Jokic’s potential going forward is far more than Mile High.
Beyond a potential generational level talent in Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets have also enjoyed another very strong season from Italian gunner Danilo Gallinari who is following up last year’s career year by leading the team in scoring with 17.2 points per game on 43% shooting including 38% from three point range while adding 4.9 boards and 2.2 assists. In terms of high volume, shooters you can’t really ask for a better weapon than Gallinari and when he gets hot, the Nuggets offense is hard to contain.
Wilson Chandler has been incredible off the bench, enjoying one of the best seasons of his career with 15.6 points per game off 45% shooting to go along with 6.7 boards and 2.1 assists per game. He also is still able to bust out some veteran savvy on perimeter defense. He may not have the youth and athleticism that he did when he was lauded for his D in New York, but is still able to make plays. Chandler remains a mid-season favourite to win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award this season and is a huge reason why the Nuggets are currently in a playoff spot.
Denver has also enjoyed some excellent guard play from rookie Gary Harris in the starting rotation and Will Barton off the bench. Rookies Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez have also started to heat up at the right time and Emmanuel Mudiay and Jameer Nelson have been serviceable point guards.
The Nuggets also recently swapped young bruising centre Jusuf Nurkic for older, more experienced and lighter Mason Plumlee in a dead with the Portland Trail Blazers that provides a much more solid back-up for Jokic and gives Denver more of a veteran presence in the middle. It’s the kind of deal that will benefit Denver if they decide to go for it and also payoff long-term as well with Plumlee being only 26 years old.
Why they won’t make it: Well the most obvious reason is that New Orleans acquiring DeMarcus Cousins means that the Pelicans are probably going to gain some serious ground on the Nuggets if not overtake them for the 8th seed in the West.
Beyond that, both Gallinari and Chandler have been mentioned in trade rumours. When two of your leading scorers are on the block, it’s a sign that you might not be going for it.
We’ll have a definitive answer before the 3PM trade deadline, but neither move would be the worst thing for Denver. If the Nuggets are going to really compete, it won’t be because they snuck into playoffs as a sub-.500 8th seed, it will be because they built a balanced team around Nikola Jokic. The young Serbian is the future.
If trading Chandler and Gallinari get Denver pieces and picks to move toward that goal. They should do it. Even if it costs them a playoff spot. It’s a case where short-term pain would lead to long-term gain and the Nuggets have two great basketball minds in GM Tim Connelly and coach Mike Malone who are well aware of that fact.
A first round exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors won’t be the deciding factor in the team’s future success.
Could they win a game against Golden State? Yes. Denver absolutely could win one playoff against Golden State. In fact,they blew out the Warriors 132-110 in a game that saw the Nuggets offense come alive in a big way, tying an NBA regular season record by hitting 24 3-pointers.
It was an absolute feeding frenzy spread evenly across the line-up as rookie Juancho Hernangomez went 6 for 9 from downtown, Jameer Nelson went 5 for 7, Will Barton went 4 for 8, Gary Harris 4 for 7, veteran Mike Miller going 2-2 off the bench, rookie Jamal Murray going 2-5 and Johnny O’Bryant III adding one for good measure. A barrage of hot shooting.
Most impressive, though, was the way that Nikola Jokic feasted on the Warriors interior D, putting up a triple double with 15 points, 21 boards and 12 assists and looking absolutely dominant against the championship favourites.
On the other end, the Warriors were absolutely ice cold from three point range, exemplified by Steph Curry’s abysmal 1-11 performance. If the Warriors get cold for a game, which is entirely possible, the Nuggets could definitely capitalize.
Games Back: 1.5
Last 10 games: 5-5
Why they should make it: This is the section where I’d talk about DeMarcus Cousins transcendent play this season. But the Kings traded him on Sunday night. In a trade that wouldn’t even get accepted in NBA 2K. Without their best player – the man who had the franchise on his back – the Kings are going nowhere.
I wrote about the terrible trade here.
Why they won’t make it: They traded Boogie. For basically nothing,
Could they win a game against Golden State? They did. With Boogie. Now? Not a fucking chance.
Portland Trail Blazers
Games Back: 2
Last 10 games: 4-6
Why they should make it: Oh man. What a difference a season makes. Last year the Blazers were one of the feel good stories of the year. They lost every starter but Damian Lillard, but managed to reinvent the team and win 44 games last season, finishing 5th in the West and beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round before losing to the Golden State Warriors in round two.
Terry Stotts would have been coach of the year in any other season, but he finished behind Steve Kerr and the Warriors record breaking 73 win regular season. Still, the Blazers had a lot to be proud of last season, boasting one of the league’s most potent offenses lead by one of its bright stars.
The Blazers continue to enjoy one of the best offensive attacks in the entire NBA – lead by one of the league’s highest scoring back courts in the form of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Lillard is having another great season. Averaging a career high 25.7 points per game on a career best 43% shooting. He’s also adding 5.8 assists and 4.9 boards per game.
CJ McCollum has also picked up right where he left off after winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season. He’s scoring a career high 23.4 points per game on a career best mark 48% shooting and also hitting 90% of his free throws. McCollum is also chipping in 3.7 boards, 3.6 dimes and a steal per game.
Maurice Harkless is also enjoying a career year. Hitting all-time highs in each of the five major categories (points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals) and being a solid presence on both sides of the floor for the Blazers this year.
The Blazers also made a splash by acquiring young Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Mason Plumlee. The younger Nurkic gives Portland a bigger, younger presence up front and toughness that the team has lacked all season. Adding the Bosnian Beast is also a great move to address the Blazers biggest weakness by far.
Why they won’t make it: Portland’s defense has fallen off a cliff this season. They are by far the worst defensive team in the NBA allowing a league worst 114.1 points per 100 possessions. This negates the fact that they have the sixth best offense in the league by far. The Blazers are even worse than awful defensive teams like the Lakers, the Nets and the Suns.
The main cause is the failure of the Blazers to add a significant defensive contributor in the off-season. They overachieved last season in the backcourt and have fallen off a cliff this year. Without making a move for some defensive help – especially on the perimeter – there is very little chance that Portland will make a run at the playoffs. Even with one the best offensive games in the association.
Could they beat Golden State in a game? Yes but it would have to be a shoot-out and the Warriors would have to be ice cold and suffer some pretty big lapses on the back end. So theoretically it’s entirely possible, but realistically it probably wouldn’t happen.
New Orleans Pelicans
Games Back: 2.5
Last 10 games: 4-6
Why they should make it: The New Pelicans just traded for one of the best big men in the NBA in the NBA in DeMarcus Cousins who is also having by far the best offensive season of his career. Boogie is averaging 27.8 points per game on 45% shooting including an incredible 35% from three point range on 4.9 attempts per game for the 6’11”, 270 pounder. Boogie is currently 4th in league scoring.
The fact that Boogie can stretch the floor as well as he does should make opposing defenses very afraid as he can still tear them apart inside as well. Boogie is a force of nature on the offensive end and is any interior D’s worst nightmare.
He’s also a monster defensively as well with the 9th best defensive rebound percentage in the NBA and a top 10 defensive box plus/minus score. Boogie’s 472 defensive rebounds are good enough for 8th in the league. He’s also 15th in the association in defensive win shares and also in the top 20 in block percentage. Boogie can get it done on either side of the floor and now he’s being paired with a man who is even better defensively than he is.
Anthony Davis is 6th in the entire association in defensive rating. He’s 4th in defensive win shares and tied for 10th with Boogie in defensive box plus/minus. He’s also one of the league’s best blockers as he’s second in the league with 131 blocks and 3rd in block percentage and second in blocks per game. He has the 4th most defensive rebounds in the NBA with 514.
Davis is an offensive phenom as well. He’s currently 5th in league scoring with 27.7 points per game and is sixth in boards per game with 12, averaging a double-double for the season. Davis, like Boogie, has an ability to stretch the floor, although unlike Boogie, he hasn’t hit three point range yet, settling for a nice jumper instead.
Both men can move the ball extremely well for bigs and visions of 4-5 pick n’ rolls are dancing through everyone’s head. We really have no idea what heights these two towers can hit together but we do know that this is the best big man combo put together since Tim Duncan and David Robinson in San Antonio. The sky is literally the limit with these two.
The Cousins trade automatically makes the Pelicans the favourite for the 8th seed.
Why they won’t make it: It’s really hard to imagine a scenario where the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs. There’s always the possibility that the pairing of Boogie and The Brow doesn’t work out, but honestly these two are far too talented and Cousins has far too much to prove for that to be the case.
Can they beat the Golden State Warriors in a game: Oh god yes. I think they can beat the Warriors in multiple games. In fact, I think that of all of these teams, New Orleans is the best match for the Warriors in that their twin towers exploit Golden State’s biggest weakness: the lack of a dominant interior defender.
Let’s face it, Draymond Green can’t kick both of these guys in the balls. Even if he did, I doubt that would stop them long. The Warriors could be in a lot of trouble if this ends up being their first round match-up.
The Boogie-lead Sacramento Kings already beat the Warriors earlier this month in a game where Cousins went one assist shy of a triple double with 32 points, 12 rebound and 9 dimes in a thrilling 109-106 victory. Imagine if Cousins and Davis both put up those types of numbers in a game.
Look out Warriors! These two could be your worst nightmare.
Games Back: 3
Last 10 games: 6-4
Why they should make it: Harrison Barnes is having a career year. The type of year that we knew he could have if he ever moved his way up the scoring depth chart in Golden State. Sadly, being stuck behind Curry and Thompson meant his touches were never going to increase there. Instead he’s been set free in Dallas to become the type of player we always knew he could be. Averaging a career best 20.1 points per game to go along with 5.2 boards and 1.5 assists, Barnes has been the man in Dallas.
He’s getting it done in ways that the man he replaced, Chandler Parsons, never could in the lone star state and is also doing it on both sides of the floor as he’s enjoying a career high player efficiency rating of 17.3 and a 26.2% usage rating. Dallas is betting big on Harrison Barnes and he isn’t letting them down.
Wesley Matthews is enjoying a resurgent season after struggling in his first campaign with the Mavericks. Putting up 15.3 points per game to go along with 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists. Matthews has resurrected his 3 point game as well, hitting 38% from downtown.
Undrafted point guard Yogi Ferrell has been the feel good story for the Mavs this season. In 10 games with Dallas, he’s averaging 14.2 points, 4.7 assists and 3 boards with a whopping 17.0 player efficiency rating and he’s helped to ignite Dallas’ recent surge toward the playoffs.
Another nice surprise this year has been Seth Curry, who has found himself a home in Dallas, putting up a career year and given us hope for a Curry vs. Curry playoff battle in the first round. Even if those hopes are increasingly slim with recent developments with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Of course, Dirk Nowitzki remains Dirk Nowitzki and even if we only see flashes of the player he once was in his prime, he still has one of the most beautiful fade-away jumpers in the entire history of the NBA. Dirk is one of those guys we really need to enjoy while we’ve got him. A first ballot Hall of Famer in the twilight of his career. It would be nice to see the big German get one more playoff appearance.
Why they won’t make it: The Mavericks are thin up front. Andrew Bogut has been struggling with injuries this season and the team is relying on Dirk way too much for what little boards they can get.
Dallas is a team that struggles rebounding on either side of the floor and unless they’re going to make a move for a rebounding big at the deadline, I don’t see that getting any better.
If not for the emergence of Seth Curry and Yogi Ferell, Dallas would be struggling with depth at every position and that is a huge negative going into a playoff race. I just don’t see how the Mavs have the horses to pull it off with so little to offer off the bench.
It might be time for the Mavs to finally let it go and blow it up, no matter how delusional Mark Cuban is about this team competing.
Can they win a game against Golden State? Honestly, I don’t think they can. Dallas just doesn’t have the depth and has even bigger problems in the interior than the Warriors do with Bogut hurting. I think it would be a clean sweep in a potential match-up.
Games back: 3.5
Last 10 games: 4-6
Why they should make it: The Timberwolves are one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA. Sure they’re not quite ready for prime time and they lack the experience and maturity to fully take advantage of coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive sets, but they’re fantastic to watch and have been one of my top League Pass teams all season.
Last year’s rookie of the year Karl-Anthony Towns is having an incredible sophomore season. His 23.7 points per game is good enough for 14th in the entire association while his 11.8 boards place his just behind Anthony Davis at 7th overall. The young centre is also 13th in the league in player efficiency rating with a 24.5. Towns is an elite offensive talent and is developing into one of the premiere players in the entire league.
On the other end, he’s been just as spectacular with 1.4 blocks per game as well as a top 20 defensive rebound percentage. He’s been getting back and getting in on defensive plays and is developing into a force on both sides of the floor. His 15th overall value over replacement ranking is a testament to his stellar play and importance to the young Wolves.
His sidekick, third year forward Andrew Wiggins is continuing to improve at an exponential rate as he’s enjoying a career high 23.2 points per game to go along with 4.1 boards and a career best mark in assists as well with 2.5 per game. Wiggins’ accuracy has also shot up this season with a 46% overall field goal percentage including 36% from 3 point range.
Under Tom Thibodeau, Wiggins is also using his athleticism and speed to become a much more versatile defender who many hope will develop not into Maple Jordan but into a Maple Pippen up front. That certainly seems to be Thibs hopes for the young Canadian as well and so far Wigging seems up to the challenge.
Fourth year players Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad are continuing to develop into meaningful contributors for the Timberwolves while Ricky Rubio remains one of the most dynamic and exciting passers in all of the NBA in his sixth season in Minnesota.
Why they won’t make it: The Zach LaVine injury ripped a whole in this line-up that can’t easily be filled. In his third season, the young guard really coming into his own, averaging 18.9 points off 46% shooting including 39% from three point range. This was really LaVine’s break out season where he established himself on the court as opposed to just being a star in the dunk contest. It all came to a screeching halt with a torn ACL.
The lack of depth on the Timberwolves makes it impossible to replace him.
The Wolves are still struggling defensively as well. They’re a young team and will come around but have shown some improvement throughout the season which is promising.
It also appears at times as though the team’s youth and athleticism can clash with their coach’s more methodical style. Both on offense as well as defense. The Wolves are a team that you really want to see break out more and use the fast break and their speed to run all over older teams, but Thibs likes a slower pace and sometimes there really needs to be happy medium to take full advantage of this team’s youth and vitality.
The Wolves will be a playoff team one day, but their inexperience combined with the devastating LaVine injury and the Boogie Cousins going to New Orleans give every indication that their time is not now in terms of a playoff push.
Could they beat Golden State in a game? I don’t see it out of the realm of possibility that the Timberwolves could use their speed and athleticism to run on Golden State. Especially considering how hard it will for the Warriors to contain Towns inside. I could see the Wolves stealing at least one if they matched up in the playoffs.
Well there you have it. The teams who are all fumbling toward ecstasy in hopes of backing into the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff race.
The Pelicans have certainly put themselves in the best position with the acquisition of DeMarcus Cousins but everything could change today with the trade deadline and this whole article could rendered obsolete with one big blockbuster trade that none of us saw coming involving one of these teams.
The beautiful thing about the NBA is that more often than not anything is possible down the stretch and once a team is in the playoff, a unlikely run can definitely happen.
I can’t wait to see where these squads go next and what lies ahead in this playoff race and all the intrigue about to unfold as teams jokey for position in the final games of the season. This is absolutely the best time of year to be a basketball fan.