The top of the Western Conference has been decided for some time now, with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Los Angeles Clippers capturing the top-four spots. The Memphis Grizzlies, behind the Clippers, are firmly entrenched in the five-seed.
Where it gets interesting though, is the six, seven, and eight seeds. The Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, and Houston Rockets are all battling for spots to make it to the postseason. The problem is, only three of the four can make it.
First let’s look at how each team stacks up right now:
Little, if anything, separates these four playoff hopefuls. Wednesday night, the Jazz helped themselves by defeating other hopeful Houston, but the last stretch of the season could see any combination of these four make it to the postseason.
So let’s try to figure out which three are most likely to capture a playoff spot, and which unlucky team will have to sit this postseason out.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
After Damian Lillard was the only 2014-15 starter remaining at the beginning of this season, it was reasonable to expect a down year in Portland. All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge left for greener pastures in San Antonio, and Portland had no business being in the playoff mix.
But Lillard has stepped up, vaulting himself into the “non-Steph Curry” MVP discussion since the All-Star break. Lillard is averaging 25.8 PPG, up from his career average of 21.1. Attempting more shots per game usually leads to a drop in efficiency, but Lillard is taking roughly 3 more shots per game on a still-efficient .505 eFG%.
Lillard has had help though, with the emergence of shooting-guard C.J. McCollum. I wrote about McCollum earlier this season, and his play has been as steady as you can ask for. McCollum, never logging more than 6.8 PPG or 16 MPG for his first two seasons, has scored 20.9 PPG in 34.9 MPG this season.
Head-coach Terry Stotts preaches defense, and while Portland isn’t exactly amazing on that end, their point differential ranks 14th in the NBA. Not a title contender, but certainly indicative of a playoff team. Portland is probably the safest bet to make the playoffs of the four teams in contention.
7. Dallas Mavericks
The timeless Dirk Nowitzki has helped the Mavericks once again into playoff contention, but an injury to young Chandler Parsons that may cost him the rest of the season is hampering the Mavericks’ ability to make a playoff run. Still though, we have seen Nowitzki do more with less.
After losing center Tyson Chandler to the Phoenix Suns in the offseason, the Mavericks defense looked like it would suddenly disappear. Unfortunately for Dallas, this has been the case so far. The Mavericks have dropped to 18th overall in opponents PPG, but on the bright side, they are tied for 11th overall in opponents FG%.
As you would expect, the Mavericks have relied heavily on their German superstar. At age 37, Nowitzki is still putting up numbers that make the rest of the league wonder what alien species he is from. With 18.8 PPG and 6.7 RPG, both up from last season, Nowitzki is doing his best to take them back to the postseason.
The Mavericks have missed out on big-name free agents in the past, most notably Deandre Jordan this past summer, and the Mavericks really could have used his inside presence during this stretch run. If the Mavericks miss the playoffs though, it won’t be any conspiracy. There just isn’t as much talent here as the other three teams.
8. Utah Jazz
Gordon Hayward, maybe the NBA’s most underrated player, has not been in the playoffs since 2011-12. Hayward was drafted the season before that, and across his career, he has only logged 4 playoff games. That could change, finally, if the Jazz can secure this playoff spot.
Hayward has been as solid as ever, averaging a career-high 19.9 PPG, along with 4.9 RPG and 3.6 APG, and with above-average defense on the wing. Hayward has improved each season, and has been very key to the Jazz’s success this season.
Utah’s biggest advantage comes in their defense, lead by center Rudy Gobert. No team but the Spurs allow less PPG from their opponents, and Gobert is one of the biggest (pun intended) reasons why. The Jazz though, are a great team defense too, as evidenced by their 2nd ranked opponent’s PPG.
If the Jazz are going to make the playoffs, it may fall on power-forward Derrick Favors. This season, Favors averages 16.9 PPG and 8.4 RPG, but his real value comes on the defensive end. Since Gobert is a hulking 7-footer, and Favors sits at 6 feet 10 inches, the two form a tough pair inside reminiscent of Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
9. Houston Rockets
How the mighty have fallen. The Rockets pushed and shoved their way to the WCF last season, falling to the eventual champion Warriors. Many expected MVP-candidate James Harden to lead the team back to the top of the West, and maybe even surpass the Warriors.
That was then, and here is now: the Rockets may miss the playoffs even though Harden is having the best statistical season of his career. For the record, Harden is putting up 28.5 PPG, 7.4 APG, and 6.3 RPG. If the Rockets had repeated their success from last season and grabbed a top-3 spot, Harden would be an MVP contender.
Houston, a usually top-1o three-point shooting team, has dropped all the way to to 21st in 3PFG%. Offensively, it’s been an ugly season in Houston. Only three qualified Rockets have a better than league average PER: Harden, Dwight Howard, and Clint Capela.
Even though most, if not all, signs point to Houston as the odd man out, don’t be so sure. The NBA is a star-driven league, and the Rockets have a real star in Harden. It seems almost against all rational thinking to give the Rockets any credit, after this disaster of a season, but with Harden at the helm, anything is possible.
As I said earlier, the Trail Blazers are a safe bet to hold on to that 6th seed. Lillard and McCollum are too good, and coach Stotts is a sneaky COTY candidate. The Jazz, as evidenced by their win against Houston on Wednesday, have the fire necessary to make a run. Whether it’s the 7th or 8th spot, expect them to stay in the playoff mix.
That leaves us with one spot for either the Mavericks or the Rockets. Without dragging this out for too long, I’ll just spoil it now: I’m picking the Rockets. Parsons’ injury seals the deal for me, and Harden is too good to miss the playoffs in one of his prime seasons.
Statistics provided by: ESPN.com and basketball-reference.com
Images thanks to: NBA.com, dallasnew.com, Fox Sports, mavs.com, zerofiltered.com, sportingnews.com, thecomeback.com, USA Today