The NBA’s Western Conference has a bizarre feel to it at the moment. There are 7 very good teams all of whom are a lock to make the playoffs and then 6 flawed teams all scraping it out for the final spot. The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the 7th spot with 32 wins, a mark that would see them in the hunt for a top 3 seed in the East where as Denver are currently in 8th a full 7 games behind.
This severe drop off means that whoever does emerge to claim the final place will in all likelihood get utterly humiliated by the Golden State Warriors. Lets have a look at the contenders and what making the playoffs would mean for them.
Denver Nuggets (current 8 seed 25-31)
The Nuggets have been quietly assembling an exciting roster with a distinctly European feel. Small Forward Danilo Gallinari has been the team’s primary weapon for the past few seasons and is an effective scorer from the wing. However, this season he has been joined by two promising talents from our side of the Atlantic, Serbian Centre Nikola Jokic and Spanish forward Juan Hernangomez.
Jokic is an exceptional rebounder and passer from the post who has been putting up solid performances all season. His 17pt, 21rb, 12ast line from the recent victory against the Warriors was particularly eye catching. As was his 40 point eruption at Madison Square Garden against the hapless Knicks. Similarly Hernangomez has impressed this season with his combination of length, athleticism and shooting causing nightmares for opposing defences.
The frontline of Jokic and Hernangomez could develop into something really special. They can both run the floor, distribute, shoot and attack the glass. Rim protection can be an issue for the pair of youngsters but the addition of Mason Plumlee should provide some cover in that area.
A playoff appearance would be huge for a franchise that has struggled in the post Carmelo Anthony era. However, it is unclear whether a mauling at the hands of Golden State would be the best thing for this young squad.
Sacramento Kings (current 9 seed 24-33)
Sacramento have been an absolute clown car of a franchise for years now. They are the Western Conference’s New York Knicks with issues ranging from a nightmare owner to a superstar player who behaves like a 7 foot toddler.
This 7 foot toddler is however, the only reason they are in the hunt for a playoff berth. DeMarcus Cousins is probably the most talented player on any of these rosters. A 7 footer who can handle, shoot and dominate with his size and strength, Cousins gives the Kings a punchers chance on any night.
The issue for Sacramento is that on any night Cousins can equally look disinterested, unengaged on defence and liable to fly of the handle at anyone in his vicinity. He constantly leads the league in technical fouls and is considered a toxic locker room presence.
In Cousins defence he does have some grounds for being pissed off with the Kings organisation. In his 7 years in the league Sacramento has failed to surround him with anything resembling a solid roster. The current motley crew includes veterans such as Ty Lawson and Matt Barnes and hardly provides Cousins with much support.
It is hard to see the Kings in their current state making the playoffs and if they did it would hardly provide them with much benefit. It seems inevitable the Cousins will depart soon and the Kings should be thinking about the rebuilding process
Portland Trailblazers (current 10 seed 23-33)
Portland have been one of the most disappointing teams in the West if not the entire league. Having punched well above their weight last season to make the second round of the playoffs this chump predicted they would be the third seed this season. the reality has been very different.
Portland have regressed to where most thought they would be last season having lost 4 of their 5 starters. The pressure on their high powered backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has simply been too much as role players such as Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis have not repeated their stelar performances from a year ago.
It remains to be see if the addition of Jusuf Nurkic from Denver does anything to boost Portland’s chances. Nurkic has a strong post presence as well as a nice mid range game which could add some much needed variety to the Blazers 3 point heavy offence.
Out of all the teams on this list Portland is probably best equipped to deal with a playoff series. Most of the squad has been to the postseason the last two seasons and they have the experience. That is not to say they will be able to put up any meaningful resistance but at least it wont be completely new for them.
New Orleans Pelicans (current 11 seed 23-34)
Much like the Kings the Pelicans are a one man team. Anthony Davis is arguably the most exciting young player in the league and he puts up monster numbers almost every night. However, there is a reason he puts up these numbers, the Pelicans have completely failed to provide him with any help. Davis has to do almost everything for this team and he has done an admirable job dragging them this far.
Playoffs maybe a bridge to far for this poorly constructed roster, much like The Kings a step back is what is required. If New Orleans can finally surround Davis with some talent they could become a factor in the loaded West.
Dallas Mavericks (current 12 seed 22-34)
I’ll be honest I’ve only included the Mavs here so I can include the TWolves who I backed for the eight seed at the start of the season. The reality is that neither team are likely to make it. For much of the season the Mavericks have been absolutely terrible but there have been promising signs over the last few months.
Harrison Barnes has been solid if unspectacular, Deron Williams and Seth Curry have occasionally looked like functional NBA players and we have had the odd moment of pure nostalgia from Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk could probably still hit that one legged fade away well into his 60s.
It would be nice for Dallas to send Nowitzki off with a playoff appearance but for his final games to be an absolute savaging by Steph and co. would not be a pleasant finale for the greatest European to ever play in the NBA. Lets remember Dirk for his glorious prime and not for this rather sad Mavericks team.
Minnesota Timberwolves (current 13 seed 22-35)
Ah Minnesota. The yung Wolves have let me down this year, occasional brilliance combined with spectacular implosions have defined the season. There have been some wonderful performances including wins against The Clippers, Thunder, Rockets and Raptors. But damaging defeats at home to the likes of The Heat, Pistons, Pelicans and Mavs have realistically scuppered any chance of a playoff appearance.
However, along with Denver the TWolves have the brightest future amongst these teams. Karl Anthony Towns has built on his outstanding rookie season and Andrew Wiggins has continued to put up gaudy numbers, punctuated by back to back 40 point outings against The Cavs and Nuggets. Zach Lavine too has improved his game aa a reliable third option and between these three young stars, all 21 and under, Minnesota has a incredibly solid core for the future.
There are issues to work out though. The bench has been one of the worst in the league and the defensive issues that blighted them last season have not been remedied by Coach Thibodeau. Ricky Rubio remains a flawed if serviceable player and rookie Kris Dunn has been patchy at best.
A Playoff berth would be huge for a franchise that owns the longest barren spell in the NBA but I fear another year in the lottery beckons. Another season to round out this roster and impose his identity on the squad should see Thibs have the TWolves fighting for a post season spot in 2018.
Who will emerge victorious to take on Golden State. In the words of Highlander ‘There can be only one’. At this stage of the season possession is nine tenths of the law which points towards Denver. The Nuggets have been on a steady upwards trend for most of the year and none of the teams below have shown the ability to put together a consistent run.
So Denver it is, The Nuggets are the only franchise in the history of the NBA to beat a top seed as an eight seed. Another shock on the cards? Unfortunately for fans in The Mile High City I think not.