The Western Conference playoff race has taken form and the next seven weeks are going to separate the contenders from the pretenders in the NBA playoff picture. With eight spots per conference, it is safe to assume that the top five sports are all but guaranteed come April 20th, the end of the regular season. With room to move around the top five spots the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Nuggets , and Grizzlies seem to have the first five seeds locked up barring a massive cold streak from any one of them. While the elites battle for supremacy of the conference, there are still three spots to be claimed by talented and potentially dangerous teams. The Western Conference has essentially six teams competing for three final spots with an opportunity to contend for an NBA Championship. This final month and half will decide who’s going to make it in, and who’s not.
If the season were to end today the Dallas Mavericks would be on the outside looking in. With a record of 27-33, the Mavericks are the current 11-seed in the West but hope still remains, as they are six games behind the eight seed with a chance for a playoff spot. It will be a difficult task for Dallas to work their way up the rankings but it can be done. Sidelined for the first 27 games of the regular season due to injury, Dirk Nowitzki is still trying to get his game back as the team is only 15-18 since his return. Nowitzki is averaging just above 16 points a game to go along with 6.6 rebounds. Despite those numbers being a solid stat line for an NBA season, they must see improvement as Dirk is the leader of this team and the primary source of offense despite the injury. The Mavs have some interesting pieces around Dirk including the lethal O.J. Mayo and budding point guard Darren Collison, but this team still centers around their big man and will rely on Nowitzki to find his game before it’s too late.
The last time the Golden State Warriors had only one loss without a losing streak following that loss was December 22nd. Meet the NBA’s streakiest basketball team. Since that day the Warriors have created losing streaks consisting of two games, three games, another two games, and six games. With losing streaks also comes winning streaks and the Warriors have had a fair share of winning, as they boast a current record of 35-27 and are the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoff hunt. The streakiness of Golden State encompasses the style to which they play, feeding off momentum to win basketball games. When hot, Golden State is as dangerous as any team in the West. They thrive on big time scoring and playmaking from their star Steph Curry. Curry’s recent 54-point performance at the Garden shows his ability to take over a game and make it his own.
Unfortunately, this team struggles to find their rhythm at times and Curry is asked to do too much, too often. The Warriors still have a strong supporting cast around Curry with guys like All-Star David Lee, Klay Thompson, Carl Landry and Andrew Bogut, as well as one of the best sixth men in the game in Jarrett Jack. The talent and depth on this roster alone should be enough for Golden State to reach the playoffs, but if they want to truly contend with the elite teams in the Western Conference they will need to improve their chemistry and become more consistent all around. They have the pieces to do it which is why the remainder of the regular season will be crucial for them to fine tune their game and become real contenders.
The Portland Trailblazers have as bright of a future as any team on this list, and for that reason, fans of this team should be very excited for the next few years. They have the odds on favorite for Rookie of the Year in Damian Lillard, a big time player who can make big time shots for this club. Portland also has two time All Star and one of the most feared big men in the game in Lamarcus Aldridge, who may just be entering the prime of his career with averages of 20 plus points in the last three seasons. Not to mention Nicolas Batum, who has one of the most complete skill sets in the NBA on both sides of the ball.
The reason that the Trailblazers disappointing standing of 10th in the West with a record of 28-32 and an abysmal 3-9 record in the month of February is the lack of talent behind the starting rotation. Portland’s bench is one of the weakest in the NBA and even with the addition of newly acquired Eric Maynor, this team lacks size and scoring outside of the starting five. If Portland has any chance of earning one of the final three playoff spots they will need for someone to step up off the bench. The problem is there is just not a player on the Trailblazers’ bench who has the talent or ability to be their saving grace. Even if Portland cannot make the playoffs this year, there is still plenty of reason for hope and optimism. As I said before, the Trailblazers are an extremely young and talented team and if solid benches pieces can be added over the next couple of seasons, Portland will be contending in the playoffs very soon.
Many thought that the Utah Jazz would be sellers around the trade deadline. They were expected to trade away at least one of their two game changing big men, Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap, both of whom will be free agents this coming summer. These two form one of the most talented and deepest frontcourts in the NBA along with up and comers Derrick Favors and Enes Kantor. The fact that neither Jefferson nor Millsap were traded means the Jazz are ready to contend, right now. Although the Jazz may not stack up well against the Thunder or the Spurs, there is no reason to believe that Utah won’t contend for one of the final three spots in the Western Conference. They are currently sitting at the 8th seed and are a mere half game behind the Golden State Warriors, holding a record of 32-29. Although some may be surprised at the current position of the Jazz, let me tell you that this team is no joke.
Utah has talent to go along with depth despite lacking any particular superstar. The Jazz’s biggest strength is their frontcourt, with Jefferson and Millsap manning the paint, the two are dangerous offensively and have the potential to score close to twenty points every night. The absence of starting point guard Mo Williams hurts this team greatly as he was someone who could facilitate the offense. The Jazz still have some players in the front court such as Randy Foye and Gordon Hayward, and Hayward has really come into his own this year averaging 14 points per game. If Williams can find his way back onto the court, that would instantly make Utah’s rotation far more deep and could prove the Jazz to be a dangerous team during the stretch run. The biggest problem with the Jazz however, is how they fare against the top teams in the NBA. Against opponents with records over .500, Utah has a record of 8-21 this season. The Jazz may be a playoff team but unless they can improve their play against better competition, you will not be hearing any noise from them come the postseason.
Oh what to make of the Houston Rockets. Currently at the 7th seed with a record of 33-29, the Rockets are right in the center of the playoff race. The reason for Houston becoming a playoff team is the emergence of their superstar shooting guard James Harden. There was a ton of pressure following the shocking offseason trade of Harden to Houston, but Harden has already surpassed any expectations that were placed on him. Harden has not only displayed a ridiculous ability to score averaging 26.2 points per game good for fifth in the NBA, but he has rejuvenated a Houston Rockets franchise into relevance again as this team has nowhere to go but up. If a couple key players could be added to this roster over the next few years, the Rockets future seems as bright as any. Harden is currently surrounded by other offensive players such as Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, both of whom are averaging double digits in scoring. Omer Asik has also shown to be a reliable big man, clogging the lane, getting boards, blocking shots, and warranting the contract they gave him.
Beyond Asik however, the Rockets have little to no defensive enthusiasm as they rely on a run-and-gun style offense in which the goal is to just score more points than the opponent no matter how much Houston gives up. Unfortunately for them, Houston ranks 29th in points allowed this season as well as 20th in field goal percentage. Depth is also a concern for the Rockets, as they have a shallow and inexperienced bench despite the trade for Thomas Robinson, the talented but raw power forward. Like I said, this is just the beginning for the Houston Rockets. For this season however, the Rockets will only go as far as Harden can take them. On a team that relies on scoring as many points as possible to beat their opponent, it only makes sense that they will need their best player in James Harden to carry them into the postseason.
Quick: what do you get when you have top three scorer in the game, a point guard who has averaged over 10 assists a game eight out of the last nine seasons, and the best all around center in the world? A team that would not make the playoffs if the season ended today. That’s right, the Los Angeles Lakers are currently in the 9th seed with a record of 31-31, and are 1.5 games back of the last playoff seed. The lack of dominance of the Lakers should not fall on any particular player, but a combined effort of a team that has yet to find the right chemistry. Los Angeles seem to be heading in the right direction after ending the month of February with a record of 9-4. Dwight Howard has been sensational with an absolutely ridiculous stat line of 16.1 points per game, 12 rebounds per game (1st in NBA), and 2.3 blocks per game (5th in NBA). Howard is the absolute best center in the game and will yet again be a top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Kobe Bryant remains to be an absolute superstar and the face of the Los Angeles Lakers, as he’s averaging 27.3 points per game and is the team’s crunch time go-to-guy.
But the difference between this year and any other year for Kobe is that the team no longer relies on the play of one or two guys, but needs a team effort of multiple pieces for the Lakers to be successful. Although regression has been seen by Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, both players play vital roles into the success of Los Angeles’s playoff hunt. Talks can be made about what Dwight will do next season in free agency, or whether Pau Gasol should be traded, but the fact is that the Lakers are currently talented enough to compete in the Western Conference playoffs. The difference between the Lakers and the other teams I listed in the article is that Los Angeles has a team that can win right now, with players that are ready to compete for a championship. It is just a matter of how that talent comes together and the trial and error period that any “super-team” faces during the beginning of the season. The Lakers need time and experience playing together, and as the season goes along, they will continue to improve their chemistry. Kobe’s determination alone should end up being enough for the Lakers to reach the playoffs.
The Western Conference playoff race is far from over. There are six teams that will be fighting for the final three spots to make it into the postseason and you can bet on seeing some high pressure games over the next few weeks of the regular season. Basketball games often come down to the wire and I expect nothing less of this season as the Lakers, Jazz, Rockets, Mavericks, Trailblazers, and Warriors will be competing for postseason glory. Stay tuned.