Sizing Up the NBA's Western Conference Playoff Race: Who's the Odd-Man Out?
The NBA playoffs begin Apr. 18, 2009 and as of today, only seven teams in the Western Conference can tell you with certainty whether they’ll be preparing for the first round of the postseason or the first round of the NBA Draft.
Only one of the seven, the Los Angeles Lakers, can get their marketing department started on designing playoff tickets.
The other six—the Grizzlies, Clippers, Warriors, Kings, Timberwolves, and Thunder can get their marketing department started on next summer’s campaign to convince season-ticket holders to keep spending their hard-earned money on a losing team amidst these harsh economic times.
In between the Lakers and the bottom six are eight teams vying for seven remaining playoff spots.
Call it Musical Chairs: NBA Edition.
Of those eight teams, the New Orleans Hornets, currently second in the conference, and the Utah Jazz, currently ninth, are separated by only two-and-a-half games in the standings.
Each of the eight teams is only a bad road trip away from dropping out of the playoff picture.
Before you try taking a stab at which of the eight you think won’t be included, ask yourself which of the eight you’d be willing to bet money on, or which of the eight would you be the most afraid of betting against?
There are a number of facts to consider. For example, four of the eight—Phoenix, Portland, Denver, and New Orleans have had four of the NBA’s eleven toughest schedules so far this season (based on the winning percentage of their opponents).
The other four—San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Utah have had four of the NBA’s 10 easiest schedules based on the same criteria.
The two teams currently atop the eight, New Orleans and San Antonio, are the only teams from the group to have played more home than away games.
All that being said, here’s a look at the eight teams and what their chances look like going forward in the New Year.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are currently 20-11 but this year Pop’s bunch has looked more vulnerable than ever.
The combination of preseason and early season injuries to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the loss of mainstays Brent Barry and Robert Horry, and the decline in play of veterans Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas raises questions about whether or not the Spurs have the depth to withstand another long-term injury to one of its big three.
The surprisingly efficient play of newcomers Roger Mason and rookie George Hill has added new energy to a team that looked to be aging rather quickly after last season’s playoff loss to the Lakers.
Injuries and age notwithstanding, recent playoff history and a tendency to play their best basketball in the spring suggests that the Spurs seem to be the safest bet from the eight to get an invite to the playoff party.
Unlike the Spurs, the Rockets' offseason acquisition of Ron Artest made them the team best-equipped to make the playoffs in spite of an injury to one of it’s big three. But there’s no guarantee there either.
Rockets fans can take solace in knowing that their team currently has the largest discrepancy between home and road games amongst the eight teams fighting for the seven spots. 18 of the Rockets' first 33 games this season have been road games.
The fact that last season’s historic 22-game winning streak started at the end of January gives me reason to believe that their best basketball will come in the season’s second half.
All of that makes Houston the third safest bet to make the playoffs out west and the second from the group of eight.
New Orleans Hornets
The third team in the Southwest Division fighting for one of the seven remaining playoff spots is last season’s division winners, the New Orleans Hornets. The Hornets are currently 19-9, one game better than they were through 28 games last season.
But a closer examination of the Hornets record this season shows that they are only 7-6 against teams that made the playoffs last season—a pace that probably won’t cut it should it continue.
It’s hard to imagine the Hornets going from division champ to lottery-bound in just one season, given their impressive early season record. The fact that it would be more of a surprise if the Hornets didn’t make the playoffs than it would if they did is enough of a reason to make them the fourth-safest bet to book hotel rooms for late April.
It’s hard to believe that of the remaining five teams—the Nuggets, Jazz, Blazers, Suns, and Mavericks—one of them will be represented at the Draft Lottery.
It didn’t seem all that far-fetched at the beginning of the season but all of that changed on Nov. 3 when the Nuggets traded Allen Iverson to the Pistons for Chauncey Billups.
The Nuggets, 1-3 before Billups joined the team, have won 20 of the 29 games with Billups on the active roster—a winning percentage of .690.
The Nuggets have always been a dominant home team and this season is no exception. The Nuggets are 11-4 at home this season but the four losses have come against the Lakers, Hornets, Spurs, and Cavaliers—nothing to be embarrassed about.
It should also be noted that the Nuggets are the only team to beat the defending champion Boston Celtics in Boston this season.
The Nuggets chances of winning the Northwest Division title might come down to their ability to beat the better teams at home. But as long as they are able to beat everybody else they should have no problem making the playoffs, thus making them the fifth-safest after the Lakers, Spurs, Rockets, and Hornets to make the Western Conference playoffs.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Dallas Mavericks were 2-7. Everyone had written them off and they appeared as if they were headed for their sixth consecutive loss. The Mavs were losing 112-105 to the Knicks with 2:28 left in regulation and that’s when Dirk Nowitzki took over.
Nowitzki keyed the comeback that sent the game into overtime and then scored seven more points in the extra frame to lead the Mavs to the season-saving 124-114 victory.
The Mavs have won 16 of the 21 games they’ve played since that day in New York to improve their record to a very respectable 19-12.
Even though Nowitzki deserves a lot of recognition for the Mavs turnaround, reserve Jason Terry has carved out his own chunk of the credit. Terry, the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, is averaging over 21 points per game off the bench.
The Mavs have the requisite playoff experience to help them down the stretch but whether or not they make the playoffs will depend on if they more closely resemble the team that stared out 2-7 or the one that has only lost five of their last 22 games.
The Mavs turnaround has come without the services of veteran Jerry Stackhouse who has asked the team for a trade. Stackhouse’s contract expires at the end of next season so he could net the Mavericks the additional piece to help down the stretch.
Owner Mark Cuban has never been afraid to spend, especially if adding another player is the difference between making the playoffs and watching them on TV.
I have to believe that the Mavs bad start had more to do with their adjustment to new head coach Rick Carlisle and less to do with personnel. Therefore I give the Mavs the best shot of these last four teams to qualify for the postseason.
It’s hard to imagine that a team that with four potential future Hall of Famers could miss the playoffs but that’s precisely the case with this season’s Suns.
It didn’t look as if the Suns would have anything to worry about heading into the season but all of that changed when the Nuggets acquired Billups and the Mavs turned their season around.
Suddenly, the Suns were no longer a lock to make the playoffs, so General Manager Steve Kerr acted quickly when he acquired Jason Richardson from the Charlotte Bobcats for Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, and Sean Singletary.
Kerr received a lot of criticism for last season’s trade of Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal because the Suns were in first-place at the time of the trade. What Kerr knew that many of those critics didn’t was that the Suns had a very favorable first-half schedule.
This season, the Suns have had one of the league’s most difficult schedules, so their 18-12 record is encouraging. Still, no team is under more pressure to make the playoffs.
Whether or not the Suns make the playoffs could come down to how they perform against some of their tougher road opponents in the last two months of the season—including stops in Orlando, Miami, Houston, San Antonio, Portland, Utah, Dallas, and New Orleans.
Would I have the guts to bet against the Suns making the playoffs?
I have a hard time believing that a team with O’Neal, Richardson, Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and Grant Hill isn’t good enough to crack the top eight in the conference.
If I’m wrong and the Suns do miss the postseason, then it could cost Kerr and new head coach Terry Porter their jobs.
It’s conceivable that the third-place team in the Northwest Division could find themselves only one-game back of the division title at the end of the season and still miss the playoffs.
Nobody is surprised that the Portland Trailblazers are in the playoff hunt, considering they added Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez to an already talented group. But nobody could have expected the Denver Nuggets to still be in the mix after losing their two best defenders, Marcus Camby and Eduardo Najera.
As a result, the Blazers' playoff prospects have gone from likely to questionable. With so few playoff-experienced players on their roster it’s almost certain that general manager Kevin Pritchard will make a trade to add a veteran and no team is in a better position to deal for a missing piece.
The combination of Raef LaFrentz’s huge expiring contract and a plethora of expendable talent like Channing Frye, Ike Diogu, Martell Webster, and Travis Outlaw give Portland the best chance of acquiring an impact player the likes of Michael Redd, Kirk Hinrich, Antawn Jamison, Andre Miller, or Devin Harris.
The Utah Jazz, winners of the last two Northwest Division titles, knew going into this season that they would be in a dogfight to win a third consecutive title.
With the exception of the San Antonio Spurs, the injury bug has hit no team in the conference as hard as the Jazz. Guard C.J. Miles is the only member of the team to have played in all 33 games this season.
Now comes the news that Carlos Boozer will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery next week and isn’t expected to return until after the All-Star break. Even if Boozer can return by March the Jazz will still have an uphill battle to make the playoffs with 14 of their last 23 games on the road—including stops at Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, Denver, New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio and the Lakers.
Due to all the injuries, the Jazz have already lost as many games this year at home as they did all of last season.
Despite all of the injuries it’s a small miracle they are 19-14. Part of that is due to the always brilliant coaching of Jerry Sloan and part of it is due to having the NBA’s sixth easiest schedule this season (based on opponent’s winning percentage).
It’s conceivable that the Jazz could still makes the playoffs in spite of all their injuries. If they manage to sneak and all of their key players are healthy in time for the start of the playoffs the Jazz would easily be the Western Conference team none of the top four seeds want to play in the first round.
But with so many injuries, a mediocre road record, and the most difficult part of their schedule still in front of them it’s looking more and more as if it’s going to be the Jazz who will be (pardon the pun) singing the blues come playoff time.
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