As the regular season continues to dwindle down the race to the playoffs is starting to HEAT UP, especially out West as five teams all battle for that wide open 8 seed. Some of these teams are surging late in the season for the push and some are starting to fade watching their playoff hopes ride off in the sunset.
First team in the discussion, who are currently the highest in the power rankings as of today, are the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas is 23rd in offensive rating & 12th in defensive rating going 15-9 in their last 24 games. These boys seem to be finding their stride as the season continues. With their worst start to a season since the mid-late 90’s, a lottery pick and a slow rebuild was the barrel the Mavericks were staring down. With the additions of new young players and more of the team finally healthy, the Mavs are looking to get themselves in the playoffs. I wrote an earlier article before the season began discussing the potential of Seth Curry and what he could do for this Mavericks team, thankfully he has lived up to my predictions and some. Since the All Star break, prior to the game vs the Thunder, Curry is averaging 23.6 points (58.3 FG%, 54.5 3P%), 3.4 assists, 1.6 steals.
Coach Rick Carlisle has to be given credit in keeping this team together and keeping their spirits up. I believe he is making his case for Coach of the Year, especially if Dallas were to grab the 8 seed in the West. New key additions Yogi Ferrell and Nerlens Noel have had positive impacts for the team also. Ferrell earned Rookie of the Month honors just days ago for his play on the team and Noel recorded a 15 point & 17 rebound game against Memphis on Friday.
Mavericks have a 4 game home stand and got the win in their first one last night against OKC, the other 3 are against the worst teams in the league (LAL, BKN, PHX), so these games need to be taken advantage of because they are certainly very winnable. All these signs show Dallas has good chances to grab the 8th seed.
Another team in with a solid shot is the Portland Trail Blazers who have been floating around the 9th spot for a long time refusing to be put away. The Blazers will play 10 of their final 12 games at home, but first need to survive the next two weeks, in which they play nine games (with four back-to-backs) in eight cities in 14 days. Jusuf Nurkic continues to look like an important addition, averaging 14.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in his six games with the Blazers. Being 13th in offensive rating, but 27th in defensive, it leaves holes for teams to take advantage of. It says, ‘hey this team has some scoring power, but they really lack on the defensive end’. But with former all star Damian Lillard and this past years MIP in CJ McCollum, they still have a chance. Seeing what they did last year after losing all the players they did, and it wasn't just any players, they lost the entire starting lineup minus Lillard. CJ stepping up last year is what warranted that playoff berth. With the defense lacking, the offense is really going to have to put up some numbers to get wins to propel them.
Another team to look out for is the Minnesota Timberwolves. This team moved up 3 spots in the power rankings and are 11th in offensive rating but 23rd in defensive. Timberwolves are 2nd in defense since the all star break which is huge and really gives them an edge in this race. Scoring the ball effectively and getting it done on the defensive end is a good recipe for wins. With Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns starting to get the defense going, they have as good a chance as any. KAT is averaging 23ppg, 12.3rpg, 2.9apg and Wiggins is averaging 23.3ppg, 4.1rpg, 2.4apg. They just have to keep up the same intensity they have had since the All Star break.
Last but not least, we have the New Orleans Pelicans. This team is a difficult one, and I don't mean difficult to play, I mean difficult to figure out their identity. Since the addition of All Star DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans have had trouble adjusting. The main reason is because they traded away one of the few outside shooters they had (Buddy Hield) and now are left with little-to-no outside shooting help. The inside presence and defense has been what you expected it to be and the numbers show as the defensive rating is 7th in the league, but 27th in offensive. If these boys can find their groove and start knocking down open looks, the competition needs to look out because they could be dangerous! If they can't seem to get things right shooting the ball from the outside, it won't matter what Cousins and Davis do on the inside. Coach Gentry has to figure something out for this team to start clocking wins and make a push towards the playoffs or else this trade will be looked at over the off-season and they might ship away Cousins for more assets. The smart decision would be to keep Cousins and just obtain shooters in the off-season to get better regardless of whether you make the postseason or not, you have to think about the future with these two big boys down low - It is terrifying!