Who will win the race for the 8th seed in the West?
For the past couple years, the West has contained a number of contenders. The Warriors hold the top spot, and although they don’t look as invincible as last year, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have the Warriors in position so far to get back to postseason glory. The Spurs and Clippers have also been near the top of the west in the past couple seasons and are yet again.
Memphis and Russell Westbrook-led Oklahoma City are no strangers to the playoffs, and the Jazz have been steadily improving to what looks like could be a playoff season this year. The top seven are all above .500. But after those seven, the rest of the conference is filled with underachievers who were supposed to have better seasons, and overachievers who weren’t supposed to be good, albeit still under .500.
First, take the Suns and the Mavericks out of the picture. The Mavericks, although they got a win over the Clippers yesterday, still look awful this year and are currently averaging 94.1 points a game, last in the NBA. The Suns have some young pieces in Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss and a solid point guard in Eric Bledsoe, but haven’t been able to put the pieces together. Opposite of the Mavericks, Phoenix are giving up 113.6, second to last in the league. Let’s look at the other contenders.
As of right now, the most dysfunctional team in the league holds the eighth spot in the West. Led by Boogie Cousins, the Kings hold a 14-17 record. Cousins is Sacramento, for better or for worse. The Kentucky big has the second highest usage rate in the league at 37.6%, only behind Russell Westbrook. He’s almost averaging 30 points and 10 boards this year, sitting at 29.1 points a game. That’s the good.
The bad obviously is how dysfunctional the Kings are as a franchise. And that dysfunction centers around Boogie. The big man is known for his outspoken attitude and antics, including his most recent incident in which he seemed to spit his mouthpiece at the Portland bench, got ejected, and then somehow came back into the game after the ejection was rescinded.
PEAK BOOGIE: DeMarcus Cousins scores 54th point, spits mouthguard, gets ejected, sprints to locker room, gets un-ejected! (full sequence) pic.twitter.com/kNQ7TRQCOs— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) December 21, 2016
The problem isn’t Boogie’s talent, it’s his attitude which seems to affect the rest of the team and organization negatively. Boogie’s antics range from not letting Isaiah Thomas shake Chris Paul’s hand to kicking chairs to receiving technical fouls and being ejected. In his seven year career, Boogie has received 99 technical fouls, nine already this year, and ten ejections.
For the Kings, the playoffs would be a step in the right direction. The Kings have the second longest playoff drought in the NBA at ten years, second to only the Timberwolves. A playoff appearance could validate the moves Vlade Divac and the Kings have made, and it could take some of the negative energy out of the organization. But as most years have gone for the Kings, the dysfunction of the organization will most likely take away the opportunity to end their ten-year playoff drought.
Portland Trail Blazers
Here’s one of those underachievers. Or maybe last year they overachieved when they earned the five seed in the West on the backs of Damian Lillard and Most Improved Player C.J. McCollum. But this year Portland hasn’t been as good, starting on the defensive end.
The Trail Blazers weren’t the best defensive team in the league last year by any means, but this year they’ve been even worse. The Blazers are giving up 112.2 points a game this year, 28th out of 30 teams and eight more than they gave up last year. Their defensive rating went from 20th last year to dead last this year.
ESPN (@espn) December 18, 2016
Lillard is right to be frustrated with his team, but he should be frustrated with himself on the defensive end. Lillard’s defensive box plus-minus is -3.1, the lowest on the team next to Jake Layman, who’s played 120 minutes all year. Lillard’s defense is so bad that people pick the point guard Dame is defending for their fantasy line-ups (I actually have friends who do this). Everyone knows Lillard and the Trail Blazers can score points, but their defense has to improve if they plan to repeat last season’s success, let alone make the playoffs.
Portland Trail Blazers’ defense as advertised: pretty bad. Golden State Warriors up 98-64 with 2:31 left in 3rd. GS shooting 61 percent.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) December 18, 2016
For the Blazers, it’s simple. After losing four starters last year, the Blazers came out of nowhere to snag the fifth seed. Now with most of the roster back, Portland, especially with a star in Damian Lillard, should be even better. They could have possibly been in line for the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round. Now, if they keep playing the way they’ve been, will be fighting just to make the playoffs. Defense is the key for them. Giving up 112 points a game won’t cut it. Terry Stotts has to fix the Blazers defense, or they won’t be as successful as they were last year.
The Nuggets roster has some young talent, but the pieces don’t quite fit together. Emmanuel Mudiay, their prized lottery pick, hasn’t lived up to Larry Brown’s “best point guard since Allen Iverson” billing with a PER of only 10. Danilo Gallinari, Will Barton, and Wilson Chandler are decent, but all provide somewhat of the same service. Their scoring (all around 15-16), effective field goal percentage (around 50%), and even PERs (from Barton at 15.1 to Chandler at 15.9) are similar. And young guys Gary Harris and Jamal Murray show promise, but aren’t there yet.
And similar to Portland, the Nuggets can score but aren’t nearly as good on the defensive end. They average 107.5 points a game (7th in the league), but give up 109.4 (26th in the league). They have players good enough to make plays, and young bigs in Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic, and Nikola Jokic. The talent is there, but a lot of the problem is that the team hasn’t learned how to play together yet, or, as I said before, don’t really fit together.
A playoff appearance would show a step in the right direction for the Nuggets. After the Carmelo trade, the Nuggets made the playoffs twice, their last a 57 win season that ended in a first round exit to the Golden State Warriors. Now back with an actual chance to make the playoffs this year, the Nuggets can prove that the steps they’ve taken have paid off. If they want to make it back for the first time since 2013, they need to improve on the defensive end.
They also need a star - not in terms of a superstar in title, but someone who will step up and take the big shots. There are good pieces on the team, but it’s hard to win in this league without a star. Perhaps the Nuggets look to offload some of their pieces for a star to make a playoff push. A player like John Wall or Eric Bledsoe I believe would put the Nuggets over the top in a Western Conference that’s point guard-heavy at the top.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans were on the up and up two years ago. Anthony Davis was on his way to NBA superstardom, coming off a season in which he averaged over 24 points and 10 rebounds, led the league in blocks at 2.9, and posted the highest PER at 30.8. New Orleans was swept by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, but things were looking up for the Pelicans. Alvin Gentry, an assistant on Golden State’s staff at the time, became the head coach that offseason. Most people were sure that Gentry would make Davis even more lethal.
Fast forward two years later, and Davis is still on the up and up. But the Pelicans aren’t. Last season didn’t provide the same excitement for the Pelicans, who started off the season 1-11 and never recovered. Anthony Davis had another season averaging over 24 points and 10 rebounds, but the Pelicans were nowhere near the playoffs. This year looks like a continuation of last year’s team. Davis is shouldering the load once again, averaging almost 30 to go along with 11.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a game. Yet the team started the season 2-10. One of those ten losses came in a game in which Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds along with seven steals, five assists, and four blocks.
Crowdfunding to buy Anthony Davis a new back since the weight of carrying the Pelicans will soon break this one. Please donate. #nba— Paul W. Purcell (@purcellpw) November 2, 2016
However, Jrue Holiday came back into the lineup after missing the first 12 games to be with his wife. Since Holiday’s return, the Pelicans have gone 10-11. Sure, they aren’t setting the world on fire. But 10-11 is an obvious improvement from 2-10, and it might be good enough to get into the playoffs. The question is will Holiday and the supporting cast provide enough help for Anthony Davis.
Alvin Gentry could be on the hot seat this year if the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs. After a 45-37 season in 2014-2015 season, Gentry was supposed to improve the Pelicans and make Anthony Davis into an even more efficient offensive player. He’s done the latter, but the Pelicans have only gotten worse. Other players need to provide help for Anthony Davis if the Pelicans have a real shot at the playoffs.
In the year they made the playoffs, Tyreke Evans (16.6 points), Eric Gordon (13.4), Holiday (14.8), and Ryan Anderson (13.7) all provided help for Davis. The Pelicans also only gave up 98.6 points a game, 11th in the league. This year, Holiday at 14.9 points a game is the only other player providing consistent help, and the Pelicans are giving up 106.6 points a game, 24th in the league. Gentry must get his team to defend, but it’s on the others to step up and help Davis. Time will prove if Gentry can get the Pelicans back to the playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers
Overachieving isn’t the right word for the Lakers. They have plenty of young talent to make the playoffs. The only problem really would be that they don’t quite know how to win yet. As with a lot of teams on this list and younger teams in particular, the Lakers give up a lot of points (110.4 to be exact).
But offensively, the Lakers have numerous playmakers. At guard, Lou Williams could win another Sixth Man of the Year award. And the backcourt still features young guns D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson who can create as well. Larry Nance, Jr. provides energy and rebounding for the Lakers, and Julius Randle can do a little bit of everything. The third year big man out of Kentucky recorded two triple-doubles this year already, and could be a Draymond Green, do-it-all type player for the Lakers.
The talent is all there for the Lakers. But for a franchise that has won 16 championships, losing isn’t welcome. The Lakers want to get back into the playoffs as soon as possible. They have the talent to do it, but it’s just like Oklahoma City in the early Westbrook-Durant years. They were talented, but not ready to win yet. As with most teams on this list, defense is the name of the game. Luke Walton has managed a lot of personalities so far in LA, but now the biggest challenge for any coach of a young team is getting them to play defense. If Walton can do that, the Lakers have a legitimate shot at returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
The team with the worst record on the list is without a doubt in the underachieving category. Minnesota lays claim to back to back Rookie of the Years with the one player that GMs want the most to start their team with. How is it that the Timberwolves aren’t better?
For one, it’s defense. Most would think that with Tom Thibodeau at head coach, the Timberwolves’ defense would be better. But Minnesota’s defensive rating this year is 111, 26th in the league. The biggest thing Minnesota needed to fix from last year was defense. So far, nothing’s changed. The Timberwolves have given up just as many points as last year (106) and have a slightly worse defensive rating this year (last year they had a 110.1).
Granted one of these videos is against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, but there’s just a lot of ball watching. But to give up 119 points to the Nets is horrendous for a Thibodeau-led team, let alone any NBA team.
It doesn’t make sense for a team with this much talent to only have 10 wins at this point in the season. Each of the team’s three superstars — Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach Lavine — have a negative defensive box plus-minus. That has to change, or Minnesota’s woes will continue.
In their wins, Minnesota is only giving up 95.4 points a game. But in losses, the Timberwolves are giving up almost 111 points. The name of the game is defense for them. A playoff trip for them would also signal progress, as it would for a lot of teams competing for this spot. But the T’wolves have been stacking up talent for a couple years now, and have good enough talent to get to the playoffs. They were a popular pick to end their 12 year hiatus from the playoffs. If they can defend, then I think they can make a run and end up in the playoffs. Thibodeau somehow has to get these young players to want to play defense, or at least put in an effort.
Every team on this list has talent and potential. But all potential means is “ain’t nothing yet”. Most of the teams need to step up their defense if they want to make it to the playoffs and fulfill that potential. Each team has its strengths and its weaknesses. I think the first team to play defense consistently will pull ahead in this race between teams stuck in the cycle of not being good enough.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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