As the final 20 games of the NBA season approach, playoff seeding becomes more clear. The Western Conference has six teams (Denver, Sacramento, Minnesota, Portland, Dallas, New Orleans) within 5 games of each other fighting for the 8th and final seed. Here’s our predictions for who will rise up in the West and solidify that highly coveted playoff berth.
DENVER NUGGETS (Sean)
Before making this selection, I absolved my previous sins of extensively claiming the Nuggets would inevitably fall-off during the month of February. My mind failed to grasp the idea of this odd cast of characters grinding out an eight seed, but I’ve finally seen the light. Between analytic analysis, a quality head coach and this collection of Tetris like pieces that seemingly fit together, the Denver Nuggets will make the playoffs.
While I’m not one to hang my hat on analytics, I do acknowledge the extensive numerical research, calculation and potential accuracy they offer. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, a measure of team strength, accounts for game-by-game efficiency, strength of schedule, pace, days of rest, game location and preseason expectations. Each day, ESPN takes these BPI’s and simulates every team’s remaining schedule 10,000 times to determine playoff odds. Based on this analytic, Denver has a 65% chance of making the playoffs, which gives them a substantial edge over the next closest contending team Portland (20.8%).
Now I know you’re thinking, “Didn’t this guy mention something about a quality head coach?? It’s definitely not Brian Shaw or George Karl, but I honestly don’t know who holds the clipboard in Mile-High City…” The name you’re searching for is Mike Malone. Malone, a relatively new head coach in the league, built himself a steady path of success through college and NBA coaching ranks. After five years of assistant coaching at the collegiate level, the New York Knicks hired Malone as a coaching associate in 2001 and promoted him just two seasons later. He then spent time as an assistant for Cleveland’s King James era (2005–2010), which included 5 playoff appearances, a 2007 NBA Finals appearance, and a franchise-record, league-best 66–16 record in the 2008–2009 season. Malone helped Chris Paul’s New Orleans Hornets to the playoffs in 2011 by making them the most improved defense in the league (without Tyson Chandler). Following the 2011 NBA playoffs, the Golden State warriors hired Malone as an assistant coach for Mark Jackson’s staff. You probably won’t need much reminding about Steph “Babyface Assassin” Curry’s coming out party in the 2013 NBA Playoffs when Dub Nation upset the third-seed Denver Nuggets (ironic) before falling to eventual Western Conference Champions San Antonio Spurs. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Malone as the highest-paid NBA assistant coach in 2012 and NBA General Managers named him the best assistant coach the same year.
All this lead Malone to his first NBA head coaching job, Demarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings. His first season at the helm proved to be a learning experience as the Kings compiled a poor 28–54 record, but Boogie broke out as a star. Cousins, in his fourth season, averaged career bests with 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks and a 49.6 field-goal percentage per game. The following season, Demarcus came out on fire leading the Kings to a 10–6 start, which qualified them as the seventh seed at the time. The Kings early success came to a screeching halt when Doctors diagnosed Boogie with viral meningitis, subsequently missing the next 10 games. Losses began piling up and GM Vlade Divac inexplicably fired Malone, one of two (Mike Krzyzewski) head coaches Cousins excelled under, for “poor performance.” Moving from one weird situation to another, the Denver Nuggets announced Malone as their head coach for the 2015–16 season where he lead them to a 33–49 record and a bottom ten finish. However, this year, the Nuggets currently sit in the eighth-seed, 3 full games ahead of Portland, with a team who has zero all-stars. .
If you haven’t played Tetris, stop reading and figure out a way to access the game. However, if you’re like me and spent way too many hours in high school math class gaming out on your TI-84 calculator, then you’ll understand where I’m going. Although Tetris pieces come in all different shapes as they descend to the floor, they still compliment each other. As a team, Denver ranks in the top ten for every offensive category except free throw percentage (trust me that’s probably cost them a few close games). Please reread that sentence. Their balance scoring offers SIX different players who average over 10 points per game and a fourth-ranked assist per game total of 24.7. The “Joker” has four triple doubles since the beginning of February, and season averages of 15.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. This guy’s an absolute beast. Plus, he has 3 point shooting guards in Gary Harris and potential sixth man of the year Will Barton. Then, you sprinkle in versatile small forwards like Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari who can shoot, slash to the rim or create their own shot. Emmanuel Mudiay and Kenneth Faried, other valuable pieces whose playing time fell significantly since the beginning of the season, still find ways to contribute in Mike Malone’s system.
I’m telling you this odd cast of characters will scrap out the eighth seed this season, much like their head coach’s ascension through the coaching ranks.
DALLAS MAVERICKS (Paris)Despite having an absolutely brutal schedule to finish the season (Memphis three times, Clippers twice, Toronto, San Antonio and Golden State), I am taking the Dallas Mavericks in this mad race for the eighth seed in the west. You’re probably looking at the games listed above and thinking that I’ve already debunked my case for the Mavs, but what if I hit you with this… Dallas is the best team in the hunt…
Let’s look at their starting lineup of either Yogi Ferrell or Young Chef Curry, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk and their newest addition, Nerlens Noel. This is about as well rounded as it gets considering they don’t have any all stars on their roster. Forgive me if I ramble a bit, but they check every basketball skill that you need to compete with anyone on any given night. Shooting with positions 1–4, elite perimeter defense in Matthews and Barnes, Nerlens gives them a new look interior defense, Dirk’s experience and calming demeanor trickles through the rest of the team each game and my personal favorite, interchangeable lineups with two point guards that can also play off of the ball. Yes, the combination of Ferrell and Curry is my favorite part about this team. Set aside the fact that they were both undrafted and were originally signed to 10 day contracts, both of these dudes have shown that they belong in the league without a doubt. Curry averaging 12.5 ppg on 48% shooting and 43% from three and Ferrell averaging 12.2 ppg with 5 assists per game in his 11 starts. These two not only show they can produce consistent numbers at the most important position on the court, but also show the ability to break out and take over a game if given the opportunity. Chef Seth is ranked 11th on ESPN’s fantasy point guard ratings for the month of February… just sayin.
Before I move on from the guards, I think what Dallas has done with their roster has actually been genius. Everyone knows how point guard heavy the NBA is today and Dallas essentially went the opposite direction. By rotating two point guards that would probably be back ups for 90% of the league, they cut their losses at that position while focusing on the rest of the team. Call me crazy but other than the Warriors, Dallas might have the best 2–5 lineup in the league with Matthews, Barnes, Nowitzki and Noel. I love that they haven’t fallen into the notion of “needing a point guard”. It feels a lot like when NFL teams throw wide receivers in the backfield for five or six carries a game. Your running attack certainly isn’t going to win you the game, but showing the threat of getting 4 or 5 yards simply because the defense isn’t thinking about the run may be just as effective. Now they are still 3 games out of the playoffs so this theory hasn’t exactly been proven to be successful but I think they are onto something.
With the rest of the roster you almost know what to expect. Matthews competes as hard as anyone else on the court each and every night and one of the better spot up shooters around. Barnes has been one of the most consistent scorers from each level of the court (3 pt, midrange, in the paint) in the league this season. He’s averaging 20.2 ppg and it seems like he scores exactly 20 each game. Nerlens Noel is now the “DeAndre Jordan” of this team defending the rim, cleaning the glass and catching the occasional alleyoop. Dirk will always be there for you no matter how much of a physical disadvantage he might have at his age, people can’t guard him. Adding all of this with rotation players like Devin Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell (who I absolutely love and will replace Dirk beautifully, just watch), this roster has 8 seed written all over it to me.
The final piece of this puzzle might be the most assuring one, Rick Carlisle. One of 11 people to win a championship as both a player and coach, his experience and know-how is acknowledged around the league as he’s rounding out his 16th season as a head coach. Having an almost perfect mixture of being a “players coach” yet holding strict standards for his team’s, Carlisle might be the best coach for this relatively young roster. Nerlens Noel was held out of the starting lineup entering his third game as a Mav for being late to a team meeting. I am usually against tedious punishments like this, especially with grown men, but I can’t help but feel he is setting a good precedent for accountability with this team moving forward. After signing a 5 year extension going into last season, barring any huge disagreements with Cuban, Carlisle is here to stay in Dallas. I’m sure he will adapt to this team like he’s done in the past.
There’s truly no right or wrong answer when predicting who will come out with the 8th seed right now. All six of the contending teams, except for maybe Sacramento, have pretty convincing points on why they are going to be the final playoff team in the west. Sean’s Nuggets may have a slight advantage being up 3 whole games in the standings, the sheer statistics of the team and the fact that the Mavs have one of the tougher schedules from here on out. I still think the mixture of talent and experience in Dallas will prevail though.