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Monday, July 4, 2022
Home Sports NBA Playoff Push: Western Conference Wild Cards - Basketball Insiders

Playoff Push: Western Conference Wild Cards – Basketball Insiders

The second half of the NBA season is all about the trade deadline, All-Star weekend and getting ready for the playoffs. Three weeks from now, any major roster moves will be made and the All-Star festivals will be in the rearview mirror. The play-off positioning race will be in full swing, with several teams playing for home field advantage, and others trying to avoid the play-offs.

Most of the attention this season was on the Eastern Conference, and with good reason. Brooklyn’s “big try” delivered the drama, the Heat reloaded, and the Bulls are rightful title contenders for the first time since Michael Jordan wore red. On top of that, there is the defending champion Bucks who have quietly collected victories as the season progresses.

From West, four teams separated themselves from the rest of the group. The Suns and Warriors are probably the best teams in the league, while the Grizzlies and Jazz continue to give hope to retail teams in the league. Some teams have been hit harder by the injury error (and COVID) than others, but they all have 82 games on their schedule.

As the matches tick off and the playoffs begin to take shape, there are four teams in the West that have a chance to turn things around. What they look like at the moment and what they look like in April can be very different. Several factors will be at play as these teams could potentially shake things up in the Wild, Wild West.

Los Angeles Clippers

All the focus in Los Angeles was on the Lakers, but it’s the Clippers that everyone should keep an eye on. The organization knew this season that it was quite possible that Kawhi would miss Leonard all year. Paul George kept the team going and played at an elite level in the early part of the season. He carried the team and put his case as an MVP candidate, but an ongoing elbow issue closed him down.

There is a chance that George will eventually have to undergo the season-ending surgery on that elbow, which will essentially eliminate them as a threat. With an aging roster and a coach known for his many playoff failures, the Clippers may be ready to throw in the towel. However, there is an outside chance that they can both have their stars back on the floor in time for the post-season.

It may be a long shot, but if Leonard and George can play, this could be a particularly dangerous team. Should Los Angeles find themselves in the playoffs, they will be overwhelming favorites to penetrate and possibly make some noise in the next round. Leonard will probably have to shake off some rust, and George will probably need some conditioning, but the role players around them should be able to carry some of the load until they are ready.

It would be foolish to write off this team now, especially with the time left before the trade deadline. The front office could cause a robbery if they could release John Wall from Houston, or obtain another upgrade at the waiting position. Steve Ballmer wants to win, and nothing will stand in his way of making this team the best it can be.

Denver Nuggets

The number one team to watch in the West is Denver, as they try to find their way into the top four by the end of the year. It was a roller coaster ride for the Nuggets, who looked like they were well on their way to fate last season before Jamal Murray left just before the postseason. There was still a lot of optimism on the way to this year, but another back injury sidelined Michael Porter Jr., who was poised to have a breakaway season.

The bad news did not stop there, as PJ Dozier also went down with a season-ending injury. Despite all the unfortunate news, Denver still had the reigning MVP of the league. As great as Nikola Jokic was last season, he was even better this year. The big man still leads the league in triples and carries this depleted list all season long. His elite game still puts this team in a position to win.

Denver was part of a recent three-team trade that brought them Bryn Forbes. This gives Jokic another shooter and cutter to facilitate with, and the team also signed a 10-day contract for DeMarcus Cousins. These are clear signs that the team is far from giving up on the season. Denver is not ready to push the panic button and rather hopes they will get both Murray and Porter back before the end of the year.

Jeff Green has been a monster this season, and both Monte Morris and “Bones” Hyland have Denver rolling. Sowing for this team is not as important as just having a healthy roster. Like the situation with the Clippers, the fate of their season rests on the possibility that their two injured stars will return to action in time for the post-season. A healthy Nuggets team will be a scary sight to behold for the rest of the conference.

Portland Trail Blazers

There have been questions about the Trail Blazers since the end of last season, and they all centered around All-NBA guard Damian Lillard. With the direction of the team unclear, many in the league wondered when, if not, Portland’s paths would eventually separate from their superstar. The franchise was determined to find a resolution that did not involve the deal of Lillard or his backbench partner CJ McCollum.

The franchise had to do with a lot of drama outside of the Lillard mystery. With all the controversy surrounding Neil Olshey, the organization fired the GM and president of basketball operations in early December. Chauncey Billups also made headlines for all the wrong reasons when he tried to find his footsteps as a rookie head coach. The future of the team was already cloudy, but with no leadership present, the only thing that made sense was to just be patient. Portland has had the toughest schedule in the league so far.

McCollum recently returned to the floor after missing some time with his lung problem and Lillard is still weeks away from just basic conditioning after his abdominal surgery. With some enticing contracts expiring and some serious holes to fill, Portland must act quickly to determine which direction they are heading. To keep beating and doing nothing feels like waving the white flag over the season, even after Lillard returns. Yet it may be their only game at this stage of the game.

With better play and a lighter schedule ahead, the Blazers still have a decent chance of a shot at the playoffs as they currently sit in 10th place. They may make a few small moves before the trade deadline to improve their chances, but the ceiling for this team appears to be a whip in the hands of the Suns of Warriors. If they do sign a deal and this team improves even more after Lillard’s return, a potential date with the Grizzlies or Jazz could become very interesting. Portland are 0-2 in one-possession games and unbeaten in overtime games, but 11 of their last 13 games will be against sub .500 teams.

Dallas Mavericks

After a slow start to the season, Dallas was one of the hottest teams in the league in 2022. The Mavericks have been 10-2 since New Year’s Eve and play excellent basketball. Having a healthy and better conditioned Luka Doncic was a big factor in their turnaround as Sloween plays at an All-Star level. His three-point accuracy has yet to be refined, but his rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in January are all higher than his December averages.

What helps Batman without his partner, Robin? Kristaps Porzingis also played much more effective basketball in January, improving his three-point percentage from 24 to 35 and his overall shooting from December is from 45 percent to 51 percent this month. His attacking output and edge-defending defense are exactly what this organization envisioned when they made the trade for him three years ago this week.

The Mavs have curved their way into the 5th seed and can continue their climb with a light schedule ahead. The next nine games will come against the Blazers, Pacers, Magic, Thunder, 76ers, Hawks, Pistons, and a double dip with the Clippers. Seven of those nine games will be played in their home arena. They are 15-8 against sub .500 teams and are 15-9 at home this season.

Dallas has always been looking for high-end talent, so this team can make another splash before the Feb. 10 trade deadline. Mark Cuban has been itching since 2011 to get his team back in the championship battle and this team is perhaps the best compounded group of talent they have had since. If the Mavs can swing the right deal by the deadline, they could very well join that top tier in the West.

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