NBA Western Conference: Four Teams On The Playoff Fringe

The NBA Western Conference has produced the best low-seeded playoff teams in recent years, with quality competition showing up in the 7-8 spots. Today, TheSportsNotebook is going to take a look at four contenders for those spots in Dallas, Utah, Minnesota and Houston.

If you look at the standings you could also include Denver, but I think the Nuggets are going to move further up. You could also make a case for Portland, though I think the Blazers are going to move further down. You could further make a case for the Lakers, but we covered them already in the run-up-to Christmas Day team look-ins that have been going on here over the past several weeks. And ultimately it’s just hard to jam more than four teams into a column. So without further adieu, let’s take a brief look at the Mavs, Jazz, Rockets and Timberwolves.

Dallas (12-13): The 2011 champs are in the midst of a tough schedule stretch, with a Tuesday night win over Philadelphia ending a three-game losing skid on the road. It doesn’t get easier with a game against Miami on Thursday (9:30 PM ET, TNT), then road trips to Memphis, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. But the worst of the schedule will be over by December 27, and by then its possible Dirk Nowitzki will be back on the floor.

In Dirk’s absence, Dallas has relied on a deep backcourt that’s led by O.J. Mayo. The free-agent acquisition from Memphis has taken advantage of his opportunity to be the main man, and is averaging 20 ppg, while hitting 48 percent from the floor and 51 percent from three-point range. Darren Collision, brought in from Indiana, is a quality passer. There’s veteran leadership with Derek Fisher and veteran…well, veteran presence anyway in Vince Carter.

Where Dallas is issues is underneath, with Shawn Marion, Elton Brandon and Chris Kaman all on the high side of 30 and the Mavs rank 29th in the league in rebounding. Nowitzki will help that, but he’s still more of a perimeter big man. For Dallas to get into the playoffs is either going to require Dirk to put them on his back for significant stretches this season for a trade for some fresh legs underneath.

Utah (14-12): Utah’s got the inside strength that Dallas lacks, in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. The duo carried them into the final playoff spot a year ago, and they’ combine for 32 points/18 rebounds a night. Derrick Favors provides quality rebounding help off the bench.

The Jazz have further upgraded the backcourt by bringing in veterans Mo Williams and Randy Foye, who have provided a significant upgrade over last year’s point guard Devin Harris, as much as that pains me to say given Harris’ pedigree at the University of Wisconsin, this writer’s favorite college team. Williams is running the offense well and Foye is knocking 42 percent from behind the arc. Then you have the continued growth of Gordon Hayward, who averages 13 ppg and as a 6’8” two-guard, he’s not an easy player to match up with defensively.

Utah got a nice win in Brooklyn on Tuesday and now the road trip moves on to Indiana, Miami and Orlando. If they just pick up one more win, that’s a nice survival display on the road and I like their chances to be back in the playoffs. And if they played a non-Miami favorite from the East, I think the Jazz would be a threat to win a first-round series. In the West, life is a little less fair and they need to climb to at least #6 to have a shot at advancing.

Houston (12-12): Kevin McHale’s team is on a nice little run right now, beating the Celtics at home last week and then going into Madison Square Garden and beating the Knicks on what had to be a sweet homecoming for Jeremy Lin, who scored 22 points. Lin was the first of the two waves the Rockets made in free agency/trades, with the next being more of a tidal wave when they swung the deal to get James Harden from Oklahoma City.

Harden is averaging 25 ppg, and he’s still only 23-years-old. Lin is just a year older, so this is a young backcourt where the guards complement each other well , already drive the fastest pace in the NBA, and have plenty of time and space to grow. We can add in 26-year-old center Omar Asik, who’s averaging 10 points/11 rebounds and 23-year-old power forward Marcus Morris, who’s only averaging 8 ppg, but is showing a nice touch on the jumper, including from trey range. Chandler Parsons is the main three-point shooter—aside from Harden and is having a nice year at 15 ppg. But for the long haul, Houston would probably be better suited to have Parsons in a role situation, rather than starting at small forward.

Houston’s future is bright and fans can get a look at their present on Christmas night when they visit Chicago (8 PM ET, ESPN), an ideal spot to relax and enjoy a little hoops after a big holiday meal.

Minnesota (12-11): There’s discontent coming from the Twin Cities, where Kevin Love seems unhappy. It’s hard to defend Love, who just signed a lucrative long-term deal, and it’s also hard to blame him, as he seems destined to follow in Kevin Garnett’s shoes as a top player whose career gets buried on bad teams. But Love also creates some of his problems—while his numbers, at 19/14 per game, are impeccable, it’s inexcusable for a player who only hits one of every five three-point shots, to be chucking five a game. That’s what my rec league basketball team does on Wednesday nights, and with the same level of success.

What Love does well is rebound, and so does Andrei Kirilenko, making the Timberwolves the best in the NBA at crashing the glass. If you can do that consistently, you can contend for a playoff spot over the long dog days of January and February. What Minnesota needs is for the backcourt to get and stay healthy. Ricky Rubio is back after the knee surgery that derailed what looked to be a playoff run a year ago. Brandon Roy is trying to get his career back and going and he’s started practicing again after November knee surgery of his own.

If Rubio and Roy are healthy, and Love quits jacking up threes, Minnesota can make the playoffs. Even if just Rubio stays healthy, the T-Wolves can stay competitive and be fun to watch.