The NBA playoffs are still weeks away, but for the three Western Conference teams fighting for the No. 8 seed, every game already is a must-win. Denver, Dallas, and Portland all enter Friday separated by a single game in the loss column.
The Blazers are streaking, having won four straight. The Mavericks have won three in a row, and host the lowly Brooklyn Nets next. The Nuggets are in the middle of a favorable four-game home stand, but have gone 1-2 so far as injuries and illness have left them without key players Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, and Nikola Jokic.
While none of these three franchises appears to have much chance against the Golden State Warriors in a first-round playoff series, each has plenty of motivation to reach the postseason. For Denver, it's an opportunity for the team's young core to gain valuable experience while exciting a dwindling fan base. For Portland, it's a chance to salvage an otherwise disappointing season. For Dallas, it's another go-round with team icon Dirk Nowitzki, whose time is running out.
In the NBA, some of the best and most exciting storylines don't involve championship contention—otherwise, we could just skip ahead to what looks like an inevitable Cleveland-Golden State rubber match in the Finals. The next five weeks in the West will be thrilling, so let's take closer look at the contenders.
The Nuggets have been in the driver's seat for most of 2017 and are currently a half-game ahead of the Blazers for the No. 8 seed. Jokic has everything to with that. The second-year center has emerged as Denver's best and most consistent player, and has helped his team to the league's best offensive rating since being named a starter on December 15.
How important is Jokic? Since becoming a starter, he's averaging more frontcourt touches in Denver's wins than in its losses—and averaging substantially more passes, assists, potential assists, and points created by assists in those wins, too. Not coincidentally, the team's offensive rating is also substantially higher in their wins than in their losses. Basically, the Nuggets are a better team when they play through Jokic on offense, and a worse team when they don't.
Of course, some of this is chicken and egg stuff. All teams have a higher ORtg in wins than in losses. But the degree to which Denver's offense changes when Jokic is the focal point is so pronounced that it pops off the screen, whether you're sorting the data or watching the games. In back-to-back victories against the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver's best road wins of the season, Jokic averaged an eye-popping 60.5 front court touches per game and 18.5 potential assists. He also averaged 13 more frontcourt touches than Denver's starting point guard, Jameer Nelson, despite playing almost identical minutes. Simply put, Jokic was the point guard. And Denver's offense hummed.
The Nuggets need that, because their defense isn't going to win them any games. Denver has the league's worst defensive rating, and have actually declined over the course of the season. There's no one weak link to single out, either. Nelson and Gary Harris are both undersized guards who struggle to contest taller perimeter shooters, and opponents are shooting 41.7 percent from behind the three-point line when the Nuggets are within 2-4 feet of the shooter, by far the highest mark in the NBA.
Now, there's a very good chance that this particular stat is essentially random, as outlined in this great piece by Krishna Narsu at Nylon Calculus. Watch the Nuggets, however, and it appears that even when their defenders are within range, they still fail to properly contest shots behind the arc. Oftentimes they fail to get a hand up on closeouts, or just plain fail to jump high enough to bother shooters. Just look at how easily perimeter players can get a shot up over Nelson:
Denver also does a poor job of fighting through screens. In the clip below, watch how Emmanuel Mudiay takes the long route below the screens on Darren Collison, and gives up late-contested three-pointers:
When the Nuggets manage to rotate properly to contain drives or pick-and-rolls, they neglect to rotate back once the ball is kicked out. In the below clip, see how lost Will Barton gets on the first rotation, leaving Seth Curry wide open on the wing to close out on the midrange shooter, and then how late he is to rotate, which forces him to fly by on a simple shot fake. Denver routinely displays poor fundamentals on otherwise basic defensive rotations, and it's a huge part of why the team ranks so poorly on that end of the floor:
On Wednesday, the Nuggets rolled out their 26th starting lineup of the season, the most of any team in the NBA. Some of this is due to bad injury luck; some is due to coach Michael Malone's constant tinkering with different combinations. It makes sense for Malone to search for effective lineups, but the constant churn also makes it harder for Denver to develop the consistency, communication, and on-the-floor trust that team defense requires.
Denver has enough firepower to hold on to the No. 8 seed, but the Nuggets will have to find a way to be merely bad on defense, and not absolutely awful.
Portland Trail Blazers
When Portland traded starting center and locker-room favorite Mason Plumlee to the Nuggets for Jusuf Nurkic prior to the NBA trade deadline, it appeared to be a sign that the team was waving the white flag for the season. Plumlee was a huge part of the Blazers' offense, and replacing him without the benefit of a training camp to install a new scheme seemed impossible. Moreover, Nurkic had played sparingly in Denver over the previous two months and figured to arrive in Portland in, well, less-than-optimal physical condition.
Eight games later, forget all that. Portland's offense is soaring, and Nurkic is on fire—he put up 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight rebounds, and six blocks in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night. His per-36-minute numbers are up almost across the board, and even his free-throw percentage has skyrocketed since departing Denver, perhaps a sign of how disenchanted and mentally checked-out he had become at his previous place of employment.
The most pleasant surprise for Portland is how Nurkic has blossomed as a passer from the post and elbows. He's averaging 4.9 assists per 36 minutes, just 0.2 fewer than Plumlee did before the trade. Passing was by far Plumlee's best offensive skill; the fact that Nurkic has been able to replicate his playmaking ability while adding scoring, rebounding, rim protection, and an uncontrollable amount of excitement bodes incredibly well for the Blazers' chances this season and beyond.
Portland relies so heavily on star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum for scoring that a bad night from either is difficult to overcome. With Nurkic in the mix, the team has found a third reliable scorer—and, so far, a consistent contributor on both ends of the floor. That said, the Blazers really could use a hot streak from someone else, too.
Portland wings Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe, and Al-Forouq Aminu get plenty of open looks every night, and their ability to knock down shots—or not—will largely determine how much opposing defenses have to stretch, and how much room they give Nurkic to operate in the paint.
Nurkic already has established himself as an offensive rebounding and roll threat, and his sheer physical size makes him immovable once he's anchored himself near the basket; as a result, defenses have to rotate early in order to keep him from easy scoring position.
Those rotations open up shots in the corners, so opponents likely will adjust and hope the Blazers go cold on kickouts:
Following a five-game road trip that takes them from Phoenix to Miami and everywhere in between, the Blazers will play ten of their last 13 games at home. The schedule is favorable, and includes a Moda Center matchup against the Nuggets on March 28. It should be big game.
The Mavericks probably shouldn't be here. At the end of January, Dallas was 17-30; after years and years of finding ways to win, the franchise appeared resigned to a rare (and arguably needed) NBA draft lottery tank job.
Then the team signed rookie point guard Yogi Ferrell, who had played all of 150 minutes in the league, to a ten-day contract. He played well. So well that the Mavs signed him to a two-year contract on February 7. So far, so good. With a backcourt duo of Ferrell and Seth Curry, and a small-ball frontcourt featuring Nowitzki at center, Harrison Barnes at power forward, and Wes Matthews at small forward, Dallas has unleashed one of the best spread pick-and-roll attacks in the league.
The Mavs are 11-6 and have the league's eighth-best net rating since making the switch. They've also found a new identity: five threats from behind the three-point line. Simple 1-4 pick-and-pop actions become difficult to defend when Barnes can knock down shots from outside or exploit smaller defenders on a switch. Watch how many different looks Dallas can create off of that action, and how well the Mavs space the floor with the other three guys:
That same action becomes even more ridiculous when it turns into a 1-5 pick-and-roll with Nowitzki. Still a seven-footer and still one of the best shooters on the planet, he has enough gravity behind the arc to make pick-and-roll containment all but impossible for both traditional centers and more mobile bigs. In the first two clips below, the big tries to drop, leaving the ball handler wide open; in the third clip, Curry navigates the screen perfectly, hesitating and keeping the defender on his hip just long enough to force the switch before launching a step-back jumper before the big knew what hit him:
While the five-out look has been good to the Mavericks, recent acquisition Nerlens Noel opens up entirely new possibilities on both ends of the floor. Swap Noel for Nowitzki, and you have a super-fast lineup with a rim protector; swap him for any of the other four guys, and you still have spacing to pair with an above-the-rim threat on pick-and-rolls.
The Mavericks are counting on Curry to continue a run of ridiculously hot shooting. He has improved his scoring efficiency every month this year, and is up to an absurd 70.9 true shooting percentage in March. That's probably not sustainable—and if Curry slumps, the Mavericks might face an interesting minutes crunch in their backcourt. J.J. Barea is returning to the lineup and will likely eat up some of Ferrell and Curry's minutes. Noel is also likely headed for a minutes increase as soon as he gets acclimated to the roster, sliding Nowitzki back to power forward, Barnes back to small forward, and Matthews back to shooting guard for more minutes.
Overall, this is a good problem to have. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle would almost certainly take having too many guys over having too few. And given how tight the race for the No. 8 seed should be, he'll need all the help and flexibility he can get.
For Dallas, Denver, and Portland, the stakes are high. Make the playoffs, and you get two guaranteed home games against a marquee opponent—probably Golden State—and all of the sweet, sweet revenue that comes with them. Miss out, and you're stuck in the worst position in basketball: not good enough to play in the postseason, but not bad enough to score a top draft pick without incredible luck.
In previous years, the NBA has given the playoffs the tag line Win or Go Home. Out West, we're already there.
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