Look toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings and it almost feels like the NBA issued a stay to outlaw tank jobs for the 2016-17 season.
Six decent but flawed teams are within four games of a playoff spot, and all appear committed or desperate enough to fight for the right to dive headfirst into Golden State's buzz saw as the West's eight-seed. It's easy to mock these teams, sure, but there's also something inherently honorable in trying to maintain short-term competitiveness at the cost of a higher draft pick and long-term ambition.
Here's a closer look at each of those playoff-adjacent teams to try and figure out which will rise to the "top," avoid the lottery, and get to play games that really matter.
6. Minnesota Timberwolves
Tom Thibodeau's return to the NBA went from disappointing to miserable when Zach LaVine tore his ACL last Friday. The sport's smoothest aerial acrobat in at least a decade was Minnesota's third-leading scorer and a significant part of their offensive attack. He was pitiful on the other end, but electric with the ball. He'll be missed.
The Timberwolves will now enter every game banking on Karl-Anthony Towns' limitless potential and a fleeting hope that Andrew Wiggins will miraculously turn into Scottie Pippen 2.0. Even with LaVine on the floor that recipe didn't smell like success. Minny's defense is sponsored by Kleenex and it has the youngest roster in the entire league.
Their odds of qualifying for the playoffs were slim before, and now the organization's focus should shift to player development (that means more Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones on the floor, and less Ricky Rubio) and securing a high lottery pick. They aren't making a run anytime soon.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
A rumbling Jahlil Okafor rumor doesn't move the needle as much as a healthy Jrue Holiday already did—the Pelicans still don't have enough shooting to boost their offense, and while it may make sense to let another player do dirty work down low, maybe the last thing they need is a low-post big beside Anthony Davis. New Orleans' defense has been superb since it moved Davis to the five and formed one of the stoutest starting lineups in basketball. Davis is one of the world's ten best players, but the Pelicans still aren't good enough this year. In their last 15 games, New Orleans' defense disintegrates whenever Davis hits the bench.
Consider this a long way of saying that it's not going to happen this year.
4. Sacramento Kings
Let's not bury the lede: DeMarcus Cousins is the Sacramento Kings. He's the most powerful offensive big man since Shaquille O'Neal and currently, smack dab in the middle of his prime, is averaging 28.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. (The only players in NBA history to post 30, 10, and 5 in a season are Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, and, if he doesn't run out of gas, Russell Westbrook.)
Cousins ranks second in usage, and the Kings score an incredible 10.1 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. He's not perfect, though, and the plays he takes off— combined with all those careless turnovers—really hurt Sacramento's defense. But he's still a star who's good enough to wade through the crap his organization regularly puts out.
Rudy Gay's torn Achilles and Garrett Temple's partially-torn biceps are significant blows to a team that's so weak on the wing—they rank 21st in net rating since Gay went down 10 games ago—but last week they showed anything is possible on any given night when you have a sledgehammer like Cousins.
Sacramento has already played 28 of its 51 games on the road, and have endured the sixth toughest schedule to date. Temple is on track to return in a couple weeks and we can't dismiss ownership's stubborn commitment to making the playoffs as soon as possible. That means a short-term upgrade may be in the cards before the trade deadline, with Willie Cauley-Stein, Malachi Richardson, Ben McLemore helping to form a pu-pu platter of (undesirable) assets.
But as impressive as Cousins is and continues to be, the Kings are the Kings. Peak dysfunction. It's so, so, so, so, so, so hard to think they'll make the playoffs over five other teams, especially when they already trail by 2.5 games.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
Surreal bucket getters vs. inconceivable defensive breakdowns. This is the play-to-play dichotomy that's prevented Portland from building on last year's magical ride to the second round.
On paper, there's no reason for this team to trail the Oklahoma City Thunder by eight games. It's absurd. There's no excuse for an offense led by C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard to drift outside the top-10, even with a defense that fouls a ton and rarely forces turnovers.
But Noah Vonleh isn't very good, and it's hard to support Terry Stotts' decision to start him over Al-Farouq Aminu for the sake of boosting a lifeless bench unit. Aminu's three-point shot has reverted back to career norms after he shot above league average from deep last year.
Look how Vonleh unnecessarily helps out on this drive by Nicolas Batum.
Aminu is Portland's most versatile/best defender, and the Blazers crush opponents when he's on the floor with Lillard and McCollum. Their defense hovers as a bottom-five unit, which means even though Aminu cuts into Portland's spacing on one end, it may be worthwhile to play him 30-plus minutes every night anyway.
That same logic applies to Evan Turner, who's taking more threes and fewer free throws this year than last (a bad combination) but stands in as one of the team's best perimeter defenders.
Just look at how bad things can get when both those guys are off the court:
So much wrong. Allen Crabbe dies on a screen and can't chase Victor Oladipo around the direct hand off, Meyers Leonard's legs suddenly turn into cement while he considers actually playing defense, Moe Harkless needs to be at the nail (center of the free-throw line) instead of treating Jerami Grant like Klay Thompson, and Ed Davis is not here to protect anything except his personal foul count.
2. Denver Nuggets
The leader of the pack right now, Denver quietly has a lot going for it. Their combination of experience and high-upside youth that's already producing (most notably Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray) have helped form one of the league's very best offenses. The front office is in a fantastic spot to have some fun if the right deal comes along, and they should look to fill some of this summer's cap space via the trade market if they aren't convinced worthwhile players are attracted to Denver.
They have young assets and draft picks who can be swapped for more talented veterans, and talented veterans who can be swapped for more young assets and draft picks. Carmelo Anthony is an ironic fit if the franchise really wants to make the playoffs, but it's unlikely he wants to go full circle.
1. Dallas Mavericks
Surprise, surprise, but Dallas' slow and steady offensive rhythm is much more effective (and aesthetically pleasing) when players are healthy! Over their last 15 games, the Mavericks boast the league's fourth highest net rating, and Seth Curry has transformed into a fireball—he's shooting 43 percent beyond the arc since Rick Carlisle inserted him into the starting lineup three weeks ago.
They've already played the second hardest schedule in the league and own the eighth oldest roster. This group is filled with playoff experience, Yogi's Adventure may be Linsanity 2.0, and the offense is no longer entirely reliant on Dirk Nowitzki (who, by himself is little more than an average NBA player but still provides unparalleled gravity off reputation alone).
Harrison Barnes deserves Most Improved Player consideration and has flummoxed opponents all year long whenever Dallas isolates him at the top of the key or on the wing against a larger defender. He's loudly become one of the NBA's most dangerous face-up threats.
And in tight situations, Dallas just knows how to execute their stuff to get solid looks at the basket. Below, they leverage Dirk's size and stature in a side pick-and-roll that leads to a nice layup for Dwight Powell.
Most opponents avoid switching because they don't want a wing isolated on Nowitzki, so he rolls—either into space for an open jumper or towards the rim—to force a rotation and then hits the helper's man (Powell) for a point-blank finish.
This second action is nearly identical, except Curry rejects Dirk's screen, catches Portland's defense off guard and burrows all the way to the rim.
The Mavericks aren't the best defensively—they're 29th in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area and dead last in opponent three-point percentage—but at the end of the day, gambling against this organization, their principles and professionalism, isn't advisable. They don't surge, but never stop plowing in the right direction, either (so far as the regular season is concerned).
They may buy Deron Williams out, or trade him to a more convenient location, and bottoming out remains the wisest move long-term. But Dallas' essence feels unshakeable when push comes to shove. They don't beat themselves, rarely turn the ball over, and have wins over quality competition.
It'd be a lot cooler if Dallas lost a bunch of games, drafted Lonzo Ball, and gently phased back towards the inevitable rebuild Mark Cuban's delayed far too long. But, again, the fight in them is admirable. Barnes still has room to improve, Wes Matthews' contract is no longer an albatross, and they've maintained long-term cap flexibility—a necessity for teams riding the treadmill of mediocrity.
Dallas' path to a championship is muddier than it has to be, but they do a superb job developing talent, finding diamonds in the rough, and plugging castoffs into their brilliant system. There's a decent enough chance they eventually figure it out.