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Who’s In? Who’s Out? Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race

The NBA’s Western Conference is stacked with teams that have a chance to make a deep playoff run, but only one team can represent the West in the NBA Finals. The NCAA Tournament is right around the corner for all the college fans, but the NBA might have it’s own version with four teams fighting for the final three playoff spots in the West.

These four teams would be the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and the Memphis Grizzlies. All four of these teams have written different storylines for their season–Golden State was supposed to take a step towards the Finals this season, but have regressed considerably. However, the core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and defensive stalwart Andre Iguodala keeps this team as a threat for the Finals. On the other hand, the Phoenix Suns were picked to be the second-worst team in the NBA (behind Philadelphia) by many major media outlets, but have competed admirably all season under the magnificent play of All-Star snub Goran Dragic. Phoenix has continued to compete without Eric Bledsoe, who figures to be back before the playoffs begin.

The Dallas Mavericks are a team filled to capacity with NBA veterans, like Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Samuel Dalembert and Shawn Marion. The Mavs have a top-tier NBA coach in Rick Carlisle, who has a championship ring on his finger that he won with Dirk Nowitzki. Everyone counted this team out, but championship experience is something that most teams are lacking these days, right Portland and Los Angeles?

Finally, we have the Memphis Grizzlies, who looked to be on the heels of a disappointing season after Marc Gasol went down and missed close to two months. However, they have rebounded and sit just two games back from climbing to the sixth seed.

Yup, there is just a two-game gap between the sixth and ninth seeds in the Western Conference. Check out this chart from Ed Kupfer, which detailed every NBA team’s remaining strength of schedule after the All-Star break (via Deadspin):

As detailed in this chart, the Suns, Warriors and Dallas are in the four, five and six positions for the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. Buckle up everyone, this is sure to be one hell of a finish.

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No. 6: Golden State Warriors
After losing to the Spurs in a heated matchup in the Western Conference Semifinals last year, the Warriors were primed to take the next step. The NBA world fell in love with the sweet shooting stroke of Steph Curry and the offseason acquisition of Andre Iguodala seemed to push the Warriors towards title contention, right? No matter how stacked the Warriors looked on paper with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut there’s a reason all 82 games are played out. Currently, the Warriors find themselves in the sixth spot at 37-24, the same seed they had last season. However, a three or four-game losing streak could push the Warriors out of battle in the West. Isn’t it crazy to imagine a team like the Warriors failing to place in the West with their talented roster?

That talented roster figures to keep them floating above water long enough to make the playoffs. When the Warriors come to mind, it’s typically a mirage of outside shooting and a high offensive output–but the Warriors defense has been outplaying their offense this season. Right now, the Warriors own the ninth-best defense in the NBA, giving up 98.8 PPG, while their tenth-ranked offense is scoring 103.2 PPG. Three-point shooting is still one of the staples of the Warriors offense as they are third in three-pointers made with 562 and fifth in percentage at 38 percent. While Andre Iguodala wasn’t brought in to produce heavily on the offensive side of the floor, his 9.3 PPG is the lowest since his rookie season, which may explain some of the Warriors struggles. The Warriors were also active during the trade deadline, attempting to bolster their roster at the last minute to solidify their seeding. Steve Blake was the biggest addition to the roster and in six games with the Warriors, he is shooting 45 percent from deep, scoring 4.4 PPG.

The Warriors’ remaining schedule leaves them with ample opportunities to keep their sixth seed in the West. Golden State has arguably the most talented roster out of any team discussed in this piece, but they will have to take care of business if they don’t want to be watching the playoffs from a couch. Golden State will face several of the teams they are battling for playoff position within the last quarter of the season, playing Dallas twice and Phoenix and Memphis once. Besides those matchups, the Warriors have a tough end to the season. Golden State will play seven of their remaining 22 games against playoff contenders such as the Pacers, Hawks, Clippers and two matchups with the Spurs and Blazers, respectively. No team fighting for playoff position wants to look at their schedule and realize they still have to play the Spurs and Blazers two times each, but the Warriors have to face the music.

In order to grab a playoff seed in the West, the Warriors will be tested. The Splash Brothers are only shooting 41.5 percent from deep this season, most notably Steph Curry’s efficiency from deep has dropped from 45 percent to 42 percent. If the Warriors catch flames and knock off some of the top teams in the West, they will be in prime position to hold the sixth seed and earn a date with the Blazers, Clippers or Rockets in the first round. Wow. Just imagine one of those FIRST-round matchups. Go win some games, Dub Nation!

Keep reading to see what chances the Mavericks have…

No. 7: Dallas Mavericks
After finishing 41-41 last season, the Dallas Mavericks missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. With an aging Dirk Nowitzki, who battled injury problems last season, it appeared that Dirk, just like the Mavs, would be graciously declining to the bottom of the West. The only notable offseason acquisitions the Mavs brought in to bolster their roster were Jose Calderon and ill-advised gunner Monta Ellis. As you can imagine, the Mavs didn’t bring about much discussion in the playoff race during the beginning of the season. However, the combination of the methodical engineer Dirk Nowitzki and cannonball Monta Ellis has been one of the more successful pairings this season.

At 35 years old, Nowitzki is having the best season since he went berserk during the Mavs 2010-2011 NBA championship run. Dirk is on the pedestal of another 50/40/90 season, shooting 49 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 91 percent from the charity stripe. Ninety percent of NBA players can’t produce a 50/40/90 season during their whole career, let alone at 35 years old. Dirk is averaging 21.5 points and 5.5 rebounds this season with a true shooting percentage at 60 percent.

The season Dirk Nowitzki is putting together is epic, but Monta Ellis also plays an important role in the revitalization of the Mavericks. Ellis is averaging 19.0 PPG on 46 percent shooting, along with 5.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds. Vince Carter and Shawn Marion are still valuable contributors at 37 and 35 years old respectively. Carter is putting up 11.9 PPG and Marion is averaging 10.5 PPG. Offseason acquisition Jose Calderon is shooting 45 percent from the floor AND 45 percent from deep, averaging 11.6 points and 4.8 assists per game.

One of the more glaring problems with the Mavericks is their defense–or lack thereof. Dallas is in the bottom half of the league in defense, giving up 102.2 PPG (22nd in the NBA). Their seventh-ranked offense, which scores 104.4 PPG, is the saving grace of the Mavericks. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Las Vegas odds of the Mavericks having a top-10 offense going into the season weren’t too high. I was feeling safe putting my money on the Mavericks grabbing one of the last playoff spots in the West… until I took a peek at their remaining schedule.

The Mavericks last 21 games can be described in one word: brutal. Twelve of their final 21 games are against playoff contending teams, including finishing off the season with two games against the Suns and Grizzlies. Imagine the final playoff spot for the West being decided on the last night of the regular season in a game with the Mavericks and Grizzlies. But, it’s not only Memphis and Phoenix that the Mavericks have to worry about. The Mavericks will see Golden State twice before the season is over, which also figures to shake up the playoff seeding even more. Besides these teams that Dallas is vying for playoff position with, they also have to play Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers twice. Plus, games remain against Portland, Indiana, Brooklyn and San Antonio.

The Mavericks currently stand at 36-25 in the seventh seed, holding a ½ game lead over Phoenix. The Suns loss last night shifted the Mavericks into the seventh spot from the eight seed, highlighting how critical every game will be for the rest of the season. The playoffs start now for these teams.

Keep reading for more on the Suns…

No. 8: Phoenix Suns
Ah, the cinderella story of the NBA season. With so many devastating injuries and negative storylines this season (hi, New York), it’s nice to have a feel good story to talk about. As we all know, the Suns were the basketball consensus of a team destined to tank and be in the running for Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. On paper, the Suns were set up for failure. Phoenix hired 33 year-old Ryan McDonough as its new GM, hired a rookie head coach in Jeff Hornacek and exchanged Luis Scola, Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat for a barrage of draft picks and young talent. The Suns have turned that offseason talk into a 35-25 record, while holding the eighth seed in the West, percentage points behind the Dallas Mavericks for the seventh seed. The Suns 104-96 loss to LAC last night caused them to flip seeds with the Mavericks. Phoenix has withheld the storm of the Eric Bledsoe injury, an injury many thought would end the cinderella season for Phoenix.

Somehow, Jeff Hornacek has turned Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye, Gerald Green, Ish Smith and the Morris brothers from afterthoughts to a squad of players taking the NBA’s toughest conference by storm. But, the real success story of the Phoenix Suns is the play of Goran “The Dragon” Dragic. The Dragon is having a career season and has looked even better since the injury to Bledsoe. On the season, Dragic is averaging 20.4 points (career-high), 6.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds (career-high). These numbers are coming from career-highs in field goal percentage and three-point percentage; Dragic is shooting 51 percent from the field and 41 percent from deep. Yup, Goran Dragic is currently shooting the same percentage from deep as Steph Curry. Just in February alone, Dragic had two 30-point performances and one 40-point showing. Dragic’s 40-point performance came on 14-of-21 from the field (67 percent).

The combination of Dragic and Channing Frye has combined to be the most lethal P-n-R combo in the NBA this season. In 1,172 P-n-R possessions, Goran Dragic is leading the league with 1.16 PPP. His top partner, Channing Frye, is averaging an insane 1.30 PPP in the P-n-R. Dragic and Frye have combined for close to 2,000 points this season, just on P-n-R alone (per NBA.com). If someone was looking for an answer to explain a portion of the Suns success with a limited roster, the success of the P-n-R game might be one of the answers.

Gerald Green is also having a career season in Phoenix. Green is averaging 15.2 PPG, a career-high, while playing 28.8 minutes per game. The Morris brothers are both contributing over 10 points per game, Channing Frye is knocking down 40 percent of his attempts from deep and Miles Plumlee went from a nobody to averaging 8.6 points and 8.3 boards this season. The Suns have brewed the perfect combination of young talent that isn’t accepting of any “tanking” labels–these alpha dogs want to win right now.

I’m not taking this team to win any playoff series right now, but this team does remind me of the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons team based on their construction. There is no clear-cut superstar, just a bunch of talent that has molded together beautifully like a Leonardo da Vinci painting.

As pictured in the chart in the beginning, the Phoenix Suns aren’t walking the easiest path to the playoffs. Their next three games say a lot about the Suns remaining schedule: vs. Oklahoma CIty, at Golden State and at the Los Angeles Clippers. Coming off a loss against the Clippers last night, the Suns can’t relax any muscles if they want to stay in the playoff hunt. Besides the next three games, the Suns will face the Thunder and Clippers once more before the season is over. Two of their last three games also come against teams they are fighting for a playoff spot with: April 12 at Dallas and April 14 vs. Memphis before the season finale on April 16 at Sacramento. If that wasn’t enough, the Suns still have to face Toronto, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Portland and San Antonio before the season comes to a conclusion.

The Suns have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA–it is what it is. Eric Bledsoe figures to return within the next 10 games or so and there will be an adjustment period necessary. Russell Westbrook is a top ten player in the NBA, but after missing close to two months, the Thunder went 0-3 in his first three games back. The Suns figure to go through the same type of rough period, a period that can’t be afforded when a single game can swing the playoff race entirely. The Suns will still be a playoff team, but as the eighth seed. The combination of an extremely tough schedule, a lack of true talent compared to other competitors, plus the readjustment period of Eric Bledsoe are the reasons why. This will likely end up in a first-round date with San Antonio or Oklahoma CIty, where things could get ugly. Regardless, the Suns still have FOUR first-round picks and the light is shining as bright as ever for the team in the desert.

Keep reading to see the odd team out…

Odd man out: Memphis Grizzlies
After losing in the Western Conference Finals last season, the Grizzlies are barely on the precipice of the playoffs this season. The Grizzlies decided to give the boot to Lionel Hollins in the offseason and responded by replacing him with Dave Joerger. Hollinger has the Grizzlies at a 45.0 percent shot of making the playoffs, compared to 45.3 percent for PHX, 79.4 percent for Dallas and a convincing 97.0 percent for GSW. The blueprint of the Grizzlies hasn’t changed at all: hard-nosed defense with a slow-paced offense. A pace that might put some to sleep, that is. The Grizzlies own the slowest offense in basketball, at a pace of 89.8. This is offset by the third-ranked defense, giving up 95.1 PPG, while the offense is putting up 95.7 PPG (25th in the NBA).

The Grizzlies just don’t have enough to make me believe that they can win enough games to reach the playoffs. I’m still searching for that go-to scoring option on the roster and it’s nowhere to be found. Mike Conley is having a superb season, averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 dimes but is that enough? Zach Randolph is putting up 17.3 points and 10.3 rebounds too, but Marc Gasol is the connecting piece of this trio. Gasol is shooting a career-low from the field at 46 percent, while taking the most field goals of his career at 12.2 per game. Not to mention, the big man has only had two games with 10-plus rebounds and one game scoring more than 20 points since his return from injury. To bring this to fruition, Gasol only has four double-doubles this season.

James Johnson has been quite the surprise this season, but he’s not a consistent scoring option (8.5 PPG). The Grizzlies don’t have a name on their roster that shoots better than 38 percent from deep, ranking them dead-last in three-pointers and three-point attempts this season. I love that their team is predicated on defense, but they are going up against some of the top scoring teams in the league. With the direction the NBA is headed, it’s looking like offense is valued over defense, at least in winning regular season games. I can’t find that name on the roster that is going to give me 30 points guaranteed during these last two games to put them in the playoffs.

Still, the Grizzlies last two games come against the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks–in that order. This playoff race is so tight that all it takes is one team to string together two-to-three wins at the end of the season to make the playoffs. There’s a two-game gap between the sixth-seeded Warriors and the ninth-seeded Grizzlies–let that sink in. It’s hard to discount a team that was just in the Western Conference Finals last season. All of these teams have a rough schedule to end the season, but the Grizzlies still have to face Miami and Portland twice along with playing Indiana, Golden State, San Antonio, Brooklyn and Chicago.

The Conclusion
All in all, so many things can change from one night to the next. The Warriors look like a lock to make the playoffs, their talent and shooting just gives them a distinct advantage. While the Mavericks are the grizzly old men of the bunch, they have played through adversity this season on the back of Dirk Nowitzki, plus their championship experience trumps all. David Joerger and Jeff Hornacek are rookie coaches, while Mark Jackson has experienced playoff success and Rick Carlisle is an NBA champion. Players and numbers can be discussed until the third world war happens, but coaching is the cornerstone of basketball. Dallas and Golden State hold a distinct advantage in this category, which is why they will be seen as the sixth and seventh seeds in the Western Conference. Phoenix will still find a way to wiggle their way into the playoffs, but a matchup against the Thunder or Spurs doesn’t look too promising. With all the talent in the West, one would figure that at least ONE upset is due to happen, so don’t count any of these teams out.

The Western Conference Playoff matchups are sure to be epic, but so will the end of the season. One single game can swing the whole makeup of the playoffs in the West–how exciting is that? Just last night, the Phoenix Suns and Mavericks switched seeds with a Phoenix loss. Plus, the Grizzlies finish off the regular season with consecutive games against the Suns and Mavericks. The Mavericks didn’t even have to play and they gained a spot in the West. The seeding is going to be unpredictable. Oh baby, this is going to be an exhilarating end of the season. Grab your popcorn, people.

*All stats are from basketball-reference.com

Who do you think will fill out the final Western Conference playoff seeds?

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