With the NBA season coming to an end, an epic race for the last seed in the West has developed
One of the most interesting subplots of this excellent National Basketball Association season has been the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
The Denver Nuggets currently hold the eighth seed in the West. Their season, and perhaps future, has been defined by the ascendance of center Nikola Jokic. The 22-year old Serbian standout has put up 16 points per game, 9.3 rebounds per game and 4.6 assists per game, while only averaging 27.1 minutes per contest. A visionary passer, Jokic has established himself as one of the best young players in the league. A fellow 22-year-old, guard Gary Harris, has also very quietly had an excellent season. In fewer than 30 minutes a night, the third year shooting guard has chipped in 14 points a game on an incredibly efficient 49.6 field goal percentage (third among qualified guards) and 42.9 percent from three (sixth in the NBA). The Nuggets can score with the best of them, but only when they stop hemorrhaging points and improve on their 30th ranked defensive rating will they once again become one of the better teams in the West.
The Trail Blazers find themselves only a game and a half back of the Nuggets for the 8th seed. Trade deadline acquisition Jusuf Nurkic has added a low post presence that has the team rolling through March. Nurkic’s run of solid play was highlighted by his eye-popping stat line of 28 points, 20 rebounds, 8 assists and 6 blocks against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 9. Combined with the consistent excellence of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Blazers might have tapped into a three-headed offensive machine. Nurkic is on his rookie contract for two more seasons, so if his success can be sustained, their recent four-game winning streak could just be a sign of things to come.
Two games out of the eighth seed are the Dallas Mavericks. New additions Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrell and Nerlens Noel have added youth and a considerable amount of talent to this franchise. This is finally turning into wins. Since Feb. 1, the Mavs are the proud owners of a solid 10-7 record. Seth Curry in particular has emerged as a face of this franchise with his Curry-like shooting touch. He is currently fifth in effective field goal percentage among guards who play over twenty five minutes a game. This is due in large part to his efficient three-point shooting, as he ranks fourth in the NBA at a 43.8 percent clip. On the other side of the ball, the Mavericks are quietly a top-ten defense, and the addition of Noel figures to add an extra boost on this end. After years of veterans on one-year contracts, the Mavs finally have the beginnings of a young core for the post-Dirk era.
The Minnesota Timberwolves round out the competition for the eighth seed. Even with Zach LaVine’s season-ending injury, the T-Wolves have made the push for the playoffs that many expected them to make from the start of the year. Karl-Anthony Towns has undeniably taken the leap and is now putting up MVP-caliber numbers. Andrew Wiggins’ progression hasn’t been as overtly meteoric, but in only his third year he’s established himself as an upper-echelon scorer and fringe all-star. Critically, coach Tom Thibodeau’s signature defense has finally started to take form. Since the All-Star break, the T-Wolves have arguably the league’s best defense, sporting the second best defensive rating and holding their opponents to a league-best 43.4 percent shooting. Add into the mix a rejuvenated Ricky Rubio, and the Timberwolves are looking to make a playoff push.