Four Corners: Who ya got in the race for the West's No. 8 seed?

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Damian Lillard's Blazers and the Dirk Nowitzki-and-Harrison Barnes-led Mavericks are two of six teams vying for one playoff spot. (Getty Images)
Damian Lillard’s Blazers and the Dirk Nowitzki-and-Harrison Barnes-led Mavericks are two of six teams vying for one playoff spot. (Getty Images)

While the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs continue to soar atop the standings as the class of the West, there’s much more congestion and clamor in the lower reaches of the conference’s bracket. Heading into Wednesday’s games, six teams — the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves — are separated by 4 1/2 games in the race for the eighth and final Western playoff spot.

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The topic for this week’s Four Corners roundtable: Who do you think will take the No. 8 seed in the West, and who do you want to see make the cut? Here’s who the BDL staff picked. Let’s hear your choices in the comments.

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KELLY DWYER

WILL: Dallas Mavericks | WANT: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Mavericks will be in the 2017 playoffs because this is how things are supposed to work out for the established, and for those who understand what big games in April (and not May) feel like.

It’s true that the Mavs spotted the rest of the NBA a 2-13 hole to start the season. It’s also true that the team has hardly distinguished itself amongst its lower-rung Western playoff competitors, compiling a 6-7 record versus Portland, Minnesota, New Orleans, Denver and Sacramento so far in 2016-17.

But you don’t need to distinguish yourself to make the playoffs in this West. You just have to be, let’s be kind here, nearly good. And 6-7 is nearly good.

Dallas had been that, prior to its recent 0-2 swoon (with, sigh, losses to Denver and Portland), since starting 2-13. An 18-17 mark, with Dirk Nowitzki returning to as good a form as can be expected for a 38-year-old, with Wesley Matthews screeching back toward relevance, and with the combination of Seth Curry and story-for-the-slow-season Yogi Ferrell helping lead the charge.

Ferrell, a D-League call-up, has been brilliant in only six games (all starts) with the Mavs, averaging 16.3 points and 4.3 assists with 47 percent shooting from 3-point land. The 23-year-old Indiana product has clearly pleased fellow Hoosier alum Mark Cuban, though not so much that we would excuse Cubes referencing Hanna-Barbera:

The team has played one of the NBA’s hardest schedules thus far, and it has five games remaining against the Eighth-Seed Enablers (your Nuggets, Wolves, Kings and Pelicans) to round out the season.

With just 3 1/2 separating the floor-bound Mavs from the eighth seed, we’re more than ready to see them get what they’ve been built for. Dallas has made the playoffs in 15 of 16 tries with Cuban as owner (for an entire season, we should qualify, as 1999-00’s 44-win near miss doesn’t count), so one more trip seems fitting as Dirk continues to tussle for excuses as to why he should return for one more season in 2017-18.

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On the other end of the playoff familiarity spectrum, there’s Minnesota. Depending on whose account you believe, the Timberwolves should have no reason to either consider this year’s postseason based on propriety, or they should have every right to compete based on the fact that, shockingly, Tom Thibodeau’s crew does appear to enjoy competing.

On some nights, at least. Flipping over to Timberwolves games has rewarded the viewer with a rather dreary turn at times in 2016-17, despite the preponderance of precocious talent and the presence of the top-of-the-line broadcasting duo of Dave Benz and Jim Petersen. The team hasn’t exactly sulked its way through Thibodeau’s first year as coach, but they also don’t appear to be having as much fun as was the case under former head coach Sam Mitchell — a shouter without equal who alternated building up his young talent with chiding them publicly for all manner of old school missteps.

Picked to run focused and exacting (if not free and easy) under Thibodeau, the Wolves have struggled, and sit 4 1/2 games out of the West’s final playoff spot. Ricky Rubio trade rumors abound, for Thibodeau-styled reasons that border on reasonable until his crew gets to anonymously explaining things to the press, and Zach LaVine is sadly out for the rest of what had been his best season so far with an ACL tear.

An 18-12 run to cap the season, with a whopping nine games left against the rest of the hopefuls (current Minnesota record vs. Denver, Sacramento, Dallas and New Orleans: 2-7, yikes), could turn that frown upside down. You can make the playoffs with 37 wins this year, and Thibodeau once won 45 games platooning Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson at point guard.

Anything to help us stave off the unrelenting feeling that the entire 2016-17 season has been an absolute step back for the Minnesota franchise, a collective still searching for its first postseason appearance since Sam Cassell’s injury cost it a chance at the 2004 NBA Finals.

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Nikola Jokic is already one of the NBA's best big men at surveying the floor and picking out passes. (AP)
Nikola Jokic is already one of the NBA’s best big men at surveying the floor and picking out passes. (AP)

ERIC FREEMAN

WILL: Denver Nuggets | WANT: Sacramento Kings

It looks increasingly likely that the last playoff spot in the West will not be earned as much as it will fall to the team that loses least. In such circumstances, basic competency at one end of the floor and organizational desire could carry the day. The Nuggets, currently one game ahead of the Blazers for the No. 8 spot in the conference, could be the team to take advantage.

While their league-worst defensive efficiency mark is certainly cause for concern, the Nuggets boast a top-10 offense with a system that does not depend overwhelmingly on the talents of one player. Center Nikola Jokic is a budding star, but the Nuggets score on the strength of a balanced attack and a rotation that can cover for each other’s struggles. Denver has also missed out on the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, which could drive the coaching staff and front office to push for a postseason berth at all costs. Another year in the bottom half of the lottery just wouldn’t be to the Nuggets’ long-term benefit.

However, I would much rather see the Kings end their own 10-season playoff drought. This preference has nothing to do with merit. The Kings are a shoddily run organization with very little foresight, and it’s hard to have any confidence that they would use a playoff berth as a springboard to lasting success.

One suspects a playoff berth would cause DeMarcus Cousins to finally express some emotions. (Getty Images)
One suspects a playoff berth would cause DeMarcus Cousins to finally express some emotions. (Getty Images)

But, oh my God, it would be so fun to see them there for even just four games. First, it would mean the playoff debut of DeMarcus Cousins, a prodigiously talented big man who acts personally aggrieved over marginally bad calls in the second quarters of games in January. It’s easy to imagine Cousins averaging a 40-point triple-double with a technical foul over a full series and perhaps even willing the Kings to one memorable victory. If the postseason thrives on drama, then we should want Cousins to participate in it.

More importantly, though, the Kings should be in the playoffs because they would play the Warriors in the first round. East Coast fans who go to bed at a reasonable hour might not realize it, but the Kings and Warriors own the most delightful rivalry in the league, a feud dependent not so much on animosity as on a shared history so dysfunctional that neither side can possibly escape it. Kings-Warriors games are essentially random number generators — no matter how much better one team is, their matchups will feature enough unexpected twists and turns to confuse the most seasoned audience.

An entire series between these teams would be an ungodly mess. I would legitimately prefer to see it more than I would a third straight Cavs-Warriors NBA Finals.

***

BEN ROHRBACH

WILL: Portland Trail Blazers | WANT: Dallas Mavericks

It was only a few weeks ago I was here calling the Blazers the NBA’s biggest disappointment of the season so far, and that hasn’t changed … yet. Even if Evan Turner has been playing better of late, his signing was still horrendous. For the most part, though, this remains the same roster that reached the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season, especially now that Turner has joined Festus Ezeli on the injured list.

Despite the disappointment, the Blazers still own a better net rating (even at minus-1.9) than the rest of the teams vying for the eighth seed, save for the Timberwolves, on whom Portland has a 3 1/2-game lead entering the final two months. Since Al-Farouq Aminu returned to full-time duty on Dec. 21, the Blazers have a top-10 defensive rating (105.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). And over Portland’s current 5-3 stretch, the offense is a top-10 outfit (110.8 points per 100 possessions), while that net rating has crept back into positive territory (plus-.2.9).

Over those past eight games, the Blazers have started two of their least efficient players — Turner and Noah Vonleh — alongside Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Mason Plumlee. That lineup is a net zero for the season, and slightly worse as a starting unit. For the season, their two most productive lineups have featured Lillard, McCollum, Plumlee and Mo Harkless, along with either Aminu or Allen Crabbe; Turner’s injury should force them to rely more heavily on those units over the last nine weeks. It doesn’t hurt that Lillard and McCollum are the best two-man combo on any team competing for that last spot, and they’ve both been here before.

And yet …

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I like Dirk Nowitzki, the 38-year-old with a million miles on his 7-footer legs still trying to grind out at least one more playoff push. I like Yogi Ferrell, the undrafted 6-footer who’s making magic in a Linsanity sort of way. (And whose name is Yogi.) I like Harrison Barnes, a hell of a player who took a ton of crap for not making a 73-win team unbeatable and for earning a max contract offer.

I like Seth Curry, emerging from the shadow of his two-time reigning MVP older brother. I like Wes Matthews, finally regaining form after his Achilles injury — at age 30. I like Deron Williams, somehow once compared to Chris Paul and now fully evolved from overpaid to underdog. I like Salah Mejri, because he’s Salah Mejri, force of nature.

I’m not a big Andrew Bogut guy, because, well, “Pizzagate,” but he’s deservingly been all but benched after calling the Mavs a bird-dropping target, just before they rattled off a 9-3 stretch. Which is cool. And I like Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell, J.J. Barea — all unheralded guys doing the dirty work to get Nowitzki another playoff shot. I like Rick Carlisle, because he called Dallas “a s*** team, but an underrated s*** team,” and then literally drew up a reset button in a timeout. And I even like Mark Cuban, despite his own shortcomings, because he’s a s***-stirrer, and the playoffs need more s***-stirrers, if only because it’s good for the blogging game.

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After all these years, Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki still give Dallas a solid foundation. (Getty Images)
After all these years, Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki still give Dallas a solid foundation. (Getty Images)

DAN DEVINE

WILL: Dallas Mavericks | WANT: New Orleans Pelicans

I blame myself, really, for forgetting the rule: it might take ’em a while, but betting against Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki to produce a top-10 offense is a fool’s errand.

After a brutal start to the season, the NBA’s premier tinkerer found the right mix by shifting his eternal centerpiece from his customary power forward spot back to center. Moving Dirk to the five opened up space to slide Seth Curry into the starting lineup, giving the Mavs another ball-handler, shooter and creator to juice up their attack. So far, so good: the unit of Dirk, Curry, Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams averaged 110.5 points per 100 possessions in 2017 before Williams went down with a sprained toe, and has hummed to the tune of 116.7 points-per-100 since rookie revelation Yogi Ferrell took D-Will’s place.

As you might expect given Dirk’s age and limitations as a back-line stopper, those particular configurations can be prone to giving up buckets. On the whole, though, Dallas is one of five teams (Warriors, Spurs, Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers) to rank in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession since Jan. 1. With their big-money players producing, unheralded types of various stripes (rookies Ferrell and Dorian Finney-Smith, reserve grinder Dwight Powell, versatile veteran Devin Harris) contributing, and the possibility of boosts from the return of the injured Williams, Andrew Bogut and J.J. Barea, Dallas might be in position to make a push … especially because the rough terrain they’ve traveled will smooth out.

Dallas, Portland, Sacramento and New Orleans have played four of the six toughest schedules in the league so far, according to ESPN’s Strength of Schedule metric, while Denver and Minnesota’s slates to date fall in the middle of the pack. That’s about to turn. According to PlayoffStatus.com’s math, the Timberwolves have the West’s hardest road going forward, while the Mavs and Blazers get the softest landings, owing in part to the circumstances surrounding their runs to the finish line.

Schedule analysis by Positive Residual shows that Dallas and Portland are the only teams in the group with more home games left than away games; that the Mavs face fewer back-to-backs down the stretch than the other five teams in contention; that the Blazers will enter 11 of their final 29 games coming off at least one more day of rest than their opponents had; and that while both the Wolves and Pelicans have 17 road games against 13 home games, Minnesota has to deal with more than 22,100 miles of total travel on their journeys — some 3,600 more than New Orleans — adding to the fatigue, wear and tear of their road trips.

As much as I’d like to see Nikola Jokic get his first taste of postseason play, the home/road splits and the veteran presences on the rosters make this feel like it’s going to be a race between Dallas and Portland. And while we literally just saw the Blazers outlast the Mavs in a classic shootout, and I’ve got a ton of respect for Terry Stotts, I’m going to remember what I’d forgotten earlier this season: you doubt Dirk and Carlisle at your own peril.

If that’s how it shakes out, though, I’ll be bummed the Pelicans fall outside the bracket. I mean, do you remember how good Anthony Davis was against the Warriors two years ago?

Or how good he was against them in October?

Or November?

Or December?

This Pelicans team isn’t as good as the one that Golden State swept two years ago, and this Warriors team is better than the one that swept New Orleans. Still, Davis remains one of the game’s most unsolvable riddles, especially for a Warriors team that has struggled at times against elite frontcourt talents, and the postseason is about the very best in the world taking the stage to showcase their gifts. A healthy AD and a healthy Jrue Holiday — which we didn’t get two springs back — going to war against the Dubs would have my full attention for as long as it lasted … even if it wouldn’t last very long.

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