The Western Conference has seven clear-cut playoff teams.
As for the eighth team, there’s a lot to be sorted out.
Entering Saturday, five teams were within 4 1/2 games of the Denver Nuggets for the West’s final playoff spot, with the Portland Trail Blazers in ninth, 2 1/2 games behind.
The eighth seed likely will be swiftly dismissed by the Golden State Warriors but can use the experience as a steppingstone.
It’s generally believed a below-.500 team must focus on improvement, not the postseason. But who says you can’t do both?
Of the five teams closest to Denver, only the Kings have withdrawn from the race by trading DeMarcus Cousins and shifting their focus to the draft.
The five teams chasing the Nuggets (28-33) have faults but are in the hunt entering the last quarter of the season.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, who trailed Denver by three games, could have packed it in when Zach LaVine tore an ACL on Feb. 3. Instead, Minnesota, led by Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, still has something to play for.
“It’s their business, yes,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said when asked if his players stayed updated on the standings. “You’ve got to know what’s going on, but you also have to understand how you prepare for each day. And that’s a routine and habit you have to build, and you want to build habits of excellence.”
Even though the Nuggets struggle defensively, coach Michael Malone surprisingly has his young team in position to reach the postseason thanks to one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses featuring big man Nikola Jokic and shooting guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.
The biggest surprise is Portland’s position. The Trail Blazers returned most of last season’s playoff team, including one of the league’s most talented backcourts in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. But like Denver, Portland struggles defensively.
The Dallas Mavericks also were three behind the eighth spot after a dreadful start. They bounced back behind young players such as guards Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell, an undrafted rookie, and recently acquired center Nerlens Noel.
The New Orleans Pelicans made the biggest move to try to snag the eighth seed by trading for DeMarcus Cousins. But they lack difference makers on the perimeter around their dominant big men, Cousins and Anthony Davis.
Of the five teams closest to Denver, only the Kings have withdrawn from the race by trading Cousins and shifting their focus to the draft. The Kings were 1 1/2 games out of the No. 8 slot at the All-Star break, but after trading Cousins and losing Rudy Gay for the season with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, they aren’t built to compete for the playoffs.
Thibodeau said he’s not surprised the competition for the West’s final postseason spot is tight.
“When you looked at where everyone was at the beginning of the season, you thought it might be a possibility,” Thibodeau said. “When you study the numbers of every team, you see that was going to be a possibility, so I’m not surprised.”
Do I have a choice? I just want to win games. Winning takes care of every category for an athlete.
Derrick Rose, Knicks guard, asked if he’s liking the triangle offense more
The ‘This Can’t Be Life’ Award
The basketball court is not where the Los Angeles Lakers are making news.
Jeanie Buss drew praise from Lakers fans after ousting her older brother, Jim, as vice president of basketball operations. But Jim and sibling Johnny weren’t going to go away quietly, as the Los Angeles Times reported.
Jim and Johnny planned to force Jeanie out as controlling owner, forcing Jeanie to file a restraining order against her brothers to prevent the action, according to court documents obtained by the Times.
It doesn’t sound as if the drama in La La Land will end anytime soon.
The ‘Keeping it Way Too Real’ Award
The triangle offense has been an issue as long as Phil Jackson has been in charge of the New York Knicks’ basketball operations.
Derrick Rose, who by any measure is not a good fit for that offense, told the New York Daily News he simply does not want to “(mess)” up the game.
“(Expletive), do I have a choice? Do I have a choice?” Rose said when asked if he’s liking the triangle more. “I just want to win games. Winning takes care of every category for an athlete.”