Before the All-Star Break, it looked likely that the Denver Nuggets would amble into the playoffs by finishing eighth in the Western Conference. But the blockbuster trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans has complicated matters somewhat. The center switched from one eighth seed contender to another in a move that seems to be underwhelming for his old team: the Sacramento Kings.
The Race for the Eighth Seed in the Western Conference Playoffs
When NBA games resumed after the All-Star Break, there were further twists; the Kings beat the Nuggets, the Pelicans were annihilated by the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the struggling Orlando Magic. So where does the leave the playoff race? Four teams look like major contenders, while two others still have a decent chance. Here’s a breakdown of those teams:
Denver Nuggets (25-32, 8th)
The Nuggets have been an exciting offensive team – particularly since Nikola Jokic has been the starting center. His clever passing and efficient scoring have helped make Denver’s offense the 8th best in the league. Defense is a different story though; the Nuggets rank dead last in defensive rating this season and they give up nearly 112 points per-game.
Their defense will not be helped by their decision to trade away Jusuf Nurkic for Mason Plumlee. Plumlee is a skilled player with passing to rival his new teammate Jokic, but he is not as good a defender as Nurkic. Plumlee is a better fit on this team than Nurkic, so the decision to trade him confirms Denver’s strategy: they are going all in on offense and centring their play around Jokic’s skillset. They’ll continue to be a great team to watch, but it might not be enough to hold off the revamped Pelicans.
Sacramento Kings (25-33, 9th, 0.5 GB)
Many people think that the Kings will plummet without their star player, but last night’s victory over the Nuggets highlighted that they’re not going down without a fight. Buddy Hield‘s potential was a major factor in the Kings’ decision to deal Cousins, so it was encouraging that he posted a 16-point performance in his first game.
Without Cousins, there will be more opportunities for another young player: Willie Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein has yet to blossom under limited playing time thus far, but he too was impressive against Denver, scoring 29 points with ten rebounds. Time will tell whether the drama in Sacramento will die down without the controversial Cousins. The Kings are hoping that the trade will allow the younger players to develop in a more positive atmosphere. The first game was successful, but the Kings will struggle to maintain that level and reach the playoffs.
Portland Trail Blazers (24-33, 10th, 1 GB)
Like the Nuggets, the Blazers are an offensive team. They rank 25th in defensive rating, but 13th in offensive rating. The talents of their backcourt: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum made Portland the surprise package of last season, but in 2016-17, they haven’t been as successful. Still, Lillard and McCollum are both putting up more than 23 points per game; they’re one of only five teams to have two such prolific scorers.
The Blazers’ shortcomings have been on defense. Their perimeter defense is mostly to blame; they allow 40.1% shooting from outside the arc, which is comfortably the worst in the league. For all of Lillard and McCollum’s talents on offense, they are undersized and outworked on defense. They haven’t been helped by Al-Farouq Aminu‘s injuries, which have meant he’s only played 37 games this season. Aminu is an excellent perimeter defender and his absence has been exposed. With him out, Portland don’t look likely to shore up their weakness and make the playoffs again this year.
New Orleans Pelicans (23-35, 11th, 2.5 GB)
Suddenly, the Pelicans have become on of the most scrutinised franchises in the NBA. Their move for Cousins was massive, as he and Anthony Davis should mesh well together – on both ends of the floor. In their first outing together their two stars scored a combined 55 points – a great example of the pair’s scoring talents. However, they suffered a 30 point loss to the Rockets. Davis and Cousins are clearly a dangerous combination, but it will take time for the players to acclimate to a new system.
The Pelicans only have 24 games left to find a winning strategy and if they can keep injury-prone point guard Jrue Holiday healthy, that is plenty of time. Another topic of discussion will be Cousins’ temperament. He has accrued 19 technical fouls this season, so every technical from now will earn him a suspension. If he misses games, that could be crucial for New Orleans’ playoff push, while it could also create internal conflicts. Despite Boogie’s flaws, the move to trade him makes the Pelicans the favourites to claim the eighth spot in the West.
The Dallas Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves are only 2.5 and 3 games behind respectively. They both still have a chance at making the playoffs, but with four teams ahead of them it looks unlikely that Dallas or Minnesota will take the final Western playoff spot. They will both continue to fight for it and both have improved after slow starts. The Timberwolves had a winning January, but will miss the injured Zach LaVine. The Mavericks made a trade at the deadline to acquire Nerlens Noel, highlighting their intention to make the playoffs.
The race for the eighth seed in the West should be exciting, as the Pelicans look to claw their way back with a new star. They look like the favourites to claim the spot, but they have a few talented rivals. A likely postseason defeat by the Golden State Warriors will be the prize, but who knows? Davis and Cousins might be enough to provide a shock in the playoffs.