With one fourth of the NBA season behind us, it’s time to start looking at the standings. The Eastern Conference has already started to split into the haves and have nots: The eight teams in contention, plus the Milwaukee Bucks, are three games ahead of the rest, and none of the other teams look like they have a brighter future ahead.
The West is more complicated. The Golden State Warriors have surged into the fifth seed. The Lakers are lurking at the 11th seed with a great scoring margin. In between the Lakers and the eight-seed Mavericks lie the Timberwolves and Rockets, the latter of which has thrived in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for them. While the top four of the Spurs, Thunder, Grizzlies and Clippers seem like playoff locks, the bottom four seeds are still up for grabs. Who makes the cut by the end of the season?
Los Angeles Lakers: They’ve outscored their opponents by 72 points, and they’re only 9-11. Why? Because their defense is falling apart in the fourth quarter. They’re 1-10 in games decided by 10 points or less. That’s in spite of having one of the game’s most famous closers in Kobe Bryant, and they’ve had three coaches in 20 games. As they get healthier and Mike D’Antoni gets more comfortable with the roster, they’ll start winning close games.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy, Nikola Pekovic. That was their projected starting lineup. They’ve all missed games. Roy is out for the season, Rubio hasn’t played a game, and Love missed most of November. And they’re still at 9-9. Of all the teams, Minnesota will gain the most from just getting healthy.
Denver Nuggets: They’re one of the deepest teams in the league, and they added Andre Iguodala over the summer. But they can’t shoot, and unless Danilo Gallinari can find his 3-point shot (it’s gotten worse every year), they’re going to struggle on offense. But their depth alone is going to carry them in the regular season, and they’ve lost some games they should have won already.
Dallas Mavericks: This is where it gets hard. But the Mavericks are already in the eighth seed, and Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t played a game yet. If he meshes well with O.J. Mayo, who’s having a career year, they’re going to take off in a big way. If Mayo regresses, they’ll lose out to a more talented, but younger Jazz team. I’m voting that experience beats youth.
Utah Jazz: With Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, the Jazz have the deepest frontcourt in the league. But the rest of their lineup is mediocre at best. They need to trade either Jefferson or Millsap (both expiring contracts) for a smaller player. Gaining that balance is likely the difference between a playoff appearance or a lottery pick.
Golden State Warriors: Like the Mavericks, they’re missing their best player. Unlike the Mavericks, that player (Andrew Bogut) isn’t likely to return anytime soon. They also have less to gain: Bogut is primarily a defensive player, but the Warriors’ defense has been good already. They’ve got more than a puncher’s chance, because Bogut could really stabilize their lineup. But unless he’s back before February, they’re going to lose serious ground to every other team chasing their tails.
Houston Rockets: James Harden is a star. Omer Asik is a legitimate starting center. Chandler Parsons has the best contract in the league. But they’re too young, and they don’t have a second scoring option. Patrick Patterson is emerging, but he’s going to have to keep up a career pace for the Rockets to keep pace with the rest. Every other team in this race has significant obstacles holding them back. The Rockets are already playing at their best.