Scoreboard Watching: The Traffic Jam

karachi-traffic-jam

With the All-Star weekend in Los Angeles ending, I think it’s quite apropos to look at the Western Conference standings as we head into the unofficial second half of the season and see a giant traffic jam. Eight teams are within 4.5 games of each other, with the bottom two teams in that mix likely ending up as lottery teams instead of playoff teams.

This has always been the major difference between the Western Conference and Eastern Conference over the past decade. The East is top heavy (usually just one or two teams – many of those teams usually involving some guy named LeBron James), while the West has a lot more depth, team-wise. It hasn’t been rare over the past decade for the eighth seed in the East to be at or below .500, while the West eighth seed has to win at least 45 games to get in. While that disparity seems to be improving, there is still a visible gap between the two conferences.

The Oklahoma City Thunder currently find themselves in 5th place in the West, just 2 games back of the 3rd and 4th seeded San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves. In the NBA, you want to position yourself to make a run when it counts – at the end of the season. Two games is not too big of a gap to make up with 20+ games left. That’s the good news.

The bad news: the Thunder are just 1.5 games ahead of being out the playoff picture completely. That’s how tight the Western Conference is. Something like a 3-game streak (either winning or losing) could be either triumphant or deleterious for a team at this point in the season.

Here’s a look at where those eight teams stand and what they have ahead of them.

3. San Antonio Spurs

  • Currently – 35-24
  • Winning percentage of the remaining teams on the schedule: .550
  • Remaining game locations – 13 home/ 10 away
  • Number of back to backs remaining – 2
  • Longest road trip remaining – 3 games
  • Longest home stand remaining – 6 games
  • Toughest Stretch – March 17th – April 3rd (vs. Minnesota, vs. Golden State, vs. Washington, vs. Utah, @Milwaukee, @Washington, vs. OKC, vs. Houston, @LA Clippers)

The underlying question with San Antonio is when (or even if) Kawhi Leonard returns to the lineup. Gregg Popovich is a good enough coach to will the Spurs to the playoffs, but once they get to the second season, San Antonio will need their superstar to advance any further. And while LaMarcus Aldridge has had a nice bounce back year, he is not in the same plane as Leonard.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

  • Currently – 36-25
  • Winning percentage of the remaining teams on the schedule: .507
  • Remaining game locations – 10 home/ 11 away
  • Number of back to backs remaining – 4
  • Longest road trip remaining – 3 games
  • Longest home stand remaining – 2 games
  • Toughest Stretch – March 1st – March 20th (@Portland, @Utah, vs. Boston, vs. Golden State, @Washington, @San Antonio, vs. Houston, vs. LA Clippers)

Minnesota’s schedule is a bit strange. Of the eight teams on this list, they have played the most games. Yet, they still have four back to backs coming up on the schedule. They have a lot more breaks than the other teams, but the number of games played and the number of back to backs remaining may start to have an effect on the Tom Thibodeau-coached team.

Jimmy Butler recently sat out the All-Star game, and when asked about it, he responded by saying, “I got to rest. I got to rest my body up. I know this Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to be ready to roll when I get back there.” By this point in previous seasons, Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns have been gearing up for the offseason. This season, they’ll be playing in high pressure games from here till their season ends.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (2.0 Games Back)

  • Currently – 33-26
  • Winning percentage of the remaining teams on the schedule: .518
  • Remaining game locations – 11 home/ 12 away
  • Number of back to backs remaining – 3
  • Longest road trip remaining – 3 games
  • Longest home stand remaining – 4 games
  • Toughest Stretch – March 18th – April 7th (@Toronto, @Boston, vs. Miami, vs. Portland, @San Antonio, vs. Denver, @New Orleans, vs. Golden State, @Houston)

The Thunder are in the best position to make a move up, but also in the worst position to take a tumble down. Those winnable games earlier in the season that resulted in losses are just now coming to bit the Thunder in the butt. Since losing Andre Roberson 10 games ago, the Thunder are just 4-6. Their defense has taken a definite hit, while the offense seems to have regressed a bit. Paul George is playing his best basketball of the season, but Carmelo Anthony seems to be a in a bit of a funk. In addition, the bench is a mixed bag of results from game to game. The Thunder stayed pat during the trade deadline and will head into the stretch run with the team they have.

6. Denver Nuggets (2.5 Games Back)

  • Currently – 32-26
  • Winning percentage of the remaining teams on the schedule: .515
  • Remaining game locations – 11 home/ 13 away
  • Number of back to backs remaining – 3
  • Longest road trip remaining – 7 games
  • Longest home stand remaining – 3 games (2x)
  • Toughest Stretch – March 23rd – April 5th (@Washington, @Philadelphia, @Toronto, @OKC, vs. Milwaukee, vs. Indiana, vs. Minnesota)

Whew! A seven game road near the end of the season. That’s rough for a young team trying to make their first trip to the playoffs. Good news for the Nuggets though is that their young guys are starting to hit their stride at just the right time. Nikola Jokic is turning into some sort of point center hybrid that may have no historical comp. Jamal Murray is becoming the wing scoring point guard the Nuggets envisioned when they drafted him. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Paul Millsap should be back on the team in mid-March. The road ahead is difficult for the Nuggets, but they also seem to be playing their best ball of the season right now.

7. Portland Trailblazers (2.5 Games Back)

  • Currently – 32-26
  • Winning percentage of the remaining teams on the schedule: .520
  • Remaining game locations – 13 home/ 11 away
  • Number of back to backs remaining – 3
  • Longest road trip remaining – 4 games
  • Longest home stand remaining – 5 games
  • Toughest Stretch – March 9th – March 27th (vs. Golden State, vs. Miami, vs. Cleveland, vs. Detroit, @LA Clippers, vs. Houston, vs. Boston, @OKC, @New Orleans)

Portland has been very streaky of late. Over the past 17 games, they’ve had two 3-game losing streaks and a stretch of 7 wins in 8 games. Portland depends almost entirely on the shot-making abilities of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, so when they are off, the team tends to struggle. Luckily for them, the team is a lot better defensively than it has been in years’ past.

8. New Orleans Pelicans (3 Games Back)

  • Currently – 31-26
  • Winning percentage of the remaining teams on the schedule: .517
  • Remaining game locations – 14 home/ 11 away
  • Number of back to backs remaining – 4 (and 1 back to back to back)
  • Longest road trip remaining – 4 games
  • Longest home stand remaining – 5 games
  • Toughest Stretch – March 15th – April 1st (@San Antonio, vs. Houston, vs. Boston, vs. Dallas, vs. Indiana, vs. LA Lakers, @Houston, vs. Portland, @Cleveland, vs. OKC)

Because of a leak in the Smoothie King Center Arena roof on February 7th, the Pacers vs. Pelicans game had to be rescheduled. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, the game was rescheduled during a critical period for the Pelicans, forcing them to play a rare back to back to back. In addition, the two games prior to the B2B2B are also a back to back, forcing the Pelicans to play five games in six nights. Even though all those games take place at home, that is still an amazingly tough stretch for an NBA team.

9. Los Angeles Clippers (3.5 Games Back)

  • Currently – 30-26
  • Winning percentage of the remaining teams on the schedule: .532
  • Remaining game locations – 13 home/ 13 away
  • Number of back to backs remaining – 6
  • Longest road trip remaining – 4 games
  • Longest home stand remaining – 6 games
  • Toughest Stretch – March 15th – March 27th (@Houston, @OKC, vs. Portland, @Minnesota, @Milwaukee, @Indiana, @Toronto, vs. Milwaukee)

Currently, the first team out, the Clippers have an extremely tough road ahead of them. They have have a four game road trip and two 3-game road trips coming up. In addition, with the Black Griffin trade, the Clippers find themselves devoid of a true superstar to help them in crunch time situations. Lou Williams can be that guy from time to time, but he’s also been know to choke in high pressure situations.

10. Utah Jazz (4.5 Games Back)

  • Currently – 30-28
  • Winning percentage of the remaining teams on the schedule: .485
  • Remaining game locations – 14 home/ 10 away
  • Number of back to backs remaining – 4
  • Longest road trip remaining – 3 games (2x)
  • Longest home stand remaining – 4 games (2x)
  • Toughest Stretch – March 23rd – April 1st (@San Antonio, @Golden State, vs. Boston, vs. Memphis, @Minnesota)

The current hottest team in the league, the Jazz enter the post All-Star break riding an 11-game winning streak. In addition, the teams remaining on their schedule have the lowest win percentage of the teams mentioned in this article and they have two 4-game home stands, to boot. The Jazz are finally healthy and seemingly in prime position to make a playoff run.

As always, the unknown variable when it comes to stretch runs are injuries. Utah and Minnesota appear to be in good position to either move up or maintain their current positions, respectively. But a tweak of the knee or a twist of the ankle there, and a team’s fortunes (or, more appropriately, misfortunes) can lead to catastrophic results. If the NBA was looking for drama, it definitely got it in the West. On to the second half.

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