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NBA playoff push: X-factor for the 5 West teams still in it

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

With less than a month left in the 2016-17 season, we’ve got a pretty tight race for the 8-seed in the Western Conference. But the West is at least making this final push for the playoffs highly competitive.

Technically, there are five teams still in it. Counting the 8-seed Denver Nuggets, we have five teams within five games of making the postseason. With about a baker’s dozen worth of games left, the time is now or never to make the jumps necessary for a postseason appearance. It will take a team effort to secure the final playoff spot. But it will also take an X-factor for each team stepping up in this time of need.

Let’s take a look at the five teams fighting for the 8-seed and their X-factor the rest of the way.

Minnesota Timberwolves (28-41, 5 games back): Shabazz Muhammad

The Minnesota Timberwolves are semi-relevant for non-tanking reasons in mid-March for the first time in three years. Considering how they started out the season (6-18), it shows some real growth. They also hit a brutal stretch to close the season and now have to deal with Nemanja Bjelica being out for the rest of the campaign. Bjelica had been playing his best basketball of the season and was closing games as the stretch-4 for the Wolves. They had been excelling with those 4-out lineups next to Karl-Anthony Towns but can no longer do that without playing someone wildly out of position.

If the Wolves are going to storm back and pull off the minor miracle of making up 5 games in the final 13 contests, they’ll need Shabazz Muhammad to find his way in some weird lineups. Muhammad’s strength and rebounding ability make this idea work in theory. His defense and current shooting make it much tougher.

Prior to the month of March, Muhammad was back on track as a three-point shooter. After hitting 28.9 percent of his threes last season, Bazz was knocking down 41 percent of his threes this season. Something odd has happened in March; he’s completely lost his shooting touch from the outside. Muhammad is 1-of-19 behind the three-point line this month. He has only made three of his last 34 attempts from deep. To completely lose your shooting is weird. It’s also completely becoming of such a streaky player.

The Wolves could use a good streak the rest of the way and the progression of this season is against that happening with Bazz at the 4. The top five lineups (in terms of minutes) for the Wolves with Bazz at the 4 have been a disaster.

It’s an extremely small sample with those minutes, and two of them have Zach LaVine, who is out for the rest of the season. But those are some pretty damning results. The addition of Omri Casspi could help even some of this out, but it’s on Bazz to finish out his contract year strong.

New Orleans Pelicans (30-41, 4.5 games back): Solomon Hill

One of the most questionable contracts given out this past summer was to Solomon Hill. His Indiana Pacers days ended semi-abruptly when they didn’t pick up the fourth-year option on his rookie contract, making him a free agent in 2016. A timely couple of weeks of good outside shooting helped increase his value. The Pelicans made him a very rich man with a four-year deal for $52 million. For most of this season, the shooting hasn’t existed, and the money has seemed capable of being saturated with buyer’s remorse.

However, Hill has been instrumental in the team’s success on the court since they acquired DeMarcus Cousins. Now, it still hasn’t been with his shooting. Since the trade, Hill is only shooting 32.7 percent from deep, and that’s with a six-three-pointer, 30-point outburst in there. He’s still shooting a career-high 34.7 percent from deep this season, but his impact on the floor has more to do with helping move the ball and playing defense.

The combination of Anthony Davis, Cousins, and Hill hasn’t really worked out so far with the lack of spacing. The Pelicans get outscored by 3.5 points per 100 with that trio, mostly because their offense falls off a cliff (94.4). When the Pelicans give Cousins a rest and put Dante Cunningham with Hill and Davis, the team is +13.1. Hill’s ability to switch between the 3 and the 4 balances out the attack with Davis really well.

Prior to the All-Star break, the Pelicans were -5.0 without Hill on the floor and a -0.3 with him on it. Since the Cousins trade All-Star Sunday night, Pelicans are +5.0 with Hill on the court and -11.8 with him on the bench. They need him down the stretch to make up the ground they’ve lost, and it wouldn’t hurt if he started shooting like his bank account depended on it.

Dallas Mavericks (30-39, 3 games back): Seth Curry

Back in the summer, the Sacramento Kings rescinded their qualifying offer for Seth Curry. They were headed toward signing Garrett Temple and Arron Afflalo to their backcourt. Curry wanted out, and the Kings afforded him an easier way to get a contract by being unrestricted. It was a kind deed to a player who played well at the end of a meaningless season but was far from a sure thing. Like many of the Kings’ moves the past couple of years, it now looks pretty bad. Curry signed a two-year deal with Dallas for the room exception ($5.9 million total).

Since Curry moved to the starting lineup in mid-January, the Mavericks have been a fairly dangerous team. Prior to the Rick Carlisle adjustment, the Mavs had the third worst record in the NBA (11-27). Since then, the Mavs have the seventh highest win percentage and a 19-12 record. And Curry has been really good since the All-Star break.

Over the past 13 games, Curry is putting up 16.8 points on shooting splits of 52.0/45.7/90.3.

The three-point attack and accuracy with Curry on the court is completely different too. Since Curry began starting for Dallas, the Mavs’ three-point shooting is 39.2 percent with him on the court, and it drops to 33.9 percent when he’s out of the game. For a team that’s 24th in offensive rating, they’ll need his presence to complete this playoff push.

Portland Trail Blazers (31-37, 1 game back): Noah Vonleh

For much of this season, Noah Vonleh has been a disappointment. He has been a good rebounder and a solid mid-range shooter. Everything else has fallen short of what they need him to be, which is a big reason he’s playing only about 15 minutes a night. Before the All-Star break, the Blazers were close to a net neutral (-0.4 per 100 possessions) with Vonleh on the bench. With him on the floor, they were outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions.

Vonleh could be the key to this team getting over that final mountain in Denver to avoid missing the playoffs. The reason for that is he’s had a huge, positive impact on the Blazers since All-Star weekend. The combination of Vonleh and Jusuf Nurkic has been incredible, and it’s the defense of Vonleh that is keeping those minutes together. Terry Stotts increased Vonleh’s workload after the break (13.2 minutes to 19.9 minutes), and it’s paying off.

Portland’s net rating since the All-Star break is a +8.3 with Vonleh on the floor, and it drops to a +0.5 when he’s on the bench. Opposing teams find it much harder to score at the rim in general with Vonleh in the game right now, especially in the restricted area. Opponent restricted area accuracy goes from 61.8 percent with Vonleh on the bench to 53.3 percent when he’s in the game.

While Nurkic has been individually great, the Blazers are +1.8 with Jusuf on the floor sans Vonleh. Put Vonleh next to him on the court, and it jumps to +9.8. If they get this out of Vonleh the rest of the way, it may be just enough defense to get Portland into the 8-seed.

Denver Nuggets (33-36, current 8-seed): Jamal Murray

The Nuggets are currently in the driver seat for this playoff push, and they’ve been rolling since January 12th. Prior to that, they were 14-23 and an absolute mess on defense. But this ragtag, young group of potential players must have turned things around and learned some plucky, applicable defense, right? That’s how they won 19 of their last 32 games and took control of the race for the 8-seed? Not at all. They’re pretty much just as bad now defensively as they were back then.

Since January 12th, the Nuggets give up 110.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s 28th in the NBA during that stretch. Prior to that, they gave up 110.1, which was 30th. The difference is the Nuggets have become the best offense in the NBA. During this 32-game span, the Nuggets’ offense of 114.4 isn’t just the best scoring efficiency in the league; it’s nearly a full two points better than second place Cleveland. So instead of trying to find an X-factor that can help them find that missing defense, which offensive guy can give them that extra scoring?

Look no further than rookie Jamal Murray. With Emmanuel Mudiay out of the rotation, more consistent minutes are available for Murray. We’ve seen him shoot much better since the break (39.3/33.0/87.7 to 41.1/37.7/78.6). Murray gives the Nuggets more of an option to break down the defense with dribble penetration. Unlike Mudiay, Murray does it while being a threat to score. And since he’s a good shooter, defenses know they have to close out hard on him.

 

He finds direct paths and gathers his steps quickly once he turns his shoulder on a defender. His scoring ability is unlocking with a more consistent role. It just adds to what is an already ridiculous offense.

Denver is +8.2 per 100 possessions with Murray on the floor since the All-Star break. Their team shooting is clocking in at 41.4 percent from deep and 60.5 percent true shooting with him on the court. If they keep up this offense with Murray’s help, it won’t matter what the other teams do. They’ll have enough to close out this playoff race.

All stats via NBA.com.

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