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NBA PM: The Race for Eighth Heating up in Both Conferences

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There is roughly one month to go in the regular season and things are starting to heat up in the fight for the eighth playoff seed in both conferences. Here, we take a look at the race for eighth in each conference to see which teams are in the driver seat and which teams have a shot at overtaking their opponents over the next few weeks.

Western Conference

The Denver Nuggets have held the Western Conference eighth seed for some time, but there are a few teams closing in on them. Currently ranked ninth in the West and just a game behind Denver in the loss column, the Portland Trail Blazers seem to be the Nuggets’ biggest threat to overtake them over them in the playoff race.

This would be an unfortunate result for the Nuggets after they traded Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 top-five protected first-round pick (via the Memphis Grizzlies) for Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round draft pick. The idea seemed to be that Plumlee could play more effectively with Nikola Jokic than Nurkic could, while Portland would get a full year to evaluate Nurkic before his rookie contract expires.

Portland has won six of their last 10 games since the trade and very well could overtake Denver thanks in large part to the addition of the former Nugget. Over those 10 games, Nurkic has racked up five assists or more in five games. On March 9, against the Philadelphia 76ers, Nurkic contributed 28 points, 20 rebounds, six blocks, eight assists and two steals. Nurkic’s passing, effectiveness in the pick-and-roll and defense at the rim has provided the Trail Blazers with a level of production they simply weren’t getting from Plumlee.

A trade that many interpreted as a signal that Portland was punting on this season has turned out to be a major catalyst for their run for the eighth seed.

Just behind the Nuggets, the Dallas Mavericks hold a 28-37 record and have won six of their last 10 games. The Mavericks just won four out of five games at home, defeating the Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets but fell to the Phoenix Suns.

The Mavericks continue to be powered by their quality additions like Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell – though Nerlens Noel has been sidelined for the last few games. The Mavericks will need to be on their A-game during the next 10 games, six of which are on the road. During this stretch, Dallas will face top-level teams like the Toronto Raptors (twice), Washington Wizards, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and other tough opponents like the Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies. If Dallas struggles throughout this stretch, their playoff hopes could fade rather quickly.

The last viable contender for the eighth seed in the West is the Minnesota Timberwolves. Despite struggling on defense all season, losing Zach LaVine to an ACL tear in February and dangling Ricky Rubio in trade talks before the deadline, Minnesota has managed a 27-38 record, putting them 3.5 games behind Denver. The Timberwolves have won six of their last 10 games and will need to pull together a significant hot streak to close the gap between themselves and the Nuggets over the last few weeks of the season.

With 17 games left, Minnesota doesn’t have much time to get back into the playoff picture. There is still hope, however, considering they have managed to defeat tough opponents in March, including the Utah Jazz, Clippers and Warriors. Minnesota will face some tough opponents, such as the Miami HEAT, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, but have several winnable games littered in between these matchups. Minnesota will likely need Denver, Portland and Dallas to go through some cold streaks in order to realistically get within striking distance of the eighth seed. As of now, Minnesota still has some hope, but will need a lot of things to go their way over the next few weeks.

While Denver has some real competition, they still have the advantage moving forward. However, even a small slip-up over the next few weeks could leave them very vulnerable to missing the postseason.

Eastern Conference

The Milwaukee Bucks, currently 32-33, hold a one game lead in the loss column over the streaking Miami HEAT. Injuries to Jabari Parker and Michael Beasley recently looked to be significant setbacks for the Bucks, but the return of Khris Middleton from his offseason hamstring injury has helped steady the team.

The Bucks are one of four teams in the Eastern Conference to have won seven of their last 10 games, with the HEAT being one of the others. The HEAT have won 21 of their last 26 games after starting the season 11-30. Despite losing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over recent seasons and moving forward with a team featuring mostly role players (several on short term deals), Miami has been the hottest team in the league for some time and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Give credit to Erik Spoelstra and his staff for maximizing the team’s talent and overcoming just about everyone’s expectations.

Miami’s toughest remaining opponents are the Raptors (twice), Celtics, Wizards (twice) and Cavaliers.  Miami is just a game back of the Bucks in the loss column and are a serious threat to pass Milwaukee in the standings.

The Chicago Bulls are also just a game behind the Bucks in the loss column, but have won just four of their last 10 games and have been inconsistent all season. The Bulls also traded away Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott in exchange for Cameron Payne, who hasn’t been particularly impressive in his short time with Chicago.

The team has also faced adversity this season, including Rajon Rondo’s outward criticism of Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade on social media and Wade’s recent comments about the franchise’s front office.

“I wish upper management could be answering these questions because I’m tired of answering the same ones every game,” Wade said in the same interview. “I don’t know. I wish I had the answer, I don’t … I just want to get out there and try to play, try to lead. And try to find a way that me and Jimmy can be better to help these guys.”

Plays like this from Wade, along with all of the other issues the Bulls have had on both ends of the court this season, leave little confidence that Chicago will pass the Bucks or HEAT for the eighth seed.

The Bulls aren’t out of the running, but there’s less reason to believe that they can keep pace with the Bucks or HEAT, who have been playing particularly well lately.

 

 

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.