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Playoff Sleepers In The Western Conference

The Kings, Suns, Nuggets and Pelicans are teams who could sneak into the playoff picture.

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As expected, the playoff race in the NBA’s Western Conference is extremely tight yet again with the rankings changing nightly.

The Golden State Warriors were strong out of the gate, and their present 22-3 record puts them atop the conference. The Memphis Grizzlies (21-5) and Portland Trail Blazers (22-6) claiming the number two and three spots, respectively, follow dangerously close behind. The fourth-place Houston Rockets (19-7) and fifth-place Dallas Mavericks (20-8) aim to take over those higher spots with recent acquisitions. In a move the Mavs hope puts them in title contention this year, they traded for point guard Rajon Rondo, who leads the league in assists at 10.7 per game. In addition, reports indicate the Mavs are frontrunners to acquire Jermaine O’Neal. The Mavs topped the San Antonio Spurs 99-93 in Rondo’s first outing with Dallas. He logged six points, nine assists and seven rebounds in 34 minutes of play. The Rockets added wing Corey Brewer for some much-needed perimeter defense off the bench and also landed combo guard Alexey Shved.

The Los Angeles Clippers (19-8) and Spurs (17-11) occupy the sixth and seventh spots, respectively, and the New Orleans Pelicans (13-13) and Phoenix Suns (14-14) are tied for the eighth spot. The Oklahoma City Thunder (13-14) are set to enter the playoff mix now that Russell Westbrook and Keven Durant are back, winning ten of their last 12 games. Durant did suffer an ankle sprain two games back, but it’s a minor injury and he should return soon. Rounding out the standings are the Los Angeles Lakers (8-18), Utah Jazz (8-20) and Minnesota Timberwolves (5-20) in the 13-through-15 spots.

With well over fifty games left to play before the postseason commences, we will likely continue to see teams jockeying for those last playoff spots. Today we look at potential sleeper teams that could sneak into the playoff picture when April comes around:

Denver Nuggets (12-15), 11th place:

Denver is stuck in middle-of-the road territory. This is a team containing solid players and good depth, but no superstar. Heading into Sunday’s games, the Nuggets are just one or two wins away from the eighth seed. Optimism was abound as the season started, but it quickly diminished as Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari dealt with nagging injuries, and apparent discord was revealed between the front office and newly-extended Kenneth Faried. They began the season losing six of the first seven games, then went on to win eight of the next ten. Hope was seemingly restored again, then they lost seven of the next ten. Coach Brian Shaw continues to experiment with lineups, and one such experiment two games back, featuring Lawson, Faried, Nate Robinson, Alonzo Gee and Jusuf Nurkic, confounded the Clippers just enough to enable Denver to end their losing streak for the win. They beat the Indiana Pacers 76-73 in Saturday’s matchup.

General Manager Tim Connelly has been forthright in sharing his view that “every player on our roster is a movable asset.” Monitor their progress through the end of 2014; if the team is still just plodding along, don’t be surprised to see some type of a roster shake-up. There’s still adequate time to welcome new players, develop chemistry and gather enough wins to ensure a low-seed playoff spot. Then there’s the plight of second-year coach Shaw whose name is consistently mentioned as being on the hot seat. A mid-season coaching replacement could infuse the team with an about-face change of cohesion. Of course, it could have the opposite effect, too.

Sacramento Kings (11-15), 12th place:

The Kings’ season has already provided a plethora of interesting storylines. On December 15 the team announced coach Michael Malone was “relieved” of his coaching duties with assistant Tyrone Corbin stepping in as the interim coach. At that time, the Kings had an 11-13 record. Unfortunately, DeMarcus Cousins had missed the prior nine games due to a case of viral meningitis. With Cousins in place at the start of the season, they were 9-6, including an early five-game winning streak. It was quite amazing they didn’t completely crumble while playing without Cousins’ 23.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks stat line, managing to go 2-7. They are 0-2 since Malone departed and are now in the middle of a five-game losing streak. Cousins contributed 27 points and 11 rebounds in his first game back since recovering from his illness, so he looks good to go at least.

The unexpected firing of their head coach, along with the Cousins situation, proved a stunning way to begin the year. And now, a blockbuster trade rumor is swirling. The Kings are in talks with the Brooklyn Nets to trade Darren Collison, Derrick Williams and Jason Thompson for the Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams.

The December, 2013, acquisition of Rudy Gay has proven to be a sound one as he boasts current averages of 21.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists. Ben McLemore has taken a second-year leap with 12 points and 1.7 in three-pointers a game. This is a team that needs Cousins and Gay to lead their team by example and bring them back to winning.

Phoenix Suns (14-14) and New Orleans Pelicans (13-13), tied for 8th Place:

The Suns and Pelicans seem to exchange places in the eighth spot at any given time. Each team has considerable strengths and problem areas that need addressing if they hope to climb permanently into the playoff standings.

For the fast-paced Suns, they have five players recording double-digit scoring and a thrilling backcourt duo in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. The addition of Isaiah Thomas gives them a three-guard approach that is working well. Be aware, it seems multiple teams are interested in snagging free-agent-to-be Dragic. The Suns are ranked sixth in points per game (104.4); on the other hand; they come in 25th in opponents’ points per game (103.5). With still-developing bigs in Alex Len and Miles Plumlee, the front office may (read: must) consider looking around at options to strengthen their interior presence and toughness.

As for the Pelicans, they go as their budding superstar, Anthony Davis, goes. Davis, now in his third year, has been a revelation this season, averaging 24.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and a league-best 2.9 blocks. Most Valuable Player talks surround him regularly. Ryan Anderson’s 2.3 three-pointers and Jrue Holiday’s consistent play has made a difference, but their weak, low-contributing bench is the issue. The season started strong with five wins out of seven games, and most recently, they’ve won five of their last eight. They need to string together wins instead of this up-and-down pace.

The Western Conference is a battleground, and as usually demonstrated, the lower seedings will likely be unknown until the last game is played. With nine teams currently at .500 or better – and the Thunder on the move to break in as well – this Conference is beyond tight.

Susan Bible covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for Basketball Insiders and writes about all NBA teams. She is a Senior Newslines Editor and contributes to fantasy basketball coverage.

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