About midway through the 2013-14 season, we can already begin to sort out the Western Conference hierarchy. At the top are the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, followed closely by the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. It's probably safe to say those six are headed to the playoffs.
That leaves two postseason spots, with a number of teams still in the hunt. While the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans are falling by the wayside toward a date with the lottery, five franchises still have their eyes on grabbing either the No. 7 or No. 8 seed. Let's break down those clubs, in order of current record:
Phoenix Suns (24-18)
The Suns were supposed to be competing for the worst record in the league, but instead they're arguably the league's most surprising team under first-year coach Jeff Hornacek. While there have been some hiccups of late following the injury to star guard Eric Bledsoe, he's expected back before March and that'll give the team time to make another run.
Known for their offense during the days of Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni, this Suns squad is no different, currently ranking No. 8 in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com. The team's defense is less impressive and suffers without Bledsoe on the perimeter, but this team isn't to be doubted anymore.
Dallas Mavericks (25-20)
One spot ahead of the Suns in offensive efficiency, the Mavericks have racked up points with a core of Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Shawn Marion and Jose Calderon. They're also one of the league's weakest defensive teams as a result of rolling with so many small lineups.
That formula still has Dallas in playoff position, though, led by the resurgent Nowitzki and his mind-numbing efficiency. Only four teams shoot better than the Mavs, according to NBA.com, and few teams do a better job of avoiding turnovers. It's all quite impressive for a team that plays Ellis 37 minutes a night, if we can ignore the defensive end.
Memphis Grizzlies (22-20)
They weren't supposed to be here, but the disastrous play of Tayshaun Prince and injuries to Marc Gasol and Tony Allen have left the Grizzlies trying to claw their way back into the playoff chase. It's been happening of late, with eight wins in 10 games.
During the recent stretch, which includes wins over Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Houston, Mike Conley has averaged 20.6 points and six assists while shooting 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from beyond the arc. The Grizzlies will need him to keep stepping up, particularly with the defense ailing sans-Gasol, but he's been playing like All-Star this month.
Denver Nuggets (21-21)
Going the wrong direction with four losses in six games, Ty Lawson has done his best to carry the Nuggets, to varying degrees of success. He's dishing more assists and drawing more fouls than ever, but he's also turning the ball over at a high clip and shooting a career-low 42 percent from the field.
With the revelation that Danilo Gallinari isn't coming back this season, Lawson likely won't see his role decrease anytime soon, so it'll be on him to lead them out of mediocrity. That may be hard with guys like J.J. Hickson and Wilson Chandler playing such big roles, though.
Minnesota Timberwolves (21-22)
Three wins in four games have staved off the collapse in Minnesota temporarily, and the Timberwolves remain one of the most-talented teams in the conference. However, they're also inconsistent as anyone -- the team has an incredible plus-4.9 average point differential, but somehow is under .500.
Much of that stems from the team's inability to win close games, a pattern the Timberwolves snapped with Kevin Martin's game-winner over Golden State on Friday night. However, that only improves Minnesota's record to 1-11 in games decided by four or fewer points this season, so finishing games remains an Achilles' heel for this team.
Looking to the season's end
There's another interesting layer to this race for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the West, and it's the schedule. If none of these teams pull away from the pack and grab those two spots before April, the final days of the season could give us some games with a playoff-like atmosphere.
Specifically, the round robin of games that essentially end the respective seasons of Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix:
- Phoenix vs. Dallas, April 12
- Memphis vs. Phoenix, April 14
- Dallas vs. Memphis, April 16
The Suns also play Sacramento on April 16, but those three games could ultimately decide which teams are headed to the postseason this year. That is, if we're lucky enough to see this scenario play out in the coming months.