With roughly two months left in the NBA season, the Dallas Mavericks look like a playoff team, sitting in the No. 6 seed as the Mavericks and the rest of the league emerge from the All-Star Break this week. (Our All-Star glance featuring Dwight Powell and Jeremy Evans is here.) Without an All-Star on the roster, the Mavs received an extended break before embarking on what they hope will be a run to the postseason. The Mavs will not catch the “Big Three” in the Western Conference — Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City — but moving up just one seed, to No. 5, would put the Mavericks in a more favorable position to get past the first round for the first time since they won the 2011 NBA Title.
Each Monday we’ll take a look at how the Western Conference race is unfolding, starting with the No. 4 seed, and see how the Mavericks are fitting into the race. This week’s update comes with a caveat — the NBA trade deadline is this week (Feb. 18) and deals involving the below teams would certainly impact the race moving forward. We will have to assess that impact next Monday.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (35-18 as of Sunday night, 4 1/2 games behind Oklahoma City; four games ahead of Memphis)
This week: vs. San Antonio (Thursday), vs. Golden State (Saturday)
Status: With a four-game cushion the Clippers should feel secure, but we’ve seen leads of this size evaporate before. The biggest issue for the Clippers is injuries. Forward Blake Griffin is in the middle of a four-to-six week recovery from a broken hand, the result of a fight with a team employee. Once Griffin returns he must serve a four-game suspension. Guard Austin Rivers is out for the next four-to-six weeks with a hand injury of his own. The Clippers have the depth to handle those losses and they won seven of their last 10 going into the All-Star Break.
What to expect this week: A rough start, as the Clippers’ first two games post-All-Star Break are against the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Western Conference. But at least they’re at home. And their next four games after that come against non-playoff teams. The Clippers would be overjoyed with a split.
5. Memphis Grizzlies (31-22 as of Sunday night, four games behind the Clippers; three games ahead of Dallas)
This week: vs. Minnesota (Friday), at Toronto (Sunday)
Status: The Grizzlies won seven of their last 10, but lost two of their last three, going into the All-Star Break. Plus, the prognosis around center Marc Gasol’s broken foot is unknown (is it a fracture? How bad is the fracture? Where is the fracture? The Commercial Appeal went in-depth on the types of foot injuries NBA players have dealt with over the years and how players have recovered). A Spanish sports site, Marca, reported that Gasol would miss four-to-six months, but no U.S. sites had reported that time frame for recovery as of Sunday night. The Grizzlies went without a true center in their first game after Gasol’s injury, sliding 6-foot-9 JaMychal Green into the starting lineup. He played 21 minutes against the Nets (and 22 minutes in the previous four games). The Grizzlies could be players during this week’s trade deadline, or they could spend the next few weeks seeing if Green or former Maverick Brandan Wright can work as a platoon at the position. The Grizzles’ response to the injury will directly impact the Mavericks, who would love to claim that No. 5 seed and avoid a first-round matchup with the Big Three.
What to expect this week: I think the Grizzlies could start 0-2. With no inside presence Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns could put on a show (ask the Mavericks about that). Toronto is the No. 2 seed in the East and 18-6 at home.
6. Dallas Mavericks (29-26 as of Sunday night, three games behind Memphis; 1 1/2 games ahead of Portland)
This week: at Orlando (Friday), vs. Philadelphia (Sunday)
Status: The Mavericks are in good shape heading into the second half. They’re not dealing with any major injuries. Dirk Nowitzki and company should benefit from the extended break. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods. If the playoffs started today, they would be the only Western Conference team with a losing record in their final 10 games before the All-Star Break (4-6). Some of those losses were understandable (Golden State and San Antonio). Some were not (Miami and Utah). The Mavericks aren’t likely to be players at the trade deadline (DB.com has the exclusive breakdown of what they will be looking at in terms of post-buyout guys here and we have the "No Calls On Dwight Howard'' Mavs story here), so the Mavs are who they are at this point — a savvy veteran team that will stay in just about every game down the stretch. Dallas needs improvement from within by ex-Blazers guard Wesley Matthews. That would be the best medicine at this point.
What to expect this week: The Mavs couldn’t have asked for a better start to the post-All-Star Break schedule, as the Magic and 76ers are winnable games. They need to win both, and they need to take advantage of a post-All-Star game stretch that sees them playing nine of their next 11 in Dallas. There’s a good chance Dallas wins both this week. (Get Twitter updates on Mavs goings-on via Mike Fisher at @FishSports here, Matt Galatzan here, and Matthew Postins here at @PostinsPostcard.
7. Portland Trail Blazers (27-27 as of Sunday night, 1 1/2 games behind Dallas; tied with Utah)
This week: vs. Golden State (Friday), vs. Utah (Sunday)
Status: The Trail Blazers were one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference going into the All-Star Break, having won eight of their final 10. The one-two punch at guard of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (45 combined points per game) is keeping the Trail Blazers afloat. Where this team really suffers is at center — unless you think there is something more to Mason Plumlee than his 9.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. That could be the reason why the Trail Blazers might be players for a center at the trade deadline. But the cost might be too high. Portland will be a pesky out for the rest of the regular season, but they know that making the playoffs comes with a cost — the loss of their first-round pick to Denver to complete the Arron Afflalo trade. If you’re the Blazers wouldn’t you rather have that pick to restock the roster?
What to expect this week: A loss to Golden State would seem a given. The game with Utah is crucial when you consider tiebreakers. I tend to think the Blazers split.
8. Utah Jazz (26-26 as of Sunday night, tied with Utah; half a game ahead of Houston)
This week: at Washington (Thursday), vs. Boston (Friday), at Portland (Sunday)
Status: The Jazz is the No. 8 seed by virtue of one fewer win than the Trail Blazers. But like the Trail Blazers the Jazz had a smoking-hot end to the first half of the season, going 8-2. This team isn’t exactly exciting, but it is versatile with six different players averaging double figures. Forward Gordon Hayward (19.9 points per game) leads the team, but Rodney Hood (14.9 ppg) is making his presence felt. He knocked in 29 points against Dallas last week, including the 3-pointer that sent that game to overtime. (See our coverage of that game here.) With an exceptionally young roster (not a single player over age 30), the Jazz has proven to be a team that contenders may have trouble with down the stretch.
What to expect this week: This is a key week for the Jazz, who have had more than a week to think about their hot finish. I see them going 1-2. If they steal one on the road it will be in Washington, where the Wizards are under-.500 at home.
Outside Looking In
9. Houston Rockets (27-28 as of Sunday night, half a game behind Utah and Portland)
This week: at Phoenix (Friday)
Status: Give the Rockets credit — they’ve taken what looked like a lost season and have at least remained relevant through the All-Star Break. Even with just one game this week it could be a monumental one, as the organization is contemplating moving Dwight Howard before the trade deadline. The key is what they would get in return, as moving Howard would leave the Rockets without a true center. We will find out in a few days if the Rockets are serious.
What to expect this week: I think the Rockets will move Howard and become a small-ball team the rest of this season. Then, slowly and steadily, they will fall out of contention. If indeed Howard is going to opt out of his contract after this season, the Rockets cannot be left with nothing in return. I think any deal comes with a wealth of draft picks, which is why Boston — where Danny Ainge is sitting on a mountain of potential selections — makes sense.